Montezuma’s Winged Wonder

by Christen Smith

The next time you’re on the New York State Thruway between exits 40 and 41, look for the bald eagle. You can’t miss it – its majestic wings span nearly 20 feet, and it’s 21 feet tall.

The massive bird was installed at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Seneca Falls last October to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Montezuma’s Bald Eagle Restoration Program.

“This is the largest piece I’ve ever done,” says artist James (“Jay”) Seaman of his sculpture. “It’s a real head-turner.

“The body is mild steel,” he explains. “The head and tail are stainless steel, to give it the look of a bald eagle, but I also used stone and wood. I used a combination of a lot of things to join the different materials together, which was a challenge. I also used a lot of glass, which is fun. The eagle has special glass eyes, made in Pennsylvania, that look very, very real.”

Psychology and the art of carpentry

Seaman graduated from college with a degree in psychology, but soon gave it up and started working as a carpenter to make ends meet. He’s largely self-taught. “A lot of things happen because you’ve got to pay your bills,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the way life works.”

He took any job that was presented to him, from roofs to docks, and honed his carpentry skills. The finish work and wood carving interested him the most.

“I was always playing around with designs in furniture, and then with carpentry,” Seaman told me. “When I was a kid I was surrounded by projects, but I really got into the finish carpentry and carving back in my 20s.

“This was 30 years ago, way back when we still had cord phones, way before the internet,” he jokes, explaining that he would look in books for pictures of birds to carve. At first, his sculptures were crafted through trial and error as he experimented with different tools. Seaman started crafting big birds out of wood, but then shifted into making bird sculptures from stainless steel.

“Birds are great – there are so many different kinds and they’re so beautiful, especially herons,” says Seaman. “A heron can put itself into positions that are just fantastic. They can bend their bodies all over the place. You can’t deny it – it is just fantastic to look at them in nature. I see pictures and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to sculpt that.’”

Seaman’s passion for his art came through loud and clear when Tom Jasikoff, manager of the Montezuma refuge, happened upon one of his eagle sculptures at a winery on the Cayuga Scenic Byway. Jasikoff had been looking for an artist for a special project at the refuge; a project that would remind people about the amazing work being done there.

“I called Jay and we really hit it off,” Jasikoff says. “He is not only an artist, he’s a conservationist. He and I developed a great friendship.”

Jasikoff predicts that Seaman’s eagle will become an icon of wildlife in Central New York for many generations to come. “People who are yet to be born and children who travel in cars with their parents will see the eagle and say ‘Wow.’ Then they’ll come back years later, and take advantage of all the great things that we do here.”

Right on I-90

Jasikoff is in his 41st year with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; he has been the manager at Montezuma for 20 of them. He had worked all over the country before he came to our area and fell in love with the refuge. When he arrived, its 3.5-mile Wildlife Drive near the thruway consisted of “a sea of cattail in this aging marsh on the left, and on the right, tractor trailers whizzing by at 70 miles per hour,” he says.

The refuge existed 20 years before the thruway was installed. They built the road through the marsh after they dug the muck out, which created some environmental issues, explains Jasikoff. “It created a situation where the wetland was aging much faster than normal. All wetlands age … they eventually turn into dry marsh. But the process was happening at a much-accelerated pace because the hydrology – the flow of water underneath – was interrupted.” To fix it he came up with a plan to elevate the Wildlife Drive. It required removing 200,000 cubic yards of muck, which also created open water areas and interspersion. “They went in and broke up the cattail so there is now a mix of open water and emergent vegetation. It makes for a good wildlife habitat,” said Tom.

It also helps the 20 million travelers who go through the refuge on the thruway every year see how beautiful it really is. “We’re essentially situated on Main Street, New York, so why not take advantage of it?” he says. “We thought, ‘Why not make a memorial to all we do here to promote wildlife conservation, at one of the premier wildlife refuges in our nation?’”

The memorial is the eagle sculpture, and Seaman was the perfect partner to create it.

“I am much more comfortable doing big, big pieces,” he says. “They’re striking, but it’s a tough market. Not everyone can fit a giant bird in their living room.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people say, ‘Can you do something smaller Jay?’ but that’s not what I do,” he continues. “I love the fact that it’s pushing the envelope. That’s always appealing to me. Doing something bigger and better, always being challenged, always wanting to do something that I’m not quite sure of, getting that feeling of excitement. If you don’t take risks in life, you’re just stuck in the mud.”

Seaman splits his time between his home and studio in Rochester and his other studio near Taughannock Falls in Ithaca, where he grew up. “It’s the best park in the Finger Lakes, hands down, and I can walk to it in five minutes.”

He sells his sculptures all over the country, and as far away as India and Ireland. To learn more about his work, visit jamesseaman.com, or call 607-351-8190 to make an appointment to visit his Taughannock Falls studio.

“I’m so happy to be able to do this for a living,” he says. “I get to meet all kinds of interesting people. Working as an artist is just a gift. It’s a great feeling.”


The Resurgence of the Bald Eagle at Montezuma

Spotting a bald eagle at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge today is a typical occurrence. There are upwards of 80 bald eagles at any given time there. But 40 years ago, there were no actively nesting eagles in New York State, says Refuge Manager Tom Jasikoff, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation put a plan together to bring them back. In 1976, they retrieved young eaglets from natural nest sites in Wisconsin and Alaska and flew them back to Montezuma. Jasikoff was part of that team. They deposited the eaglets into “hack sites” – plywood boxes with cages placed high up on telephone poles to keep them safe from predators. “Someone would climb up the ladder throughout the day to put food in front of the eaglet for them to eat,” he says.

But to teach them to become independent, food would be kept from them so they would head out and hunt on their own. They would often come back hungry because they didn’t know how to hunt. In those cases, there would be food waiting in the hack site for them.

“I compare it to sending your kids to college,” jokes Jasikoff. “They’re old enough to be adults, but they still come home for food, clean laundry and money.”

After long months of work, some of the eaglets went out and became independent and didn’t come back. Others set up their homes at Montezuma.

“Five years after we started this program we had our first successful nesting at Montezuma. A male and a female mated and bred, laid eggs and had young,” says Jasikoff.

Today, there are more than 200 nests throughout New York and six nests at Montezuma.

“This is a real success story. We love seeing the eagles. We tried something that worked, and we’re really proud of it.”