The state Department of Environmental Conservation has divided New York into nine separate administrative districts known as Regions and all eleven Finger Lakes are located within two of them—Regions 7 and 8. From east to west, Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco and Cayuga Lakes are situated in Region 7 and the remaining seven, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock and Conesus, are located in Region 8.
Also sprinkled across these two Regions are thousands of acres of State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas. In fact, there are almost a million acres of DEC-managed public land spread throughout the Empire State, not including the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. Because I live in the western part of Region 8, I focus a lot of my wildlife photography attention on places like Hemlock-Canadice, Canaseraga, and Ossian State Forests and Conesus Inlet and Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Areas. Altogether, these five wild places comprise more than 15,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands and one of them contains the only two remaining wild and undeveloped Finger Lakes: Hemlock and Canadice.
State forests and wildlife management areas are free and open to the public for hiking, hunting, fishing, trapping, and other activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing—and in my case—wildlife photography. Some even allow camping. And Hemlock and Canadice Lakes are popular among canoeists, kayakers and small-boat fishermen. I spend a lot of time in Canaseraga and Ossian State Forests and Rattlesnake Hill WMA for three reasons: They are located within a 10-minute drive from where I live, and they’re contiguous to one another, combining nearly 8,000 acres of public land—all in one piece—where I can roam with my cameras.
But the biggest reason I like to focus on these three tracts is because I usually have them all to myself. Except during the various hunting seasons, I can spend an entire day in any of these woodlands and not see another person. What I do see, however, is a variety of wildlife ranging from cottontail rabbits to whitetail deer and water birds like wood ducks, kingfishers and great blue herons.
Access through all three pieces is via single-lane gravel roads, once known as truck trails, and gated logging roads, which can be used for hiking. Rattlesnake Hill has a network of horse trails that can be used to access its wild “backcountry” without getting lost. Manmade and beaver ponds are sprinkled throughout all three pieces, making ideal settings for setting up a photo blind built from sticks and other natural materials. The regional forest ranger is the only other person who knows where some of my blinds are. I think he challenges himself to find them. If you’re serious about photographing wild animals and birds, or if you just want a wild place to hike, consider exploring a state forest or wildlife management area near you. You can find listings for both here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/.