Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve got Fridays off during the summer, which makes them the perfect time to grab the camera and head out, without the crowds or demands of the weekend.  Seeing as this was my first long weekend of the summer, I figured I’d do it up big and spend the day hitting some places that are a bit of a trek for me.  So I got up before the sun and drive three hours through the fog to Seneca Falls, NY, to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

Tree Swallow

I’ve heard a little about MNWR here and there over the past couple of years.  Never a lot of info, can’t find a lot of photogs who’ve been there, but enough so that my interest was piqued.  I checked out all the data posted on their site and it sounded good.  Good enough to justify the long drive.  Why not?  So I went to check it out.Unfortunately, it was a disappointing experience.  I got there around 0830 and the place was quiet – very few other people around, and even the visitor center didn’t open until 10.  Got the shot above, of the Tree Swallows hanging around a very large nesting complex by the parking lot.  Some decent activity there, but heck, I can find swallows at home.

The refuge is setup with a dirt “Wildlife Drive” running along the eastern side, taking you between the extensive marshes to the west, and the canal to the east, until you reach I-90, at which point the drive is supposed to take you under the interstate and deposit you on the regular road, near a few other access points.  For the majority of the drive, you’re required to stay in your car, although you’re allowed to pull over at any point to observe the critters.  There are a few spots where you can park and get out to hike a trail.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers

If there’s a fine art to shooting from a car, then I’ve yet to discover its secret.  I hear photogs all the time saying “use your car as a blind, it’ll let you get so much closer than you could on foot!”  Yeah.  Right.  I must be a clod, because I sure can’t sneak a ton of Nissan up on anything.  I crept ahead at idle speed, I tried a stop-and-go approach.  Nothing.  I’d start to close, the birds would scatter.  So I gave up and instead, when I saw something ahead, I’d just haul the wheel over and park blocking the entire road so I could shoot out the window.

These guys are the apex of the entire trip.  A pair of Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, the stood in the road staring at each other, then would go into a head-bobbing mating dance for a few moments before stopping, then repeating the whole thing.  I didn’t know what they were and had to look them up when I got home, but it was by far the coolest thing I saw at the refuge.

Unfortunately, I drove three-quarters of Wildlife Drive before finding a gate across it, announcing that it was closed, and I should proceed back along the one way road to the visitor center.  I’ve gotta say, it would have been nice if this had been posted on their website, instead as arriving as a disappointing surprise on the road itself.  But the road ended just past the photography blind, so I parked and hiked the short trail out, figuring I’d hang for a while and see if I could do better than in the ol’ car blind.

Song Sparrow

The photography blind was a disaster – filled with bird droppings, mud dabbers, and infested with wasp nests.  I ducked in, took one look, and hurried back out.  In all the parks and photo spots I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a blind in such awful condition.  It was embarrassingly bad.  So I gave up on the Wildlife Drive area and took the main roads up past I-90 and tried my luck at the pull offs there, which were mainly disappointing.  There just wasn’t much to see, and the refuge’s restrictions pretty much keep you confined to the parking lots, so there isn’t even much chance of walking out to a better vantage point.

I did finally get to see an Osprey, which has been on my wishlist for a long time now.  But even then, it was at such a distance, from the shoulder of a county highway, that it hardly counts – certainly the photo isn’t all that good…

If I had to sum up MNWR in one word, it would be “disappointing.”  I’m a huge supporter of refuges and conservation programs, but I really felt that this was a lackluster example.  I’m sure that they don’t get nearly the funding that they’d like, and I’m sure that they’re understaffed and overworked.  But I really figure that a place like that ought to be able to do a better job.

Sad to say, it wasn’t worth the drive, and I don’t think I’ll be going back.  But fortunately, that wasn’t the end of my adventure, and things definitely improved afterwards.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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