Sapsucker Woods

On Saturday and Sunday mornings year round, the Cornell laboratory of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods offers guided walks for beginning birdwatchers. Between April and November the walks begin at 7:30 a.m. and during the colder (darker) months they begin at 9 a.m. Walks are on level ground on broad paths and on wooden boardwalks. They generally last about an hour and a half. The habitats near the lab vary from open wetlands to mature forest, which means a wide variety of bird species can be seen in a relatively small area. The birds present also vary with the seasons, with the greatest diversity and the most exotic sightings to be experienced during the spring and fall migrations.

“These weekend bird walks started in 2008,” said Linda Orkin of the Cayuga Bird Club. “[They were] part of the very new volunteer outreach program established at the Lab of O in 2007 by Charles Eldermire. Up until then—at least in recent memory—there had only been bird walks on special occasions and for special people, such as Alumni Weekend.”

Initially, said Orkin, they were only going to run through May. She herself hadn’t planned to lead walks at all. “But once I did and realized the elated and enthusiastic response of the attendees,” she said, “I asked Charles if I could continue through the summer and beyond. Most of the other docents, at that time, were uncomfortable leading so I did the majority of them myself for quite a while until Charles managed to recruit several others who were relaxed about doing this.”

In 2010 Eldermire moved away from his responsibilities for volunteers—he is now “bird cams project leader”—and it fell to Orkin, who was president of the Cayuga Bird Club, to keep the morning walks organized. Without the direct participation of a Lab of O staff member accessibility to loaner binoculars became an issue.

“While I was bird club president,” Orkin recalled, “the club bought eight pair of binoculars to use at Dewitt [Middle School] for a birding after-school club, which did not last so we got our binoculars back. It then occurred to me that it would be good to somehow merge the walk program into both a Lab of O and club activity, to increase visibility and to make those binoculars available for walks.” 

Since 2012 those binoculars have been available to anyone who shows up for the walks without any. Many participants are students who have showed up out of curiosity and often a birdwatcher will have dragged along a willing friend to introduce them to birds. The loaner binoculars come in handy.

While members of the public who wish to go on the walks don’t need to know anything at all about birds, the docents who lead them most definitely do. Orkin expects her docents to be quite familiar with local birds and to be proficient at some bird songs and bird sound. 

“If they are starting at this level,” she said, “the qualities I would look for are for someone who is extremely enthusiastic about imparting knowledge and love of birds, good and comfortable with people, and a good self-learner for additional knowledge as time goes on. If they are excellent birders already, meaning able to identify visually and by sound, migrants and uncommon birds, then the main requirement is a comfort level, which usually co-exists with a desire, to lead a group of people.”

At present there are 11 different volunteers leading walks. For the leaders this means a reasonable time commitment and for participants it means that you can go for a walk several times a year and have different leaders with varying styles and expertise. 

Orkin trains prospective volunteers by walking the trails of Sapsucker Woods with them once or several times, depending on need. Anyone who wishes to become a docent should contact her (wingmagic16@gmail.com). She also has printed resources and web links to help folks get up to speed. Orkin also said that the Lab of O has recently re-instituted a volunteer program so if anyone interested in other aspects of volunteering at the Lab make inquiries. §

The Lab of Ornithology is at 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca. For more information see birds.cornell.edu and cayugabirdclub.org.

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