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2 the Outdoors: Spring migration at Montezuma Wetlands complex

Millions of birds migrate through the wetlands between Rochester, Syracuse each spring.

SAVANNAH, N.Y. — The arrival of spring brings with it many gifts.The air warms, flowers bloom, and a sense of relief embraces us as the long winter's gloom is lifted.

One of the surest signs of the season's arrival is the return of migratory birds, and there is nowhere in the Empire State that is more spectacular in that regard than the Montezuma Wetlands Complex located between Rochester and Syracuse.

Chris Lajewski is the Director of the Montezuma Audubon Center.

"The Montezuma Wetlands Complex is a 50,000-acre area, it's a unique mosaic of habitats really, forest, open water like here at the north end of Cayuga Lake, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural areas in a fairly confined area," he said.

"Fifty-thousand acres, just to put that in comparison to something people can understand, the City of Buffalo is about 33,000 acres, so Montezuma is quite a bit larger."

Montezuma is one of the most important wetlands in the Northeast. The complex is carefully managed to provide perfect habitat for birds, and the results confirm that. Lajewski says that millions of birds pass through every year.

"We have high quality wetland habitat that are being managed for these waterfowl," he said. "We keep the invasive species out, native vegetation thriving in here. We have a nice balance of open water and vegetation in these marshes and here at the north end of Cayuga Lake, so that is the magnet for all these waterfowl this time of year."

Waterfowl make up a very large part of the migrants here, but there are many other species to be found as well.

"We have bald eagles nesting, we've seen several bald eagles right here today, we have adults and juvenille Bald Eagles," Lajewski said. "Northern harriers, another bird of prey, are starting to come back into the region. Turkey vultures are migrating through, and then the songbirds are out singing as well."

Credit: Terry Belke
Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese migrate through the wetlands on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds.

The undisputed stars of the Spring migration are snow geese. Massive white flocks of these Arctic birds grace the wetlands each year. Their numbers have been tallied as high as 500,000.

"The snow geese were wintering down in the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay region of the Mid-Atlantic states during the winter months," Lajewski said. "They fly pretty much nonstop up here to the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, where they stop, feed and rest for maybe a week, or maybe two weeks, and then head north to the Hudson Bay and the Arctic tundra, where they're going to raise their family in the spring."

Montezuma is a fascinating location to visit year round, but the window of opportunity to enjoy the migration is short. The birds are only here for a few weeks, so if you miss it now, you'll have to wait until next year.

"You've got to see it for yourself," Lajewski said. "This is unlike anything else we have in the entire northeastern United States. If you're a birder, if you're a nature enthusiast, you really owe it to yourself to visit the Montezuma Wetlands Complex."


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