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EXCLUSIVE: How do volunteers keep Montezuma ‘wild’ all year long? How can students get hands-on learning?

  • / Updated:
  • Josh Durso 
Montezuma volunteers tackle invasive water chestnuts

Late-March and early-April can be a tough time in Upstate New York. The calendar says spring, but often, it feels more like winter with snow showers and daytime temperatures in the 30s or low-40s.

That said, in just a few weeks that will change dramatically. Out at the Montezuma Audubon Center and Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge spring is very evident.

This weekend, on Saturday, April 1, the visitor’s center and wildlife drive will reopen for the warmer months. It’s closed from December 1 through March 31, so this change is a significant one, signaling the end of the winter and start of spring.

We caught up with Chris Lajewski, Center Director for the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, Wayne County ahead of the start of the spring tour season to find out what you might run into if you head out there this weekend.

“Right now we are seeing the peak of the waterfowl migration,” he explained. “Late-March or early-April is thought of as the peak for that, but as we get into mid- to late-April we’ll start to see that shift to other species.”

It’s not a short window, though. Different species are migrating for the next two months, making stops at the Wildlife Refuge in Montezuma, and the Audubon Center property in March, April, and May. “It’s a long-duration process. So it really just depends on which species of birds you’re talking about,” Lajewski continued. “Spring is a great time to visit and if you come every month you’re going to be seeing different birds and the habitats are going to look very different as well.”

Volunteers needed to help keep habitats managed

Managing the sprawling habitat that is the Montezuma Wetlands Complex is not easy work. It frequently surprises visitors that the entire system of waterways, wetlands, and seemingly wild property is managed. Nearly every single aspect of it.

That requires the help of volunteers.

“Montezuma is a huge area,” Lajewski explained. “It’s a huge area – 50,000-acres, just to put that into context is twice the size of Rochester, New York, and four-times the size of Syracuse, New York. So it’s a huge area; and there just are not enough biologists on staff either at the Refuge or New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to manage all that habitat and make sure that it’s healthy, so we rely on the support of volunteers throughout the year.”

Heading into the spring season, the volunteer work shifts from birding surveys and indoor work to outdoor work and habitat management.

“Most of these focus on removal or assessment of invasive species across the forests, grasslands, and waterways in Montezuma,” Lajewski said. Volunteer opportunities typically take place Wednesday and Saturday mornings from now, through October. “It’s a great way to spend a few hours and really makes a huge difference.”

The first set of these volunteer opportunities will take place April 26 and May 3. More details are available at Montezuma Audubon’s website.

No cost field trip opportunities for local schools

Lajewski says countless schools have already reached out and connected with the Audubon Center or Wildlife Refuge to schedule field trips. But there are still open slots; and he says there’s a unique opportunity to be had for those who want to get their students into nature.

“The field trips we host are designed for pretty much every student from pre-kindergarten, right on through high school. And the programs connect students to the wetlands complex, the birds, the migrational trends we’re seeing in the moment, and hands-on activities,” he said. “The great thing about these activities is that they are aligned with the educational standards that students are learning in the classroom, so the field trips leverage the information that teachers are educating students on in the classroom and continuing their learning process.”

Another important component, Lajewski said, is the existence of grants that can help make these field trips cost-effective for districts. “Essentially, every public school that we have in the Finger Lakes region is able to apply for a grant through the Connect Kids to Parks grant and that is a reimbursable grant. So it essentially makes these field trips free for schools.”

Teachers and administrators can call the Audubon Center to schedule their field trip or learn more about what’s available in April, May, and June.