A Wild (life) Adventure

Heading out to collect frog-bit.

“Hold it in your hands like you would a hamburger. Now flip it over, and tuck it between your legs,” instructed wildlife biologist Scott Stipetich.

“It” was a male American black duck, and he was going to be fitted with a leg band. A group of volunteers gathered along the western shores of Cayuga Lake with Stipetich and fellow wildlife biologists Linda Ziemba and Frank Morlock to assist in banding black ducks for research purposes. The banding tells much about the birds: where they may have hatched, how far a bird has traveled, how long a bird has lived and much more.

At this point, we don’t know if the black duck population growth is limited by breeding success or winter survival. “Banding black ducks both in the late summer/early fall and the winter will allow us to determine seasonal survival rates,” says Ziemba, who works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This will provide biologists with the information they need to ensure the future sustainability of the black duck population.

A volunteer for all seasons

Working with the biologists lets volunteers not only hold and admire the colorful plumage of black ducks, but also see areas of the refuge that are normally off-limits to visitors. And the experience is never the same – it changes with the seasons.

In the winter months, volunteers help with weekly raptor surveys in refuge grasslands and emergent marshes. All management units need to be surveyed in the same evening so individual birds are not counted more than once. The focus is on the state-endangered short-eared owl and northern harrier. Experienced birders who can identify raptor species in this area are especially needed.

Frog surveys are conducted in the spring and early summer. This is a new program aimed at getting a baseline of relative numbers and species of frogs on the refuge. In association with FrogWatch USA – and with the help of volunteers – over 20 sites are monitored every week. This program has a very high turnout rate each week, as well as a good mix of young and old volunteers alike.

There is plenty of hands-on work to be done as well. From spring through fall, volunteers in the Montezuma Alliance for the Restoration of Species and Habitats (MARSH!) are on the refuge as much as twice a week, controlling invasives and planting native species. During the summer months, a lot of time is spent paddling on the pools in attempts to remove an invasive plant called European frog-bit before it takes over completely. Volunteers wade around in the water, gather up handfuls of the free-floating plant and stuff it into bags.

At summer’s end, the wildlife biologists will start to capture and band wood ducks. This is a great opportunity – and one of my favorite activities for the year. The biologists go out several times a week to bait, trap and band these feathery fowls.

A walk in their shoes

The average volunteer day starts at 9 a.m. in the visitor center. Intro-ductions are made, and a short explanation of what is going to be accomplished is given.

On my last volunteer adventure, Montezuma conducted a survey involving a bird named the black tern. Groups – a staff member in each – were sent to various pools on the refuge. My group headed out to Tschache pool.

Once we arrived, we trekked down the gravel roadway along the top of the dyke. Along the way, we flushed blue herons and great egrets from the bordering reeds. Overhead wheeled a pair of ospreys complaining of our passage so near their nest. We gaped in astonishment when a bald eagle soared above the duckweed covered waters.

Once we arrived at the jump-off point, we were once again reminded what was expected and what to look for. Paddles and lifejackets issued, we slid canoes into the still waters. Volunteers split off to cover a larger area, and focused on the spots where they saw black terns fly overhead. As we neared a nest, agitated birds mobbed us, and screeched incessantly in attempts to get us to go away. But time was of the essence, and we needed to keep a sharp eye out for the little floating piles of reeds that indicate a nest. Upon finding one, we’d paddle over to it, and note the number of eggs and the GPS location on data sheets, which were later gathered by the biologists for entry into a master database.

Most volunteer opportunities last four hours on average, which never seems to be long enough when you are enjoying the experience. Afterwards, there is usually a wonderful lunch prepared by Andrea VanBeusichem for our enjoyment. Andrea is the Visitor Services Manager and a great cook as well. Her meals have been the deciding factor for several of the regular volunteers who consider showing for an event.

I have been fortunate to team up with one of the refuge staff on many of these excursions. These very knowledgeable and friendly people have taught me a lot about the plants and the wildlife, and are kind enough to let me photograph our activities.

All in all, there’s no greater experience than being out in a canoe on a sunny day, counting the beautiful birds overhead or wading through the waters in search of invasive plants at the Montezuma Wetlands.

Phillip Bonn is a freelance photojournalist specializing in photos of nature, as well as historic and scenic images.


A Year of Numbers

123 volunteers
1,432 hours of work done
48 work days
11,000 pounds of European
frog-bit harvested
400 trees planted
150 pounds of seed gathered
3,300 acres of Bathymetry
readings (underwater topography)
from five bodies of water


Lend a Hand at Montezuma

The Fish and Wildlife service has close to 42,000 volunteers performing a wide assortment of tasks at our nation’s wildlife refuges. Some volunteers are full-time. Others – like me – come a few hours a week/month. However, all are considered a valuable resource for addressing the shortage of staff on the refuges.

The staff at Montezuma has done a great job over the years improving the diversity and quality of habitats for wildlife that use the refuge. With the help of volunteers, they have created new ponds, controlled invasive species, planted thousands of trees and seeded reclaimed farmland with native species.

Volunteers do not need any special skills – rudimentary training is provided by the staff – so all you have to do is show up. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, “Volunteer opportunities with the USFWS may be found at more than 500 refuges and hatcheries throughout the United States. The best way to begin is to visit the website of a particular refuge or hatchery – and then go visit the actual location.”

Any wildlife refuge can use your help. Check out the following opportunities available this year at Montezuma.


• Beginning in March 2013, the refuge will begin its second season of FrogWatch. Training and refresher sessions will begin in February.

• MARSH! volunteers will begin their hands-on work to restore and maintain native habitats in April, continuing through November.

• Volunteers are also needed to staff the Visitor Center information desk and The Lodge Nature Store. Knowledge of birds and wildlife is helpful, but not necessary as training is provided.

• Help with landscaping around the Visitor Center and Headquarters Office is needed.

• “Roving naturalists” – people who can make contact with visitors out on the refuge grounds – are also needed. Knowledge of birds, wildlife and plants is necessary.

• Program planners are needed to recruit presenters, list programs/dates, introduce presenters for programs and prepare news releases for programs.

• Lastly, anyone willing to write and mail thank-you letters to new members, open and distribute mail or help with the refuge newsletter – Cattails – is greatly appreciated.

If you would like to volunteer, please call 315-568-5987, ext. 228, or e-mail Andrea VanBeusichem at Andrea_VanBeusichem@fws.gov. If you want to learn more about volunteering, please visit the following websites.

• www.fws.gov/volunteers/index.html

• friendsofmontezuma.org/volunteer.html

by Phillip Bonn

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