Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Utica Marsh

Great Egret and Mute Swan visit the Utica Marsh
The premier wetland habitat in our area is the Utica Mash. Located on the north side of Utica on the Mohawk River flooplain, this New York State Wildlife Management Area is home to many species of wildlife that are hard to find elsewhere in the region. Like virtually all wetlands, it has had a sad history of destruction and abuse. For many years it was used as a dump for factory refuse. Automobile grave yards flank one side of it and are responsible for a massive amount of tires that annually “migrate” into the marsh during high water. Undoubtedly, the junkyards are the source of other contaminants that are not as easily seen as the tires. The Mohawk Valley Flood Plain Association (renamed The Utica Marsh Council) was largely responsible for getting protection for the Marsh and transforming it into a Wildlife Management Area. 
A group of female Hooded Mergansers

Great Blue Heron are common visitors to the Marsh
The Utica Marsh Council along with the DEC hosts an annual Marsh Cleanup –mostly for removing the year’s accumulation of tires. Future Clean-ups have been put on hold due to the lack of an easy access into the Marsh. Over a year ago, the bridge leading to the Marsh’s parking area was permanently closed and so the Marsh Council has been scrambling to find a new and practical way for people to gain access to it. It’s an interesting time that we live in when city bridges are condemned without even the thought of repairing or replacing them. As it turned out, some good news came with the loss of our Barnes Ave bridge. The auto junkyards adjacent to the Marsh have all been closed, and illicit dumping of trash along Barnes Ave has also been effectively curtailed.

The most common species of rail at the Marsh is the Virginia Rail
Spring is an exciting time at the Marsh; virtually as soon as its shallow pools lose their ice, a procession of migratory waterfowl begin visiting. Northern Pintail, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoveler are a few of the larger dabbling ducks that can be found during migration. By May, the duck migration is mostly over, and the songbird migration comes into full swing. Migrant warblers can be seen easily here as they travel through the low tree border between the main trail and the marsh.
The Common Moorhen is a bit like a wild marsh chicken

Both the Sora and the Virginia Rail breed at the Utica Marsh. The latter species is particularly vocal at this time of year, and can be heard calling from many places in the cattail beds. The Common Moorhen is mostly black and about the size and shape of a chicken. Like the rails, they have extremely long toes which act to distribute their weight and enable them to walk over thin rafts of emergent vegetation.

Another Marsh specialty is the Least Bittern, which is a colorful robin sized heron that breeds in cattail marsh habitat. The Utica Marsh is one of few places where this bittern can be reliably found in Oneida County. Currently, the biggest threat to the bittern and its marsh nesting allies is the invasive plant, Purple Loosestrife, which has been steadily expanding throughout the Marsh, and now threatens to overwhelm the last areas where these birds still breed. The 3 species of beetle which are used to control Loosestrife have been released at the Marsh, but so far they don’t appear to be putting much of a check on the plant.

The Pied billed Grebe breeds at the Utica Marsh

During my last visit to the Marsh, I saw a pair of Pied-billed Grebes begin their nest. Their nest is made on a floating mat of vegetation that is anchored in place. The advantage to this design is that the nest can handle water levels rising without flooding out. Last year when a dramatic flooding event swelled water levels at the Marsh and destroyed all of the Canada Goose nests as well as most every other marsh birds’ nest, the Grebe nests may have survived because of their unique floating design.
The most common turtle at the Marsh is the Painted Turtle

Osprey flying over the Utica Mars
Here is a link to the Utica Marsh Council website, which is in great need of an update:
Utica Marsh website


  1. The marsh is a great place to see many species of waterfowl. Just today we observed many hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks,wood ducks, pied-billed grebes, gadwalls and all the usual suspects. We've regularly seen Eurasion widgeon here in the past, and the odd flock of horned grebes, as well as redheads,scaup, black scoters, common gallinules, pintails, shovelers, both Eastern teal species, etc... Just about every duck in the Atlantic Flyway. Sadly, both observation towers have been removed, but the railbed to the South still affords a good vantage point. There are tons of painted turtles here, and a surprising abundance of DeKay's snakes. The more difficult access has reduced the traffic here; there are days when you won't see another human. (No longer is the area a rather bizarre location for gay male hookups lol!) Nature lovers in the area really need to take this place in.

  2. It sounds like you do very well at the marsh. You might consider sharing your bird data on eBird - that's the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird database. Please consider setting up an accountwith them. It's free and easy to use and your bird sightings can be instantly shared with everyone. Thanks for the info! - Matt