State biologists and various sportsmen's groups have teamed up to create some excellent grouse cover on western New York's public lands. Get in on the action now!
Photo by T.C. Flanigan
By J. Michael Kelly
Many western New York grouse gunners wore dour expressions on their faces during the spring of 2004. May, a critical time of the year for ground-nesting birds, was marked by one downpour after another in coverts across the state, and the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions got the worst soakings of all. In the Syracuse area, a record 7 1/2 inches of rain fell during the month - double the long-term average. The damp conditions posed a double threat to grouse, and for that matter, turkeys and ring-necked pheasants, by making it easier for predators to scent nesting hens and harder for thin-feathered hatchlings to survive the elements.
As a result, young-of-the-year birds might be scarcer than usual this fall, and that, in turn, could mean fewer flushes per mile.
Then again, maybe not. Gary Klock, a New York Department of Environmental Conservation Region 9 senior fish and wildlife technician, logged 10 inches of precipitation in May at his home in Allegany County. But while the rain gauge was on overload, the thermometer was registering a more welcome change.
"Around here, it was quite a bit warmer this spring than last," Klock said. "I'm hoping that will offset some of the rain."
Grouse-rousters had another reason to be cautiously optimistic going into the autumn season. Next to successful reproduction and nesting, the most important indicator of bird abundance in a given year is the availability of suitable habitat. With assistance from the Ruffed Grouse Society, the DEC has carried out numerous habitat-improvement projects in recent years on wildlife management areas and state forests in the state's western counties.
The following are among the best public-hunting grounds for grouse in DEC regions 7, 8 and 9, which together make up the western half of the state.
Although its grouse habitat has matured considerably in the last two decades, Allegany County still has some excellent grouse cover, even on public land. Two cases in point are the Hanging Bog and Keaney Swamp wildlife management areas.
Hanging Bog WMA, five miles north of the village of Cuba, has been a pet project of western New York members of the Ruffed Grouse Society. The judicious use of chain saws, in conjunction with DEC-organized timber sales, has yielded many small clearings as well as the first- and second-growth transitional zones, or edge cover, that grouse favor for nesting, brood-tending and browsing.
"We generally cut about 60 acres a year there," Klock said, "to a level of about 4 inches off the ground."
Klock also conducts an annual drumming count at Hanging Bog. The survey done this April indicated the local grouse population was up slightly over the previous spring, he said.
Despite its soggy-sounding name, Hanging Bog's 4,471 acres consist mainly of well-drained uplands.
Hunters will find Hanging Bog by taking state Route 305 north out of Cuba for about five miles, and then turning left onto either New Hudson or Briggs roads
Keaney Swamp WMA, which is about six miles southwest of Canaseraga, is another excellent place to hustle up a brace of birds, even though most of its 708 acres are wetlands. That's because the management area backs up against 2,408-acre Keaney Swamp State Forest, which consists almost entirely of upland cover. The state forest has a mix of hardwoods and evergreens on hilly terrain, while the swamp has some alder thickets that hold grouse around its margins.
The WMA is in the town of Birdsall. To pinpoint it, find Canaseraga in the northeast quadrant of Allegany County. From Canaseraga, take Route 70 west to Garwoods, and then turn left onto county Route 15B, which leads to Keaney Swamp.
Free brochures on the Keaney Swamp and Hanging Bog WMAs, including locator maps, are available upon request from the DEC's Region 9 office at (716) 372-0645. The DEC also offers a folding map, State Forests of Southwestern New York, which shows all public hunting areas in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.
Readers traveling a long distance to hunt the Keaney Swamp or Hanging Bog WMAs can find out about nearby lodging by calling the Allegany County Tourism office at (716) 268-9229.
At more than 16,000 acres, the Finger Lakes National Forest - New York's only national forest - is one of the largest public hunting grounds in the state, but its "official" size is a bit deceptive. The forest consists of numerous small- and medium-size parcels that are interspersed among farms and other private lands in southern Seneca and northern Schuyler counties, all overlooking the eastern shore of Seneca Lake.
Much of the so-called "forest" actually consists of old pasture and grasslands of little or no interest to grouse hunters. On the other hand, the checkerboard pattern of the Finger Lakes National Forest provides edge cover galore, and some of the best places to hunt grouse in the fall are to be found wherever the aforementioned fields and pastures abut wood lots. Experienced uplanders know that old farmland in the process of reverting to forest is some of the birdiest cover you are likely to find in western New York or anywhere else.
Although the national forest has too many microhabitats to list here, readers who drive around the premises will notice that the northern third of the complex, i.e., the Seneca County section, is relatively flat and open, while the southern two-thirds in Schuyler County are steeper and more heavily forested. While edge cover is the main attraction to birds in the northern part of the forest, wooded gullies and brushy sidehills should be thoroughly explored at the southern end.
To reach the Finger Lakes National Forest, take route 96A south from Geneva or follow Route 414 north from Watkins Glen.
The park ranger's office is in Hector at (607) 546-4470. Rangers are happy to supply interested hunters with maps and brochures that spell out regulations pertaining to use of the federal property.
For advice on lodging in the Watkins Glen area, visitors may contact the Schuyler County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 607-4552 or the Seneca County Tourism office at (800) 732-1848.
CONNECTICUT HILL WMA
Much as those who fish the Beaver Kill and Willowemoc Creek for trout have a kinship with history, grouse hunters who tramp the upland coverts of Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area become part of a storied tradition. It was at Connecticut Hill in Tompkins County that Dr. Gardner Bump and a bevy of Cornell University graduate students conducted a series of seminal research projects, from 1930 to 1945, that focused on the lifestyle of ruffed grouse. Their work was summed up in Bump's 1947 classic, The Ruffed Grouse. No New York bird hunter's education is complete until he or she has read the book and made a pilgrimage to the beautiful place that inspired it.
Connecticut Hill has changed dramatically since Bump's day, but it remains a promising place to hear the startling eruption of grouse wings. Thanks to thoughtful management by the DEC and the Ruffed Grouse Society, a significant percentage of the Hill's 11,610 acres are always in a state of succession that suits the needs of Ol' Ruff and those who pursue him.
Management efforts in recent years have included small clearcuts to encourage new growth and the mowing of at least 200 acres annually on a rotation basis to achieve a healthy mix of edge cover bordering wood lots and meadows.
Hunters who hike well off beaten paths will find scattered blocks of apple trees, the remnants of stone fences and even the occasional crumbling home foundation.
It is good hunting, but don't expect it to be easy going. As its name suggests, Connecticut Hill is quite steep, topping out at 2,000 feet above sea level. The WMA actually has hills mushrooming from hills, with at least a dozen peaks and countless wooded gullies.
Don't visit the place if you're not in good physical condition, and plan on walking a couple of hundred yards between flushes. The birds are there, but you will pay in sweat for each one.
Connecticut Hill is shared by Tompkins and Schuyler counties. You can find it by driving southwest from Ithaca on Route 13. It's about 16 miles from that college town, and readily accessible from either Carter Creek or Connecticut Hill roads. The first-named byway cuts through the eastern portion of the WMA, while the second slices north and west toward county Route 6.
Although pockets of good-looking cover can be found throughout the place, some of the birdier spots can be reached by hiking due north from the upper end of Connecticut Hill Road, and, on the east side of Carter Creek Road, up Doll Hill.
A free map-brochure is available from the DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland at (607) 753-3095.
For information on motels and restaurants near Connecticut Hill WMA, contact the Finger Lakes Tourism office at (800) 530-7488.
HOWLAND ISLAND WMA
Grouse at the Howland Island WMA spend their time in scattered pockets of timber and multiflora rose. If you are fond of hiking a good distance to reach birds that few hunters harry, the island might be just the place you've been looking for.
Managed primarily for waterfowl nesting and loafing habitat by the DEC, Howland Island's 3,600 acres are dotted with more than two dozen potholes of varying sizes. Among and between those weedy ponds are several plots of corn that are plowed and harvested annually by local farmers. Also, there are some small- to medium-size wood lots with a mix of maturing hardwoods. Portions of those woods are littered with wind-felled limbs and tangled underbrush. Those areas, and the edges of several grassy fields, are planted by Pheasants Forever and are good places to concentrate your efforts.
Howland Island, formed where a section of the Erie Canal shortcuts a looping bend in the Seneca River, has gently rolling terrain with low hills, called drumlins, rising up from swampy flatlands.
Hunters must be willing to do some walking, because no automobile traffic is allowed on the island's interior roads. A bridge on the southeast side of the island was closed for safety reasons several years ago and is not likely to be reopened soon, if ever.
The island is northwest of Port Byron in western Cayuga County. To reach it, take the New York State Thruway to the Weedsport exit and then follow Route 38 west to Port Byron. Continue north on Route 38 and then turn left onto Howland Island Road. Park by the old bridge, which, though off-limits to vehicles, can be safely crossed by pedestrians.
Alternately, go west from Port Byron on Route 31 to the village of Savannah in Seneca County and then take the Savannah-Spring Lake Road east to Carncross Road, which dead-ends at a pedestrian bridge on the west bank of the island.
Formerly managed by the DEC's Region 7 office, Howland Island WMA now falls under the jurisdiction of the Region 8 crew as part of the larger Northern Montezuma Wetlands Complex. The phone number at the Region 8 office in Avon is (585) 226-2466.
The Cayuga County Regional Information Center at (800) 499-9615 can help readers find accommodations near Howland Island.
Morgan Hill State Forest is a good grouse-hunting spot already, but it's bound to get better in the next few years, thanks to a recent initiative launched by the Central New York Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Chapter members gave up a couple of Saturday afternoons last April to visit the forest with saws and pruning shears. They cut back on surrounding vegetation to "release" (open to sunlight) several shaded-out stands of wild apple trees. The modest project will have considerable benefits for grouse, deer and turkeys at Morgan Hill by improving the local food supply.
Morgan Hill spreads from southern Onondaga County into northern Cortland County. Totaling about 5,200 acres, the forest consists of a mix of hardwoods and conifers interspersed with brushy tangles. The terrain is moderately steep, with north-south hills split here and there by gullies that spill spring run-off flows into a couple of small trout streams.
Although big enough to merit the respect that goes with carrying a compass and map afield, Morgan Hill is not at all remote. In fact, it's close enough to Syracuse and Cortland that grouse hunters can expect to share it with archers during the early bow season and slug-shooters once the Southern Zone firearms season for deer opens in late November. Consequently, grouse hunters (and their dogs) should not venture onto the thick cover without first donning blaze orange vests.
To reach Morgan Hill, drive south from Syracuse or north from Cortland on Interstate 81 to the Tully exit. Head east on Route 80 for about six miles and turn right (south) onto either Shackham Hill or Rowley Hill roads, both of which lead directly into the state forest.
Some of the most promising grouse cover is on eit
her side of Morgan Hill Road, which connects to Rowley Hill Road. Cortland-area residents can also reach the property by driving east on Route 13 and turning left onto Morgan Hill Road.
The DEC's regional staff in Cortland offers a collection of maps that include Morgan Hill State Forest.
For assistance with lodging near the state forest, contact the Cortland Chamber of Commerce at (607) 756-2814.
The Tioughnioga Wildlife Management Area in southern Madison County had its grouse cover rejuvenated a few years ago, thanks to habitat work that was carried out by DEC Region 7 wildlife personnel with some funding provided by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The work consisted of selective tree cutting to release local apple trees, and the mowing and liming of certain grassy clearings to create more habitat edges and favorable conditions for brood rearing. Although conceived to benefit turkeys, the work didn't hurt neighborhood grouse, either.
Tioughnioga takes in roughly 3,600 acres of rolling uplands, about 60 percent forested and the rest consisting of old fields in various states of succession. To find the WMA, take U.S. Route 20 to Cazenovia and then go south on Route 13 to the village of New Woodstock. There, take a left onto Damon Road, which leads to the WMA. A free map-brochure is available at the DEC's Cortland office.
If you plan on being in the vicinity of the Tioughnioga WMA for more than a single day, consider a side trip to the 800-acre Brookfield Railroad State Forest in the town of Brookfield off Doyle and Vidler roads. It already held its fair share of birds when the Central New York Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society improved the habitat by selective cutting on 45 acres in the mid-1990s.
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