Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Sapsucker Woods

Dear Bird Folks,

Have you ever visited Cornell’s famous Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY? If so, is it worth the long drive?

– Rob, Marion, MA


Yes, I have, Rob,

I have been to Sapsucker Woods, but that was over thirty years ago, so I don’t really feel qualified to give you any advice about it. But you know, as I’m reading your note, the remains of José are still battering Cape Cod and business is pretty slow. Maybe it would be a good time to get out of town, take a break from José, and visit Sapsucker Woods once again. Good idea, Rob. I’ll tell my wife to pack.

For the folks who don’t already know, Sapsucker Woods is a 226-acre wildlife sanctuary that sits just outside of Ithaca, NY. In addition to having four miles of hiking trails, the property also features a ten-acre pond, a visitor center and Cornell’s world-renowned Lab of Ornithology. The sanctuary is so named because in 1909, the first pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to ever breed in that part of NY was discovered by Arthur Allen, the Lab’s future founder. Since then, Sapsucker Woods has become one of the must-go places for birders to visit. It’s right up there with other noted locations such as Cape May, NJ, Everglades National Park, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and my shop (maybe).

You are right about Ithaca…it’s a long freakin’ drive from Cape Cod. According to my map app, it’s a seven-hour drive, but only if you don’t stop. Forget that. At my age, I stop plenty. Fall truly is the best time to drive to upstate NY. As soon as we reached the border the rain ended, the sun came out and we were treated to scenes of changing colors and beautiful farms. It made me wonder why so many New Yorkers come to Cape Cod. Perhaps they don’t know that much of their state is really gorgeous. When we finally arrived in Ithaca, we headed straight to Moosewood, the famous vegetarian restaurant. This was my wife’s idea (maybe).

The visitor center at Sapsucker Woods doesn’t open until 10:00, so we spent the first few hours walking the trails, which were surprisingly soft and spongy. It was like hiking in the showroom of a carpet factory. The birds were fairly quiet on this day, so I told my wife that I would buy her an ice cream if she were able to find an actual Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Nothing gets my wife motivated like the promise of ice cream. And even though she had no idea what a sapsucker looked like, it didn’t stop her from looking. After a few minutes she yelled, “What’s this?” It was a Merlin (a small falcon). Merlins are cool birds, but not ice cream worthy. At 10:00 we headed into the visitor center, which features a hands-on demonstration of the bird song collections the Lab is noted for. There was also a massive window and plenty of chairs for lazy, comfort-controlled birding (my favorite kind). As we worked our way towards the exit, I stopped to gaze through the giant window one last time…and what do you know! There, sitting on a dead tree, were two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Sweet! I pointed them out to my wife and she instantly became excited, but not because she finally got to see a sapsucker. She thought she had won the free ice cream game. I asserted that in order to win she needed to see the bird first, before I did. We argued about it, but ultimately the courts may have to decide this one. Less than an hour north of Ithaca is an even birdier place, the 10,000-acre Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Opened by order of FDR in 1938, the refuge is an important nesting area for a variety of shorebirds and waterfowl, and is an essential stopover during migration. The refuge is open year-round and features a 3.5-mile wildlife drive. But be advised, portions of the “refuge” are open for hunting. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Mid-September turned out to be a funky time to visit this refuge as most of the waterfowl were in the middle of their annual molt. Typically striking birds such as Wood Ducks, pintails, teal and gallinules were dull brown, looking like large floating sparrows. Speaking of brown, I spent a lot of time watching two young Bald Eagles flying back and forth over the marsh. They were desperately trying to figure out how to catch something…anything. Meanwhile, in a nearby tree, an adult eagle sat and watched the show. It had a look of disgust on its face. I’m sure the big bird was thinking, “Stupid rookies.” Evidently, I spent so much time watching the eagles that my wife became bored. She got out of the car and headed down the wildlife drive on foot. She hadn’t gotten very far when a ranger stopped her. The ranger pointed out that walking is not allowed on the wildlife drive. He said that walking “disturbs” the birds. Hmm. I would have thought shooting at the birds would have been more disturbing than walking, but what do I know?

Yes, Rob, you totally should put Sapsucker Woods on your list of places to visit. Although, you’d be wise to combine your trip with visits to other birdie destinations, such as the above wildlife refuge and the very pleasant Montezuma Audubon Center, which is also nearby. We stopped at this center for a while, but it was late in the day and we only had enough time left for a quick walk. Then we needed to get on the road. But before that, we had to do something even more important: find the nearest ice cream shop. I won’t tell you who paid for the ice cream, but you can probably guess. I never win these things.