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The Loon Watch at Taughannock State Park

Background:

Despite a long and rich ornithological history at Cornell University, it was not until 1992 that Ithaca ornithologist Bill Evans made the major discovery that there is a significant southbound migration of Common Loons over Cayuga Lake each fall, beginning in mid to late October. In 1993, Evans, Bob Meade, Steve Kelling, Tom Nix, and other local birdwatchers conducted the first organized Loon Watch on Cayuga Lake, at Taughannock Falls State Park. That first year, participants counted just over 9000 migrating Common Loons between mid-October and late November. Since then, annual totals have ranged from a high of 13,250 loons in 1995 to a low of 2,990 birds in 2002. The 2004 Loon Watch marked its twelfth continuous year of existence, thanks to the tremendous effort of Bob Meade, who mans the watch every day from mid-October to early December.

How the Loon Watch Works:

Bob Meade arrives at the observation site at Taughannock Falls State Park and begins the official count for the day 15 minutes before sunrise. He divides the two-hour watch into eight 15-minute periods, with Period 2 beginning at sunrise. This decision to divide the overall observation effort into 15-minute periods helped the early loonwatchers gain a solid understanding of the double-pulse nature of the loon migration past Taughannock Falls SP. Loons counted early in the morning (Periods 1-3) represent birds that have spent the night on Cayuga Lake. Period 4 is often a quiet period, and then very large numbers of birds can be counted in the last four periods of the morning. This big push at the end of the watch is the Lake Ontario flight- birds that spent the night on Lake Ontario, took flight before dawn, and pass by Taughannock roughly an hour after dawn. The effect of the late-arriving Lake Ontario flight can be seen in the following report from November 11, 2001:

Period 1
0
Period 2
31
Period 3
67
Period 4
543
Period 5
586
Period 6
354
Period 7
145
Period 8
62
Total
1788
The Loon Watch
  Bob Meade (in blue parka at back) at the Loon Watch. November 2000.

What You Can Expect To See:

On a good flight day, observers can expect to see several hundred to several thousand Common Loons in a two-hour period. However, the view of these birds is very different than the typical image of a beautiful breeding-plumaged Common Loon on a small lake in the Adirondacks. The loons counted at the Loon Watch are flying by at a very fast speed (more than 60 m.p.h. when there is a good tailwind) and can often be quite high, becoming little more than specks, even to observers with binoculars. On a day with a big flight, though, there are always some birds, especially early in the morning, that fly low enough to allow for good looks of a loon in flight: a long bird with feet stretched beyond the body, dark on top and white below, rapidly beating its wings.

Common Loons are the main focus of the Loon Watch, but other birds that pass by the Watch are also recorded. A few of the smaller, paler Red-throated Loons are seen each season, but never more than a handful of birds. The Loon Watch is a great place to see a number of uncommon migrant waterfowl species, such as Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Brant, and Long-tailed Duck flying down Cayuga Lake. While scanning the sky for loons, observers sometimes also witness movements of other, more common species of birds, like Ring-billed Gulls and Red-winged Blackbirds. Seeing a constant stream of blackbirds that spans the width of Cayuga Lake can be a very memorable experience.

When to Go:

The best time of the year to visit the Loon Watch is during the second and third weeks of November (see Annual Totals). The best type of day on which to go to the Watch is on a day with strong north or northwest winds, especially following the passage of a cold front through the Ithaca area. If you visit the Loon Watch on any day in November with early morning winds out of the north or northwest, you should see some migrating loons. A good place to obtain weather forecasts that include wind information is weather.com.

What to Wear:

The ideal conditions for a big loon flight--a strong north wind on a cold day in November--can make for a very cold experience for loonwatchers who are not dressed appropriately. It is extremely important to dress as warmly as possible when attending the Loon Watch. Even if it is relatively warm in Ithaca, it can be very cold at the observation site on Cayuga Lake. The following attire is strongly encouraged: warm boots and wool socks; several layers of pants, including a windproof/waterproof outer layer; a warm jacket over several layers of tops; a warm hat; and a good pair of mittens or gloves. Style points are not awarded at the Loon Watch, but dressing warmly is always in fashion.

How to Get There:

In order to reach the Loon Watch at Taughannock Falls State Park, take Rt. 89 north from Ithaca. It is almost exactly 9 miles from the intersection of Buffalo St. and Rt. 89 downtown to the state park. Upon arriving at the state park area, take your first right into the park itself, drive past the (closed) ticket booth, and follow the sign to the "Central Picnic Area." The loon watch is on a small cement pier nearby.