Visit Derby Hill Bird Observatory and Watch Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and More
April 30, 2022
Last updated on May 3, 2022.
Hawks. Eagles. Falcons. Terns. Kestrels. Harriers. Vultures. You can see those and so many more birds at Derby Hill Observatory in Mexico, New York. Located along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, Derby Hill is completely free to visit and has acres of fields and trails for birdwatching. It remains one of the best hawk watching locations in the northeastern US.
A special thank you to Bill Purcell for introducing me to Derby Hill and guiding me on my visit.
About Derby Hill Bird Observatory
The Derby Hill Bird Observatory was founded in 1954, when it was discovered that the hill was a prime location to watch raptor birds fly around Lake Ontario. The birds fly north, but once they reach the lake, they turn right to follow the shoreline. Basically, the raptors avoid flying straight across the lake.
The observatory covers 57 acres of land, including trails and multiple viewing spots. And while the official hawk season is March through May, the center is open year-round. The birds you can see change throughout the seasons, with the heart of winter being the least active.
The Nature Conservancy purchased the property in 1965, and official hawk counts started in 1979. As one of the best hawk viewing spots in the northeastern US, counting at Derby Hill is important for tracking migration patterns and population numbers. Hawk counters are employed by Onondaga Audubon, and work every day from March 1st through May 31. Yes. Every day.
The current official hawk counter at Derby Hill is Brandon Brogle. If you head to Derby Hill anytime in May, you’ll see him there, clicking along as he counts the birds flying by. His hourly, daily, and monthly reports are available on HawkCount.org.
Ideal Birdwatching Conditions at Derby Hill
Late April/Early May is the ideal time for birdwatching at Derby Hill. That’s when large flocks of broad-winged hawks can be seen flying overhead. By large, I’m talking hundreds of birds on a good day. Hundreds per flock. The best day so far this year was April 24th, when a record number of 19,335 “broadwings” were seen at Derby Hill. That’s the most in over 40 years.
Clear, dry spring days are the best for seeing the most birds. Ideally with a 5-10 mph wind from the southeast. That is the best direction to help the birds fly in their natural direction toward the lake.
A Day at Derby Hill Bird Observatory
When you visit Derby Hill, your GPS will tell you to turn right on a private road. Don’t worry! That is the right way to go. You can park at the top of the hill, near the observatory sign. At the very least you will see Brandon at his table, counting away. When I visited, there were a few dozen other folks set up to watch the raptors.
At first I’ll admit I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know anybody and I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I heard various people shouting out what I presumed were the names of birds and numbers. But the community that has formed at Derby Hill is very welcoming. I was lucky enough to borrow a pair of binoculars from one of the volunteers. In between counting, Brandon answered my questions and told me about how the hawk count works. Other volunteers and watchers were also happy to answer questions and provide stories about their best sightings at Derby Hill.
I learned what types of birds to look for and where. The number represented signs around the hill, which are there to help identify where to look for specific bird sightings. And don’t be afraid to check out the sign near the entrance, identifying different types of birds you can see at Derby Hill and when to see them.
What to Bring for Birdwatching
Depending on how long you plan to stay, the following list will prepare you for sun, wind, and unexpectedly long birdwatches.
Nearby Birdwatching Spots
If you love your visit at Derby Hill – like I did – here are a few other places worth checking out:
Sterling Nature Center– Sterling, New York. Great for seeing great blue herons in a designated heron rookery.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge – Waterloo, New York. The first viewing platform is open year-round, but the visitor center and wildlife drive open for the season on April 1.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Ithaca, New York. 230 acres of some of the best birdwatching in Upstate New York.