The Finger Lakes “Big Five”

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Fred Bertram.

Which animals from the region are your favorites?

Vote for your Big Five at the end of this article.

I have always been an avid reader. In my youth, I was fascinated by tales of high adventure and exploration. I devoured books and magazine articles that recounted the stories of travelers to far-off, wild places; my favorites involved animals. At the time, the idea of packing a gun and provisions and traveling to remote corners of the globe to hunt big game held great appeal; I was particularly keen on bagging the “Big Five” African trophies. The Big Five (rhino, lion, elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard) were considered to be the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Such are the goals of an 11-year-old boy.

By John VanNiel

Decades later, I find my appetite for travel has not diminished, but I photograph animals abroad rather than reduce them to possession. While researching our family safari to Africa a few years ago, I discovered that the concept of the Big Five was alive and well … and so were the animals. In African nations with no sport hunting, the Big Five are now pursued with a camera and binoculars. Other wildlife destinations have adopted the concept – our guides in Europe, Brazil and Borneo all spoke of their own versions.

Since these modern Big Five lists were created with wildlife watchers in mind, rather than hunters, inclusion on the list no longer means an animal is dangerous. They are usually large and exciting (“charismatic megafauna,” if you will) and representative of the area being visited. Europe’s Big Five includes the brown bear and wolf, while Brazil’s list has exotic-sounding creatures like tapir and giant otter, and in Borneo we searched for the likes of orangutans and pygmy elephants.

This got me thinking. What would the Finger Lakes Big Five be? I had my own ideas, but I wanted to hear from other wildlife professionals in the Finger Lakes. I reached out to biologists, technicians, educators and wildlife photographers, both active and retired, and asked them what five species would best represent the Finger Lakes Region. If we were to promote wildlife to visitors, what would be the “sought after species” for wildlife watchers? The response was overwhelming, and I quickly had nominations for over 30 animals across several groups.

So, it is with great deliberation that I present you this pared down list (in alphabetical order) of my top 10 nominees for the Finger Lakes Big Five.

Bald Eagle

Only 50 years ago, New York was down to a single nesting pair of bald eagles. In 1976, the Bald Eagle Restoration Project brought nestling eagles from as far away as Alaska and “hacked” them at places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. These eagles grew up thinking of New York as home, and many contributed to the successful rise in population of this magnificent bird. Today, there are dozens of nests in the Finger Lakes Region alone, and eagles are relatively easy to locate throughout the year if one knows where to look.

Andrea VanBeusichem, visitor service manager at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge reports that bald eagles are the most sought after species among tourists. “Visitors come to the Refuge from all over the United States and other countries,” she explains. “It is now known that bald eagles are commonly seen here, and people visit expecting to see them. I would think the bald eagle would be an obvious choice for the Finger Lakes Big Five.”


The largest rodent in North America, the beaver can weigh over 60 pounds. Art Kirsch, senior biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

(NYS DES) was one of several people who nominated the beaver. “I picked the beaver because they toil in relative anonymity, but create wonderfully rich wetland habitats – one of a very few wildlife species that alters their own habitat so profoundly,” he explains. “They also have a work ethic we should all aspire to!” Beaver are abundant in the Finger Lakes and their dams, lodges and felled trees are easy to find.

Black Bear

Although this species is difficult to encounter in the wild, I agree with the sentiments of Jim Eckler, wildlife biologist at the Northern Montezuma Field Office for the NYS DES. Eckler told me black bears “might be the easiest one to add to the Finger Lakes Big Five list according to the qualities used in the African list. They are big. They are game animals, and if you’ve ever encountered them in the woods, you understand what the word ‘wild’ really means.”

The Finger Lakes Region today has more forest than farmland, and that habitat change favors species like black bears. Currently, bears are most common in the southwestern part of the Finger Lakes, but are increasingly seen in other areas as well.

Great Blue Heron

If you’ve sat on the porch of a lake cottage or canoed a Finger Lakes inlet or outlet, you know the great blue heron. I nominated the great blue because it’s common in our area throughout the snowless months (a few may be found where shallow, open water exists in winter), and is tied to water for both feeding and nesting. This bird is large, with a wingspan of 6 feet or more.

Linda Ziemba, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge went so far as to call them majestic. “The great blue heron is emblematic of the Finger Lakes, as it relies on our beautiful waterways and wetlands,” she explains. “It is usually seen alone, walking slowly and quietly, stalking prey; or standing statue-like, waiting to ambush a small aquatic animal for its next meal. However, when nesting, great blue herons gather in large flocks, high in trees. It can be comical to experience these “heronries,” as the birds’ normally graceful appearance along the water gives way to a raucous, clumsy party of gangly, noisy birds.”

Lake Trout

I must confess, I am not much of an angler and I never even thought of a fish when I came up with my nominees for this list. But several people nominated fish, with lake trout being mentioned the most often. I asked Scott Smith, a NYS DEC biologist, why he considered this species for the list.

“I'm just intrigued by the history of lake trout fishing in the Finger Lakes,” he explains. “There are old guys that still fish without a rod – just holding on to a copper-wire ‘Seth Green’ rig, giving it just the right twitch to activate the Sutton spoons (developed in Naples). Or you can catch them through modern trolling, vertical jigging and even with bait off the dock. The season is open year round and they can be caught through the ice. You can go after big ones on Cayuga or Seneca, or fill the freezer with better tasting, smaller ones from Keuka.”

Geneva hosts the National Lake Trout Derby each year and entrants come from far and wide to participate.

River Otter

Although this is another hard- to-spot species, I nominated the river otter because it’s also another management success story. Extirpated from the Finger Lakes for decades, the otter is again a resident due to the combined efforts of several groups and scores of individuals. In the 1990s, the New York River Otter Project was responsible for translocating hundreds of otters to the Finger Lakes.

Dennis Money, president of the non-profit organization Seneca White Deer Inc., played a pivotal role in bringing the otters back to the Finger Lakes. “The return of the river otter to Central and Western New York marks one of the final chapters in restoring wildlife which was so abused prior to regulations and the formation of the Conservation Department in the 1930s,” he explains. “The river otter symbolizes a free spirit which links the terrestrial and aquatic environments of our state, bringing joy to the faces of the young and young at heart.”

Sandhill Crane

Superficially, sandhill cranes look like great blue herons. They both are long-legged birds with long necks. But the similarities end there. Cranes fly with their necks straight out, feed mostly in upland habitats, rather than in the water, and are not really closely related to herons.

Sandhill cranes make an excellent representative of the Finger Lakes. The very first sandhill crane nest in New York’s history was discovered in the Finger Lakes in 2003. Since then, several more nesting pairs have become established, and migrating flocks are seen each fall. I often hear cranes before I see them. They have a musical trumpeting that is unmistakable. A visit to the Finger Lakes offers the best chance to see sandhill cranes in New York State.

Snow Goose

Almost every person I surveyed mentioned one species of waterfowl (to an ornithologist that means swans, geese and ducks) or other. And rightfully so. The Finger Lakes are home to several species of breeding waterfowl. Canada geese are found here all year long, along with other nesting species such as mallard ducks. But it’s during the spring and fall migration that the lakes and skies are alive with a tremendous variety of species occurring in fantastic numbers. I chose to narrow the nomination to a single species: the snow goose.

Chris Lajewski, director of the Montezuma Audubon Center agrees with me. “On mild days in March, hundreds of thousands of snow geese ride the southerly winds and stop at the Montezuma Wetlands Complex during their long journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra of northern Canada,” he explains. So although snow geese are not year-round residents in the Finger Lakes, they provide wildlife watchers with the largest single-species wildlife spectacle each year. That earns them a spot on this list of nominees.

White-tailed Deer

Another obvious candidate, the white-tailed deer, or whitetail, is large and common. Each season of the year holds special significance: small spotted fawns in the spring, antlered males in the fall, dark-brown winter coats that contrast with light-reddish pelage in summer. Deer play out the drama of their lives in full view of anyone who cares to see. At the time of this writing, there is a truly unique opportunity to view white deer in the Finger Lakes. That particular color variation of the white-tailed deer occurs throughout their entire range, but the circumstances of deer restricted by the high fences of the former Seneca Army Depot, and the protection of the white deer that were born inside that fence, combined to create a herd that numbers in the hundreds.

Wild Turkey

Wild turkeys are large and loud; and because they are non-migratory, they stay in the Finger Lakes throughout the year. Dr. Frank Smith, professor emeritus at Finger Lakes Community College had the wild turkey at the top of his list and noted that they “typically occur in small- to medium-sized flocks that allow one to enjoy the behavior and interaction among individuals.” When asked if he had a favorite behavior in mind, Dr. Smith said “the strutting display of the males in spring – with sunlight reflecting off their bronze feathers and the vivid red, white and blue hues of their head – is a truly beautiful reminder that winter is almost over.”

Click here to take the "Big Five" survey to vote for your favorite animals from the region today!

There is another way to tell us what your favorite five are. Simply list them.


U.S. Mail
Life in the Finger Lakes
Magazine “Big Five”

PO Box 1080
Geneva, NY 14456


Results will be published in the upcoming September/October 2016 issue!

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