Wetlands and Waterfowl

Montezume National Wildlife Refuge Photo by Bill Banaszewski

You’ve probably passed through it dozens of times on the New York State Thruway: that flat, marshy stretch of land near Waterloo. You may have seen a few cars crawling slowly inside the fence and seen the signs. So just what is the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge all about?

A Little History
When New York Governor DeWitt Clinton first proposed a canal that would connect Albany to Buffalo, he may not have realized the trouble he’d encounter smack dab in the middle of the project: a swamp. A big
one – full of snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The project came to an abrupt halt when more than 1,000 laborers were sickened, and it was only with great deliberation that the work was completed at all.

The wildlife refuge of today, at more than 8,000 acres, is just a fraction of what the marsh used to be. Located at the north end of Cayuga Lake, a massive system of marshes developed for 12 miles along the Seneca and Clyde rivers, reaching eight miles in width. The Algonquin and Cayuga Indians were earlier inhabitants and no doubt benefited from the abundant wildlife in the area. According to an early Jesuit missionary, “The sunlight over the marshes was actually shut off by the clouds of ducks and geese, and the woods abounded with deer.”

When the Erie Canal was constructed, additional canals were built to connect to Cayuga and Seneca lakes. The marshes weren’t affected by the canals, since the Seneca River still provided water directly from the lake. It wasn’t until 1910 when a dam was constructed at the north end of Cayuga Lake as part of the Cayuga-Seneca and Barge Canal systems that the wetlands were compromised. The dam lowered the height of the Seneca River by more than eight feet and effectively drained the marshes.

In 1937, the federal government purchased more than 6,000 acres of the former marsh and declared it a protected bird refuge. A series of dikes were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to restore a portion of the marsh habitat. It took five years to complete the project, starting with the present-day Main Pool and followed by the Tschache Pool. A few smaller pools were added after 1945.

Today, the Montezuma Refuge is only part of a 50,000-acre conservation effort that also includes the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area and privately owned land. The wetlands complex is one of the most important migration areas in the Atlantic Flyway. More than 1 million waterfowl use Montezuma as a staging area in migratory seasons, and the area is home to numerous species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

Bald Eagles, Osprey, Herons and Egrets
Ever watch a bittern stalk a frog? Or an osprey hover, head down, before it dives for a fish? Have you ever wanted to see a bald eagle in the wild rather than on the Discovery Channel?  Spend a few hours at Montezuma.

The refuge attracts much more than Canada Geese, which can number 100,000 during migration. The Visitor Center provides a comprehensive list of what you may see, and it’s guaranteed you’ll see species not found on your average lake or pond. If you visit later in the spring or summer, you’ll also see plenty of nesting sites for osprey and Canada Geese.

Among some of the rarer birds seen at Montezuma are sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, black terns, white pelicans, cerulian warblers and yellow-billed cuckoos. And of course, don’t miss those eagles.

Bald eagles were once severely threatened in the lower 48 states but no longer, thanks in part to a successful program called “hacking.” Montezuma initiated hacking for bald eagles in 1976, the first process of its kind in North America. The site was an ideal choice, since wild eagles had nested there in earlier years.

With hacking, baby eagles are taken from natural nesting sites and relocated to an artificial nest on a high platform. The birds are fed by humans in such a way that they do not lose their natural fear of them or associate them with food.

Hacking was hugely successful – so much so that it was discontinued at Montezuma in 1989 when two nesting pairs were established and other eagles had dispersed and nested elsewhere in New York. In its first four years, 23 bald eagles were released at Montezuma where they learned how to hunt for themselves and breed – both signs that they had not grown accustomed to human intervention.

Several nesting sites have been built and abandoned at Montezuma. The nest on Armitage Road offers the best viewing, particularly before the leaves are on the trees. The eagles now produce young of their own, and by 1995, the bald eagle’s status in the lower 48 shifted from “endangered” to “threatened.”

When you visit Montezuma, you may confuse ospreys with bald eagles. Ospreys tend to be smaller and are dappled black and white on their undersides. Bald eagles resemble soaring “boards” with massive wingspans. Plus, they fly very high. Adult bald eagles are black with a distinctive white head, and the juveniles are dark brown. Both ospreys and eagles hunt for fish and build large nests, but eagles are much more reclusive when it comes to being around humans.

A Primer for Bird Watching
If you’ve never watched birds, Montezuma is a great place to start. You’ll see more types of ducks, geese and songbirds on a May morning than anywhere else nearby.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of the experience:
• For best viewing, plan your trip for early morning or late afternoon. You’ll see more species in spring and autumn when the birds are migrating. (I personally prefer late April
before the leaves are on the trees.)
• Bring binoculars, a field guide and a pencil. Books by Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson are favorites.
• Use the various scopes mounted on observation towers at Montezuma. These are more powerful than binoculars and provide a steadier view.
• Stop by the Visitor Center to learn which birds have been seen. The staff keeps daily records of sightings. Be sure to ask if anything unusual has been spotted.
• Stay in your car! Birds see it as “blind” and aren’t frightened away.
• Use your eyes first to scan an area for birds. Be sure to check carefully near shorelines and in snags; these are often favored spots.
• When you see a bird, look carefully for details such as eye, beak and foot color, unusual markings, crests, overall size, body and wing shape (especially for birds in flight).
• Make it a family event. Kids can describe what they see and parents can use the book to find it.
• Mark the date and location in your field guide. If you enjoy bird watching, start a “life list” of birds you have seen.
• Learn various bird songs to identify species you can’t see. Check out this website: www.math.sunysb.edu/~tony/birds/.


by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a freelance writer from Farmington who enjoys bird watching when her kids will tolerate it. You can contact her at joy@wordsbyjoy.com.