Experience what locals have known for decades: In addition to being the perfect destination to kick back and relax, the Southern Finger Lakes region of New York is a paradise for wildlife and those who love it. You’ll find thousands of lushly forested acres and a wide variety of lakes, creeks, and ponds that combine to provide a most welcome habitat for critters.
One of the state’s largest populations of white-tailed deer means seeing a few is almost a guarantee if you know where to look. Early mornings are one of the very best times for spotting wildlife of all kinds, but particularly deer who tend to steer away from crowds. Plan an early morning hike before anyone else is on the trail or get out at dusk when deer are looking for a cozy spot to bed down for the night. Spring is an enchanting time for deer as the sweet spotted fawns begin to appear, while fall gives you the chance to see the impressive antlers of the bucks.
Once teetering on the brink of extinction in New York State there are now more than 300 bald eagle territories located throughout the state, including many in the Southern Finger Lakes region. A few other notable birds to look out for are the great blue heron, sandhill crane, snow goose, wild turkeys, and copious amounts of songbirds. A great way to see them is by taking a trip on the Chemung River. The Palisades section between Corning and Elmira is known for views of eagles and herons, plus there are two osprey nests toward the end of the trip. You can take a guided paddle with the folks at Finger Lakes Adventure Center.
Well-known by anglers for its epic fishing, Keuka Lake is home to lake trout and smallmouth bass, among others, including rainbow trout, brown trout, and even landlocked salmon. It’s surrounding shores are home to all manner of waterfowl and small mammals. The truly lucky might catch a glimpse of the elusive loon (or at least hear its distinctive cries). A few other notable animals to be on the lookout for across the more remote areas of the Southern Finger Lake region include beaver, black bears, and river otter. While not likely to be seen in the more populated areas, they can sometimes be spied in the less developed woodland and wetland areas.
Now that you know a few of the best animals to look for, grab a camera, pack a picnic, and go exploring. Start at one of these locations where you’re most likely to see wildlife.
Cold Brook Wildlife Management Area
Tucked into the southern end of Keuka Lake near the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Museum in Hammondsport is the Cold Brook Wildlife Management Area. This is a charming spot to take a walk and look for deer, beaver, rabbits, and songbirds, and you may even spy an eagle’s nest. During the spring run, it’s an excellent fishing spot to sink a line into the Keuka Lake Inlet/Cold Brook, or come by in the fall to try for the brown trout.
Urbana State Forest
Fancy a bit of wine tasting before your wildlife watching? The Urbana State Forest might be the perfect bet. Located on the southeastern end of Keuka Lake, it’s not far from two popular vineyards—Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery and Heron Hill Winery. Urbana is one of the larger public parcels in the area, and there are two main hiking trails to explore. The Bog Nature Trail is a 4.3-mile loop, while the Urbana State Forest Loop stretches about 5.4 miles, including a short stretch of the famous 584-mile Finger Lakes Trail. Each trail goes by the Huckleberry Bog, giving you a chance to spy some of the local wetland creatures from the Wildlife Observation Platform. In the fall it’s known as a particularly excellent spot for deer watching.
Houghton Land Preserve
Short on time but longing for some nature? You can find pastoral bliss at the Houghton Land Preserve, which is just minutes from downtown Corning. Because of the wide variety of habitats found here, there is a surprising amount of wildlife on its small, but mighty 200 acres. Some of the most popular animals to look for include the small, yellow-topped blackbird known as a bobolink, the yellow-bellied cuckoo, and porcupines. There have even been a few black bear sightings by the lucky few.
Gleason Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary
Excellent bird watching can be found at the 35-acre Gleason Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, located in southern Steuben County. To maximize the bird spotting and animal watching opportunities, the property is closed to motorized traffic, and it offers a network of hiking trails that wander throughout the pine and hardwood forest. There’s even a little stream making it an almost ideal habitat. Bird sightings have included barred and great horned owls, downy woodpeckers, eastern wood pewees, scarlet tanagers, warblers, sparrows, and many more.
West Cameron Wildlife Management Area
About 45 minutes west of Corning lies the 165 lush acres of the West Cameron Wildlife Management Area. Situated along a ridgetop, this undeveloped area is the perfect place to wander under the hardwoods and look for the white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, and the multitude of birds that call it home.
Sugar Hill State Forest
The main claim to fame for the Sugar Hill State Forest is a 75-foot-tall fire tower, which is an excellent spot to start the search for wildlife, especially during autumn leaf-peeping season. You’ll find a wide variety of multi-use trails crisscrossing the forest, some of which are part of the Finger Lakes Trail and the Six Nations Trail System. The state forest is home to a range of habitats. Prairies host all manner of small mammals and birds including turkey, ruffed grouse, pheasant, northern harriers woodcock, and the state-endangered Henslow's sparrows. Beaver and mink thrive in the wetlands, and deer and fisher—a small, carnivorous mammal in the weasel family—roam the lushly tree-covered hills. This forest is also part of Motorized Access Programs for People with Disabilities, which helps those with limited mobility reach wild places.
Seneca Army Depot
One of the most intriguing wildlife experiences awaits you at the Seneca Army Depot, where the famed “ghost deer” roam. More than 70 years ago the defunct depot was closed off from the world, and in that time the isolation from predators and hunters helped lead to the world’s largest herd of white, white-tailed deer. Visitors here will learn more about the unusual deer and see the bones of the U.S. Army’s former weapons storage facility. Birders will delight in the vast array of feathered finds from eagles and red-tailed hawks to the American woodcock, willow flycatcher, brown thrasher, blue-winged warbler, eastern towhee, and field sparrow.
One last tip: For all locations, beware of one little bit of wildlife you want to avoid, ticks. They are highly active across the entire region when temps are above freezing, particularly in the late spring and early fall. So take precautions. But for those who enjoy exploring outdoor spaces—and the wildlife that lives there—the Southern Finger Lakes region is filled with can’t-miss opportunities. Enjoy the show.
Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated in partnership with Steuben County.