The Friendly Skies over Derby Hill

By Spider Rybaak

Sign marking the spot.

Oswego County is a fowl paradise. Hunters take to the open waters of Lake Ontario and the swamps around Oneida Lake, the deep woods of Winona State Forest and patchwork of ponds, forests and clearings of the Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area to pursue birds of every feather.

But there’s a magical corner of Lake Ontario that sees more birds each spring, particularly large raptors, than some sovereign nations do all year: Derby Hill. Indeed, on March 12 alone, 110,000 snow geese flew over the place like a blizzard in the sun, punctuated by raptors ranging from bald and golden eagles to turkey vultures and ospreys.

Onondaga Audubon Society’s Michele Heligan says the reason so many large birds use this corridor is because of thermals, “heat waves coming off the ground. Raptors use these currents to gain and maintain altitude. The clearer the day, the higher they can reach on the thermals,” she explains

In other words, this time of year Lake Ontario sucks in the sun’s heat like a magnet and raptors heading back north naturally avoid its drag in favor of flying over land and exploiting the lift which thermals bouncing off the ground provide.

The big bird fly-over season runs from March 1 through May 31, so you still have a month of decent viewing ahead of you. According to the Audubon website, some species are restricted (ospreys, for instance, are most active from mid-April through mid-May) while others, like bald eagles, flip restrictions the bird and appear whenever they want to during the season.

OAS member Bill Purcell reports it’s been “a good year so far” for raptors; and colleague Gerry Smith adds: “There are more bald eagles around now than there were at any time during the 20th Century. So your chances of seeing America’s favorite bird are pretty good.”

Unfamiliar with the ways of birds and need guidance?

You’re in luck: The OAS is staging its FREE bird festival on Saturday, May 11, 10 am-5 pm at Derby Hill. Gene Huggins, president of OAS, will lead ½-mile-long bird walks, over moderately difficult terrain (i.e. hills) throughout the day. OAS volunteers will also be on hand to offer assistance and intelligence.

Other features planned for the festival include a display of live raptors, face painting, vendors selling everything from food to jewelry, hawk identification, raffles…stuff like that.

Volunteers are needed. If you’d like to help, contact: [email protected] or call 315-474-3778. Their website is

Derby Hill Observatory is located in the Town of Mexico on Sage Hill Drive, off NY 104B, about a mile east of Texas.

Michele Heligan searching the sky for hawks.

The tally up to April 28.