Strategically located at the south end of Cayuga Lake, Stewart Park is arguably the premier birding spot in the Ithaca area, and one of the best sites for finding birds in the entire Cayuga Lake Basin. From a birding standpoint, Stewart Park has it all--an expansive view of the lake to scan for ducks, geese, and other waterbirds; a convenient spot to look for migrant songbirds; and a patch of bottomland forest that hosts a nice collection of breeding birds.
The main attraction at Stewart Park is its extensive access to Cayuga Lake, stretching from the southeast corner of the lake westward to the mouth of Fall Creek. During the winter months, there can be huge concentrations of diving ducks at the south end of Cayuga Lake, often just north of the ice sheet that develops as temperatures drop. On the 2001 Ithaca Christmas Bird Count, an amazing 13,000+ Redhead were estimated to be in this area, along with 8,000 Canvasback. Smaller numbers of Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup can usually be found in these massive Aythya flocks, and there are often a few dabbling ducks like American Wigeon, Gadwall, and Northern Pintail on the periphery of such congregations. In some winters, these huge rafts of ducks are absent from the Stewart Park area, but even then there are plenty of other birds to be seen. Scores of both Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye can usually be found offshore from the ice edge, and there are always plenty of Canada Geese in the area. Careful scanning through the thousands of Canada Geese could yield a "Richardson's" Cackling Goose, a small goose that was recently split from the larger Canada Geese. It should be noted that while most species of waterfowl here are identifiable solely with binoculars, a good spotting scope can make watching ducks, geese, and other waterbirds at Stewart Park a much more enjoyable experience.
The ice edge at Stewart Park also hosts substantial numbers of gulls during the winter months, with Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull predominating. Though hardly common, Lesser Black-backed Gull is being seen with increasing regularity, and a persistent observer is likely to also see at least one Iceland Gull or Glaucous Gull during the course of the winter. With the abundance of waterfowl and gulls at Stewart Park during the wintertime, it is only natural that birds of prey are also drawn to the area. Two of the true success stories of the Endangered Species Act--Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon--are now uncommon winter visitors to Stewart Park. They can sometimes be found standing on the ice edge, feeding on prey, or perched in one of the large dead trees along the mouth of Fall Creek.
With the arrival of warmer temperatures in mid to late March come the first spring migrants to Stewart Park: Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, and Wood Duck are all likely to be seen on the lake at this time, often with a few Tree Swallows flying overhead. Along the shoreline, American Pipits can sometimes be found working through the debris that accumulates as the lake thaws. The start of April brings more new species to the area, with Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, and scaup joining the mix of migrant waterfowl on the water. In the air, an Osprey might be seen cruising over shallow water looking for fish, and a few Barn Swallows are likely to have joined the larger numbers of Tree Swallows. Bonaparte's Gulls also begin to make appearances at this time, but they usually don't linger long, stopping only briefly before resuming their northbound migration.
During the course of April, an incredible diversity of waterbirds can be seen at Stewart Park. In addition to the species listed above, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Red-breasted Merganser, and Ruddy Duck are all birds that one can expect to see here during the month. Other species, such as Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, and White-winged Scoter, are all possibilities at Stewart Park during spring migration, but might not be seen every year. When these species do occur here, it is often only briefly, for a day or less. The same can be said for both Common Tern and Forster's Tern; in late April and early May, individuals of both species are occasionally found offshore from Stewart Park, resting on a buoy or piece of driftwood for a short time before continuing northward.
By late April, songbird migration is also starting to pick up, with warblers and other Neotropical migrants arriving in the Basin. While not generally thought of as a destination for finding landbirds, Stewart Park does offer the Swan Pen as a mini-hotspot for seeing migrants. Located by the western edge of the park, adjacent to the Cascadilla Boathouse, Fall Creek, and the lake, the Swan Pen is an artificial pond that formerly hosted a pair of Mute Swans. A small trail around the perimeter of the Swan Pen can be easily navigated in 5-10 minutes when not birding, but the walk can take significantly longer when good numbers of birds are present. This area seems to be a good spot for seeing particular migrant species, especially Palm Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Warbling Vireo, and White-crowned Sparrow. Some of the Yellow Warblers stay and breed in the willows along the Swan Pen, and it appears that a pair of Eastern Kingbirds also nests in the area. After completing the walk around the Swan Pen, it is always worthwhile to look across Fall Creek and scan the dead trees along its edge; during migration, one of these snags might serve as a perch for a Merlin, Osprey, or Black-crowned Night-Heron. In the summer months, search the same area for Green Heron skulking along the water's edge.
The Swan Pen at Stewart Park.
Following Fall Creek upstream away from the Swan Pen, one will soon come to a green footbridge that crosses over a small lagoon and enters a tract of mature bottomland forest. This is the home of the Fuertes Bird Sanctuary, named after famed bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes following his untimely death in 1927. Fuertes was the first president of the Cayuga Bird Club, and it is the club that is responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary. In recent years, birders have visited this area, also referred to as the Renwick Sanctuary, primarily to view nesting Great Horned Owls. This species begins breeding in January, and can be located in the Fuertes Sanctuary by scanning large cavities or the tops of broken-off trees for the head (or at least "horns") of an incubating owl.
The Fuertes Sanctuary is rarely birded during spring migration, but sightings of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-headed Vireo, and Palm Warbler during a single late April visit are suggestive of the potential to see migrants here. During the breeding season, the forest is home to a suite of breeding birds that includes Red-bellied Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, American Redstart, and Scarlet Tanager. The large sycamores and cotttonwoods in the sanctuary also provide nesting opportunities for a variety of cavity-nesting birds, ranging from Hooded Merganser to Pileated Woodpecker to European Starling. One of the drawbacks of birding in the Fuertes Sanctuary is that as a floodplain forest, it can sometimes be flooded during the springtime, rendering the trails inaccessible. And, as a fairly secluded area along the edge of a city park, the sanctuary has been reported to be the site of some unsavory or illegal human activities in the past. As a result, birders are encouraged to visit the sanctuary only during daylight hours.
Back in Stewart Park, the birding can be a bit slow during the summertime. This can be a good time to look (and listen) for one of the park's signature birds--Fish Crow. Although this species is sometimes found in other parts of Ithaca, it is most reliably found along the lake edge at Stewart Park. Listen for Fish Crow's nasal call to help distinguish it from the larger American Crow. Northern Mockingbird is another uncommon Basin breeder that can be found year-round at Stewart Park; listen for this more accomplished vocalist immediately upon entering the park from Rt. 13. When visiting Stewart Park during the summer months, also be sure to keep an eye out for rare visitors like Cattle Egret and Snowy Egret, both of which have occurred in the park in the past.
In October, migrant waterfowl begin to appear at Stewart Park again. All of the species listed as spring migrants above can also be expected during the fall. Three additional species--Brant, Surf Scoter, and Black Scoter--are much more likely to be seen at the south end of Cayuga Lake during fall migration. Even then, though, these species are not always easily observed. While Brant can sometimes be seen resting on the lake (or feeding on the grass at Stewart Park), a more common sight of this species is that of a shifting flock flying south over the lake, gradually gaining altitude to fly over Stewart Park, and continuing southward. Scoters, on the other hand, are usually found on the lake, and sometimes remain in the area for several days. However, they are often found far out on the lake, making identification to species difficult even with a spotting scope. A combination of persistence, a spotting scope, and good luck is usually needed to get satisfying looks at any of the three species of scoters at Stewart Park. These species, together with Long-tailed Duck and Red-necked Grebe, are often better seen from nearby East Shore Park.
In addition to hosting an excellent diversity of common birds, Stewart Park has been the site of some of the most exciting discoveries of rare birds in Cayuga Lake Basin history. The following rarities have all been seen at Stewart Park just since 2000: Little Gull (April 2000, May 2002, and Jan. 2003); Sabine's Gull (Oct. 2000); Laughing Gull (Dec. 2000 and Sept. 2002); Eared Grebe (April 2001); New York State's second record of Long-billed Murrelet (Dec. 2001), Northern Gannet (Dec. 2001 and Dec. 2003); Arctic Tern, Red Phalarope, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, and Parasitic Jaeger (all in Sept. 2003, following Hurricane Isabel); Greater White-fronted Goose (two in Nov. 2003); Audubon's Warbler (Oct. 2004); and the Basin's first-ever Cave Swallows (Nov. 2004). Standing at the south end of Cayuga Lake, there is the sense that almost any bird, whether common or rare, could be found in the Stewart Park area.
Although described in the Ithaca Lighthouse Jetty account, the Jetty Woods can also be visited during a trip to Stewart Park. To reach the Jetty Woods from the park, take the footbridge over the lagoon, into the Fuertes Sanctuary. Follow a trail along Fall Creek and then cross the creek on another footbridge. Being careful not to disturb any golfers present, walk westward along the perimeter of the Newman Golf Course until reaching the edge of the Jetty Woods.
The footbridge from Stewart Park to the Fuertes Sanctuary.
To reach Stewart Park:
From downtown Ithaca and points to the south, take Rt. 13 north to the "Stewart Park/Auburn" exit. At the exit ramp stop sign, turn left onto Rt. 34 (also called East Shore Drive). Almost immediately after passing under Rt. 13, turn left onto James Gibb Way. Then turn right onto Gardner Parkway, cross over the active railroad tracks, and proceed into Stewart Park. Once inside the park, turning to the right will bring a visitor to the east end of the park, while turning to the left eventually leads to the Swan Pen and the bridge to the Fuertes Sanctuary.
From the Laboratory of Ornithology and points to the east, take Rt. 13 west (and eventually south), eventually descending dramatically towards lake level. Near the base of the incline, look for the "Stewart Park/Auburn" exit. Take this exit, and after stopping at the end of the exit ramp, proceed straight ahead onto Gardner Parkway and into Stewart Park. Once inside the park, turning to the right will bring a visitor to the east end of the park, while turning to the left eventually leads to the Swan Pen and the bridge to the Fuertes Sanctuary.
Cornell students can reach Stewart Park by bus, bicycle, or foot (although it is a rather long walk from campus). The TCAT bus route servicing Stewart Park is Route 16. This route does not cover campus, though, so taking an additional bus would likely be necessary. Also, this bus route does not run on Sundays. To bike or walk from campus, the most direct route is to follow University Avenue downhill from West Campus. Go straight through the intersection with Stewart Avenue, and then go straight through the next intersection. Follow the road, now known as Lake Street, down the very steep Gun Hill, and then over Fall Creek (with Ithaca Falls visible on the right). Now known as East Shore Drive, the road continues past the Boynton Middle School and Ithaca High School and eventually passes under Rt. 13. Almost immediately after passing under Rt. 13, turn left onto James Gibb Way. Then turn right onto Gardner Parkway, cross over the active railroad tracks, and proceed into Stewart Park. Once inside the park, turning to the right will bring a visitor to the east end of the park, while turning to the left eventually leads to the Swan Pen and the bridge to the Fuertes Sanctuary.