With nearly a dozen bird observatories and thousands of acres of natural areas, Oswego County has a birding spot for you.
For thousands of years, migrating hawks, eagles, raptors and songbirds have flocked along the southeastern shores of Lake Ontario. These migratory routes provide ample opportunities for birders to witness unusual or record sightings. Many species of birds can be found along the Oswego Canal, including the elusive Osprey and Bald Eagle. Derby Hill, designated a New York State “Important Bird Area”, counted a world-record 19,531 red-tailed hawks in the spring of 1995.
Whether you are an amateur or serious bird-watcher, come birding in Oswego County!
Bird Conservation Areas
Curtiss-Gale Wildlife Management Area
Granby; 45 acres – East side of the Oswego River. 1 mile south of Fulton.
The following text has been taken from the NYS DEC web page on birding.
Eastern Lake Ontario Marshes Bird Conservation Area:
This BCA is a complex of long barrier beaches, embayments, dunes, marshes, and swamps with cold water streams. Lakeshore barrier beach and wetland complexes such as this are rare in New York State. This area has been recognized by the Department of State as a Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat and, in part, has also been designated as a National Natural Landmark. This BCA has significant breeding and over-wintering habitats, and serves as a critical migratory corridor for birds. The areas in Oswego County that are part of the Eastern Lake Ontario Marshes BCA are the Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area and Deer Creek Marsh.
- Link to the DEC Map of Eastern Lake Ontario Marshes BCA
Selkirk Shores Bird Conservation Area
The Selkirk Shores BCA is part of Selkirk Shores State Park in Oswego County. It is located on Lake Ontario about 0.3 miles south of Port Ontario. Overlooking a bluff, the park offers swimming, camping, fishing, birding and hiking.
During spring migration Neotropical migratory songbirds concentrate along the lake. The BCA supports assemblages of birds associated with marshes, forests and shrub/scrub including more than 80 species that have been confirmed as breeders. The BCA has supported state listed breeding marsh birds such as Pied-billed Grebe (threatened), American Bittern (special concern), Least Bittern (threatened), and Black Tern (endangered). Other regularly occurring species at risk include Osprey (special concern), Sharp-shinned Hawk (special concern), Common Tern (threatened) and Golden-winged Warbler (special concern).
Three Mile Bay Bird Conservation Area
Three Mile Bay BCA, located on the northwestern shore of Oneida Lake, encompasses 3,697 acres and consists mostly of wooded swamp land with small amounts of marsh. It is the site of Audubon’s Toad Harbor Swamp Important Bird Area. The site also includes areas of upland forest, successional old field, and shrubland habitats. The DEC holds jurisdiction over 132 acres of underwater lands in Oneida Lake adjacent to the Wildlife Management Area extending 500-1000 feet offshore from about 1/2 mile west of Phillips Point to about 3/4 mile east of the point.
Flooded hardwood swamps provide habitat for Red-shouldered Hawk (special concern), Cerulean Warbler (special concern), Prothonotary Warbler, as well as a large Great Blue Heron rookery. The area supports large numbers of migrating waterfowl during the spring, and lake waters adjacent to the property harbor thousands of waterfowl throughout the year. Grassland habitats have historically supported Henslow’s Sparrow (threatened), Grasshopper Sparrow (special concern) and Sedge Wren (threatened). Marsh areas support Pied-billed Grebe (threatened), Least Bittern (threatened), and American Bittern (special concern).
Important Birding Areas
Derby Hill Bird Observatory
Best Spring Hawkwatch in Northeast
Derby Hill Bird Observatory is the best spring hawkwatch location in the Northeastern United States. Its strategic location at the southeast corner of Lake Ontario near Mexico, New York, makes it an excellent spring site for observing migrating raptors and other birds. It is not unusual in mid-April to see upwards of 2,000 raptors in a day, including Bald Eagle, Swainson’s hawk, Golden Eagle, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. On this same day one could see Sandhill Crane, Common Raven and Great Egret as well as many small passerines such as Blue Jays, American Robins, and substantial numbers and varieties of warblers. In Spring 1995 a world-record total of 19,531 Red-tailed Hawks was counted at Derby Hill; 4,591 of these occurred on 11 April.
Derby Hill’s History
Recognized as a prime vantage point by Schneider and VanBeurden in the 1950’s, Derby Hill Bird Observatory, about 50 acres in Oswego County, is now owned and operated by Onondaga Audubon Society (OAS), of Syracuse, New York. The 40 acres at the North Lookout were first purchased by The Nature Conservancy from Syracuse University and deeded to OAS in 1975. The Onondaga Audubon Society has since acquired several additional parcels of land and the cottage at the North Lookout, which serves as the headquarters and the springtime hawkwatcher’s residence.
Other bird records of note at the Derby Hill Bird Observatory are: a very rare south of Alaska, immature While-tailed Eagle seen by many observes in 1993; a Swallow-tailed Kite in April 1976; a Mississippi Kite in May of 1990; and three Gyrfalcons, the latest being February 1994. Other species regularly seen in numbers are Eastern Bluebird, Snow Goose, Common Loon and Brant. In some years Northern Shrike and Short-eared Owl have been seen as they moved north to breeding grounds. Out-of-range species seen at Derby Hill include Swainson’s Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. In the late fall, with strong NW winds, jaegers can be seen, and a record number of 200+ (mostly Parasitic) were counted on 7 October 1979. A visit to Derby Hill is always rewarding, some days more than others; the movement of the birds is very weather dependent.
Weather Affects Migration
Good flights of raptors are dependent on favorable weather conditions. Strong southerly wind-flows create the best conditions. Snow, heavy rain and strong northerly or easterly winds reduce the volume of hawks moving through. An ideal weather set-up is a low pressure system approaching from the west with preceding southerly winds. Lesser numbers of birds will pass on west and northwest winds as the hawk flight is dispersed inland away from Lake Ontario. Often the cold lake water creates a light northern breeze (even though one may have awakened to a nice southerly flow at home); this condition will cause lesser numbers of birds to pass Derby Hill. But some families of raptors, notably falcons and accipiters, will fly even in “poor” conditions.
Interstate 81 to exit 34 (Maple View), West on 104 to Rte. 3 North (Mexico), North on Rte. 3 to 104B (Kaine’s Corners), West on 104B 1 mile to Sage Creek Rd. Make a right onto Sage Creek Rd. Proceed to South or North Lookout
Things to remember when visiting Derby Hill:
- Seeing the flights of the birds is dependent on favorable weather conditions. The largest groups of birds pass over Derby Hill when there is a low-pressure system from the west with a high pressure producing strong southerly winds.
- Don’t expect to see hawks before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
- Expect to have great conversation with out-of-state visitors. Judy said that typically, a little less than half of the birders on Derby Hill don’t live in New York.
- If you plan to stay a while, bring a folding chair. Derby Hill has extras, but on a busy day, you take the chance of not getting one.
- Bring lunch.
- Bring sunscreen and a hat or visor.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Birders are an extremely friendly and enthusiastic bunch, and love to share their extensive knowledge of identification with you.
The Oswego Canal
If you enjoy watching birds, a trip along the Oswego Canal will provide you with many interesting opportunities. Many species of birds which breed in Central NY can be found along the —- mile Oswego Canal as it traverses various habitats.
The water’s edge along the Oswego River and the Canal provide areas for wading birds such as Great Blue Heron and the smaller Green Heron to feed on frogs, snakes and fish in shallow water. You’ll find a variety of ducks, with the most common being the Canada Goose and Mallard.
Caspian Terns, Double-crested Cormorants, and gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed) may be seen flying and diving to catch fish found in the deeper waters of the River. On the shrubby, more wooded banks, a wide variety of song birds may be seen and heard — Gray Catbirds, Warbling, Red-eyed, and Yellow-throated Vireos, Great Crested, Willow and Alder Flycatchers, Baltimore Orioles (look for their globular hanging nests in branches hanging over the river), Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and American Redstarts are all commonly found.
In the air, insect-eating species – Barn, Bank, Northern Rough-winged, and Tree Swallows, Purple Martins (many homes along the river maintain special colonial bird houses for this species which feeds on mosquitoes), and Chimney Swifts, will fly low over the water snatching insects, feeding literally “on the wing”.
Another insect-eating species, the Eastern Phoebe, nests under bridges. Watch for this species as it perches on a small branch near the water’s edge, flying out to catch an insect and returning to its perch to feed, often pumping its tail up and down while perched.
If you are extremely lucky you may see an Osprey, and luckier still, a Bald Eagle; though Bald Eagles are more common winter birds along the open water sections of the River and Canal in late fall and winter.
Oswego County Nature Park at Camp Zerbe
NYS Rte. 104, Williamstown
Offers nature enthusiasts hundreds 364 acres of wilderness, and includes beautiful and unique glacier-made “kettlehole” lakes which attract a variety of wildlife. The park features 3 miles of marked nature trails, interpretive center, pavilion, educational exhibits, and a meeting center. Hiking, canoeing, birding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. Camp Zerbe is open from dawn to dusk. The meeting center and interpretive center are open by appointment. Pets and motorized vehicles are not allowed in the park. For more information, call (315) 349-3451.
Rice Creek Biological Field Station
Thompson Road, Oswego State University
An instructional and research unit of the State University of New York College at Oswego, the state property consists of the 26-acre Rice Pond surrounded by 400 acres of land in several stages of growth from open fields to mature forests. Trails provide access to the various habitats around the station. The building contains two lab/classrooms, a lecture room, and exhibit areas with an indoor viewing gallery. Hiking, birding, exhibits, lectures and workshops. Rice Creek Field Station is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Trails are open from dawn to dusk. 315/312-7961