New York

Migratory Birds and Lake Ontario

Study shows lakeshore and urban wilds both critical to migratory birds.

Rochester, New York might not be the first place you think of when you think of wilderness. But two times a year, the city and surrounding region host one of the world’s great natural phenomena: the migration of millions of songbirds back and forth across the western hemisphere.

These birds can spend more than half of the year on the move, and it’s lucky for us that they do. While traveling, birds play an important role in seed dispersal and pollination, and aid agriculture by eating insect pests.

During their journeys, migrating birds need overnight stays similar to the ones we make on long road trips to rest, eat and recharge. Such “stopover sites” are particularly critical near the Great Lakes, where more than 100 species stop en route to northern breeding grounds in the spring and south to the tropics in the fall.

Unraveling Migration Mysteries 

Birders have long maintained that migrating songbirds respond to the Great Lakes by concentrating on the shorelines in preparation for night crossings. But does the legend hold up? And where else are these avian pit stops?

Over the past three years, 55 volunteer birders logged more than 2,000 hours and observed more than 50,000 birds to help The Nature Conservancy find out. 

“We expected that birds would be abundant in areas close to Lake Ontario but we were surprised to see just how much they also use smaller patches of habitat in urban parks and suburbs,” said Kristin France, senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Central and Western New York.

“Identifying patterns and having rigorous information about how migrating birds use our region is critical to guiding shoreline management and conservation for the greatest impact,” she added.

Key study findings include: 
  • Migrating birds are more abundant in areas with greater woody cover and in patches of woody cover close to Lake Ontario.
  • Migrating birds are also concentrated in isolated patches near urban areas and agricultural areas. Parks and other small “islands” of habitat close to Lake Ontario were more heavily used than those far from the shoreline.
  • Further inland, migrating birds are concentrated around the Finger Lakes and large wetland complexes like Iroquois-Tonawanda-Oak Orchard and Montezuma Wetlands Complexes.  
  • While both location and habitat matter, birds are using almost the entire landscape in the Lake Ontario region. This means that everyday actions by individuals anywhere on the map can help birds.
What’s Next?

The Conservancy will now use the study results to help these intercontinental travelers in a region that’s been dramatically changed by agriculture and development.

“Before, we had just anecdotal information about stopover sites—particularly on the heavily altered southern shore of Lake Ontario—and no tool to predict where they occur,” said David Klein, senior conservation practitioner for The Nature Conservancy’s Central and Western New York Chapter.

 “Thanks to the work of these citizen scientists we can now guide conservation to places we might not have otherwise considered, encourage better shoreline management and energy siting, and help landowners manage their lands in ways that provide habitat.”

What’s the incentive for Rochester and other locales in the region to be good hosts? For one thing, migrating birds are excellent guests, says Klein.

“They add to our food security by dispersing seeds. They’re amazing to watch. They eat a lot of bugs. And they bring millions to the New York economy,” he said. “The least we can do is to show them a good time while they’re here.”

For more information, including high resolution map files or spatial data, please contact Kristin France at or (845) 554-3404.

Why Migratory Birds Matter
  • They are important links between different habitats.
  • They help agriculture by eating insects and dispersing seeds.
  • They can be useful indicators for the health of habitats and ecosystems.
  • Birding is big business; the popular pastime is growing in popularity and already responsible for a total annual output of $82 billion according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Awe is good for you! Stanford University researchers found that the feeling of awe brings us so strongly into the present moment that experiencing it can make us more patient and satisfied.



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