Derby Hill Observatory – Oswego County NY

“Oswego is where we go…” Most of the summers of my life have been spent, at least in part on the edge of Lake Ontario. Yet, considering all that time, I discovered the Derby Hill Observatory only a few years ago. I guess I needed the extra interest in birds to motivate me to turn down the dead end road and find the Observatory.

Operated by the Onondaga Audubon, Derby Hill Observatory has a strong focus on watching birds of prey. Their website claims they count about 40,000 raptors each spring, so I guess the focus is justified. (https://onondagaaudubon.com/derby-hill-bird-observatory/) The observatory’s lands include a small strip of cliff at the lake’s edge, a true novelty as the rest of the road is crammed with homes along the water’s edge. This, especially given its height, provides a great vantage point to observe fishing osprey and other birds of prey. In fact, the first time I visited, we were meandering over to the edge and there was a flash of Bald Eagle. By the time I ran to the edge, it was out of sight. I haven’t seen another Bald Eagle in any subsequent trips (I have only visited about 3 or 4 times), but I keep hoping!

The Observatory is actually split up into about four or five sections, but the main parking area provides you access to the lake overlook, as well as four fields (with a mowed perimeter) and a woodland trail. If you follow the meadows down the road, you can also cross over to the marsh space, but it is a very small section, better for watching than walking.

There is no doubt that there are many birds residing in and around the Observatory. The trees just reverberate with bird calls and chirps. But I have never been very lucky at spotting many birds when I visit. The Scarlet Tanger manages to be particularly elusive, but I have seen a few other birds that are outside of my regular milieu. This included an Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebes (juvenile as well as adult) and a young Cedar Waxwing, chowing down on some berries.

Along with some birds I am more familiar with, including Robins, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows.

The meadows do have another big perk… butterflies are everywhere! You also see some great frogs and other woodland creatures if you are lucky.

On my most recent visit, earlier this summer, I was disappointed by the obvious lack of trail maintenance of the woodland trail. Not only was vegetation overtaking the boardwalk, but the trail markers were all over the place. After tromping around in the woods with very little guidance, hoping the trail would become more clear, we made our way back, getting turned around more than once. Painted trail markers are far superior to the signs, which fall off trees, or get moved around. I know there has been a lot of rain and flooding in the area, but they should still try to maintain what they have, before it deteriorates further. Compare the difference between 2018 and 2019.

Another issue I have with the Onondaga Audubon is their website and that it lacks even a basic trail map for the Derby Hill Observatory. I know I did find one once, after some extensive googling, but it really shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t even think the map was on their website, but on another birder’s private site.

Despite the disappointment of my last visit, I will doubtless give Derby Hill another chance. It does provide a nice excuse for a stretch of the legs, and statistically, if I go enough times, I will get another view of my bald eagle.

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