For the Birds Radio Program: Sapsucker Woods

Original Air Date: Jan. 4, 2008 Rerun Dates: Dec. 31, 2008

Now that Laura’s living in Ithaca, she’ll be spending a lot of time in Sapsucker Woods. She talks about its history and birds that she has and will see there.

Duration: 4′24″


When I started birding in 1975, one of the first bird-related institutions I learned about was the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. And I quickly discovered that the Lab was built within the legendary Sapsucker Woods, a couple of miles from the Cornell University campus. In 1909, Cornell’s Dr. Arthur A. Allen and the renowned master of bird art, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, gave Sapsucker Woods its name after their discovery there of the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest found in the Cayuga Lake basin. Cornell founded the Lab of Ornithology in 1915, in the Entomology Building on the main campus, naming Dr. Allen the first director.

When a business man named Lyman K. Stuart took up bird photography, he struck up a correspondence with Dr. Allen asking for advice and guidance. Soon Stuart won an important national photography competition, and he credited Dr. Allen’s help. In gratitude he offered to finance one of Dr. Allen’s projects. Housing developments were starting to encroach on Sapsucker Woods, and so Allen requested that Stuart purchase land there to be preserved as a sanctuary. In 1954 Stuart bought 110 acres. The University and some neighbors donated an additional 40 acres. Trails and boardwalks were established, and the entire property was fenced to keep out dogs. An observatory named for Stuart was built to house the lab’s research facilities—it opened in 1957.

By the late 90s, the lab had outgrown its facilities—by this time close to 200 people were working there, the overflow from the observatory working in four nearby trailers. Meanwhile, the Lab had acquired additional property, expanding the sanctuary to 225 acres. So they raised money and planned a state-of-the art building to house the research, bioacoustics program and natural sound library, and other programs. In 2004 the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity opened, at the edge of the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. Now more than four miles of trails wind through a variety of habitats.

I’ve only been able to spend a few short hours in Sapsucker Woods—I attended a meeting at Cornell in the spring of 2004, and then when I went for my job interview the week after Thanksgiving in 2007, but I did see at least one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, along with a few Pileateds and plenty of flickers and Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers. I was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron still hanging around in late November, and was pleased to see a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on a branch just above the trail—it didn’t seem the least bit concerned when I walked right below it, staring at it through binoculars. Much of the forest is mature hardwoods, like beech and maple. Some of the common species there, such as screech owls, tufted titmice, and blue-gray gnatcatchers, are very rare in the north woods. Some of the birds we take for granted up here, like many of our breeding warblers, are seen there only during migration, and some, like our northern owls and other specialties, are at best hotline birds there. Over 240 species have been identified at Sapsucker Woods over the years—they’re all listed in a cool booklet, The Birds of Sapsucker Woods.

I’ll be spending a lot of time in Sapsucker Woods in the coming months, and will be posting as many photos as I can on my blog.