Montezuma Birding (and Nature) Trail

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Birding in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex of Central New York

Trumpeter Swans   © Dave Spier

In flight, they are magnificent white birds with long necks.  Often traveling in family groups or small flocks, they wander around the Montezuma Wetlands Complex in southeastern Wayne County.  During warmer weather, it’s common to find them on the ponds at the Montezuma Audubon Center (MAC), sometimes at sunrise (suggesting they spent the night).  Another location they frequent in the fall is an open, harvested field on the west side of Rt. 89 south of the MAC. In late fall, lack of open water limits their feeding locations, but they have been known to rest along with a few geese on the ice at Colvin Marsh southeast of the MAC beside Route 89 (south of Crusoe Creek).

Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) are native to the western states.  At one time their natural range extended eastward to Michigan and Indiana, but it is rather doubtful they were ever indigenous to New York.  Their presence today is the result of transplanting, first to the Province of Ontario in 1988 and then "hopping" across Lake Erie and later Lake Ontario to Wayne County in 1993.  I can remember seeing them swimming on Ganargua Creek from the Route 88 bridge on the north side of Newark, NY and I still have slides of them taken in December, 1995 when they were particularly close.  It’s possible these birds escaped from a private collection in New York and were not related to the Ontario Trumpeter’s.  Either way, the species now breeds regularly in the Town of Savannah plus two other possible locations in western Wayne County, as well as Cayuga County and several spots in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Family groups usually consist of two pure-white adults and two to four gray juveniles.  (Perhaps "immatures" would be preferable as they appear full-grown in size.)  Entirely white plumage will be reached in their third year.

Trumpeters can be easily confused with the slightly smaller Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) that migrate through the Wetlands Complex, sometimes by the hundreds but often in smaller subgroups.  If you’re close enough, or have a spotting scope, the Tundra’s frequently have yellow lores (a mark on the base of the bill in front of the eye). Trumpeter’s always lack this, but now and then you’ll encounter Tundra’s that also lack it.  A third species, Mute Swans, also called "park swans," have orange bills and develop a black knob above the nasal slots.

Trumpeter’s also can be told by their "ski slope" profiles from the crown to the bill tip.  Between the eyes, the white feathers form a V-shaped border with the black bill base.  Tundra’s on the other hand have a rounded border between white and black and from the side they exhibit a slight forehead and angled upper mandible.  Trumpeters usually show red "lips" or a red gape, better seen from the side on sunny days.

Without a good look at the head, or side-by-side comparisons, Trumpeter’s can be told with a little practice by their horn-like calls, more often given while flying overhead than on the water.  The voice is low in key and sometimes resembles a groan, but with enough resonance to carry great distances.  Tundra Swans have a clear, whistling shout, but it lacks the carrying range.  It’s not surprising that Tundra’s were once called "Whistling Swans," but they were discovered interbreeding with Eurasian Bewick’s Swans and had to be lumped together into one species.

Trumpeter Swan populations plummeted in the 1600’s and 1700’s due to hunting for their feathers and their range contracted drastically to a few isolated pockets in Alaska, the Rockies and what is now Yellowstone National Park.  It has steadily been reintroduced eastward across the northern Great Plains.

The Trumpeter’s diet is similar to wild geese.  They feed on wild celery and other underwater plants plus some grain and grasses.  In warm weather they add insects, snails and small vertebrates to the mix.

Observations, corrections, comments, and questions may be e-mailed to the Northeast Naturalist

(Below is an autumn photo of Trumpeter Swans in the morning fog on Colvin Marsh.  Photo © Dave Spier)

Virginia Rails   © Dave Spier

      A Virginia Rail parent picks up an invertebrate before feeding it to one of its chicks at Montezuma NWR, June 22.  © Dave Spier

Rails are small, chicken-like marsh birds with long, narrow bills.  Their compact bodies are very narrow [laterally compressed] to allow them easy passage through dense vegetation when escaping predators.  The forehead feathers are adapted to withstand the extra wear of pushing against plants.  These birds have strong legs and long toes, and as a last resort, they can swim underwater to escape.

The expression “skinny as a rail” can be used for any number of birds in the family Rallidae which includes the rails, moorhens (gallinules) and coots, all of which are in the same order as cranes.  All of these birds are known to nest in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.  In 2010, the Sandhill Cranes had two colts sometimes seen in the fields between Carncross Road and the D.E.C. office on Morgan Road (in the Town of Savannah) before the corn grew too tall.

Much harder to see are the Virginia Rails that nest in the wetlands and spend much of their time hidden in dense vegetation.  It’s a rare treat for a birder to actually find one in the open, and (to use an old cliché) a double treat to find a parent with one or two of its black chicks.  The parent picks up invertebrates, insects, snails and earthworms and feeds them to the youngsters.  Rails also eat frogs, small fish, small snakes and a few seeds.

The call of the Virginia Rail is a harsh “kidick-kidick-kidick…” or “kick-it, kick-it, kick-it…”  The word “rail” comes from Middle English and Middle French and means to screech or rattle, used in reference to the calls of some members of this group. 

Virginia Rails breed from coast to coast in portions of the northern states and southern Canada.  They make a loose basket nest of marsh vegetation, sometimes with a canopy, just above the mud or water line.  It’s well hidden among the cattails.  Extra “dummy nests” are created and these probably serve as decoys.  The real nest with its clutch of eggs can produce 8 to 10 chicks. 

I’ve never seen a rail fly, but I’ve been told it’s pitifully weak.  It’s a wonder they can migrate, but they do and they travel hundreds of miles every spring and fall.  Rails migrate at night, but they fly low, which means they sometimes collide with man-made objects and buildings.  The ones that make it winter on southern coasts from the Atlantic to the Pacific and down through Mexico.

Double-crested Cormorants   © Dave Spier


If you’re a fisherman, “cormorant” is likely a four-letter word.  I suppose there are a few people who love them, but most probably don’t care one way or the other.

Cormorants are large, dark birds that can be mistaken for geese when flying.  Young birds are pale underneath.  When swimming, the bill is raised at an angle.  At close range, you can see the small hook on the bill tip.  Nicknamed the “sea-crow” along the coast and “water turkey” inland, the common Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auratus) gets its name from two tufts of feathers on the sides of the head just behind the eyes.  The feathers curl around and meet at the back, but they are often matted down and resemble a bump.

Cormorants are adept at both flying and diving.  Normally these activities require opposite adaptations, such as light-weight versus heavy.  The cormorant has evolved feathers that lack the waterproofing of other diving birds, so they become heavier underwater.  This allows them to submerge and catch fish, their primary diet, but once they’re done feeding, cormorants must find a perch to dry their wings.  It’s common to see them sitting upright on a dock, piling or stump with their wings outstretched.  This is also the reason they must head south for the winter.  Florida and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are the Double-crested Cormorant’s only year-round range.

Based on a recent eBird distribution map, Double-crested Cormorants are widespread across the continental United States with the heaviest concentrations on all the coasts plus the lower Mississippi Valley, Great Plains, and Great Lakes.  Locally, they are found along Lake Ontario (particularly the bays), the Erie Canal, the Montezuma refuge and the Finger Lakes.  In some areas their population growth has been explosive which can affect local fisheries and fish farms.  There are large nesting colonies on Lake Erie and eastern Lake Ontario.

Fishermen have blamed them for declines in musky, Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, Yellow and White Perch, and Walleye.  An old stomach-content survey of cormorants, done over a two-year period in all four seasons, showed the birds predominantly prey on small minnows, including shiners, flatheads and dace.  Directly ingesting game fish amounted to less than 5% of their diet, and that was limited to late summer.  That leaves the potential problem of reducing the bait supply, but here in west-central New York, where the water is either weedy or deep, the minnows have plenty of hiding cover.  It’s only at the east end of Lake Ontario, where the water is shallow and relatively clear, that there is a serious conflict.

Questions, anecdotes, and corrections may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.  

Below is a photo of a Double-crested Cormorant through the cattails at Montezuma NWR.  © Dave Spier