Where to Find the Best Birdwatching in the Finger Lakes

New York state’s Finger Lakes region, known for its waterways, waterfalls, and wineries, is also home to more than 300 bird species. Situated on the Atlantic Flyway—a bird migratory route from southern wintering grounds to breeding grounds in New York and Canada—the collection of lakes is prime for birders with numerous nature centers, birding sites, more than 35 preserves protected by the Finger Lakes Land Trust, and institutions focusing on bird research and conservation. Read on to find out where to go for the best Finger Lakes birding, from Canandaigua to Otisco.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

Where to stay: Spring Lake Retreat on the Farm

At the north end of Cayuga Lake State Park lies Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and the Montezuma Audubon Center, a 10,000-acre designated Important Bird Area providing habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Most visitors hit the 3.5-mile Wildlife Drive, open from April until December, and keep their eyes peeled for birds along the way. Sunrise is the best time to visit, when the colors of the trees and birds have an effervescent quality. From your car, look for osprey, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, snow geese, and hawks, depending on the time of year. From May through June, spot cerulean warblers and other songbirds. Most notably, the Montezuma Wetlands Complex has six active bald eagle nests for year-round observation, and great blue herons can be seen on the marshes. Other top trails include Esker Brook and South Spring Pool.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Finger Lakes National Forest

Where to stay: Valhalla Farm Tent Camping

Situated between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, Finger Lakes National Forest has 30 miles of trails passing diverse habitats of gorges, pastures, and woodlands. Much of the forest is accessible by car, making it ideal for those who would rather skip the trek. Spring and early summer offer the best birding opportunities for field birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks, deep forest birds like orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bush birds like cedar waxwings, forest birds like the northern goshawk, and grassland raptors. Grasshopper and vesper sparrows, as well as the occasional  Henslow’s sparrow, may be seen on Darling Road.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker. // Photo by Peter Lloyd

Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary

Where to stay: Lakefront Camping on Trevor L.’s Land

Part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary features four miles of mostly wide, flat hiking trails that wander through beech-oak forests, ponds, and swamps. Sapsucker Woods is ideal for easy hikes and families with young kids. About 150 bird species call this place home throughout the year, but peak migration runs from May to September, when birders can spot 20 or more species of thrushes, warblers, and vireos, among others. By summer, the number of species decreases, but those with trained ears and memory skills can find 50 or more breeding species, including scarlet tanagers, barred owls, northern waterthrush, and the sanctuary’s namesake: the yellow-bellied sapsucker. See the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary Checklist of Birds to check off the ones you spot.

Photo by Ezequiel Gonzalez at Shiitake Mushroom Camp

Seneca Meadows Wetlands Preserve

Where to stay: Hidden Gem Lake

Seneca Meadows makes up a colorful landscape with meadow and prairie perennials. The 450-acre preserve features about seven miles of mostly flat hiking and biking trails near prairie pools with an understory of native plants, vines, and shrubs, making it an optimal feeding site for many types of birds. It’s best to visit in spring when plants are short enough to view inside the pools. Common species include herons, bitterns, and puddle ducks, but in the prairie meadow, look for ground-nesting sparrows, meadowlarks, and bluebirds. In the woods, birdwatchers might see thrushes, warblers, nuthatches, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, among others.

A great blue heron. // Photo by Erinn Hale

Dorothy McIlroy Bird Sanctuary 

Where to stay: Cedar Cabin in the Woods

Located along the Lake Como outlet in Cayuga County, the Dorothy McIlroy Bird Sanctuary is known for attracting diverse bird species with its unusual flora. The cool temperatures and northern plant species support breeding populations such as the dark-eyed Junco, hermit thrush, winter wren, and mourning warbler, while spring and summer are a popular stopover and breeding site for warblers, vireos, and thrushes. Visitors can follow the 1.25-mile nature trail through hemlock and yellow birch.

A winter wren. // Photo by Vincent van Zalinge

Otisco Lake Preserve

Where to stay: Unique Park Setting on Otisco Lake

Otisco Lake is a picturesque location with over 1,300 feet of wild shoreline. The 36-acre preserve has several cascading streams that flow into the publicly accessible lake, plus a short, 400-foot-elevation hiking trail through a mature forest. This is a prime habitat for bald eagles and water birds, while ruffed grouse also frequent the hillsides. Bonus: Small fossils can be seen in the surrounding stream beds and cliffs.

Photo by Brendan Grieble at Red House Ranch Camp

Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve

Where to stay: Climbing Vine Garden Yurt with Waterfall

Popular among scientists and students from Cornell for its biodiversity and chemical ecology, this 537-acre preserve consists of lakes, forests, meadows, gorges, and wetlands home to plenty of nesting birds. Birdwatchers can hope to see over 70 species throughout the year, including yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos, prairie warblers, and over 17 breeding warblers.

Cynthia Via was born in Peru, raised in Queens, NY and has traveled and lived in different cities learning how individuals are influenced by their social, historical, and environmental landscape. She has a BA in Journalism and Creative Writing from Baruch College (CUNY). Her work has appeared in Film Cred, Broad Street Review, and Femsplain, among others. She covers the outdoors, film, and culture. During off hours, she goes birdwatching, reads poetry, and performs comedy.

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