Jamaica Bay, New York. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Birding the States

Birding in New York

The state is more than just New York City, especially for birding opportunities.

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
10 22 7,511,385

People often forget that there’s a mighty big state lying north of New York City, filled with forests, lakes, rivers, grasslands, marshes, and a park (Adirondack) that's bigger than some states. It stands to reason that birders in New York would find plenty of species—more than 470, in fact.

Upstate, Adirondack Park, for example, is known for “northern” specialties such as Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay, and Boreal Chickadee. In winter, Niagara Falls State Park ranks as one of the best sites in the world to see a variety of gulls. Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, on Cayuga Lake, hosts huge flocks of waterfowl.

Visitors to New York City, and out into Long Island, have countless places to go birding too, from the islands of greenery that are Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (more than 250 species have been recorded in each) to the seabirds of Montauk Point, on the eastern tip of Long Island. Or for a true urban experience, one can always scan apartment buildings for some of the city’s best-known residents, its breeding pairs of Red-Tailed Hawks.

New York Birding Hotspots

 

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Just two miles from the runways of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport lies the 9,000-acre expanse of one of the premier birding locations in the Northeast. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, boasts a bird list of more than 330 species.

Located in Long Island’s Jamaica Bay, with open water, islands, and marsh, the refuge is known mostly for various waterbirds: flocks of waterfowl, grebes, wading birds, abundant shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Many of these nest in the refuge, including Gadwall, American Black Duck, Least Bittern, Tricolored Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer.

More than 40 species of shorebirds have been recorded at Jamaica Bay, with peak numbers in May and August. Avid birders constantly scanning the flocks have found rarities such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Broad-billed Sandpiper.

Barn Owl nests on the refuge, and Short-eared Owl patrols the grassland in winter. Winter may also bring Lapland Longspur or Snow Bunting (both rare). Peregrine Falcon is seen year-round, searching for prey.

Most birding is done by walking around two large ponds, one by the visitor contact station and the other across Cross Bay Boulevard. Many guided field trips and programs are held throughout the year at the refuge, making it a great place for beginners to discover the joys of birding. A free permit from the visitor contact station on Cross Bay Boulevard is needed to walk the trails.


Jones Beach State Park

More than six million people visit this park on a Long Island barrier beach each year, so it stands to reason that most birding is done from fall through spring, when the sun-worshipers are gone. In those seasons, Jones Beach is one of the best birding sites in the state.

Birders go to the western end of the barrier island in fall, hoping that north or northwest winds will push migrating birds to the coast, where they will pile up, so to speak, at the tip of the island. A good day in September or early October here can be an exciting experience, with the small trees and shrubs full of birds.

Winter is the favorite season of many Jones Beach birders. Offshore may be Brant, Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, and possibly a Razorbill. On land, winter can bring Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, Horned Lark, American Pipit, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting.

On unpeopled beaches, American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover, Willet, and Least Tern breed, and shorebirds can be abundant, especially in May and August.

These are just a few highlights of remarkable Jones Beach, a place where anything (e.g., Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Mountain Bluebird, Golden-crowned Sparrow) can show up.


Derby Hill Bird Observatory​

One of the most famous spring hawk-watching sites in the east is located on a low hill on the shore of Lake Ontario, about 14 miles east of Oswego. Observers at Derby Hill often see as many as 40,000 raptors pass between March 1 and the end of May, most of them Broad-winged Hawks.

Northbound birds reach Lake Ontario and, reluctant to fly over water, turn northeast and follow the shore. Around fifteen species are regularly seen, including Osprey, Golden Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and Peregrine Falcon. Once an estimated 20,000 Broad-winged Hawks were seen in one day in late April.

Other birds pass by here too, of course, and on certain days the Derby Hill woods can be alive with flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, sparrows, and blackbirds.


Montauk Point State Park

It’s a rite of passage for New York birders to make a winter trip to Montauk Point, the eastern tip of Long Island, more than 110 miles from Manhattan. Here where the waters of Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean meet, there’s sea on three sides and the cold wind can be fierce.

The reward can be large flocks of of seabirds, with uncommon and rare species appearing often enough that they’re almost expected. The historic lighthouse at the point and the restaurant are places where birders often gather and follow trails to various viewpoints.

Just about any diving duck or seabird of the Northeast can show up at Montauk Point on migration or in winter. A few to be expected are Brant, Common Eider, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, and Razorbill. Less-expected species include Harlequin Duck, Red-necked Grebe, Dovekie, and Common Murre. Montauk gulls can include Black-legged Kittiwake, Iceland Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull, among the common species. Purple Sandpiper is found along the rocky shore.

Given its geography, it’s inevitable that vagrants show up on Montauk Point, having reached a kind of dead end in their flight. Birders have found Gray Kingbird, Cave Swallow, and Lark Sparrow here, for example.


Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

Snow Goose, Canada Goose, and ducks of more than a dozen species dominate the tens of thousands of waterfowl that fill the wetlands of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in spring and fall migration. Tundra Swan may be present, as well, and Trumpeter Swan is seen on the refuge nearly year-round. Dozens of Bald Eagles might be frequenting the refuge at times, and several active nests can be seen.

These are the birds most linked to this refuge at the northern end of Cayuga Lake in central New York, but it’s home to a wide variety of both land and water species, with a bird list that’s among the longest in the state.

Montezuma has a fine visitor center with nearby observation platforms and walking trails. The 3.5-mile wildlife drive circles the marshy main pool, with lookout points and more hiking trails along the way. Winters are harsh here; the drive closes when deep snow arrives and may not open again until April.

Some of the impoundments here are managed for shorebirds, which can be abundant in late summer. These same pools attract herons and egrets, including nesting American Bittern, Least Bittern, and Black-crowned Night-Heron, among others. Sandhill Crane nests on the refuge, as well. Other breeding birds include Osprey, Northern Harrier, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, Black Tern, and Bobolink. At almost any time of year, a Peregrine Falcon may show up to prey on ducks or shorebirds.


Central Park

The 1.6 million residents of Manhattan include lots of birders, and they just happen to have one of the state’s best birding locations in their backyard. (Literally in the for bird fans living on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.) More than 280 species of birds have been recorded in this 843-acre park.

The great majority of birding in Central Park is best in spring and fall migration, especially in May. Migrating birds see it as an oasis amid skyscrapers and pavement, stopping in to rest and feed. When conditions are right, a “fallout” can happen, with throngs of birds seemly raining from the sky into every available tree and shrub.

The most revered birding location in Central Park is the Ramble, a 37-acre wooded area south of 79th Street. On a May morning it will be full of people carrying binoculars. In migration, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, between 85th and 97th streets, is popular for waterfowl and wading birds.

Central Park is a great place for beginners not only because there’s almost always an experienced birder close at hand to help, but also because various bird clubs and park staff lead regular birding walks.


Niagara Falls/Tifft Nature Preserve

Two spots in northwestern New York, just 20 miles apart, offer great birding in quite different ways.

Famed Niagara Falls is one of the best places on earth to see a variety of gulls in winter. Tens of thousands of gulls swoop in to prey on the fish that are churned up by the thundering falls. They include the rarities that serious gull-watchers hope for: species such Black-legged Kittiwake, Iceland Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, and Glaucous Gull, to name a few.

Birders visit to various viewpoints, including Goat Island and the state park. Some of the best vantages are from the Canadian side, and unfortunately security concerns have made border crossing more complicated than it used to be. Nonetheless, Niagara Falls is still in the running for “gull capital of the world.”

In Buffalo, 264-acre Tifft Nature Preserve was created from a former city landfill that now provides restored habitat and an excellent year-round birding site. Tifft comprises woodland, fields, and a wonderful cattail marsh accessible on boardwalks and viewing platforms.

The area’s wetlands attract waterfowl, wading birds, rails, shorebirds, gulls, and terns, and its land habitats are home to varied breeding and migrant species. A few of the nesting birds are Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, Virginia Rail, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow, and Baltimore Oriole.


Marshlands Conservancy

This 147-acre wildlife sanctuary on Boston Post Road in Rye has a lengthy bird list thanks to its varied habitats of woodland, fields, ponds and salt marsh. The protected area includes a half-mile of shoreline on Long Island Sound, adding to the diversity of birds seen here.

Nesting birds in the vicinity include Wild Turkey, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, American Oystercatcher, American Woodcock, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Marsh Wren, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.

Marshlands Conservancy is at its best in May, when migrant songbirds following the shore find resting and feeding places here. Three miles of trails wind through the sanctuary.


Bashakill Wildlife Management Area

Nearly two-thirds of the 3,107-acre Bashakill Wildlife Management Area is a freshwater marsh—the largest such habitat in southeastern New York. It’s a very popular birding spot for both spring migration and nesting wetland birds.

Located just south of Wurtsboro, Bashakill is accessed via Haven Road east of Highway 209. There are parking areas along S Road, and the area has 15 miles of trails, along with observation platforms. More than 230 species have been seen here.

Birders search the marsh and adjacent oak forest in spring for migrant warblers and other songbirds, peaking in late April and May. But birding doesn’t start and stop with spring.

Nesting birds of Bashakill include Wood Duck, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, American Woodcock, Black-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Acadian Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, and many warblers such as Worm-eating, Golden-winged, Cerulean, and Chestnut-sided.


Adirondack Park

The six million-acre Adirondack Park comprise both public and private lands, ranging from wilderness to towns and resorts. It’s the largest publicly protected area in the Lower 48 states, home to Mount Marcy, at 5,344 feet the highest point in New York. The calls of Common Loons ring across countless lakes set among the mountains here, and the forest is full of birds associated with the North Woods.

Two of the species for which the Adirondacks are well known are the elusive Spruce Grouse and the equally scarce Black-backed Woodpecker. Bicknell’s Thrush breeds on the slopes of the highest mountains. Usually easier to find are Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Canada Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Purple Finch.

A good area for many of these birds is the region west of the town of Indian Lake. Following Highway 28 for two miles and then taking Cedar River Road leads into the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. In about 12 miles is the trailhead for the climb up Wakely Mountain, one of the sites for Bicknell’s Thrush.

Another good birding site is Rock Lake, with a trailhead on Highway 28 six miles west of Indian Lake. Farther north, Spruce Pond Bog Preserve is one of the most popular birding sites in the Adirondacks, but a permit must be obtained in advance from the Nature Conservancy (518-576-2082).

Birding Trails

Lake Champlain Birding Trail 

At more than 100 miles long, and once briefly classified as one of the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain is an impressive body of water separating Vermont from northern New York. Local opinion is divided as to whether it really has its own Loch Ness-type monster—named “Champ”—but it does have a mammoth birding trail, identifying 88 superb spots near the shoreline and uplands on both sides of the lake. Visit in summer and you’ll find sky-blue eastern bluebirds along the fencerows, sharply patterned bobolinks singing their bubbling songs over the meadows, and wood thrushes delivering their haunting flute solos from deep in the forest shadows. Hooded mergansers, small ducks with elegant crests, nest in the wooded swamps in summer and gather on the open lake during migration seasons, when they are joined by flocks of snow geese, goldeneyes, and many more waterfowl. Winter brings a different set of birds to the Champlain Valley, and if you come here for a coldweather adventure you may get to enjoy such northern creatures as snowy owls, snow buntings, and rough-legged hawks— even if Champ fails to surface. —Kenn Kaufman

Niagara Birding Trail 

Tourists and honeymooners descend on Niagara Falls mostly during the warm seasons, but birders flock here in late fall and winter for the gulls. Near the end of November more than 100,000 gulls representing in excess of a dozen species may be present simultaneously on the Niagara river near the falls. Most will be common species, such as boisterous herring gulls and dainty little Bonaparte’s gulls, but there is usually a scattering of uncommon birds like pale Iceland gulls or even mega-rarities like the pinkish Ross’s gull from Siberia. After donning your parka and gloves, you will also be rewarded with thousands of ducks, such as canvasbacks, scaup, redheads, goldeneyes, and mergansers. And the good birding carries over into spring, because the Audubon Niagara Birding Trail takes in a variety of sites away from the falls, including forests, meadows, and swamps— all with a rich variety of nesting birds. A focal point is the steep-sided canyon at Letchworth State Park, where birds of the far north can be found living in this cool and shady microclimate. —K.K.

Audubon State Office and Centers*

*Be sure to call ahead before visiting Audubon centers to make sure that they are open to the public.