Making it to “Bird Mecca”

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This is proof I made it to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published Oct. 18, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local birder makes it to “Bird” Mecca.”

2014 Update: This fall, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, gave the banquet speech in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you can’t get birders to Ithaca, bring John Fitzpatrick to them.

By Barb Gorges

“Mecca – a place that is an important center for a particular activity or that is visited by a great many people.” Encarta Dictionary

“The Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses the best science and technology—and inspires the widest range of people and organizations—to solve critical problems facing wildlife. Our mission: to interpret and conserve the Earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds (”

Any active birdwatcher, or anyone who has been reading my columns the last 10 years, has heard of the CLO, especially when I’m trying to recruit participants for Project FeederWatch or the Great Backyard Bird Count or the Christmas Bird Count or eBird, the free bird sighting archive.

The CLO’s address is quaint: 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY. I never thought I’d get a chance to visit.

In August, though, I drove with my younger son, Jeffrey, back to school. There are many ways to get to Massachusetts and I found the one that led through Ithaca. It wasn’t a hard sell to schedule a stop since his good friend Eric Keto is a student at Ithaca College, just across town from Cornell University.

Central New York State is marked with 11 long, skinny, very deep, north-south oriented natural lakes, the Finger Lakes, set in wooded hills. Ithaca is at the end of 40-mile-long Cayuga. It’s wine country, a vacation destination even if you aren’t a bird watcher.

Since Jeffrey and I were racing the calendar, we allowed ourselves only a morning in Ithaca, and most of that at Sapsucker Woods.


Sapsucker Woods

Sapsucker Woods is thick with vegetation, making it difficult to see birds so it is necessary to become better at identifying birdsong. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The woods are 225 acres just outside Ithaca, protected by the Lab while the surroundings are farmed and built on. The Lab has done some building, too.

The I.P. Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity is no down-home affair. It is a modern office building where 200 people work: staff, faculty, grad students and visiting scientists. And where 100,000 people visit per year, says their web site.

Luckily, the Lab understands its role as Bird Mecca and has provided a visitor center, complete with an in-house Wild Birds Unlimited store, an auditorium, gallery, multi-media presentation and a hands-on sound laboratory.

And there’s a two story bank of windows facing an incredible bird feeding station with pond and woods beyond. There are even spotting scopes set up. I took note of the eastern species, various woodpeckers and sapsuckers, black-capped chickadees, etc., but after so many days in the car, I was ready to hit the trails.

Jeffrey, Eric and I have been on many field trips in our Cub Scout days and they both appreciate the outdoors, even when we discovered how mosquitoey and humid it was. Eric was the one that noticed the submerged bullfrogs in the pond. Once you learned how to see one, you could see the others.

It just wasn’t much of a bird day—everything we could hear was hidden up in the leafy canopy. No wonder the CLO is so big into bird song recordings—there’s more to hear than to see in their country.

With a little more time and planning, we might have attended an educational program or hired someone listed in the American Birding Association directory to help us navigate the unfamiliar avifauna.

There were a lot of cars in the second, more remote parking lot (it probably makes for a nice walk in the woods on the way into the office each morning). I didn’t think the Citizen Science programs I mentioned earlier needed that many employees, so I did a little research.

Much of the CLO’s $16 million budget activity comes from research: Bird Population Studies, the Bioacoustics Research Program (58 staff around the world) and the Evolutionary Biology Program.

The Macaulay Library (21 staff) archives wild sounds. Sometimes they are featured on special segments on National Public Radio news. You can listen to thousands of snippets online for free at

If you can’t get to Sapsucker Woods, the next best thing is go to The website is a gateway to an incredible amount of information. Even if you intend to only travel as far as your own backyard, check out the link to the Lab’s and get a taste of the birdwatcher’s Mecca.

As for me, I’m going to have to go back to see the natural features that result in the visitor’s bureau slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges.”

Bull frog

A bull frog also enjoys Sapsucker Woods. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyoming family birds New York City

Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Find out more about the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum,

Published July 12, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some summer ponderings.”

2014 Update: Advances in technology mean we can find birding hotspots through, and find out what birds people see there at the time of year we want to visit.

By Barb Gorges

I think I can pinpoint when summer weather finally reached Cheyenne. One week shorts seemed too chilly to wear and the trees were trying to leaf out again after the frost.

By the end of the next week, after being away only five days, I found everything sun fried, and the hallmark of the high plains summer, the late day thunderstorm, was again a firmly entrenched pattern.

At the beginning of the five-day interlude, when we stepped out of La Guardia Airport, rain had left New York City surprisingly cool and sweet.

But by the time one of my brothers-in-law, Peter, took us on a little expedition two mornings later before reporting to the funeral home, it was sizzling again.

Peter showed us the Bartow-Pell Mansion in Pelham Bay Park, in the northeast corner of the Bronx.

Mr. Pell bought the land from the Indians. However, a couple years later, in 1654, the first governor of New York felt it necessary to grant him title. The present house was built 180 years later by a descendant.

Like something out of Masterpiece Theater, the lawn rolled out behind the granite edifice in a series of terraces (one with a fountain) surrounded by a garden wall. A wrought iron gate and arch at the bottom framed a view of woods.

Peter, the brother who migrated farthest from New York, to Alaska, has an exploratory streak. After we perused the herb garden, he said there was this really neat trail from which you could see a swamp.

So we settled Aunt Dorothy in the shade of a huge yew and entered a summer jungle like those I remember from my Midwestern childhood: Same nearly impenetrable green humidity, same brambles scratching bare arms and legs, same stealth mosquitoes, whose bites take a few hours to reach and sustain their greatest potency, and same spider webs sticking to my sweaty face.

There was lots of music in the tree tops but the singers were all hidden–except a cardinal performing an aria from the top of a large dead tree.

The morning before, we Wyomingites tried to find a sanctuary up near Croton-on-Hudson which was listed on the Saw Mill River Audubon Society web site.

We would have missed the small sign buried in the roadside vegetation if we hadn’t at that moment pulled over to let traffic pass.

A man driving heavy equipment said the gravel road was washed out further up and we’d have to approach from somewhere else in the trail system.

I was thinking we could maybe negotiate the washout anyway, but then I remembered we had a rental car and not our pseudo-four-wheel-drive van.

The recommended trail head turned out to be at the end of a road of exclusive new houses sprawled on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.     The road ended at the entrance to the country club, where we shared the tiny parking space with a limo, the driver snoring in the front seat. Was he waiting for a hiker to return?

But by then it was time to renegotiate Route 9 and get back to the Bronx for the wake.

Our last day in New York was the day of the funeral. We hiked up a sun-baked hillside to the grave site. As we crowded within the shade of a lone cedar tree for a few last words for my late mother-in-law, the cemetery workers waited for us in the shade of the woods at the top of the hill.

I would like to know if those woods are part of the cemetery or whether, when we come back, they will have been cleared for new houses.

Were the woods just the regrowth of land that was farmed 200 years ago? I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in an ecosystem where if you don’t constantly plow or graze or pave, trees grow.

I got the window seat and a bird’s view of the landscape from Kansas City to Denver. The grid of fence lines and roads stretched as far as I could see.

Other than the occasional woodlot on the east end of the flight and sections of rangeland on the west, the plow marks were interrupted only by traces of green following streams.

How industrious we are. The cultivation of the Great Plains is so complete. If I were a migrating or grassland bird, I’d be in despair, forced to seek refuge in the feral growth under fences and along ditches, wondering how those blackbirds always seem to adapt.

And in view of having wasted too many too-large servings in New York City restaurants during our visit, I wonder, if we all put on our plates just what we needed to eat to maintain healthy weight, would there be a few more acres left over to restore to native landscapes?

Seasonal notes: You’ll be happy to know Mama Robin started her second clutch on the first of July. She built a new nest–away from our original window of observation–but right in view of another window, though I am limiting myself to only one or two looks a day.

Her spotted-breasted teenagers are busy picking ripe sand cherries in the backyard.

Meanwhile, hungry young grackles are still following their parents around, making horrible noises of woe and travail. The goldfinches are in fighting form and loudly proclaiming territorial rights as they finally begin their own breeding season.