Birding Time on the Rail Line

Check out these locations to blissfully wed the convenience of train travel with first-class birdwatching throughout New York State.

Bald Eagles can easily be seen from an Amtrak window along the Hudson River. If you’re on your way to a birding destination, start the journey on the train!

According to a 2019 survey by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 45 million people (about 20%) in the United States engage in birdwatching. Some keep an eye out in their backyard or neighborhood while going about daily life. Others engage in multi-day excursions away from home to search for common or rare birds. Birdwatching has been among the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the nation over the past two decades. 

Bird lovers who ride the rails can incorporate their hobby into train transportation as part of a daily commute or birding holiday. For example, observant Amtrak passengers between Albany and New York who opt for a seat on the Hudson River side have exceptionally good odds of spotting bald eagles (and other birds). 

Bald eagles live all along the Hudson River and it’s easy for keen observers to spot them. Eagles’ nests are very large, even reaching “upwards of hundreds of pounds,” says Lisa Masi, a senior wildlife biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in New Paltz, so keep an eye on tall, sturdy trees where they usually choose to nest. In the summertime, eagles fly over the Hudson and dart down to its surface to hunt.

“Watching from the train may be one of the best ways to observe eagles with the least additional stress to the birds,” says Masi.

There are also numerous regional birding “hotspots” in proximity to train stops. Check out these locations to blissfully wed the convenience of train travel with first-class birdwatching. Local Audubon chapters and other organizations offer seasonal guided outings at each of these locations. 

Central Park

Countless numbers of birds pass through and make their residences in the New York City. Birding in there is not a wilderness experience by any means, but Central Park is one of the most fascinating birding destinations in the country. 

Each year, in excess of 200 species of birds occupy this internationally-known park for various periods. Dedicated birders have recorded over 100 different species on a single day during annual migrations when common and rare birds utilize the park as they move north and south between nesting and wintering areas. The park consists of woodlands and water bodies, appealing to all manner of feathered visitors. 

Summer finds around two dozen species nesting in Central Park. American robins are the most common, but blue jays, Baltimore orioles and northern cardinals also rear young in the park. However, summer is considered the “slow season” as many birds escape the heat by moving inland. Spring and fall offer excellent prospects for viewing colorful warblers and majestic waterfowl such as hooded mergansers. Several species of owls are year-round residents while others winter in the park. 

Take Amtrak to Central Park 

From Penn Station (NYP), Central Park’s best birding is just two miles away. Walk to the park by exiting the station and heading up 8th Avenue. Or hop on the subway and exit at one of several stations along the park in a matter of minutes. The area around Bow Bridge (about a half-mile beyond the edge of the park) offers some of the best birding. Don’t forget to use the New York By Rail 15% Amtrak discount!

West Rutland Marsh

Located just five miles from the Amtrak station at the terminus of the Ethan Allen Express in Rutland, the West Rutland Marsh is a favorite with local birders. The marsh is designated as an Audubon Important Bird Area for the state of Vermont, offering essential habitat for numerous species. 

Marsh-loving fliers including American bitterns, sora and Virginia rails, and marsh wrens are among the species often spotted during the spring and summer months. The marsh is one of a handful of places in the state where least bitterns can be seen, a prize for sharp-eyed summertime visitors. Waterfowl, such as mallards and Canada geese are present along with less common species including American black ducks and wood ducks. 

A number of brilliantly colored birds call the marsh home in warmer months. A flash of yellow in the shrubbery might mean an American goldfinch or yellow warbler. Orange feathers among green leaves could belong to a Baltimore oriole. The rat-a-tat-tat of a beak probing for bugs in a dead tree trunk might signal a northern flicker or hairy woodpecker. Willow and least flycatchers reveal themselves to patient observers willing to scan dense cover, along with spritely blue-gray gnatcatchers. 

“We see lots of beautiful warblers during the spring,” says Kathleen Guinness, President of the Rutland County Audubon. 

Access to the marsh is easy via a rambling boardwalk and local trails. For bird-lovers with an expansive appetite, the marsh and the city of Rutland are a convenient southern entryway to the Lake Champlain Birding Trail, 88 birding sites along both sides of Lake Champlain and the lovely Champlain Valley. 

Take Amtrak to West Rutland Marsh 

To reach the West Rutland Marsh from the Rutland station (RUD), go north on Evelyn Street a short distance to US 4-Business (West Street). Turn left and follow the road about three miles to West Rutland. Veer right onto Pleasant Street for slightly less than a mile, then take a left on Crescent Street. Go a quarter-mile, then turn right on Marble Street. Continue one mile to the entrance of the marsh. Marble Valley Regional Transit provides bus service between Rutland and West Rutland making it possible to walk from West Rutland to the marsh (about a mile). Don’t forget to use the New York By Rail 15% Amtrak discount!

Lake Onondaga

Lake Onondaga, located by Syracuse, is a magnet for bald eagles in the winter. Ride the rails on Amtrak’s Empire corridor between Syracuse and Buffalo and enjoy a view of the southern end of the lake from the train, which is exactly the portion of the lake where eagles congregate in the winter. 

“It will be a quick look but you can sometimes see eagles from the train,” says Alison Kocek, President of the Onondaga Audubon Chapter. 

Highly contaminated by decades of industrial and other pollution, Lake Onondaga has been the subject of extensive restoration efforts. In 2012, the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps was established to encourage restoration with hands-on experience. Honeywell Corporation has pledged to plant over one million beneficial trees, shrubs and plants throughout the Lake Onondaga watershed. With improving water quality and expanding habitat, birds have flocked back to this important migration area in expanding numbers. 

The eagles are the marquee attraction in the winter. Local photographers and birders look for them roosting in the tall trees on the southern end of the lake or soaring over the water in search of a meal. Discharged, treated water from the city’s treatment plant flows into the lake in this area keeping an expanse ice-free in the winter, ideal for eagles looking for a fish dinner. 

Lake Onondaga is also a superb place to view migrating and wintering waterfowl from fall until spring. Common and red-breasted mergansers, pintails, gadwalls, redheads, and lesser seen species such as ring-necked ducks and pied-billed grebes have all been recorded on the lake. Spring and fall are also excellent times to see migrating songbirds in the trees and shrubbery there. 

“There are also a few resident bald eagles outside the winter months,” says Kocek. 

Take Amtrak to Lake Onondaga 

Birding access to this emerging hotspot from the Amtrak station in Syracuse is as simple as walking to the Destiny USA Mall (less than a mile) to look for bald eagles in the trees across from the parking lot in the winter or taking the bus from the mall to the stop at Vine and 1st Street and walking a short distance south of Vine Street to reach Onondaga Lake Park during the warmer months. Don’t forget to use the New York By Rail 15% Amtrak discount

For current information about the lake restoration and habitat improvements for birds:  

Tifft Nature Preserve

At 264 acres, the Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo is among the largest urban nature preserves in New York State. It sits on land utilized as a dairy farm in the mid1800s which eventually wound up as a municipal dump in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, public sentiment turned against its use as a landfill, leading to the creation of the nature preserve. 

To say the creation of the preserve was a smashing success with birds is understated. 265 species have been recorded at Tifft, with 66 of these breeding or present during the breeding season. A 75-acre cattail marsh interspersed with open ponds is a veritable magnet for waterfowl, including rare pied-billed grebes and least bitterns that frequently rear young among the reeds. Grassland habitat is found around a 50-acre upland area, attracting species that frequent open areas and edges between woodlands and meadows. Raptors find sustenance with rodents and other prey in the preserve and are commonly seen soaring the skies overhead. Among the more intriguing species frequently gracing the preserve are common loons, red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, upland sandpipers, willow flycatchers, short-eared owls and black terns. 

Spring, summer and fall are prime seasons for birding, although the preserve is open year-round and hardy birds are content to winter at Tifft. Similar to other birding destinations, visitors who arrive very early in the morning typically enjoy the most sightings, particularly on  hot summer days. Five miles of nature trails and three boardwalks in the marsh area offer expansive access for birders. 

Take Amtrak to Tifft Nature Preserve 

Access to the Tifft Nature Preserve from the Buffalo-Exchange Street station (BFX) is easy. Catch a bus operated by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, a short walk down Exchange Street, and arrive at the preserve 15 minutes later. Don’t forget to use the New York By Rail 15% Amtrak discount

Further Information Regarding Travel
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