Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Raptor Row

Lake Ontario is a wonderful thing for migrating waterfowl. But ducks and geese ain't the only birds who head south from Canada for the winter. Vultures, hawks and other landlubbers do it too, and they don't cotton to crossing a pond that size-not beyond the sight of land, anyway.

So what's a talon-footed bird to do when confronted with a body of water 50 miles wide?

Well, they can wait for a stiff south wind, I suppose, climb as high as they can, flap their wings for all it's worth and hope to reach Canada before the wind changes direction or gives out.

But most birds are a little more practical than that. Instead, they do the smart thing; skirt one of the ends. And on this side of the lake the flight path takes the vast majority over Derby Hill in the Town of Mexico.

Situated on the southeastern corner of the lake, just before the shoreline curves sharply north, this bump in the landscape is the tallest point in the neighborhood. Indeed, some locals claim that a stiff northwesterly (the prevailing wind) can slam into the side of the hill with such force, it curls like a wave and the birds use the catapult effect to gain altitude and speed.

However, this would have them flying with the wind in their faces, and birds who act that bird-brained aren't long for this world.

In fact, wind direction is the greatest force the birds have to contend with and determines their course.

As a result, Derby Hill has two main viewing areas: the south lookout--in a field a half mile south of the lake--and the north lookout--on the hill towering over the lake.

According to Judy Thurber, an amateur ornithologist, "the south lookout is best when the wind is out of a northerly direction, and the north lookout is best when it's out of the south; and when there's no wind at all."

Kyle Wright, a staff ornithologist for Onondaga Audubon, the outfit that runs Derby Hill Bird Observatory, says an average of 40,000 raptors fly over the spot each spring. And he should know because from March 1 through May 31 he serves as a hawk watcher and gets paid to count the birds.

Sunday, March 14, was a typical day. The wind was out of the northwest so most observers were at the south lookout. By 2 p.m., Kyle had recorded a wide variety of hawks, numerous turkey vultures, two bald eagles and one golden eagle

The rest of this month will be good for watching raptors, weather permitting.

However, April is even better. Next month will see hawk flights daily, including ospreys, under just about any conditions.short of blizzards, tornadoes or hurricane force winds.

For more information, visit derbyhill.org.

DHBO is on Sage Creek Drive, off NY 104B, about a mile east of the hamlet of Texas.

Bird watchers at the South Lookout. Judy Thurber is in the tan jacket, seated on the left.

Close up of monument dedicating the site to the memory of Don Barnes.

Sign in the parking lot. Note bird feeders in the background.

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