Derby Hill Bird Observatory


By Benjamin P. Burtt


Section 1 The arrival dates for the Spring migrant songbirds that normally show up between April 17 and April 30. The Spring migration of the birds of prey as seen from the Derby Hill Hawk Lookout.

Section 2 Why Derby Hill is such a wonderful place to see the hawk migration. How to get there and when to go.

Incoming flights.

Eleven new migrants will arrive from the south during the next two weeks. The approximate arrival dates are as follows:

April 20: brown thrasher, chipping sparrow and white-throated sparrow.
April 25: yellow-rumped warbler, green heron, spotted sandpiper, common tern and house wren.
April 30: yellow warbler and chimney swift.

The Derby Hill Bird Observatory A question from a reader: Mr. Burtt: When will the various hawks be seen at Derby Hill this spring? G.M., Canastota,

Dear G.M.–Turkey vultures pass through during April and the first broad winged hawks usually appear about now and will be passing through until about May 5.

Thousands of hawks will be moving overhead during the next two weeks, but they are spread apart and are far above our homes so that we don’t even notice them there.

However, the Derby Hill Bird Observatory that you mentioned is one of the best places in the Eastern United States to see the spring migration of hawks. It is 30 miles north of Syracuse on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Hawks seldom fly over the Great Lakes, but instead turn to follow along the southern shore in a northeasterly direction and then swing north just after they pass over Derby Hill at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

When the wind is from the south the birds are pushed close to the Lake and this heavy traffic is easily seen from atop Derby Hill as they pass by.

The migration is just beginning now for the osprey and the first ones appeared April 5. Still passing through are sharp-shinned hawks, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures and a few golden eagles, peregrine falcons and merlins.

The bird that goes by in the largest numbers is the broad-winged hawk. Over 6000 went by on April 19 last spring. This season the first ones appeared yesterday. Visit Derby Hill the next fair day when the wind is from the south to see this natural spectacle.

Caption: The broad-winged hawk migrates in large flocks visible from Derby Hill. It has a chunky shape like a red-tail. Note the broad black and white bands across the tail of the adult. This painting is from Peterson’s Field Guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America”( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

Call 1-315-963-8291 early in the morning for a recorded summary of the sightings of the previous day as well as a prediction based on the weather and wind as to whether or not this day will be good for hawks.

This is where the newspaper column ended. However, in Section 2 just below is a further discussion of the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, how to get there and why it is such a great place to see hawks.

SECTION 2: The spring hawk migration at the Derby Hill Bird Observatory

The arrival of song birds near our homes is a signal of the arrival of spring that most everyone notices. Most of us are aware of the noisy arrival of geese. When a robin appears on our lawn or a red-winged blackbird is at our feeder, we rejoice.

However, for most people the migration of hawks goes unnoticed. These birds of prey usually do not appear in our yards and they fly by silently.

While thousands of these birds are moving overhead each day, from February through May, they are spread apart and far above us and we can not get a close look at them.

In February, a few Coopers hawks, goshawks and red-tails begin to move through New York. The numbers increase markedly in March.

One of the best places in the United States to observe the spring migration of hawks is about 30 miles north of Syracuse on the shore of Lake Ontario. It is the Derby Hill Bird Observatory. Thousands of hawks can be seen close at hand when the wind is from the south.

Why is Derby Hill such a good spot?As hawks migrate, they take advantage of rising currents of warm air to keep them aloft and this saves energy. These thermals, as they are called, form over spots where the land has been warmed by the sun.

Hawks migrating northward in Ohio, Pennsylvania or western New York eventually come to the Great Lakes

Since thermals do not normally form over the water, the birds turn right and follow the shoreline in a northeasterly direction. Most hawks migrate through our area following this traditional route along the southern shore of the Great Lakes.

Those encountering Lake Erie follow its shore to Buffalo. At that point a few go north and then skirt the western end of Lake Ontario. Most however, follow the southern edge of Lake Ontario to the east. As the birds from Ohio move northeastward they are joined by hawks coming up through Pennsylvania and western New York.

All these birds then pass around the eastern end of Lake Ontario and go directly north. At that turning point is a ridge across their path called Derby Hill. It extends southward perpendicular to the shore of Lake Ontario. This is the first hill that the hawks have encountered in many, many miles of flying.

When the winds are from the south, all the birds are pressed against the lake. An observer on the north end of Derby Hill near the shore will see them all.

As birds approach from the west, they are usually seen as they come up over a parallel lower ridge. West of that ridge, the lake plain is unbroken for many miles. Birds coming from the west do not need to fly over any hills until they encounter this first ridge.

Hawks frequently pause near this area and circle to gain altitude to go over the hill. For this reason, they are often in sight for many minutes before they pass over Derby Hill and then turn north along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.

During March we usually see goshawks, bald eagles, red shouldered and red-tailed hawks. The first good flight this season was on March 7. That day 73 red tailed hawks went by. Sighted also were 3 Coopers, 8 rough-legs, 2 bald eagles and one turkey vulture. The busy period is from mid-March until the end of May.

In a typical spring, 15 species of hawks will be seen and some 44,000 will pass by during that time. About 22,000 will be broad winged hawks and their biggest flights come between April 20 and May 10. Perhaps 8,000 red-tailed hawks will be seen and about 6,000 sharp-shinned hawks and 2000 turkey vultures.

The 50 acre property is owned by the Onondaga Audubon Society. Biologist Gerard Phillips is there every day through the spring to tally the birds and help visitors enjoy this event.

Everyone is welcome to visit the observatory. When there are south winds you will see more hawks. You will also see many songbirds in migration too.

The Derby Hill Observatory is directly north of Mexico, NY. If you travel Interstate 81 from the north, use exit 36, if from the south use exit 34. The Hawk Lookout is located on Sage Creek Road off Route 104B just west of its intersection with Route 3. This is a few miles directly north of the town of Mexico. Sage Creek Road runs to the north from 104B. It is about one mile to the shore of Lake Ontario.

Use the parking area shortly before the road ends at the lake. Walk up the dirt road to the east to the north lookout.

You can telephone Derby Hill early in the morning to get a prediction as to whether it will be a good day for a hawk flight. The number is 315-963-8291.

The best weather conditions occur when there is a south wind which blows the birds up to the lake shore. Since they are reluctant to cross over the water, they are concentrated in a stream that passes over Derby Hill not far from the shore.

Reader questions, spring arrival dates and feeder survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

1. A Reader’s question: what is the bird I’ve had this winter that has a red breast like a robin, but really is not a robin? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, April 3.

2.The arrival dates for the Spring migrants that normally show up between March 30 and April 17.

3.The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of March.

4.The April Feeder Survey starts today.

Mr. Burtt: I have had a robin like bird at my feeder this winter that has the red breast, but the back, wings and tail are black rather than gray. Its bill is not yellow, but dark and thicker and shorter than a robins bill. It eats seeds. What is it? W.C. Liverpool

Dear W.C. - It is almost certainly an eastern towhee which normally spends the winter in the south. Each year however, a few remain north for the winter and survive.

CAPTION: The eastern towhee is due in about a week. The male is black with reddish brown sides. The belly is white. Spots of white show in the wing and tail. The female is brown where the male is black. This painting is from Peterson’s field guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Co. )

The Spring migration is underway and the towhee is one of the 17 new species that should be arriving from the south during the next two weeks. The migration started about a month ago and some eight species have arrived to date.

The sides of the towhee are reddish, and of the same color as the breast of a robin. On seeing it for the first time, people often get the impression that the entire breast is rusty. Actually, it is white down the center and the color is confined to the sides.

Until recently it was called the rufous-sided towhee. It is not as common as the robin and is a bit smaller and more slender.

It is found in brushy places and generally gets its food from the ground. To expose insects or seeds laying there, it often seizes a leaf and tosses it aside.

It also rakes the leaves by pushing back with both feet to expose the food items underneath. It makes so much noise in dry leaves that you would think a squirrel is making the commotion. You often hear the bird before you see it.

The song is loud and easily identified. It seems to say “drink-your-teeee”. The second syllable is lower in pitch than is the first. The last syllable is higher and is drawn out. Sometimes the third note is omitted.

In addition to its song, the towhee has a two-part call and it is loud and clear. Various writers have described it as “she-wink” or “tow-hee” and the latter description of the song became the birds name.


Listed here are the approximate dates that some common species show up between March 30 and April 17. The actual date we see them does vary, but I find it fun to be on the lookout for a species and when I see it , to know whether it is early or late. So here are the average dates:

March 30: wood duck and yellow-bellied sapsucker
April 1: blue-winged teal, junco, flicker, tree swallow
April 5: field sparrow
April 10: purple finch, eastern towhee, bittern, bank swallow, barn swallow and purple martin.
April 15: hermit thrush, clilff swallow, rough-winged swallow and broad winged hawk.


During the first week of March, readers tallied the birds seen at their feeder or visible from their home and sent in a list. From the summary of those reports we can see what birds are here and which ones are scarce or abundant this spring in upstate New York.

The birds at the typical feeder.
The number of species per report ranged from two for the 4th grade class at the New Haven Elementary School to 33 for Linda Quackenbush at Waterloo. The average feeder had 15 species this time.

What birds were most often reported on the March Feeder Survey? Over 90% of the reports listed chickadees, cardinals, mourning doves and crows. Over 80% of the people listed juncos and downy woodpeckers.

About three-fourths of the observers had bluejays, goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches. Two-thirds of the observers listed titmice and starlings.

A bit over half had house finches and downy woodpeckers.
Rare BirdsSome birds were reported by only one person. Lawrence Abrahamson reported a mockingbird at Marcellus. At Malone, Pete Biesemayer was the only person to see ruffed grouse, siskins and evening grosbeaks.

Dorothy Coye spotted goldeneye ducks on Skaneateles Lake. Estelle Hahn had a screech owl in Dewitt. Kathy and Scott Trefz saw killdeer at Perryville. Ken Zoller spotted black ducks and horned larks at West Winfield.

Unexpected birdsThere were three species listed that normally do not return from the south this early. It happens that each of these birds can easily be confused with other species that are expected to be here in early March.

A report of an eastern wood pewee came from Smyrna. This is a flycatcher that normally does not show up until May 5 when the insects are flying. Unfortunately there was no statement as to how the bird was identified. If it was identified by hearing its song, we must keep in mind that the chickadee has a “pee-wee”, whistled call that is part of the courtship and is heard all through the late winter and early spring.

A chipping sparrow was listed in Clay. They normally do not show up until April 15, so this report would have been some 6 weeks early. Again, no description was given.

If it was identified as a chipping sparrow because it had a red cap, it is much more likely that it was a tree sparrow. The tree sparrow is quite common during the winter. It has a reddish cap, a black breast spot and the lower part of its bill is yellow. If the breast spot is not conspicuous, the observer is led to believe that the bird is a chipping sparrow.

However, if you carefully inspect your field guide, you will find that in winter the chipping sparrow does not have a red cap. The top of the head is brown with a few fine black lines running from front to back.

Field sparrows were listed in Mexico and they do not normally show up until a month later in early April.

So when you identify a bird that is unusual in winter, please tell how you identified it. How can you tell whether a bird you see is unusual at that time of year? If you would like a list of the dates when birds show up in the spring, send me a stamped, self addressed envelope and I will forward one to you.

The March list.
Here is the list of all species reported. The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second figure is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.

Canada goose 828 (33)

Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 8 (2); goldeneye 10 (1); common merganser 30 (5); turkey vulture 5 (3).

Hawks: bald eagle 3 (2); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper’s 10 (10); red-tailed 30 (25); rough-legged hawk 3 (3); Kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 4 (4); ruffed grouse 2 (1); turkey 221 (21); killdeer 4 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 44 (10); herring 32 (4); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 160 (16); mourning dove 779 (92).

Owls: screech 1 (1); horned 2 (2).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 62 (48); downy 198 (86); hairy 94 (53); flicker 7 (5); pileated 4 (4); horned lark 100 (1); blue jay 330 (77); crow 1,355 (91); raven 7 (2).

Chickadee 580 (99); titmouse 126 (65); red-breasted nuthatch 44 (33); white-breasted nuthatch 133 (73); brown creeper 5 (5);
Carolina wren 5 (5).

Bluebird 8 (4); robin 250 (39); mockingbird 1 (1); cedar waxwing 72 (6); starling 889 (64); cardinal 433 (96).

Sparrows: tree 361 (60); chipping 1 (1); field 3 (1); song 8 (6); white-throated 70 (29); junco 400 (85).

Snow bunting 22 (3); red-winged blackbird 62 (20); rusty blackbird 5 (2); grackle 23 (10); cowbird 24 (9); purple finch 99 (8); house finch 329 (55); redpoll 89 (9); pine siskin 6 (1); goldfinch 702 (74); evening grosbeak 6 (1); house sparrow 542 (49).

The April feeder survey starts today.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list just above from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. Or you can send results by EMAIL to ( Please include the name of your town ).