by Mark Chao
If you ask residents and visitors what attracts them most to the Finger Lakes, you will likely hear mostly about our sweeping vistas, stunning shorelines, orchards, farms, culture and arts, food and wine. But for me and countless other enthusiasts, one different answer rises to the top – the diversity of birds and the abundance of protected lands where one can enjoy them.
Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in the Finger Lakes region. If you are a beginning birder, it’s a great place to get started. If you are already a die hard, you can devote hours and hours, week after week, to birding here and never run out of rewarding discoveries. And whether you live in our region or are here just for a short visit, you have endless options about where to find the birds, all year round.
The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) has created a website, gofingerlakes.org, to help you in your planning. The site presents an interactive map of protected lands all across our region, enabling you to home in on individual locales to learn more. You can also apply filters to your search to find places best suited to specific activities, including birding. Here are just a few highlights from the dozens of birding destinations you’ll find on the website.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR) is the crown jewel of the area’s birding sites, almost literally at the top center on the map of the region at the north end of Cayuga Lake, within an hour’s drive of Syracuse, Rochester, and Ithaca. The refuge itself encompasses almost 10,000 acres, but is only one part of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, a vast patchwork of almost 50,000 protected acres, or about 78 square miles.
Most people begin their visit at the refuge’s visitor center, and then proceed slowly on the Wildlife Drive around the Main Pool. During spring and fall migration, these open waters host hundreds of thousands of migrating ducks, geese, swans, grebes, coots, cormorants, and every now and then, even local rarities such as American White Pelicans. Furthermore, refuge managers draw the water down in certain areas during migration to expose expansive mudflats. As a result, MNWR is the region’s best site for watching migrating shorebirds. At peak times, with patience, skill, and luck, you can even see up to 20 shorebird species in a day.
Montezuma also hosts a dazzling array of charismatic breeding birds throughout the summer, including Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Black Terns, countless Great Blue Herons, American and Least Bitterns, and, in the northern part of the complex, Sandhill Cranes and Cerulean Warblers. In winter, the pools are mostly frozen and the Wildlife Drive is closed, but the area is still excellent for roadside birding, perhaps most notably for wintering Snowy Owls and Northern Shrikes.
For different reasons, Sapsucker Woods is the other nationally renowned birding site in the Finger Lakes. Located in Ithaca, this 220-acre sanctuary is the home of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to the study and conservation of birds.
Sapsucker Woods is a particularly good place to start if you are new to birds and birding. The visitor center, housed in the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, has large picture windows that look out on an array of bird feeders and a pond, which typically attract at least 10 species of birds at a time for very close viewing. The visitor center also contains interactive exhibits, a small screening room for films, an ornithological library (open weekdays only, for limited hours), and art exhibits. The gift shop, run by Wild Birds Unlimited, is the best place in the region to shop for field guides and optics.
The sanctuary itself has more than four miles of trails, which are all wide and flat, making for easy walking even for young children. Comprising beech-oak forest, swampland, brushy edges, and ponds, Sapsucker Woods typically hosts more than 150 bird species per year. During peak migration in May and September, birders collectively find 20+ species of warblers, plus vireos, thrushes, and much more. Summer is less of a riot of diversity, but still, with a well-trained ear, one can find 50 or more breeding bird species in Sapsucker Woods, including Barred Owls, Northern Waterthrushes, Scarlet Tanagers, and of course eponymous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
Then there are the lesser-known nature preserves, open to the public and much beloved by us locals but often overlooked by visitors. Here you can really discover the variety in our regional landscapes, and accordingly, the diversity of our breeding birds.
The Finger Lakes Land Trust owns many of these sites, having identified the lands as biologically significant and then acquired them to preserve in perpetuity. Birders particularly treasure the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve in West Danby, which covers more than 500 acres of meadows, hedgerows, hardwood forest, hemlock woods, and streams and ponds. Over 70 species of birds nest here in a typical year, including both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, plus Prairie Warblers among 17+ breeding warbler species. The Hinchcliff Family Preserve has a similarly impressive mix of habitats and bird species across its 206 acres, plus a sweeping view of Skaneateles Lake. And in the 390-acre Wesley Hill Nature Preserve between Canandaigua and Honeoye Lakes, you can expect to find Hermit Thrushes, Eastern Bluebirds, and up to three dozen other species on a slow morning walk through the mature hardwoods and conifers in spring and summer.
So I hope you’ll fire up gofingerlakes.org, grab your binoculars, and get out and find some birds in these and other nature preserves of our region. Maybe then local birding might grow into one of your favorite pastimes, too.
Admission at all of the sites mentioned here is free of charge.
Chris Ray is a nature photographer and cartographer from Ithaca. He hopes to inspire viewers to strengthen their own personal connection with the natural world through his work. Follow him on Instagram @topher.ray.