Van Cortlandt Park

Van Cortlandt Park

The varied terrain of Van Cortlandt Park provides habitat for woodland, wetland, and grassland birds. Photo: TheTurducken/CC BY 2.0
Van Cortlandt Park, covering 1,146 hilly acres in the northwest Bronx, is our third-largest city park. Over half the acreage contains natural areas, including deciduous forests, scrubland, meadows, ridges, wetlands, brooks, and a man-made lake, providing vital avian habitat. NYC Parks manages the park in partnership with Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, and with assistance from other nonprofits such as Friends of Canine Court and New York Cares. 
 
Van Cortlandt Park became a city park in 1888, and it has been the subject of much organized bird study over the years; early surveys were conducted by influential birders such as Allan D. Cruickshank and Roger Tory Peterson, who frequently walked the park’s trails in the early-to-mid twentieth century. 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.
Great Horned Owls are year-round residents in Van Cortlandt Park, nesting in the late winter and early spring. Photo: <a href="https://www.fotoportmann.com/" target="_blank">François Portmann</a>
Great Horned Owls are year-round residents in Van Cortlandt Park, nesting in the late winter and early spring. Photo: François Portmann
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher migrates through Van Cortlandt Park; a few pairs may stay to nest. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/atlnature/33626798478/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Shawn Taylor/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY 2.0</a>
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher migrates through Van Cortlandt Park; a few pairs may stay to nest. Photo: Shawn Taylor/CC BY 2.0

The robin-like song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak may be heard in the woodlands of Van Cortlandt Park. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/87792096@N00/40108862180/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Mark Moschell/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC 2.0</a>
The robin-like song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak may be heard in the woodlands of Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Mark Moschell/CC BY-NC 2.0

Birding Highlights by the Season

(no star = birding is not very productive, = somewhat productive, ✸✸ = productive, ✸✸✸ = very productive)
 
Spring Migration ✸✸✸ 
Warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, and other songbirds, swallows, waterfowl
 
Summer ✸✸    
Nesting Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Hairy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Baltimore Oriole
 
Fall Migration ✸✸✸ 
Raptors, warblers, American Pipit, sparrows, Rusty Blackbird (fall through spring)
 
Winter ✸✸
Owls, accipiters, grebes and mergansers, mixed songbird feeding flocks
 
Year-Round Highlights
Great Horned Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, woodpeckers


Get Oriented


Forest-dwelling Great Crested Flycatchers nest in Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Laura Meyers "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Forest-dwelling Great Crested Flycatchers nest in Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Laura Meyers

Van Cortlandt Park’s woodlands and meadows attract a great variety of songbirds, waterbirds, and raptors during migration, while owls, accipiters, and unusual waterfowl are winter specialties. Over 60 species were found breeding here in a census conducted by NYC Audubon in 2006, including Great Horned Owl, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Data collected for New York State’s Breeding Bird Atlas III, running from 2020 to 2024, will provide an updated tally. (Learn more about breeding bird surveys of Van Cortlandt Park.) 

During the early and mid-1900s, the Major Deegan Expressway and Henry Hudson and Mosholu parkways were built, splitting the park into five segments: The Northeast Forest, Croton Woods, Northwest Forest, and Southwest Zone are the most productive birding areas, described below. Each section is accessible by mass transit. With a car, you can reach all birding areas in one day. (The southeast zone is the site of two municipal golf courses, and birding is somewhat limited. However, just north of Mosholu Golf Course, in the mature oak-sweetgum forest surrounding the Allen Shandler Recreation Area, over a dozen species of warbler may be seen on a spring morning in early May.) 
 
Below, we describe the main birding areas of Van Cortlandt Park on a virtual walk through the park, starting off at the John Muir Trail trailhead at the northeast corner of the park, and offering various alternative routes. As you read, and as you bird and hike in the park, we recommend you refer to the excellent Van Cortlandt Park Alliance map of Van Cortlandt Park
During migration, the tranquil woodlands of the John Muir trail may offer glimpses of woodland species such as Swainson’s Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Yellow-throated Vireo. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/horsepunchkid/15501328365/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Steven Severinghaus/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</a>
During migration, the tranquil woodlands of the John Muir trail may offer glimpses of woodland species such as Swainson’s Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Yellow-throated Vireo. Photo: Steven Severinghaus/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Northeast Forest
Enter the Northeast Forest just south of the Van Cortlandt Park’s northeast corner, via the John Muir Trail. (You can park your car near the trail head; there is also a bus stop right at the park’s corner.) The trail begins at the intersection of Van Cortlandt Park East and Oneida Avenue, near a small stand of Eastern Red Cedar. These trees encircle the Stockbridge Indian Monument, commemorating a Native American battle. If you are there in late April or May, before you enter the trail, check the oaks lining the street for a variety of warbler species.
 
The rustic, 1.5-mile John Muir Trail meanders east to west through prime birding habitat in the Northeast Forest, Croton Woods, and the Northwest Forest, passing 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, you may find Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. 
 
Bird the trail from its start until you spy a Phragmites reed marsh off in the distance to your left. (In fall and winter, there’s a chance of flushing Wilson’s Snipe or American Woodcock from the perimeter of the marsh.) Walk through a tunnel under the Major Deegan Expressway into Croton Woods. (Refer to the Croton Woods section below for the continuation of the John Muir Trail.)
While Prothonotary Warblers rarely breed this far north, they occasionally “overshoot” while traveling north in the spring, and appear in New York City parks (and then presumably head back south). Photo: David Boltz/Audubon Photography Awards
While Prothonotary Warblers rarely breed this far north, they occasionally “overshoot” while traveling north in the spring, and appear in New York City parks (and then presumably head back south). Photo: David Boltz/Audubon Photography Awards
Croton Woods
Croton Woods contains an uncommon oak/Tulip Popular forest, with some Sugar Maple, covering 158 acres. This forest hosts the same nesting species as the Northeast Woods. Indigo Bunting has been found nesting near the gas station on the Major Deegan Expressway. Ruby-throated Hummingbird has also been seen here late in the nesting season. 
 
The trail soon crosses a wide flat trail, the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which runs north-south. Great Horned Owl is found in this area in winter, and close to the Croton Woods, along the Mosholu Parkway, a a pair of owls has used an old Red-tailed Hawk nest as their own. Please be quiet near roosting and nesting owls. Not all owls survive the winter, and added stress may be harmful. Stay as far away as possible using a field telescope or binoculars. (If an owl is staring at you, you are probably too close.) Make all visits short. Do not linger to get better photographs.Visit our Birding Law & Ethics page to learn more about how to avoid disturbing owls and other birds.

You may wish to explore the mile-long Aqueduct trail before continuing on the John Muir Trail. If you take a left (walk south) on the Aqueduct Trail, you’ll pass an old gatehouse. During spring migration, check the gatehouse area for Prothonotary Warbler. These moist woods provide prime habitat for upland birds. 

 Indigo Buntings nest in a mixed habitat of meadows and trees. Photo: Judy Gallagher/CC BY 2.0 "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content">  Indigo Buntings nest in a mixed habitat of meadows and trees. Photo: Judy Gallagher/CC BY 2.0

West of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, continue on the John Muir Trail (and refer to your trail map!) as it zigs and zags past a stream, down steps, along the Van Cortlandt Golf Course fence, and through another tunnel, under the Mosholu Parkway Extension. Continuing 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 below to continue on the final stretch of the John Muir Nature Trail.)
The rocky woodlands of Van Cortlandt Park. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenpisano/10844163986/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Steven Pisano/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC 2.0</a>
The rocky woodlands of Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Steven Pisano/CC BY-NC 2.0
Northwest Forest
The Northwest Forest is a dramatic 188-acre woodland atop a north-south ridge with rocky outcroppings. The forest can be entered directly at its western edge from Broadway and Mosholu Avenue (near both a parking lot and a bus stop at the riding stables). 
 
If continuing on the John Muir Trail from Croton Woods, you can enter the Northwest Forest by crossing the bridge spanning the Henry Hudson Parkway. Once over the bridge, follow the trail past the bathrooms on your left. At this point you are near the end of the John Muir Trail. To exit the park, you continue past the stables to a parking lot and then follow Mosholu Avenue to leave the park at Broadway, where you can pick up public transportation.
 
From the end of the John Muir Trail, you can also head north on a network of trails 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 100-year-old oak forest with an understory of Sassafras, Northern Spicebush, and Mapleleaf Viburnum, with White Wood Aster in the ground layer. Other trails include the Bridle Path and Putnam Trail. 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. Eastern Screech-Owl has nested in these woods. If you arrive as the setting sun filters through the trees, this forest can be most impressive.
Van Cortlandt Park is a good spot to find Wood Duck, Rough-winged Swallow, and Great Blue Heron. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/turducken/50069924562/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: TheTurducken/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY 2.0</a>
Van Cortlandt Park is a good spot to find Wood Duck, Rough-winged Swallow, and Great Blue Heron. Photo: TheTurducken/CC BY 2.0
Southwest Zone: Van Cortlandt Lake and Tibbetts Brook
From the Van Cortlandt Golf House (there are municipal parking lots nearby where both paid and free parking are available 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, Tree, and Barn Swallows hawking for insects. 
 
Barn Swallows nest under the old railroad bridge and Tree Swallows nest on the golf course. Double-crested Cormorants can be seen drying their outstretched wings. In 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. 
 
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, once overwintered regularly in the swamp here, but 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.

Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities near fresh water, and may be seen in Van Cortlandt Park year-round. Photo: François Portmann "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities near fresh water, and may be seen in Van Cortlandt Park year-round. Photo: François Portmann

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 occasionally over-winter. (Nesting Wood Duck and young may be seen from mid-May to mid-June.) Cedar Waxwing sometimes nests in the area. In winter look for Green-winged Teal; Eurasian Green-winged Teal also has spent time here. In any season, Tibbetts Brook and its associated wetlands are prime areas for birdwatching. In September, Jewelweed growing in this area makes it a good habitat for migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. 
Birders scan the Parade Ground carefully for unusual species such as this Lapland Longspur, foraging in the grass with Horned Larks. Photo: Anders Peltomaa
Birders scan the Parade Ground carefully for unusual species such as this Lapland Longspur, foraging in the grass with Horned Larks. Photo: Anders Peltomaa
Southwest Zone: Parade Ground
After crossing Tibbetts Brook, continue on the trail to the Parade Ground (where Teddy Roosevelt reviewed his troops), now a large stretch of playing fields and cricket pitches. American Pipits are a possibility here during migration. Wintering Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs have been found here, as have a variety of unusual goose species that come to graze, including Cackling, Barnacle, and Greater White-fronted Geese. 
 
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.) 
Sharp-shinned Hawks and other raptors may be seen from Vault Hill as they migrate through Van Corltandt Park. Photo: <a href="https://www.lilibirds.com/" target="_blank">David Speiser</a>
Sharp-shinned Hawks and other raptors may be seen from Vault Hill as they migrate through Van Corltandt Park. Photo: David Speiser
Southwest Zone: Vault Hill and Hawkwatch
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. This is an excellent spot to look for migrating hawks, particularly inland migrants such as Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Broad-winged, and Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels. (Here as 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.)
 
In the Vault Hill area, watch for Chimney Swift, which nests nearby, flying overhead. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have also regularly nested here. From May to July, the hill is also a prime butterfly spot: Lepidopteran fauna such as the Hoary Edge Skipper are attracted by two fertile acres of meadow with Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and wildflowers such as Showy Tick-trefoil and Round-headed Bush Clover. 
The stately Van Cortlandt House, dating to 1748, is open as a museum. The Van Cortlandt Nature Center is a smaller building to the east of the house. Photo: NYC Parks
The stately Van Cortlandt House, dating to 1748, is open as a museum. The Van Cortlandt Nature Center is a smaller building to the east of the house. Photo: NYC Parks
Van Cortlandt Nature Center and Van Cortlandt House
The Van Cortlandt Nature Center (with restrooms) is located on the south end of the Parade Ground, to the east of Broadway at West 246th Street. Run by the Urban Park Rangers, it is the only city nature center addressing the protection and preservation of urban forests.
 
The nationally landmarked Van Cortlandt House, built in 1748 by Frederick Van Cortlandt, is next door to the Van Cortlandt Nature Center. The house is an exceptional example of Georgian architecture. 
Woodlawn Cemetery’s grounds include an impressive arboretum and a lake where Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Wood Duck are often found. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/catchesthelight/14280230270/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: BEV Norton/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
Woodlawn Cemetery’s grounds include an impressive arboretum and a lake where Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Wood Duck are often found. Photo: BEV Norton/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Nearby: Woodlawn Cemetery
Woodlawn Cemetery is just south of the Northeast Forest area and offers good birding in winter and during migration. The cemetery’s impressive collection of mature trees attracts songbirds during migration, and woodpeckers, including frequent Hairy Woodpecker, year-round. Great Horned Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, and Wild Turkey have all bred in recent years on the cemetery grounds. The Cemetery’s lake is frequented by Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher; Merlin is also often seen in this area. 
 
NYC Audubon leads spring and fall walks in partnership with the Woodlawn Conservancy. Visit our Local Trips page for information on upcoming walks. 
A Green Heron stalks its prey in Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Bill Benish "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A Green Heron stalks its prey in Van Cortlandt Park. Photo: Bill Benish

When to Go 

To see birding highlights at Van Cortlandt Park by the season, see the top of this page. 
 

To learn about bird migration times and get other timing tips, see the When to Bird in NYC guide on our Birding 101 page.

 
For Van Cortlandt Park operating hours, see the “Directions and Visiting Info” section, below.

eBird

View eBird hotspot records for Van Cortlandt Park to explore recent bird sightings, species bar charts, and more. (Click on “Hotspot Map” at left to see other specific hotspots within the park.)
 

Personal Safety

 In Van Cortlandt Park, 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). Watch out for poison ivy. Dog and deer ticks are rare.
 

Guided Bird Walks

NYC Audubon leads regular bird walks in Van Cortlandt Park in partnership with the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance. Visit our Free and Partner Walks page for information on upcoming walks.

Directions and Visiting Info

 
Visit the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance directions page for directions and links to more information.
 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to those who provided local birding expertise for this page: Joseph McManus (2020); David S. Künstler (2012 and 2001).