All of South Dakota contains fewer than 1 million people living within its borders, which leaves lots of room for birds ?and birders! In fact, the state is rolling out the red carpet for birders these days, encouraging them to discover what might be America’s best-kept birding secret.
“We have over 400 species of birds in our state,” said Lee Harstad of the South Dakota Office of Tourism. “Whether it’s a Baird’s Sparrow, a Swainson’s Hawk or our state bird ?Ring-necked Pheasant ?we’d like birders to come take a look.”
I took a look last year, making three trips to the Mount Rushmore State within eight months. I observed a region of great diversity, everything from vast prairie grasslands to arid Badlands to the dark, forest-covered Black Hills. As you might guess, because of this great diversity of habitats, the bird species were varied, too.
My nine top picks of the best birding spots in South Dakota follow, with sites listed generally west to east. Several friends who are serious birders helped to develop the list. Are other sites worth birding? Certainly. South Dakota is the 16th largest state, covering more than 75,000 square miles and many more birding sites. This list should keep even the most avid birder busy for a long while.
Custer State Park
This huge park in South Dakota’s Black Hills measures 73,000 acres and contains a sampling of nearly all the state’s wildlife species. Birds include Red Crossbill, Mountain Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon and Western Tanager. I saw Wild Turkeys ?probably Merriam’s ?rossing in front of me one day as my wife and I drove the park roads. We also listened to a Common Nighthawk calling overhead as we relaxed beside an evening campfire at a public campground.
Mammals at Custer include elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, mountain lions and bobcats. For your best chance at getting a glimpse of these critters, drive 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The park is best known for its bison herd, the largest free-ranging herd in America. Close to 1,500 bulls, cows and calves move freely throughout the park. For safety’s sake, remember that bison are wild animals and never should be approached.
Badlands National Park
About 25 miles due east of Custer State Park is the infamous Badlands. Even though relatively close in proximity, the two areas are worlds apart in habitat. Whereas pine forest covers much of Custer, it’s difficult to even find a tree in the Badlands. “Stark,” “moonscape” and “harsh” come to mind when trying to describe the 244,000 acres of this park.
One tree that flourishes in the Badlands is juniper. Birds drawn to the cliff-side juniper groves include Long-eared Owls, Field and American Tree Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, Brown Thrashers, Loggerhead and Northern Shrikes, Townsend’s Solitaires and Bohemian Waxwings.
The Badlands are known for fossils. The entire area is a vast storehouse of the biological past, with international scientific teams studying the area since 1847.
Smack in the middle of the state, the dam spans the mighty Missouri River just north of the state capital of Pierre (pronounced “pier”), backing up massive Lake Oahe. Jerry Stanford, an outdoors writer from Sioux Falls, birds the area each year and considers it one of his favorites.
“There are numerous places to bird in the wooded areas,” Stanford said. “Some of the more unusual species I’ve seen are Black-headed Grosbeaks, Turkey Vultures, Piping Plovers, Least Terns and a myriad of spring warblers. It’s literally a wildlife and birder’s haven. I highly recommend this area.”
Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge
Located in southeast South Dakota, this federal refuge is mainly a 4,700-acre lake managed for waterfowl production. “Even though the lake is large in surface acreage, it is relatively shallow, so it dries up periodically at the whim of nature,” said Refuge Manager Michael Bryant. “Those occasional dry periods make the lake incredibly productive when it refills, especially in terms of waterfowl, shorebirds, fish and invertebrates.”
During the few hours that some friends and I spent birding at the refuge one afternoon, I was able to add two species to my life list, American Avocet and Yellow-headed Blackbird. We also spotted a mature Bald Eagle as it soared overhead.
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Have you ever seen a million birds on the wing at one time? If not, this 21,500-acre refuge northeast of Aberdeen will give you the birding thrill of your life, as more than 1 million Snow Geese descend on Sand Lake during migration.
More than 260 other species from Neotropicals to water birds commonly are seen in the area. Rarities include Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Red Knots and Common Loons.
A self-guided auto tour winds through the refuge. Before you jump behind the wheel, check at the visitor center for a listing of the most recent sightings.
Sica Hollow State Park
These 800 acres northwest of Sisseton contain deciduous woodlands, steep hillsides and open meadows on the edge of the Coteau des Prairie. The hills of this area were called Mountains of the Prairie by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic poem, “Hiawatha.”
The best birding months are April through October, as there is no snow removal from park roads during winter. In the spring, look for nesting Veery, a variety of wood-warblers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Least and Willow Flycatchers, Yellow-throated Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Purple Finches and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. A rarity is Pileated Woodpecker.
The Omaha, Oto and Yankton Indian tribes of what one day would become South Dakota thought that this high hill was haunted. During their epic journey west in 1804, Lewis and Clark had to see for themselves, so they left the Missouri River long enough to make the nine-mile hike. They found no devils, but from the promontory, they saw the first bison of their journey, close to 800 animals grazing the surrounding prairie in all directions.
A handful of birding friends and I made our own discovery at this state-owned restored prairie. Catching a small flash of brown in the grass, Rick Wright, a professional birding guide from Arizona, identified the bird as a Sedge Wren. Checking our field guides, we noted that the species was uncommon for that area. During the next two hours, we spotted a dozen and a half or more of the elusive birds.
Wright filled us in on a bit of Sedge Wren life history. “It’s a species that exhibits a behavior known as ‘split breeding,'” he said. “Sedge Wrens will at times raise a brood in an area, move north for several weeks, then return and raise another brood before migrating south.” Sounds to me like the adult birds just need an occasional break from the kids.
Newton Hills State Park
Thousands of years ago, receding glaciers created a plateau in eastern South Dakota that has since eroded into the Coteau des Prairie or Hills of the Prairie. This park, located south of Sioux Falls, is at the southern end of those hills, which extend north into North Dakota. The rich soils of this vast moraine produced a unique mix of prairie and hardwood forest habitat.
One spring afternoon, friends and I spent several hours birding part of the woods. Some of the species that we recorded were Blackpoll Warbler, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, Indigo Bunting, Rufous-sided Towhee, Red-tailed Hawk and three species of vireo. The two highlight species were Blackburnian Warbler and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve
Owned and managed by the Game, Fish and Parks Department, this 1,500-acre area features more than 10 miles of crushed limestone trails for birders, hikers or bikers. “Wildlife viewing blinds overlook Mud Lake, the Missouri River, and woods and field habitats,” said Jody Moats, park naturalist. “Nearly 100 bird species have been identified on or near our area. Spring migration brings warblers to the woods and shorebirds to the water areas, including Willets, Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, and Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs.
“In the uplands, we see Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadees, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Northern Cardinals and a variety of woodpeckers,” Moats said. “Game birds on the area include pheasants, quail, American Woodcock and even a large flock of Wild Turkeys.”
My most vivid recollection of the site was sitting quietly beside the oxbow lake on an overcast spring morning, watching Blue-winged Teal, Mallards and broods of young Wood Ducks as they fed.
Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, May/June 2005 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.