Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Overview
Montezuma is not a name one expects to find in central New York State, but it is the name that New York City physician, Peter Clark, gave his marshland estate in the early 1800s.
The salt deposits that attracted him to the huge marshy area between Syracuse and Rochester never supported much of an industry, but he picked an everlasting name that was adopted by both the local town and village and later by the national wildlife refuge that was established in 1938. It is said that Clark grew fond of the name on a trip to Mexico, where the Aztec ruler's name is commonplace.
Montezuma Swamp was fed by the overflow of Cayuga Lake, one of the state's five finger lakes, which reached the swamp by the Seneca River. Neither the extraction of salt nor the building of the Erie Canal in the 1820s seriously affected the 80-square-mile swamp, but the construction in 1910 of a canal from Cayuga Lake to the newly built Barge Canal did.
The new Cayuga-Seneca Barge Canal, which basically channelized Seneca River, making it straighter and deeper, lowered the water level in the marsh by 10 feet. Much of the marsh was thereby drained, and its rich muckland became available for agriculture.
Montezuma NWR was established to protect nearly 7,000 acres of the swamp remnant, which had become a migratory bird habitat. New York State and the refuge, in a partnership with Ducks Unlimited, are now engaged in a model cooperative effort to try to restore and manage another 36,000 acres of the original marsh for wetland species. Called the Northern Montezuma Wetlands Complex Project, it includes the federal NWR, the state Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area, and private land.
The project it is one element in the internationally approved North American Waterfowl Management Plan to restore continental wetland habitats.
As many as 11,900 acres could be added to the refuge, but many of these acres will likely be placed under conservation easements or management agreements, all dependent on the willingness of private landowners. The most likely willing sellers are owners of marginal agricultural land. Retiring agricultural land is expected to nearly double the present nonforested wetlands.
Were it not for dike construction, Montezuma NWR could not replicate the historic marshes. That was realized at the outset and became the object of Civilian Conservation Corps laborers who in the early 1940s built 6.5 miles of dikes and, with water from two streams, created the two largest impoundments on the refugethe 1200-acre Main Pool and the 1100-acre Tschache Pool.
Formerly known simply as Storage Pool, Tschache (pronounced shockey) was named for an assistant manager of the refuge who suffered an untimely death.
Main Pool only recently gained greater potential as a managed wetland when a connector canal from Cayuga Lake was built with agreement by the New York State Department of Transportation specifically to supplement, when needed, the refuge water supply.
During periods of flooding, however, Cayuga Lake overpowers all the human-made water courses and bursts into Main Pool, bringing with it a fresh supply of carp. These nuisance fish, which can become large and numerous, damage water quality and aquatic vegetation, and require special effort by refuge staff to control.
The construction in 1954 of the New York State Thruway across the north end of Main Pool isolated 160 of its acres, which became May's Point Pool. It is very popular among shorebirds and birders alike in both spring and fall.
Two other smaller poolsNorth Spring (50 acres) and South Spring (35 acres)were created and permanently flooded in the 1950s.
Benning Marsh is a recent new addition along Wildlife Drive, where the shallow flooding is a draw for many shorebird species including black-bellied plovers, lesser golden plovers, short-billed dowitchers, and greater yellowlegs.
Viewing the Wildlife
Wildlife Drive is Montezuma's main attraction for the more than 130,000 people who visit the refuge each year. The 3.5-mile tour route starts at the Visitor Center and ends at Tschache Pool, providing visitors with views of the complete array of refuge habitats including cattail marsh, open water, and grassland. The drive follows the east and north edges of Main Pool and parallels the Cayuga-Seneca Barge Canal and the Thruway, both of which seem more bothersome to humans than to refuge wildlife.
Observers on the drive have recently seen a horned grebe, yellow-headed blackbird, Eurasian widgeon, glossy ibis, and whimbrel. Some 100,000 Canada geese and 15,000 snow geese congregate on the Main Pool during spring migration and 100,000 mallards and 25,000 black ducks are present in the fall. Montezuma's location within the Atlantic Flyway and the attraction of the Finger Lakes region of New York bring in large numbers of waterfowl during both fall and spring. Numbers dwindle after the pool freezes over at the end of November.
Drawdowns of May's Point Pool and Benning Marsh in August are a delight for migrating shorebirds, especially yellowlegs, killdeer, and sandpipers. The refuge reports that virtually every species of shorebird that migrates through central New York is recorded at these two locations.
One of Montezuma's crowning achievements began in 1976, when New York State and the refuge started a program to reestablish nesting eagles. The refuge was a choice location. Eagles had formerly nested there, but no young had been produced since 1956.
In this first-of-its-kind program, 23 adult captive eagles were released at a refuge "hacking" site between 1976 and 1980, and 20 young eaglets have since been successfully fledged.
Potential visitors e-mailing for information should remember to provide their name, postal address and zip code when requesting brochures and information to be mailed.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication