Eight thousand acres of pristine wetlands just north of Watertown in Jefferson County are open to visitors until Sunday. For most of the year, the Perch River Wildlife Management Area is off-limits to the public. The area is a breeding and nesting ground for threatened and endangered birds like bald eagles and black terns.
Right now, a section of the wetland has been drained and that’s attracting hundreds of hungry shorebirds.
I’m standing on a small bluff overlooking Stone Mills Pool. It’s one of three ponds in the Perch River area. Next to me is my guide for the day, Irene Mazzocchi, wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Stone Mills Pool usually looks just like a pond. It's filled with water, but this month Irene has drained it so different vegetation can grow. This area is a manmade wetland. It was created decades ago to preserve habitat that was quickly disappearing because of encroaching agriculture and development. We look onto the bottom of the pool. It’s now a long stretch of brown mudflat.
“You can see a little bit of green coming up. It’s not a lot, but that little bit of green is the vegetation that I’m trying to get back, especially along the shore,” Mazzocchi says.
Tall grassy mounds are growing across the mudflat. When Irene fills the water back up, they’ll become little islands.
“The geese and stuff will nest on them. The water typically won't go over them when the water comes back but they will be surrounded by the water,” she says.
Today this is a thriving habitat for birds, waterfowl, and small game like fox and turkeys. Right now, hundreds of shorebirds are pecking into the mud for tiny invertebrates clinging to algae.
“There are not a lot of places where you can have a concentration of sandpipers and the number of species that were seeing,” Mazzocchi tells me.
The thin piece of land we’re standing on is closed even to foot traffic during the year. Through Sunday, it's open to the public.
“I think we have birders coming now,” she says.
Irene and I walk along the bluff to meet a group of 10 wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying expensive-looking spotting scopes and binoculars.
This group is part of the North Leeds Birders from Kingston, Ontario. The birders lean into their scopes and rattle off the names of the birds they see: “We’re seeing greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, killdeer, least sandpiper, and semi-palmated plovers. Here are four of them.”
Laura Stifler tallies the numbers on a checklist. I ask if there anything she’d like to see today, something rare?
“We’ll it would be nice to see everything on this list," Stifler says. She pauses for a moment and then mentions the peregrine falcon. The group hasn't seen one of those in awhile.
My guide, Irene Mazzocchi, says identifying shorebirds means you have to look at all parts of the birds like its legs or chest markings.
“It takes a whole lot of patience especially with shorebirds, shorebirds are tough,” Mazzocchi says.
Then, as if on cue the wind picks up and the North Lee Birders spot what they wanted to see. A peregrine falcon takes flight over our heads.
“As you can see the birds are a little agitated. They’re all flying up because there’s a raptor over their heads. This will really make the birds move," she says.
Today, these visitors have front row seats to a wildlife display few get the chance to see.
The Perch River Wildlife Management Area will be open to the public through Sunday, August 30. Visitors can fish, paddle, and hike in any part of the preserve from sunrise to sunset.