By Lee Salber
Black ducks, mallards, and pintails flock to flooded fields in New York's Finger Lakes region
As Northwest flight 690 descends into Hancock International Airport just north of Syracuse, New York, my thoughts are of greenheads fresh out of Ontario. I daydream of making difficult shots on big black ducks just beginning their migration through the Finger Lakes. And as long as I'm daydreaming, I decide to add a fine drake pintail worthy of mounting to my imaginary bag.
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Hey, daydreaming never hurt anyone, and I've always thought it's a fun way to start an outdoor adventure. Of course, the actual trip never works out quite like I envision. That's OK, though, because I never really believe all those daydreams will come true. But, then, once in a very great while . . . From Syracuse, I head west to the small town of Waterloo. This is where I will be staying while I hunt the farms surrounding the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, located in the middle of one of the most active flight lanes in the Atlantic Flyway.
The two people who helped me plan this mid-November weekend trip meet me for dinner at the Deerhead Inn. Sheila Sleggs is Ducks Unlimited's New York regional biologist, and her fiancé, Paul Hess, is a wildlife biologist for the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. He is also a part-time waterfowling guide. I ask Paul the inevitable first question. "Well, how does it look for tomorrow morning?"
He responds with a disappointing, "Warm weather has kept most of the birds up north." Then, with a grin he goes on to say, "Until this week, when a cold front pushed the first good wave of ducks into the area." Paul notes that we will be hunting a flooded muck field in the morning.
I learn that there is quite a history behind the muck fields in the area. Sheila goes on to explain, "The muck fields were originally marshlands that were drained for farming, thanks to the building of the Erie Canal in 1825." If I remember my American history correctly, the 363-mile-long canal (OK, so I had to look it up) linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It allowed for the shipment of manufactured goods to the West and raw materials to the East.
Sheila says, "Farmers were able to drain 70 percent of the Montezuma wetlands through a system of ditches and canals that lead to the Erie Canal. The resulting muck farms prospered from plantings of potatoes, onions, corn, and soybeans." She goes on to say, however, that problems developed. Exposed to the air, the rich muck soil oxidized, and winds blew it elsewhere. Over time, the productivity of the soil decreased, and muck farmers began putting out the For Sale signs.
"That's when Ducks Unlimited and other conservation organizations became involved," Sheila points out. "They began purchasing these properties and converting them back into productive wetlands. I'll take you to a DU muck project after you and Paul finish your morning hunt."