Lighthouse Jetty and Jetty Woods

Unbeknownst to many who live in Ithaca, there are two small lighthouses--one white and one red--at the south end of Cayuga Lake, marking the entrance of the Cayuga Inlet. The white lighthouse is connected to the mainland and is thus accessible to birders, providing a rare chance to get right out on the water. The red lighthouse is located on a jetty a short distance offshore, providing a small man-made island that gulls, terns, cormorants, shorebirds, and other visitors readily use during the summer months. During summers when the lake level is low enough, the red jetty hosts a raucous gathering of Caspian Terns, with numbers sometimes building to 60 or 70 birds. These large terns are sometimes briefly joined by one or two of their smaller cousins, Common Tern and Forster's Tern. In August 1999, an extraordinary flock of 40-50 Black Terns was also seen in the jetty area for a few days, foraging on insects over the water. During the late summer, the white lighthouse jetty is one of the best places in the Basin for "the swallow sweep," with Purple Martin and the five species of swallows sometimes all present at one time. Late August and early September is also the time to be looking for Common Nighthawks from the jetty. Scan along the ridges on both sides of the lake and look back over the city for these increasingly uncommon migrants. Back on the red jetty, a variety of migrant shorebirds stops on this little "island" in the fall before resuming southward migration. Expected shorebird species here include Dunlin, Sanderling, and Black-bellied Plover, while rare shorebirds found on the red jetty include American Avocet (July 1997), Willet (April 2003) and Purple Sandpiper (October 2003). Other rarities seen on the red jetty include Cattle Egret (August 1998) and Snowy Egret (August 1999). The red jetty is a popular resting spot for Double-crested Cormorants, so it is hoped that it might one day also play host to the Basin's first-ever Great Cormorant.

October and November are the months to be out on the jetty scouring the water and sky for migrating waterfowl, especially for uncommon species like Brant and the three scoter species. While the Loon Watch at Taughannock Falls seems to be the best place to witness Cayuga Lake's impressive fall loon migration, the jetty is a decent place to watch Common Loons (and the rare Red-throated Loon) passing overhead. Late fall is also the time to be out on the jetty searching for any jaegers that might be cruising down the lake on the way to the Atlantic Ocean. If you plan on going out on the jetty on a good fall migration day (complete with strong north winds), be sure to dress very warmly!

In order to reach the jetty, one must pass through an area commonly known as the "Lighthouse Woods" or "Jetty Woods." This small stretch of woods just before the start of the jetty is a popular place to look for migrant songbirds. While productive in the springtime (a Prothonotary Warbler was found here one May in the mid-1990s), this spot seems to be visited more frequently in the fall. In late August, large numbers of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have been observed in these woods, while a variety of warblers, including Tennessee Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, and Hooded Warbler, follow in September and early October.

To reach the Ithaca Lighthouse Jetty:

From the intersection of Stewart and University Avenues on Cornell University's West Campus, proceed downhill on University to the four-way stop by Ravenwood Apartments. Go straight through this intersection; the road is now called Lake Street (University makes a 90 degree turn left at the four-way intersection). Follow Lake Street down the big hill past Gun Hill Apartments, and look for Lincoln Street on your left, near the bottom of the hill. Turn left onto Lincoln, and proceed about one mile on this street, until you come to an intersection with Dey Street. Turn right onto Dey; you will come almost immediately to an intersection (with traffic light) with Rt. 13. Cross straight over Rt. 13; the road becomes Willow Ave. on the other side of Rt. 13, and crosses over railroad tracks before taking a sharp turn to the left and then another turn back to the right. Stay on Willow until you come to a T-intersection. Turn left at the T, and proceed all the way to the end of the pavement. You will be right by the Newman Golf Course clubhouse, and the Johnson Marina. At the end of the pavement, there is a yellow gate, and beyond that, a dirt track that runs along the golf course and Cayuga Inlet. From the yellow gate, it is about a 10-15 minute walk out to the white lighthouse jetty.

Text copyright © 2005 Matt Medler.

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