Odell inspects the contents of a wood duck nest box for signs of successful breeding – one of several wildlife population monitoring projects at Northern Montezuma. Photo by Eben McLane.
Odell, a biologist and wetlands specialist, is Wildlife Manager of Region 8 of the New York State Bureau of Wildlife, and we were looking for signs of successful wood duck breeding in a section of the 7,300-acre Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area located in Wayne and Cayuga Counties. The ducklings would have fledged by now, he assured me, but they leave behind telltale signs of their hatching in the form of leathery membranes that lined the eggs. The trick to gathering data on successful duck breeding is to count not birds but membranes.
Once Odell was atop the ladder, screwdriver in hand to open the box, a tiny, furry face appeared at the entry hole and stared out at him, then another and another, all with large, fathomless black eyes.After a few seconds of startled confrontation, the critters scampered out and leapt from the box in panic. Flying squirrels. They had colonized the wood duck box for the winter, and as we made our rounds that morning, we would find more squirrels.
The nesting boxes are part of a wood duck population study at Northern Montezuma. Other occupants, including hooded mergansers, screech owls, mice, wasps, and, of course, flying squirrels, use the boxes just as they would natural tree cavities. There is no certainty that wood ducks will be clear owners of these nest sites the following spring, even after the boxes have been cleaned.
Most people think of wood ducks as nesting in boxes placed in the open, on posts in a marsh or pond. According to Odell, this location for a nesting box leads to the “nightmare of dumpnesting,” where several hens lay their eggs on top of one another’s, leaving as many as 60 eggs in one box, of which only 8 or 10 hatch. The solution at Northern Montezuma, and elsewhere in Region 8, is to erect isolated artificial nesting cavities in nearpond woods until the trees can mature enough to provide natural nesting cavities for the once-threatened but now-thriving wood duck.
Northern Montezuma is part of a larger wetlands restoration project that includes the 8,000-acre federally owned Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge immediately to the south. The Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, and numerous other organizations are partners in the ongoing wildlife conservation and management efforts in the area. Wetlands and their adjacent grasslands are home to not only waterfowl of various kinds but also many songbirds, mammals, reptiles, and invertebrate species that depend on these habitats.
Region 8 of New York’s Bureau of Wildlife covers 11 counties and includes numerous forested lands and wildlife management areas, all of which need Odell’s attention as the region’s chief wildlife manager. But he is most at home at Northern Montezuma. He has been deeply involved in wetlands restoration projects there ever since the U.S. and Canada signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986 to reverse the tide of disappearing wetlands and declining bird populations.
Raised in rural western New York, Odell spent lots of time outdoors. “Most of my waking hours were in the woods and fields,” he reflected. “When I was nine, I remember neighbors bringing me snakes and insects to identify.” After spending undergraduate years in pre-med at Houghton College in Houghton, New York, he decided to pursue his first love: the natural world. At graduate school in Syracuse at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, he earned an MS in zoology with emphasis on wildlife management and waterfowl ecology. An avid duck and goose hunter from his boyhood, he had a good head start on his current job. Out of school, he signed on with the state Bureau of Wildlife, eventually becoming one of its chief wetlands specialists.
Much of the land of central New York north of the Finger Lakes – once a vast marsh and a key stopover site on the Atlantic Flyway for migratory waterfowl and songbirds – was largely drained by the dredging of the Cayuga-Seneca Barge Canal in the early 1900s. Farmers swiftly established themselves, taking advantage of the rich muck soil that had formed in the marshes. Now, more than a century later, the soils are mostly depleted of nutrients for profitable farming. The state’s eagerness to buy land for wetland restoration is a boon to local farmers who have grown discouraged by the flagging soils in their fields.
“This was a marsh at one time,”Odell observed, as we rumbled alongside an abandoned field on the way back to the field office. “The propagules, as we call them – roots, rhizomes, seeds – of the plants that were native to the marshes are pretty much floating around in this system all the time. This environment, even though it’s been farmed for so long, is not sterile in terms of wetland propagules. They can last for decades in the seed bank.”
Stopping the truck at the field’s edge, Odell explained what techniques could be used to turn it back into a wetland. “The problem with agricultural fields is that, once they’ve been worked for years and years, they get pretty flat. We get good results by building mounds and depressions, some topographic relief, so that once we reintroduce the water, it isn’t all the same depth. In some places, the water would be 6 inches, other places 10 inches, and so on. The deeper water would stay open while the shallower places would produce emergent plants like cattails. We would manage for a variety of native plants for variety in the wildlife habitat.”
Dikes and water control structures are also necessary in most wetlands restoration work, Odell said. The former provide integrity to the borders of the pools, keeping the water where he wants it to be. Elaborate water control structures allow him to manage water depth, which is crucial to the health of the wetland. Too much water won’t allow the plants to grow, leaving a big, open pond – something Odell called “an ecological desert” from a wetlands perspective, since it provides so little habitat variety for the populations of birds, animals, and insects he wants to attract and maintain. Too little water, on the other hand, creates a similar lack of plant diversity.
“We drive around and look at what we’ve done and try to evaluate it,” Odell said of a typical day surveying the restored marshes. “We look at the depth of water and what’s happening in it, what species are growing, and what wildlife is attracted to it. Then we correct mistakes or continue to do what works. Now we have a fancy word for that.We call it ‘adaptive management’..... It’s not an exact science; there’s an art to it.”
In the grassy upland areas, Odell and the small portion of his staff assigned to Northern Montezuma (a biologist and a few seasonal technicians) are planting native grasses that attract nesting waterfowl as well as songbirds and hawks. He explained that what birds look for in a nesting habitat is structure, and that different birds have different structural requirements in terms of grass height and density. Accordingly, Odell and his team try to produce a variety of grassland types to attract a variety of birds that will want to nest in the area.Warm season grasses, which grow rapidly in summer, are mixed with cool season grasses, most active in spring and fall, to accommodate the nesting and feeding needs of more species of birds. Once planted, the fields are managed through periodic, rotational mowing and burning to keep the area from overgrowing and losing appeal to the grassland birds.
Aside from wood ducks (once nearly extinct in the area), the wetlands complex has seen increases in many species of birds, including blue-winged teal, least bitterns, bald eagles, northern harriers, and pied-billed grebes – all birds that are endangered, threatened, or of special concern to wildlife conservationists. Within sight of the Northern Montezuma field office in the town of Savannah, a pair of sandhill cranes has spent recent summers nesting, the first pair ever known to have bred in the state.
Because of its size and the scope of its restoration activities, Northern Montezuma is fast becoming an important research site for wildlife biologists. Dave Odell is particularly excited these days about the recent partnership between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Audubon Society. Groundbreaking for the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah is imminent. The 6,000-square-foot Center, complete with classrooms, and the adjacent 525 acres of wetland, grassland, and forest will serve as a wildlife habitat exhibition, field trip destination for biology and environmental science classes, and field research laboratory.
Over 50 percent of the Northeast’s wetlands at the time of European settlement have vanished, a casualty, perhaps, of our prosperity. As a biologist and an expert in wetlands management, Dave Odell measures prosperity in different terms. As we drove around the rutted roads of Northern Montezuma checking on the state of his restoration projects, he suddenly braked and grabbed his binoculars to study the flight of a string of birds over a distant marsh. “Blue-winged teal,” he announced with satisfaction.
Eben McLane, a New Hampshire native, currently lives and writes in the Finger Lakes region of New York.