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.