©NYC Parks Avila
Nesting** Spring Migration*** Fall Migration*** Winter**
(no star = birding is not very productive, * = somewhat productive, ** = productive, *** = very productive)
Click here for an excellent map of the park on the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy website.
Van Cortlandt Park, covering 1,146 hilly acres in the northwest Bronx, is the fourth largest city park. Over half the acreage contains deciduous forests, scrubland, meadows, ridges, wetlands, brooks, and a man-made lake, providing vital avian habitat. N.Y.C. Department of Parks and Recreation manages the park with assistance from a number of non-profit groups such as the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, Friends of Canine Court and New York Cares.
New York City took title to this vast acreage in 1888. During the early and mid 1900s, the Major Deegan Expressway and Henry Hudson and Mosholu parkways were built, splitting the parkland into five segments: The Northwest Forest, Croton Woods, the Northeast Forest, the southwest zone, and the southeast zone.
Great Horned Owl
by D. Speiser
In 1998, Van Cortlandt Park was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) in New York State by National Audubon. About 230 different bird species have been recorded in Van Cortlandt Park and over 60 species breed here, as determined by the 2006 Breeding and Migrating Bird Census Project in Van Cortlandt Park - a study of an Important Bird Area conducted by NYC Audubon. Breeders include great horned owl, eastern wood-pewee, great crested flycatcher, northern rough-winged swallow and rose-breasted grosbeak with the American robin and secondly, gray catbird, being the most populous breeding species.
In the southeastern zone, where two municipal golf courses are located, birding is somewhat limited. However, just north of Mosholu Golf Course in the mature oak-sweetgum forest surrounding the Allen Shandler Recreation Area, 10 species of warbler may be seen on a spring morning in mid-May. The rest of the park offers wonderful birding opportunities as well. Each section is accessible by mass transit. With a car, you can reach all birding areas in one day.
Enter the Northeast Forest section (near a bus stop) at Van Cortlandt Park East and Katonah Avenue. Wide and paved Nursery Road leads from here to the Arthur Ross Nursery and connects to the John Muir Trail. This 1.5-mile trail starts near the Nursery gate and meanders east-west through prime birding habitat in the Northeast Forest , Croton Woods, and the Northwest Forest, where it passes through a rare, mature oak and sweetgum forest. During spring migration, look for woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireos, wrens, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks.
During the nesting season, look for warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, eastern wood-pewee, great crested flycatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak and Baltimore oriole. Continue until you spy on the left a Phragmites marsh off in the distance. Walk through a tunnel under the Major Deegan Expressway into Croton Woods. (Refer to Croton Woods for the continuation of the John Muir Trail.)
John Muir Trail
©NYC Parks Avila
The John Muir Trail proper begins at Van Cortlandt Park East and East 235 Street (near where you can park your car). Enter the park near a small stand of red cedar, which encircles the Stockbridge Indian Monument commemorating a Native American battle. If you are there in mid-May, check the oaks lining the street for a variety of warbler species. Continue west on the path until you come to an intersection. Explore the area to your left (south). Then take the right, pass the Phragmites marsh, and come to Nursery Road. A pileated woodpecker has been seen feeding at close range in April 2011 in this area. This is the typical time for pileated sightings in the park in general. Make a left (west) and continue under the Major Deegan Expressway into the Croton Woods section.
In fall and winter, you have to possibility of flushing common snipe and American woodcock from the perimeter of the marsh.
Croton Woods contains an uncommon oak-tulip tree forest, with sugar maple, covering 158 acres. Croton Woods has the same nesting species as the Northeast Woods and indigo bunting has been found nesting near the gas station on the Major Deegan Expressway.
by D. Speiser
Also seen here was a ruby-throated hummingbird late in the nesting season. Close to the Croton Woods, along the Mosholu Parkway, great horned owls have used an old red-tailed hawk nest as their own. During spring migration, these moist woods provide prime habitat for upland birds. The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail runs north-south through these lush woods. You may wish to explore this mile-long trail or continue on the John Muir Trail, which eventually takes you to the Northwest Forest.
To continue on the John Muir Trail, go west away from I-87 (Major Deegan Expressway) and bear right (north) at an intersection. Head north for a short period and look for a well-worn, edged trail on the left. Take this trail until you come to a wide flat trail, the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which runs north-south. In this area, great horned owl is found in winter. Make a left (south) on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, passing an old gatehouse. During spring migration, check the gatehouse area for prothonotary warbler.
Just south of a stream turn right (west), taking the steps downhill (the stream should be on your right) until you reach a trail at the bottom bordering the Van Cortlandt Golf Course fence. Turn left (south), with the fence on your right, hugging it as the trail turns and bears west along the Mosholu Parkway Extension and then south to another tunnel, this one under the Mosholu Parkway Extension. Pass through and continue up the hill on your left; the parkway is now on your right. Heading west, stay on the trail that is closest to the parkway and you will eventually reach an intersection with a bridge on your right. At this point, if you turn left (south) uphill you are on Vault Hill. If you continue west, you will enter the Parade Ground. To continue on the John Muir Trail to the Northwest Forest, turn right (north) and cross the bridge spanning the Henry Hudson Parkway. (Refer to the Northwest Forest section to continue on the final stretch of the John Muir Trail.)
by D. Speiser
The Northwest Forest is a dramatic 188-acre woodland atop a north-south ridge with rocky outcroppings. It can be entered directly from Broadway (western edge) and Mosholu Avenue (near both a parking lot and a bus stop at the riding stables). Or you can reach the forest by continuing on the John Muir Trail from the Croton Woods. When you cross a bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway you are in the Northwest Forest. Follow the trail to the brick building on your left. At this point you are near the end of the John Muir Trail. You may choose to stay on the road, passing the stables, to reach the intersection of Broadway and Mosholu Avenue, where you can pick up public transportation.
©NYC Parks Avila
Or you may choose to explore the Northwest Forest. The Cass Gallagher Nature Trail, named in memory of a Bronx resident devoted to protecting the park, passes through this over a century-old oak forest with an understory of sassafras, spicebush, and mapleleaf viburnum and white wood aster in the ground layer. Other trails include the Bridle Path, and Putnam Trail, an old railroad bed. Many of the same breeding species seen in the Northeast Forest and Croton Woods can be found here. Some of the permanent residents of the northern forests include hairy woodpecker and Carolina wren.
by F. Portmann
The eastern screech-owl nests in these woods. If you arrive as the setting sun filters through the trees, this forest can be most impressive.
From the Van Cortlandt Golf House (there are municipal parking lots nearby where there are both paid and free parking year round), there is a good view of Van Cortlandt Lake. The Golf House (with restrooms) is open during the warm months. You can buy a snack here and eat it on a deck overlooking the lake where you can watch northern rough-winged and other swallows (mostly tree and barn) hawking for insects. The barn swallows nest under the old railroad bridge and the tree swallows nest on the golf course. double-crested cormorants can be seen drying their outstretched wings. Also in the warm weather, you can view basking eastern painted turtles and red-eared sliders. In winter gadwall and hooded merganser are seen on the lake. An American white pelican once wound up on the lake for a day.
Walk up the west side of the lake following the John Kieran Nature Trail (named in honor of the author of A Natural History of New York City, 1959, as it goes through the lake area and freshwater wetlands and loops around to the eastern edge of the Parade Ground. (You can pick up a trail map from the Urban Park Rangers at the Urban Forest Ecology Center, which is on the southern end of the Parade Ground.) When you reach the concrete bridge over Tibbetts Brook at the north end of Van Cortlandt Lake, look for foraging great blue heron and great egret along the shore of the northern portion of the lake. North of the concrete bridge, American redstarts may nest. Large numbers of rusty blackbirds, as many as over 500, have regularly overwintered in the swamp, though they have declined in numbers in recent years. Belted kingfisher may be seen or heard most of the year outside the nesting season. Eastern kingbird and Baltimore oriole may be seen as they feed young.
by D. Speiser
Go north along the wetlands and take the first path on the left. The wooden footbridge is the best vantage for wood duck and warbling vireo, the wood duck even occasionally in winter. Cedar waxwing sometimes nests in the area. In winter look for green-winged teal. The Eurasian green-winged teal also has spent time here. In any season, Tibbetts Brook and its associated wetlands are prime areas for birdwatching.
Continue on the trail to the Parade Ground (where Teddy Roosevelt reviewed his troops), now a large stretch of playing fields and cricket pitches. Wintering horned larks and snow buntings have been seen here. To reach the subway or bus from here, cross the Parade Ground to Broadway. In September, make a detour to the wetland behind the pool, a habitat for ruby-throated hummingbird.
If you wish to continue birding to the north, trails begin on the east side of the Parade Ground. One starts at the base of Vault Hill (former burial plot of the Van Cortlandts; also in 1776, a hiding place for city records) and goes north along the base (next to the golf course). Another takes a sharp left uphill and then right following the ridge. (Both eventually cross over the Henry Hudson Parkway to the Northwest Forest.) Vault Hill rises 169 feet above sea level and offers a lovely view of the Parade Ground and, on a clear day, the Manhattan skyline. Watch for chimney swift, which nests nearby, flying overhead. About two fertile acres of meadow with little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass, and wildflowers, such as showy tick-trefoil and round-headed bush clover, form prime butterfly habitat from May to July. Among the Lepidopteran fauna look for skippers, such as the hoary edge. Blue-gray gnatcatchers apparently nest here regularly.
by F. Portmann
The Parade Ground and Vault Hill are good places to look for migrating hawks, particularly inland migrants such as sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, broad-winged, and red-tailed hawks and American kestrels.
In any wooded section of the park in any season, if you come across a flock of noisy, nervous American crows, chances are they have encountered a hawk and are in the process of mobbing it. The crows tend to get even more excited at the sight of a great horned owl, which you may be lucky enough to see, too.
The Nature Center (with restrooms), run by the Urban Park Rangers and located to the east of Broadway at West 246th Street on the south end of the Parade Ground, is the only city nature center addressing the protection and preservation of urban forests. It also houses the Junior Bird and Nature Club for children 8 and over.
You can pick up a trail map from the Center.
Van Cortlandt House Museum
The nationally landmarked Van Cortlandt House, built in 1748 by Frederick Van Cortlandt, is an exceptional example of Georgian architecture. Tours are run every day except Monday.
When to Go
Spring songbird migration includes the period March 15 to May 31, with peak warbler migration around May 5 to 21. The best birding is often between dawn and 11am, but in the northern forests, the hours of 2-5pm can also be good.
During the spring-summer breeding season (May to mid-July), the best time in the day is one half-hour after dawn (the peak) to 10:30am. Nesting wood duck and young can be seen from May 15 to June 15.
Immature Northern Harrier
by F. Portmann
Autumn hawk migration runs from September through mid-November with the peak for broad-winged hawk September 12 to 22. Hawkwatching is best started at 10am and can continue until 4pm.
There are good birding opportunities in winter. On rare occasions long-eared owl can been seen from mid-November to February, usually on Vault Hill. Great horned owl may be seen from late January to mid-March in any crow or squirrel nest in the wooded sections. Wild turkey is present year-round, evoking earlier and wilder woodlands of the Northeast.
Optimal Weather Conditions
During mid May, warbler and songbird “fallout” can be impressive, especially on the first clear day following a few days of inclement weather. In general, warm and sunny days are good throughout spring migration and on into the breeding season. During fall hawk and songbird migration, look for a day with northwesterly winds, between 5 and 15 mph. To see hawks distinctly, wait for a day with cumulus and cirrus clouds to act as a backdrop, although they can also be seen against clear, blue skies. In winter, reliable days for birding are sunny and windless. If the swamp and lake are not frozen over, they are good places to investigate for waterfowl and other waterbirds.
Birding with a friend or two is best, not only for your safety, but also for those extra sets of eyes and ears. Be mindful of the joggers and bicyclists using the trails (bikers are permitted on paved paths and the Putnam Trail only, which will be paved). Watch out for poison ivy. Dog and deer ticks are rare.
Roger Tory Peterson, while a member of the Bronx County Bird Club (now defunct), would often walk the same trails you will explore.
Woodlawn Cemetery is just south of the Northeast Forest area and offers good birding in winter. There are many evergreens that serve as roosts for owls. Merlin, red-breasted nuthatch, and hermit thrush can also be found. A pond in the northeast corner is good for ducks. The cemetery, which opens at 9am, is best investigated by car. Ask for a map at the entrance gate (where Bainbridge Avenue meets Jerome Avenue).
The Major Deegan Expressway has two park exits: Van Cortlandt Park South, which serves the south and west portions of the park, and East 233rd St., which serves the north and east. The Henry Hudson Parkway's Broadway exits also serve the park. Mosholu Parkway links Van Cortlandt Park with the Bronx River and Pelham Parkways.
The northern terminus of the IRT No.1 train at W. 242nd Street is just south of the Parade Ground. The IRT No. 4's last stop at Woodlawn serves the park's south eastern area.
The Bx9 travels along Broadway on the western edge of Van Cortlandt Park. The BxM3, an express line serving Manhattan, also offers access to the park's western border. The park's east side is served by the Bx16 and the Bx34. Westchester bus lines Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 20 and 21 also serve the park.
Click here for Google map and directions to the center of the park.
Resource Person for Van Cortlandt Park:
2012 and 2001 - David S. Künstler, Wildlife Manager, Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks, City of New York/Parks and Recreation.