Blue jay clinches an acorn in flight over Cayuga Lake at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

Named for an ancient Aztec emperor, the town of Montezuma in the heart of the Empire State is also the home of New York’s oldest wildlife refuge. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is located on the northern end of Lake Cayuga between Rochester and Syracuse, New York.  Founded in 1938, it’s still one of the best places to enjoy wildlife.

The 9,000-acre refuge includes forests, grasslands and wetlands. In 1973, the swamps of the Montezuma were designated as a national natural landmark—which means the land is valuable to science and education because of its unique geology and ecosystem. And the wetlands are widely considered shining examples of undisturbed marsh habitat endemic to New York and New England.

The varied land lends itself to biological diversity. If you’re looking for a place to see an array of wildlife, look no further than Montezuma Refuge. The refuge boasts 243 bird species, 43 mammals, 16 amphibians and 15 reptiles.

Like many wetlands in the Northeast, Montezuma is part of the Atlantic flyway, where migratory birds stop to refuel. Snow geese, tundra swans, American black ducks and mallards flock in huge numbers over the lakes and marshes as they journey to and from home. Other birds like great blue herons, crowned night herons, and even bald eagles call the refuge home. In 1976, Montezuma Refuge was the site of the first ever bald eagle “hacking”­— a process where juvenile birds are brought to an uninhabited area and raised in high towers to mimic nests in the wild. Ideally, the raptors will return to breed in these areas — eventually recovering the population. The project that started at Montezuma was a success and continued on in other parts of the New York. In a little less than two decades, the number of nesting pairs of eagles skyrocketed from just one to 10 by 1989.

Eagles were reintroduced to Montezuma in 1986.

What To Do?

Today, there are several active bald eagle nests throughout the refuge. One nest can be spotted from Armitage Road right off of NY State Highway 89. Four of the refuge’s hiking trails also provide an opportunity to see eagles and other animals up close.

You can even watch or photograph wildlife from your own vehicle with the refuge’s three-mile Wildlife Drive. The route runs along the refuge’s Main Pool and has designated viewing areas, where you can hop out to get a closer look. Beaver, deer, red fox and turtles are common sites. A photo blind is located along the route to help you stealthily capture brilliant pictures.

The refuge’s visitor center is open from April through December. Inside, volunteers can help you plan your visit. You can also check out the exhibits to learn about the refuge’s wildlife and the history of the land. In spring and summer, you can also view osprey nesting close up and in real time thanks to Osprey Cam— a Web broadcast provided by Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.

Friends of Montezuma also holds an annual photography contest, and the winners have their photographs published in the Friends’ calendar.

There is enough to see and do that any visitor will be able to keep themselves busy. The refuge is simply an oasis of beautiful scenery and diverse wildlife nestled in the heart of New York. Take some time away from machine-brewed morning coffees and street lunches to TAKE REFUGE  in Montezuma, NY.



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