TYRE — Hundreds of starlings perched on a tree overlooking the wildlife drive at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Wednesday, seemingly unperturbed by two looming juvenile bald eagles, so young they did not have their white feathers yet. Ducks dotted the refuge's main pool, alighting in a poof against the sunset when one eagle dipped down toward the water and across to a distant island of trees. Ribbons of white confetti waved in the darkening blue sky, snow geese and tundra swans gathering for their migrations.
It was the eagles, however, that Judy Slein and Jackie Bakker were most interested in. The two were teamed up Wednesday for another Montezuma Winter Raptor Survey, an effort of local volunteers to track the populations of birds of prey species in the area.
The survey takes place nearly every Wednesday evening during the winter months over more than a dozen sites, where volunteers track the number of bald eagles, short-eared owls, northern harrier hawks, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, Merlins, snowy owls and any other raptor bird that may pass through a half an hour before sunset, or a half an hour after.
This was the survey's eighth year. The refuge uses the data collected to make decisions on habitat management to attract even more birds, particularly the endangered short-eared owl and the threatened northern harriers.
Slein and Bakker were assigned to scout the northern portion of the refuge's main complex, a frequent haunt of bald eagles. Slein, who is from Rochester, has surveyed the last two years, and Bakker, who is from Stanley, has been surveying since the event's inception in 2010.
After driving stop-and-go along Larue's Lagoon and the main pool, searching with binoculars and a spotting scope attached to Bakker's driver-side window, the two made it to the refuge's new overlook. A large eagle statue erected in 2016, marking the 40th anniversary of the reintroduction of bald eagles to the state, stood off to the side.
It was as if the eagles knew the statue was there for them. Bakker set up her spotting scope on a tripod.
"Oh my goodness," she cried. "Oh my goodness! Oh my gosh, there's like a dozen over there."
Several eagles, juveniles coming into their white heads, soared over the open water. One landed on a stump sticking up from the water. Another landed in the cattails. Not easily noticed with the naked eye, but evident through scopes, many more eagles were counted by Bakker in the cluster of trees across the way. Two adult bald eagles perched near a nest.
"We've just got eagles out here," Bakker said as Slein furiously tried to keep up with spottings, writing them down — bird No. 9, bald eagle, 5:49 p.m., location.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, Bakker saw five harrier hawks dipping in and out of the reeds. One short-eared owl, recognizable by its flight pattern through a spotting scope but not visible without, flew over the marshland looking for food.
Overall, the pair counted 29 raptors.
David Marsh, volunteer raptor survey manager, collected the findings of all the volunteers, and in an email said that throughout 18 sites, 76 raptors were counted that evening. Bald eagles were the most numerous, with 52. One group also spotted a snowy owl, a rare visitor to the refuge.
Marsh said this year's surveys have been puzzling because over time, volunteers have seen an increase in short-eared owls and harriers. This year, however, numbers are down. He said it's not a long-term trend and a few more years' data will provided a better picture for how the species are doing. He said it could be that the food isn't there for the birds, or habitat changes may have made them move somewhere else. For now, it's too early to say.
Rough-legged hawk numbers are down, too, this year. Great-horned owls haven't been seen, but they have been heard, and Marsh said those number appear to be up from last year.
Marsh always reminds his fellow volunteers that even if they don't see anything, that tells an important story, too.