#2 Montezuma NWR
As soon as I began to ID birds, the search for a good birding spot near Hamilton College was on. The Glen was good, but only offered northern woodland birds. The Rome Sand Plains were intriguing (I saw my first ruffed grouse and rose-breasted grosbeak there) but not substantial. The Utica Marsh was nice...but it was in Utica.
I soon stumbled across the Montezuma NWR, a wetlands complex about an hours drive west on I-90. It wasn't until May 9th when I was able to go...and I was completely unprepared for what I saw. As such a novice birder I was unfamiliar with exactly how many birds are involved in migration in May. Montezuma's position on the northern end of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, makes it a perfect last-stop for birds, especially waterfowl, about to head further north. During the spring, geese, ducks and waders gather in huge numbers.
When I first got to the park (you can see the main pool from I-90...but then you have to drive 10 more excruciating minutes before you actually get off the exit and to the entrance) I saw this waterfowl migration in full effect. Canvasbacks. Thousands of them. All facing the same direction, into the wind, like boats in a harbor. I had never seen a canvasback before (if I had ever even heard of one) but suddenly here were thousands. And red-heads (Peterson said 'uncommon!'), and wood ducks, and black ducks, and ruddys, and scaup, and teal, and merganser, and ring-necked and pintail and mallard. Unbelievable. Close to shore paddled coot and moorhen and pied-billed grebe. Canada Geese covered the road, while purple martin and barn swallows swooped all around.
Off the main pool, just a ways down the road, was a completely different habitat. Along nicely mowed paths were wooded fields where I saw my first warbler (a Yellow), song and savannah sparrows, bobolink, kingfisher, bluebird, baltimore oriole, kingbird, phoebe and red winged blackbird. I felt like some actor from The Sound of Music, running around the fields with my arms spread wide. That's what finding a good birding spot can do for you, and I visited Montezuma probably 6 times over the course of the summer. BUT none of those times, not even the first, matched the best birding experience of the year. That'll have to wait til tomorrow...