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.