Birding New York: A Brit’s View of The Empire State

However much it exists to attract visitors, the vast state of New York stands inevitably in the shadow of America’s most celebrated city. The words ‘New York’ bring to mind soaring skyscrapers and congested streets. Not the beaches of Long Island to the east or 50,000 square miles of rolling dairy farmland, colonial villages, workaday towns, lakes, waterfalls and towering mountains that fan out north and west from New York City and constitute upstate New York. Just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, the valley of the Hudson River, with the moody Catskill Mountains rising stealthily from the west bank, offers a respite from the intensity of the city. Much wilder and more rugged are the peaks of the vast Adirondack Mountains further north, which hold some of eastern America’s most enticing scenery. To the west, the slender Finger Lakes occupy the central portion of the state.

Osprey by JM Sayago

Osprey by JM Sayago

Arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, you are at once next to one of the best birding spots in the state. Jamaica Bay is a birder’s paradise; one of the largest and best known wildlife viewing areas in New York City and Long Island.  Parts of Jamaica Bay are still recovering after Hurricane Sandy caused severe washouts in 2012. But still, one may witness here the annual mating ritual of hundreds of primitive Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs or photograph one of the more than 330 species of birds seen in this beach, bay and island wilderness. Breeding raptors include Osprey and hawks, whilst owls incorporate Barn, Short-eared and Northern Saw-whet. Water birds comprise Glossy Ibis, egrets, herons and Laughing Gull. Not to mention many varieties of duck, goose, warbler and songbird.

New York's Central Park is a migrant magnet in spring and fall.

New York’s Central Park is a migrant magnet in spring and fall.

Central Park, at the very heart of New York City, is one of the most inspiring combinations of architecture, landscape design and urban planning to be found on earth. It is a landscaped urban park that includes a diverse variety of habitats. These are woodlands for songbirds, wildflower meadows for butterflies and grassy streamside areas for dragonflies. Ponds and lakes contain fish and both Painted and Snapping Turtles. An amazing array of wildlife is present in the park, despite its popularity with visitors. Mallard, herons and Red-tailed Hawk are a mere handful of the avian residents. The spectacle of warblers drawn to the green oasis during migration is unforgettable.

Grey Catbird

Grey Catbird

East of New York City, Long Island unfurls for 125 miles of lush farmland and broad sandy beaches. It is most often explored as an excursion from the metropolis. Its western end abuts the urban boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, but further east the settlements begin to thin out and the countryside becomes surprisingly wild. Fire Island is the longest barrier island guarding the south shore of Long Island and a 26-mile-long portion of the island is protected as Fire Island National Seashore. Each year, thousands of people come to enjoy the island’s white sandy beaches and seaside communities, as well as the rich variety of coastal wildlife amid the surf and windswept dunes. Here one may watch dolphins and, if you are lucky, pilot whales and porpoises frolicking offshore, while waders and other wildlife may be glimpsed on the beach and further inland. The former is best for Piping Plover, sandpipers and four species of gull; the latter Grey Catbird and Eastern Towhee.

Further east, there are five properties within the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Amagansett, Elizabeth A. Morton, Oyster Bay (accessible by boat only), Target Rock and Wertheim. The refuge contains a wide variety of habitats including beach, pond, bog, tidal flat, salt and freshwater marsh, shrub, grassland and maritime forest. Amagansett is a prime stopover for migrating raptors, waders and songbirds. Long-tailed Duck, Cooper’s Hawk and Piping Plover are some highlights of the refuge complex.

Long Island NWR Complex

Map courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rising above the west bank of the Hudson River, the magnificent crests of the Catskills, cloaked with maple and beech that turn orange, ochre and gold each autumn, have a rich and absorbing beauty. This dislocated branch of the Appalachians is inspiring country. The national symbol of the United States, the Bald Eagle, is the star of Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area about 75 miles northwest of New York City. This wilderness has been designated a Bird Conservation Area because of its unique combination of habitats important to bird species, including forests, reservoirs and river habitat, where the majestic Bald Eagles nest and overwinter. Other migrating raptors include Turkey Vulture, Northern Goshawk, Red-shouldered, Red-tailed and other hawks, whilst owls incorporate Barn, Great Horned, Barred and Eastern Screech. Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and American Woodcock may also be found.

Wild blue lupine flower. Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick

Wild blue lupine flower. Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick

Heading further north up the Hudson Valley, one might explore Albany Pine Bush Preserve (one of the few inland pine barrens ecosystems left in the world) where you may catch sight of a silvery-blue butterfly – the endangered Karner Blue. This butterfly is dependent on the wild blue lupine that grows only in the dry, sandy, open woods and clearings of the pine barrens. Birds include Red-tailed Hawk, American Woodcock, Great Horned Owl, Prairie Warbler, Eastern Towhee and Indigo Bunting.

Progressing even further north brings one to some of the oldest rocks on Earth and yet one of the youngest mountain ranges in existence. The Adirondacks, which covers an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, are said by locals to be named after an Iroquois insult for enemies they’d driven into the forests and left to become ‘bark eaters.’ For sheer grandeur, the region is hard to beat: 46 peaks reach to more than 4000 feet. In summer the purple-green mountains span far into the distance in shaggy tiers; in autumn the trees form a russet-red kaleidoscope. Until recent decades this vast northern region between Albany and the Canadian border was almost the exclusive preserve of loggers, fur trappers and a few select New York millionaires.

Views from atop Cascade Mountain, one of the Adirondack High Peaks of New York. © Laura Kammermeier

Views from atop Cascade Mountain, one of the Adirondack High Peaks of New York. © Laura Kammermeier

The Wild Center’s indoor and outdoor exhibits feature plenty of hands-on nature and hundreds of live animals from rare native Brook Trout to North American River Otters, turtles the size of walnuts and many other, often elusive, residents of the woods and waters. Osprey, owls and Common Raven thrive in this rugged wilderness of breathtaking scenery.

To the west, in central New York, the Montezuma Wetlands Complex sits in the middle of one of the busiest bird migration routes on the Atlantic Flyway. More than 240 species of birds may be found on the refuge, as well as 43 species of mammal, 15 of reptile and 16 of amphibian. Raptors such as Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon terrorise the abundant wildfowl, wading birds and waders such as Snow and Canada Geese, Wood Duck, American Black Duck, Mallard, teal, mergansers, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue and Green Herons, Upland Sandpiper and American Woodcock.


Letchworth State Park is home to 26 species of breeding warblers.

Situated in western New York and renowned as the ‘Grand Canyon of the East,’ Letchworth State Park is one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern United States. The Genesee River roars through a deep gorge and over three major waterfalls between 550 foot cliffs surrounded by lush forests. With open water drawing thousands of waterfowl, forests sheltering high concentrations of migratory birds, and several Great Blue Heron rookeries, Letchworth has been designated a State Bird Conservation Area, as well as an Audubon Important Bird Area. Bald Eagle, Cerulean Warbler and Henslow’s Sparrow are but a trio of its highlights.

Every second nearly three-quarters of a million gallons of water explode over the knife edge Niagara Falls, right on the border with Canada, some twenty miles north of Buffalo. This awesome spectacle is made even more impressive by the variety of methods laid on to help one get closer to it. At night the falls are lit up and the coloured waters tumble dramatically into blackness, while in winter the whole scene changes as the fringes of the falls freeze to form gigantic razor-tipped icicles.


Niagara Falls panorama

Created in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States. While one may be drawn here by the immense power and beauty of the thundering cataracts, do not overlook the park’s surprising diversity of birdlife. The falls are a world-class destination for ‘gulling.’ Looking down from the edge of Niagara Gorge in autumn or winter, the air above the turbulent waters is at times white with nineteen species of wheeling and diving gull. These include Sabine’s, Little, Franklin’s, Black-headed, Iceland and Great Black-backed. Canvasback ride the spray whilst Green Heron stalk the shallows. In more clement weather, warblers include Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue and Yellow-rumped.

Lewis' Woodpecker

American Kestrel © Laura Kammermeier

Forty miles to the east, the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge is flanked by the Oak Orchard and Tonawanda Wildlife Management Areas. Together, the three adjoining properties make up almost 20,000 acres of wildlife habitat. The skies above these sites are the domain of the American Kestrel – a small jay-sized but handsome blue-grey falcon with white, black and reddish markings. A multitude of ducks, geese, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagle, waders and songbirds thrive here too.

There is so much more to the state of New York than its eponymous city. Uniquely situated between the Atlantic Ocean, the eastern Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River on North America’s east coast, it enjoys the benefits of the north-south migrations of birds along the Atlantic flyway, a wide variety of habitats which attract an equally wide variety of breeding birds and the state’s proximity to areas from which birds irrupt into it at certain times. Often overshadowed by Cape May on New Jersey, this is a bird-rich state with a list of 472 species and a remarkable set of landscapes. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the American equivalent of the British Trust for Ornithology) is based at Ithaca and America’s greatest ornithologist – John James Audubon – lived and died in New York. This is a birdy state, make no mistake. And did I mention the Eastern Bluebird? Well, once seen, you may never want to leave…


Ed warmly wishes to thank our host, Markly Wilson from ILNY (, for his generous and attentive hosting.




Ed Hutchings

Born in East Anglia, but raised in the Arabian Gulf, Ed Hutchings was always going to have two things – itchy feet and an inquisitive mind. After leaving university with a degree in hospitality, he Read More
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