Traffic has resumed on the Atlantic flyway as fall migration begins.
The songbirds have been gone for a few weeks now — the blackbirds, marsh wrens, and kingbirds have all left the watersides, leaving only tree sparrows behind. The osprey nests are empty, and just the hardiest egrets and herons remain, stalking the waters of Montezuma for fish and frogs. And there are a few swans swimming alongside their almost-grown-up offspring, if you know where to find them.
Although the Montezuma wetlands remain an important rest stop for migrating birds, this year (2019) was a tough one for resident wildlife. Caretakers spent most of the year draining the main pool in attempts to replicate a drought. The exposed nutrient-rich marsh bed was then allowed to nurture a variety of grasses in hopes of attracting migrating ducks in the fall. As the water levels receded, though, so did the balance and types of resident wildlife.
Herons, egrets, and other waders coped well at first, congregating in the smaller wet areas that remained, but once the low water levels could not support a fish population the waders left for more lucrative grounds. At one point early this summer I noticed deer romping in the grassy field that once was the main pool. Refilling the pool began in September, and the fish are beginning to return; however, the levels are nowhere near last year’s, and wildlife numbers remain comparatively low.
Draining the main pool affected several of the outlying marshlands, too. To the north, the large muskrat population was dried out of their lodges on West Shore Trail. For a few weeks the lower water levels attracted a significant number of juvenile eagles, who sat atop the vacant lodges searching for fish. But they, too, left once the water level dropped even further.
However, there is still wildlife to be seen at any of the several wetlands included in the Montezuma complex. Approaching from the north via Rt 89-S and Rt 20&5, I’ve counted 12 osprey nests, half of which lie atop the utility towers leading to the Seneca Falls entrance. Occasionally a turkey vulture can be seen resting on the nests or the towers that support them. On a good day there will be an eagle or two perched in the tree near the spillway, and on a sunny day you may have to help a painted turtle across Wildlife Drive (be careful of the snappers, though!). Yesterday I spotted an American bittern looking for lunch — not an easy find since it is easily camouflaged in the emergents growing along the shore. And it was only a week ago that I spotted some sandhill cranes feeding in a harvested cornfield along Rt 89 (there were 10 of them!).
More common are the flocks of Canada geese, many of which do not bother to migrate as long as some open water remains. Herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, and Caspian terns are common, too, although the terns won’t be back until spring. Less plentiful are the varieties of ducks and rails that ply the grassy waters. Their numbers will, hopefully, increase as the water levels rise and the fall migration begins.
The Montezuma Wetlands Complex is a series of reclaimed marshes and swamps that presently consists of about 50,000 acres, although the refuge itself is just over 10,000 acres. The Montezuma Wetlands Complex Land Protection Partnership oversees its operation and maintenance. The partnership includes two public agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. They are joined by representatives from private agencies — the Finger Lakes Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy — as well as some private landowners. See what the NY DEC has to say about the Montezuma wetlands (https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/55687.html), and be sure to check out the Friends of Montezuma website (https://friendsofmontezuma.org). Freshwater Future, an organization dedicated to the “healthy future of our waters in the Great Lakes region,” weighs in on the wetlands here: https://freshwaterfuture.org/services/publications/freshwater-voices-newsletter-archive/volume-9-number-2-%E2%80%A2-march-april-2001/balancing-ecology-and-economy-earns-montezuma-wetlands-complex-uncommonly-good-award/