Summer Hill burst onto the mainstream Basin birding scene in October 1997, when Chris Hymes and Bard and Gina Prentiss discovered a single Pine Grosbeak in Summer Hill State Forest. Following this initial find, numerous Ithaca birders made the trek up to the area, and many were rewarded with looks at multiple Pine Grosbeaks between late October 1997 and January 1998. At roughly the same time, winter finch fanatic Matt Young was becoming involved in the local birding scene, and it was only a matter of time before Young adopted Summer Hill as his favorite Basin birding spot. Due in large part to Matt Young’s tireless efforts, it has become apparent that Summer Hill is not only a great place to see his beloved winter finches, it is also home to one of the most diverse collections of breeding warblers in all of central New York.
Besides being a great birding spot, Summer Hill can also be the source of confusion, prompting questions like “Where is Summer Hill?” “What exactly is Summer Hill?” and “How is Summer Hill in the Cayuga Lake Basin?” The Town of Summer Hill is located in the very southeast corner of Cayuga County, just east of the Town of Locke, and immediately north of the Town of Groton. The Town of Summer Hill contains the very small Village of Summer Hill, and the very large Summer Hill State Forest. The state forest, which is composed primarily of a massive Norway spruce plantation, is the focus of most birding trips to Summer Hill, but the entire area around the forest offers good birding opportunities. This description will use the term “Summer Hill” to refer to Summer Hill State Forest and the areas adjacent to the forest. The Town of Summer Hill is also home to Lake Como, which is the source of Fall Creek. This creek, of course, eventually finds its way to Cayuga Lake, thus making most of Summer Hill “in the Basin.”
A basic tour of Summer Hill can be made by traveling along five major roads. Rt. 90 forms the southern boundary of Summer Hill, running in an east-west direction. Salt Road and Lick Street mark the east and west boundaries, respectively, of the “core” Summer Hill area. They run north from Rt. 90 to Fillmore Road, which marks the northern edge of Summer Hill. Salt and Lick are also connected by Hoag Avenue, which is a seasonal limited use road (meaning that it is not plowed during the long Summer Hill winter). It was along Hoag Avenue, in a small bog-like area not far from Salt Road, that Chris Hymes and Bard and Gina Prentiss found that lone Pine Grosbeak in October 1997. Since that time, all of the winter finches (except for Hoary Redpoll) have been found at Summer Hill at least once. The now-married Chris Tessaglia-Hymes discovered two Red Crossbills near the corner of Salt and Hoag in late March 1999, and later that same year, Matt Young received a Halloween treat when he too found two Red Crossbills, just a short distance farther north on Salt Road. It was also Matt Young who turned up White-winged Crossbills at Summer Hill, not once, but twice in 2001. After predicting in early March that White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins could possibly be breeding at Summer Hill, on the heels of winter breeding of these species in the Adirondacks, Young then went out and found four White-winged Crossbills and two Pine Siskins in a small white spruce stand at the corner of Lick Street and Hoag Avenue. Later, in November 2001, Matt Young found a few White-winged Crossbills and a single Red Crossbill at a feeder along Lake Como Road, which is east of Salt Road and runs from Fillmore Road to Rt. 90. Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls typically show a biennial pattern of irruption into the Northeast, and when it is a “grosbeak and redpoll year,” both species can be seen and heard in good numbers at Summer Hill. In the winter of 1999-2000, for example, Matt Young reported over 100 individuals of each species during his visits to the area.
Birding Summer Hill in the wintertime can be very much a hit-or-miss experience. Summer Hill State Forest is a very large area, and even when there are birds there, they can be difficult to find in the middle of the winter, when the temperatures are low and there are several feet of snow on the ground. A mile-long walk along Hoag Avenue can result in detecting absolutely no birds on a very bad day, but usually an observer is likely to see some Black-capped Chickadees, and at least hear Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet (all permanent residents of the forest). And, the allure of Summer Hill is that there is always the chance of hearing a flyover grosbeak, siskin, redpoll, or crossbill while walking along a road through the forest. The best place to get good looks at winter birds at Summer Hill, though, is often at one of the few birdfeeders scattered throughout the area. Away from the state forest, Summer Hill can be a great place for other winter birds. The open fields along Salt and Lick, near Rt. 90, are good places to scan for Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspur. Brushy areas near the south end of Lick Street, as well as the stretch of Fillmore Road between Salt and Lick, offer perfect habitat for Northern Shrike. American Tree Sparrows can be found in brushy areas throughout the Summer Hill area during the wintertime.
Springtime comes late to Summer Hill, with snow sometimes remaining on Hoag Avenue (which is great for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling) into April. The presence of snow, however, doesn't’t deter early breeders like Winter Wren, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Purple Finch from singing away on warm mornings in early to mid-April, and the mechanical wing-drumming of Ruffed Grouse can also be heard at this time of year. Early spring is a good time for seeing migrants like Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (which also breeds at Summer Hill), and Rusty Blackbirds passing through the area. Northern Shrikes and American Tree Sparrows depart Summer Hill in early spring, and if you are lucky, you might hear their seldom-heard songs before they leave for their Arctic breeding grounds.
Early May marks the return of scores of Neotropical migrants to their breeding grounds, and Summer Hill is a great place for breeding birds, especially warblers. Mourning Warbler, an uncommon bird throughout the rest of the Cayuga Lake Basin, is an abundant breeder at Summer Hill. Listen for this warbler’s loud song, and look for it in the many places at Summer Hill with a tall, open canopy, no midstory, and dense low vegetation (especially raspberry brambles). In the heart of the spruce plantation, near the intersection of Salt and Hoag, listen for the songs of Magnolia Warbler (another common breeder) and Blackburnian Warbler. A short walk down Hoag Avenue to “the bog” will bring you to the haunts of the Northern Waterthrush, which can also be found in other wet areas in Summer Hill. Along the edge of the boggy area, Canada Warblers take up territory, and you might also hear the distinctive two-parted song of a Nashville Warbler in mid to late May. The mixed hemlock-deciduous woods just past this area (heading west, towards Lick Street) seem to be a good place for Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler is likely any place at Summer Hill where there is a decent number of hemlocks.
If you drive north on Salt Road from its intersection with Hoag Avenue, you will quickly arrive at an intersection with Dresser Road, which approaches Salt from the east. Turn right on Dresser Road, proceed a short distance past a stand of red pines, and then look for an unnamed road on the left. It is advisable to park your car on Dresser, and then walk down this road for a short ways. You will quickly come to an open area on your left, with standing water and numerous snags. Matt Sarver has christened this spot “The Black-backed Woodpecker Spot,” not because Black-backed Woodpecker has been seen here, but rather because if this species is to occur in the Cayuga Lake Basin, this might be a better spot than most in which to find it. This area is perhaps better called “The White-throated Sparrow Spot,” because the brushy area behind the snags is home to breeding White-throated Sparrows, a species not known to breed anywhere else in the Basin. The same brushy area where the sparrows breed also hosts breeding Blue-winged Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Alder Flycatchers. To walk back amongst these birds, look for a grass path on the left side of the unnamed dirt road, just beyond the numerous snags. The beautiful songs of Veery can be heard coming from the forest adjacent to this brushy successional area. Other breeding forest birds in the Summer Hill area include: Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Common Raven, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Outside of the state forest, check the fields along Salt and Lick for the incredible flight songs of displaying male Bobolinks. These same fields will likely host Savannah Sparrows, and possibly Grasshopper Sparrow. At the north end of Lake Como, turn off Lake Como Road onto Branch Road, and pull off to the side of the road near the small bridge. Tree Swallows and Northern Flickers nest in the natural cavities in the many snags in the wet area on the north side of the road, and Yellow-throated Vireos can be heard singing from this spot. In May 2004, a Red-headed Woodpecker was also found at this spot, offering hope that it might be breeding nearby.
Summer Hill is not known as a hotspot for fall migration birding, but it can be a good place to see migrant sparrows and Rusty Blackbirds during the month of October. This is also the time when the first winter finches of the season can appear, and the Summer Hill excitement begins again.
To reach Summer Hill:
There are many different ways to reach Summer Hill from Ithaca. This is one fairly direct route that also allows for a convenience store stop in the Village of Groton. From Day Hall on the Cornell University campus, take East Avenue to North Campus. Turn right (before Louie’s Lunch Truck) onto Wait Avenue, and then after a short distance, turn right onto Triphammer Road. Take Triphammer to a stop sign in Cayuga Heights, and turn left. Immediately turn right onto North Triphammer Road, which passes Triphammer Mall and Pyramid Mall. Follow North Triphammer Road a total of 4.6 miles (from its start in Cayuga Heights) to Rt. 34B in Lansing. Turn right on Rt. 34B, and follow it 6.7 miles to a stop-light intersection with Rt. 38. Turn left on Rt. 38, and take it 2.7 miles to a stop sign in the Village of Groton. Turn left at this stop sign onto Main Street, and follow Main Street for a half-mile, through the village. Upon leaving the village, turn right on Rt. 222. Follow Rt. 222 for 2.2 miles, and then turn left on Salt Road. From this intersection, it is 3.2 miles to the intersection of Salt Road and Rt. 90. Cross over Rt. 90, and follow Salt into Summer Hill State Forest. Hoag Avenue is about 2 miles north of the intersection of Salt Road and Rt. 90. It takes 30+ minutes to reach the intersection of Hoag and Salt from Ithaca.