The Friends of the Great Swamp
of southeastern New York State

Birds of the Great Swamp

by Jim Utter

Among all of the wildlife we encounter in our daily activities, birds are the most diverse and entertaining. They are colorful, active, vocal, and share our most active time and space. Bird watching is the fastest growing outdoor activity, and the economic investments in books, binoculars, clothing and lodging associated with this activity rivals the money spent on hunting.

The Great Swamp offers us excellent birding opportunities and a chance to enjoy a very diverse avifauna all year long. This amazing wetland provides breeding, overwintering, and migration stopover habitats for a large number of bird species. During the past four years, Bill Wallace and I have been surveying the birds in the Great Swamp and have recorded over 180 species, with about 100 species breeding in the swamp. Some of these species, like the red-winged blackbird are widespread, while others like the marsh wren and sora rail are extremely localized and not often seen. This diversity of species, and the concentration of particular species, such as the wood duck and solitary sandpipers seen during migration, led to the unanimous endorsement of The Great Swamp as one of National Audubon Society's Important Bird Areas in New York State (1998). Our work builds on decades of birding activity by such local experts as Sibyll Gilbert, Tom Morgan, John McElwaine, and members of the Waterman Bird Club.

Where to go birding in the Great Swamp

When the fall migration season is underway, about 70% of our summer breeding birds are in the process of moving to the south for the winter. They are being joined by other birds that breed to the north and northwest of our area in a mass movement that is one of the most amazing phenomena of the natural world. Moving in loose groups, most of the birds travel during the night, using stars, magnetic fields, topography, and perhaps odors to find their way to specific About half wintering sites in the southern have never United States, the Caribbean, Central America or South America. About half of the birds, those hatched this summer, have never made the trip before and yet most still find their way to appropriate places. No, we really don't know how they do it. The capability and "instructions" for the process seem to develop in the bird without any obvious learning, so we call it "innate" or "instinctive". The young birds of many species migrate before their parents and may even move further south. The adults often winter in the same location in South America that they used the previous year, and then return in the spring to the same specific section of the Great Swamp to breed again.

During the fall and spring migrations, the birds that fly during the night land in the early morning to rest and feed. The trip is energetically very demanding and refueling in transit is critical. Stopover places need to provide cover and a good source of food - insects, fruit, nectar, and seeds. The Great Swamp has proven to be one of the valuable stopover sites for a large variety of species including flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, and swallows. This provides an opportunity to see a variety of birds, but with a higher "degree of difficulty" (to use Olympic terms) for identification than in the spring. The diverse colorful breeding birds are less conspicuous now than they were during the breeding season. Some of the species actually change to a new color pattern in the fall and look like a different species. A variety of species will be moving through the Great Swamp in large numbers from now into November. The largest influx of birds will appear the morning after the passage of a cold front because the winds come out of the north and give the birds a boost. Somehow they "know" this and fly on those nights.