No season surpasses spring for premium bird watching in the Finger Lakes. Our area’s birds are at their most active and are conspicuous in their colorful breeding plumage as they head north or begin setting up housekeeping for the season.
Some of the best bird watching in the region lies along the south coast of Lake Ontario. From March through May the physical barrier of the lake causes northbound birds to concentrate along the shoreline in forested and brushy areas. Because of this, our Great Lake is home to several regionally and globally important birding areas in New York State and Ontario Province.
Watch for large soaring birds and smaller migrants
Starting in late February, hawks begin to appear on the south shore, along with other large soaring birds that concentrate along the coast. Cold water prevents the formation of rising warm air thermals that these birds use to travel, so they are reluctant to cross a stretch of open water. Tens of thousands of hawks and turkey vultures along with eagles and sand hill cranes then travel along the shoreline within a mile or so of Lake Ontario. They move eastward in Wayne, Cayuga and Oswego counties, and one of the best places to watch them is at Derby Hill, a seasonal bird observatory just east of Oswego. In fact, some of the best spring hawk watching in North America occurs there. At Derby Hill, trained observers count and identify passing birds during migration. Under the right conditions, up to 10,000 birds a day may pass overhead in truly spectacular flights. The observatory website shows a daily log of sightings.
Although Derby Hill has a formal viewing program, almost any undeveloped shoreline location in eastern Wayne or Cayuga counties also has potential for good hawk viewing in the spring, especially when south or southeast winds push the birds up near shore.
Smaller migrant birds also concentrate along Lake Ontario’s south shore in the spring. Like the hawks, they use undeveloped natural areas within a half-mile of the shore as staging areas where they feed and rest before continuing their journeys. This makes fields and forests near the lake particularly important to bird conservation at a time when so many species of migrant birds are showing pronounced population declines. Many of the small, far-traveling birds, like the wood warblers, fly at night. After fueling up on insects during the day, they go directly across the lake. Other birds, like blue jays, crows and bobolinks, travel by day and follow the shoreline, stopping to feed as they move along.
Because leaves emerge up to a week later than inland along the wind- and water-chilled Lake Ontario shoreline, the beginning bird watcher will have an easier time spotting warblers, fly catchers and other elusive, quick-moving birds of the forest. In recent years, thanks to the state’s successful bald eagle restoration program, it’s also been a good place to sight a bald eagle. A number of pairs are now nesting in lakeshore forests and marshes. Two years ago on a late spring day, I saw a group of seven juvenile bald eagles perching in trees or on a bluff face just east of Port Bay. Sometimes the birds are attracted to creek entrances along the shore when a fish run is underway.
Take advantage of public lands
We are fortunate to have several public county and state lands along the lakeshore. One that offers an unusually wide variety of birding habitats is Beechwood State Park, a day-use park just west of Sodus Point. The former fruit farm and Girl Scout camp is bounded on the east by Maxwell Creek and an associated lakeshore marsh. Waders and various waterfowl alike stop in at the marsh on their way north, while along the lake a small, old-growth forest offers forest birds a refuge.
The park also has younger, second-growth forested areas with plenty of brushy undergrowth, open grassy areas and several stands of closely planted pine and larch trees. Each of these habitats attracts a different mix of migrant and resident birds.
Maxwell Creek is a popular destination for human fishermen during the spring steelhead trout run. A public access trail runs south along its west bank, ending at a pretty little waterfall. Beechwood has its own parking area; there is also parking and access for fishermen along its east side with good views of the marsh behind the Maxwell Creek Bed & Breakfast.
Don’t miss the marshes at Red Creek
The Red Creek Wildlife Management Area, a large parcel of state-owned land in the town of Wolcott, is an outstanding area for birding by the lake. Even though several stands of hardwood were clear-cut by the state a few years ago, open land and areas of logged-over, second-growth forest still attract northbound birds. The expansive prairie-like marsh is a place of great beauty with a hint of mystery about it when viewed on a fair spring morning. Marshes present the bird watcher with a paradox, for much remains hidden within their sunlit open reaches of rushes and water. Wrens, bitterns and rails are often heard more than seen here.
There are two good places to view Red Creek marshes, from bridges on both Broadway and Larkin roads. Since many marsh birds are elusive, you’ll need your ears as well as your eyes to find them. In early spring before the marsh greens up, expect to see at least a few diving ducks, like the golden eye or merganser, on the creek. A bit later various marsh birds arrive, and often dozens of tree swallows hawk over the cattails and perch on the wires by the road, sometimes with a blue bird pair or two. There have even been a few sightings of sand hill cranes here.
If the birds are scarce at Red Creek, continue north to the end of Broadway Road, where you can pull into a state-owned parking lot. You’ll find a superb view of the lake and its coastline. It’s a good spot to look for a resident bald eagle, often a dark brown juvenile, since the big birds like to soar along the bluff or perch in trees along the shore. The open meadow to the west provides viewing of the sky and a vantage point for spring hawk migrations that pass over this point in April and May. Smaller migrating birds, like blue jays, cedar wax wings, gold finches and bobolinks also follow the shoreline, and you may see them flying east across the open mowed area.
A rough foot path runs down the west side of the drumlin from the grassy field to the beach and more than a mile of public lands run west to the other side of Red Creek Marsh. When the creek’s waters are raised by spring rains, it sometimes breaks through the gravel beach. Its flow out into the lake then attracts carp, alewife and other fish. The fish run sometimes brings hundreds of hulls and terns, along with an eagle or osprey or two, close to shore.
Other lakeshore areas worth checking out for spring birding include the Sterling Nature Center, Fair Haven Beach State Park and the west barrier bar park on Fair Haven Bay. The bay is about 5 miles east of Scotts Bluff. Chimney Bluffs State Park and the large wildlife management area just west of Port Bay and Beaver Creek at the end of Dutch Street also offer good spring birding.
By June most of the bird migration along the lakeshore is over. However, there are still resident birds to be seen in lakeshore forests and in wetland areas. Several birding clubs and groups in the region maintain websites that include calendars of group outings or detail unusual bird sightings and other information of interest.
Populations of birds of all sorts, ranging from over-wintering ducks on the open lake to spring migrant warblers, are in decline. Habitat destruction and modification by human activity is believed to be responsible for much of the decline. Along the lakeshore, pressure to build waterfront homes and to harvest standing timber has degraded much of the area’s natural cover that is so important for migrants. Cornell University has developed a guide for landowners with wood lots, to help them manage their property for the benefit of forest birds such as the scarlet tanager and cerulean warbler.
by Susn Peterson Gately
Author/sailor Susan Peterson Gately is known for her informative books about Lake Ontario and its surrounding waterways.They include Mirages Monsters Myths and Mysteries of Lake Ontario, A Muskrat Ramble and Passages on Inland Waters. She and her husband sail aboard their 32-foot sloop Titania on Fair Haven Bay.