Fatbirder - linking birders worldwide... Wildlife Travellers see our sister site: WAND

State of South Dakota

Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus ©Garry Noon - Creative Commons Website

Birding South Dakota

A former slogan for the South Dakota Department of Tourism was The Land of Infinite Variety, and while the variety is not quite infinite, the landscape of the state is sufficiently varied to provide for a very interesting mix of birds. Because South Dakota straddles the 100th meridian, both eastern and western North American avifaunas are well represented in the state. Indeed, there are hybrid zones for a number of eastern and western counterparts that occur within the state, such as Black-headed and Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Spotted and Eastern towhees, Indigo and Lazuli buntings, and Baltimore and Bullock's orioles.

The Missouri River roughly divides the state into eastern and western halves, known locally as ‘East River’ and ‘West River’. There are four large earthen dams on the river as it passes through South Dakota and the tailraces below these dams are great spots for vagrant gulls and terns, particularly in fall and early winter. Bald Eagles are common winter residents below the dams, where the water remains unfrozen throughout the winter season. A few Bald Eagles also nest at various sites along the Missouri River. In the central portion of the state, the breaks bordering the river and the uplands surrounding them are vegetated with mixed-grass prairies. These prairies provide habitat to search for breeding grassland species, including Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Sandpiper, Lark Bunting, and Chestnut-collared Longspur. The Ft. Pierre National Grasslands, south of Pierre (pronounced peer); the state capital, are a particularly good location for these species. Sandhill Cranes are regular migrants through central South Dakota, and Whooping Cranes are observed somewhere in this area during migration on an annual basis. In winter, Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls regularly occur in the area around Pierre.

Much of eastern South Dakota was historically covered by tall-grass prairie, but this has been almost completely converted to agricultural lands, which consist mainly of row crops and pasturelands. There are also limited areas of eastern deciduous forest in this part of the state. Tracts of deciduous forest can be found along the Big Sioux, James, and Missouri River corridors and in isolated areas along natural lakes or glacially produced hills, such as at Hartford Beach State Park in the northeast and at Newton Hills State Park in the southeast. Many typical eastern deciduous forest species can be found in these areas and they can also provide outstanding birding during migration. More than 20 species of warblers in a day are possible during spring migration. Hartford Beach State Park is the only reliable location in the state to observe Pileated Woodpeckers. Pasturelands in this area harbor nesting Upland Sandpipers and Dickcissels, among other species.

Most of the northeastern and north-central portion of the state is covered by prairie pothole topography. These potholes are the duck factories of North America and many species of nesting waterfowl can be found here. The potholes are also very attractive to shorebirds during migration.

Western South Dakota is vegetated largely by mixed-grass prairie and this area has been much less converted to agricultural lands than the eastern tall-grass prairie. Extensive tracts of this mixed-grass prairie have been set aside in the Grand River National Grasslands in the northwest and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the southwest. The Grand River National Grasslands south of Lemmon, South Dakota, are probably the best place in the state to find breeding Sprague's Pipits and Baird's Sparrows, along with many other species of this habitat. Breeding species of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, and Chestnut-collared Longspur, among others. In the extreme northwestern and southwestern corners of South Dakota there is sagebrush habitat. These areas are the only locations in the state to find sagebrush-associated species, such as Sage Grouse, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer's Sparrow.

Punctuating the prairie in northwestern South Dakota are pine-covered buttes, such as the Cave Hills, Slim Buttes, and Short Pine Hills. These areas provide habitat for many western montane birds along with some eastern deciduous species that invade these sites along riparian draws. Amidst the prairies of south-western South Dakota lie the White River Badlands, much of which are incorporated into Badlands National Park. The eerie landscape of the Badlands provides nesting locations for White-throated Swifts and the juniper groves along the draws harbor Long-eared Owls and Mountain Bluebirds.

Dominating the landscape of much of western South Dakota are the Black Hills, home of Mt. Rushmore National Monument, but also home to an interesting avifauna. Forests in the Black Hills are mostly comprised of ponderosa pine, with typical pine forest birds such as Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, and Red-breasted Nuthatch as residents. At higher elevations, white spruce forests become common and these harbor breeding Three-toed Woodpeckers, Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Swainson's Thrushes (along streams). Aspen groves are interspersed with conifers throughout the Black Hills and these attract Ruffed Grouse and Red-naped Sapsucker, among other species. Streams in the Black Hills are lined by lush deciduous growth and many western riparian species, such as Violet-green Swallow, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock's Oriole can be found there.

Spearfish Canyon in the northern Black Hills, near the town of Spearfish, is a National Scenic Byway and progresses through a picturesque canyon bordered by sheer cliffs and topped with pine forest. Lush deciduous growth borders Spearfish Creek at the bottom of the canyon and provides good habitat for riparian woodland birds. This canyon is also the only reliable place in South Dakota to find American Dipper. The southern Black Hills are somewhat drier than the northern portion and in the southwestern corner of the southern hills (Boles, Roby, and Redbird Canyons) is a small area of pine-juniper-shrub habitat. This habitat holds the northeasternmost population of breeding Virginia's Warblers in North America, along with an interesting mix of other species, including Common Poorwill, Say's Phoebe, Pinyon Jay, and Rock Wren.

The most useful website for South Dakota birding is maintained by the South Dakota Ornithologists' Union (SDOU). This website provides bird checklists, brief descriptions of birding locations within the state, rare bird alert phone numbers, and instructions on subscribing to the rare bird alert listserv. Also included is information about the SDOU, its meetings, and South Dakota Christmas Bird Counts. This site maintained by volunteer labor, but it is intermittently updated.

Top Sites

Hell Canyon


Satellite View

Another site worth birding near Roby Canyon is Hell Canyon, accessed via a trail head at the western edge of Jewel Cave National Monument, about 16 miles west of Custer. Jewel Cave National Monument itself is pine forest and is generally unremarkable for birding, although the characteristic species of the pine forests in the Black Hills may be found here. The cave is interesting and beautiful, and the Visitor’s Center has a small bookstore with books about natural history of the area. One spot at Jewel Cave National Monument worth a quick stop (or a picnic lunch) is the picnic area at the western edge of the monument, just before you drop down the hill to the Hell Canyon trail head parking area. This spot has some nice living ponderosa pine interspersed within a burned area from the huge Jasper fire in 2000. The picnic area is a fairly reliable spot for Cassin’s Finch, which can be tough to find in the Black Hills. Lewis’s Woodpecker is also fairly regular here.

Hell Canyon itself is a beautiful spot, certainly not living up to its moniker! It is lined by riparian vegetation along the canyon bottom along a small stream. There are also numerous exposed cliff faces looming over the canyon and adding to the scenic beauty of the canyon. The Jasper fire burned much of the pine forest around Hell Canyon, including the initial portion of the Hell Canyon Trail, but much of the deciduous forest in the canyon bottom escaped the fire, although the stream, which usually provided at least some running water, is now sometimes dry. The Hell Canyon Trail is a 5.5-mile loop that includes both canyon rim and bottom. Stick to the canyon bottom for the best birding, as the forest along the rim burned during the Jasper fire. A hike up this canyon is likely to produce birds of both pine forest and riparian habitats of the Black Hills, as well as species such as Canyon Wren and White-throated Swift that are associated with exposed cliff faces. Regular nesting species include Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky and Cordilleran flycatchers, Plumbeous, Warbling, and Red-eyed vireos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Violet-green Swallow, Townsend’s Solitaire, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Audubon’s and MacGillivray’s warblers, Western Tanager, White-winged Junco, and Red Crossbill. Clark’s Nutcracker, a difficult species in South Dakota, also occurs along the canyon with some regularity and Pygmy Nuthatches are also regular visitors. Hell Canyon can also be a good area for migrants. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, which were formerly only a casual migrant in the Black Hills, are now regular summer residents. This canyon is an excellent spot to look for vagrants during migration, and such rarities as Hammond’s Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, and Blue-winged and Townsend’s warblers have been observed here. Watch out for Wood Ticks, which can be abundant in late spring-early summer. The ticks and the locally abundant poison ivy represent the only features of Hell Canyon that I know of worthy of its name.

Newton Hills State Park

Facebook Page

Satellite View

This state park is about 25 miles southeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city (population 150,000), so it is a heavily used park. It lies 6 miles south of Canton (population 3,000) and is bordered by the Big Sioux River on the east. The park consists of 1,064 acres of mostly eastern deciduous forest, although some open shrubby woodlands and small grassland areas also occur, and Lake Lakota, a small reservoir on Pattee Creek, provides some open water habitat. There are over 7 miles of hiking trails in the park and it is also a popular location for horseback riding, with a number of trails maintained as multi-use trails for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking and a horse camp located in the park. Other park activities include cross-country skiing in the winter and a regionally famous bluegrass/folk music festival during the first weekend in August.

The park is located at the southern end of the Coteau des Prairies upland thrust and is typified by rugged hills extended westward from the Big Sioux River at the eastern border of the park. These rugged hills formed as glacial moraines and are covered by eastern deciduous forest, one of the few outcrops of this habitat type in southeastern South Dakota. Because the park and adjacent public areas contain both upland and riparian habitat elements, this may be the most diverse area of eastern deciduous forest in this part of the state. Riparian vegetation along the Big Sioux River is dominated by cottonwood, elms, green ash, maple, and box elder. Upland vegetation includes basswood, ironwood, bur oak, black walnut, hackberry, buckeye, birch, elms, chokecherry, northern catalpa, and green ash. Some open woodland with grassy areas and sumac also occurs in the park, particularly along Sargeant Creek. In addition, many of the hilltops and ridges are crowned by tallgrass prairie, although trees are encroaching on some of these sites.

Because expansive deciduous forest habitats like this are rare in eastern South Dakota, this park is very good for woodland birds in general. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a rare nesting species in the southeastern part of the state, but they regularly nest here. Cerulean Warbler also formerly nested here, the only documented nesting location in the state, but they have not nested since the late 1990s, consistent with a range-wide population decline. Overall, there are four regularly nesting species of warblers: Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat. There are also a number of species with breeding ranges in the state restricted primarily to southeastern or eastern South Dakota that can be found nesting within the park. Southeastern species include Whip-poor-will, Wood Thrush, and Northern Cardinal. Eastern species include American Woodcock, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, and Eastern Towhee. Both Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos also nest within the park.

In addition to the unique combination of breeding woodland species, Newton Hills is one of the best spots in the state for migrating woodland birds. On a good day during spring migration, upwards of 20 species of warblers are possible, in addition to several species of flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, and sparrows. Migrating woodland hawks, such as Broad-winged, Sharp-shinned, and Cooper’s (also nests) are also regular. Red-shouldered Hawks have been recorded here during migration on more than one occasion. Barred Owls are occasionally, and in some years regularly, observed within the park. Several casual or accidental woodland songbirds have also been documented within the park during migratory periods.

Oahe Dam


Satellite View

A few miles upstream from Pierre (pronounce peer), the state capital (population 15,000), on the Missouri River is Oahe dam. This dam serves flood control and power production purposes and backs up huge Lake Oahe. Bordering either side of Lake Oahe, although not always particularly close to the lake, are Highways 1804 on the east and 1806 on the west. These highways form part of the current Lewis and Clark highway trail and are named according to the dates of the upstream journey in 1804 and downstream return journey in 1806. Numerous access points to the lake can be reached from these two highways. Downstream from Oahe dam are a couple of wooded islands that are vegetated by the deciduous gallery forest that occupied much of the Missouri River floodplain before the dams. LaFramboise Island Natural Area is within the city limits of Pierre and Farm Island Recreation Area is just downstream. Both areas provide nice walking trails through the wooded areas and access sites to the river.

Oahe dam was completed in 1958 and forms Lake Oahe, which extends 372 miles upstream, all the way into North Dakota. This is also a deep lake and is famous for its excellent walleye fishing. The Missouri Breaks border the river and are especially pronounced on the western side. These hills form a rugged topography, with steep draws and ravines cut by streams running downward toward the river, and their crests extend to heights of more than 500 ft. above the Missouri river. They are generally vegetated with mixed-grass prairie, with prickly pear and yucca being rather common and indicating the general aridity of the area. The draws and ravines usually contain woody vegetation including plum, chokecherry, green ash, bur oak, and juniper (Eastern red cedar). Beyond the crests of the breaks, the land is a rather gently rolling mixed-grass prairie that has often been converted to pasture or farm rowcrops such as sunflower or wheat. The rowcrops are far more prevalent on the east side of the river than on the west. The deciduous gallery forest found on LaFromboise and Farm Islands is dominated by large cottonwoods, with other species such as green ash, dogwood, and cedar also present.

Probably the major attraction of the Pierre area for birders is the area around Oahe dam, especially the tailrace area, and the sandbars in the Missouri River off of LaFramboise Island. These waters remain ice-free all winter and consequently harbor wintering waterfowl, gulls, and Bald Eagles. The stunned fish passing through the turbines are attractive to many birds, including loons, mergansers, Bald Eagles, Osprey, gulls, and terns. At least 16 species of gulls and 6 species of terns have been recorded here during winter or spring and fall migrations, including many rarities. The common species include Ring-billed (nests), Franklin’s, Bonaparte’s, California (nests rarely), and Herring (nests rarely) gulls and Forster’s, Common, and Black terns. Fall (September-December) is probably the best time for migrating gulls and terns, but winter and spring (April-May) can also be productive. Least Terns and Piping Plovers nest on islands and sandy shores in a number of places along the vast shoreline of Lake Oahe. The best strategy for seeing some of these birds is to ask local Game, Fish, and Parks personnel because nesting areas vary depending on water levels in the lake. Canada Geese are common on the lake and surrounding areas, especially some of the grain fields, and Pierre hosts many goose hunters in the fall. Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese are also common, and Ross’s Geese are sometimes mixed in with these flocks.

The areas surrounding the river are also a good place to look for migrating Sandhill Cranes in April and October. Raptors are also attracted to the Missouri Breaks and hills and regular species include American Kestrel (summer), Prairie Falcon, Ferruginous Hawk, and Rough-legged Hawk (winter). Other interesting species inhabiting the prairies of the Missouri Breaks and hills are Sharp-tailed Grouse and Common Poorwill. In winter, Horned Larks (also a breeding species), Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, and Common Redpolls (mostly near town) can be very common, especially along roadsides when there is snow cover. In some winters, a Hoary Redpoll or two may be mixed in with the Commons. Sprague’s Pipit may also show up during migration along roadside edges. In draws and ravines with extensive cedar Long-eared Owls nest and Northern Saw-whet Owls occur during migration, and the saw-whets sometimes overwinter. Black-billed Magpies are also regularly seen in these areas. Finally, the deciduous gallery forests of LaFramboise and Farm Islands are good for Neotropical woodland migrants during migration and support an interesting mix of eastern and western species during the breeding season. Included among nesting species of the gallery forest are Bell’s and Red-eyed vireos, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-headed Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore and Orchard orioles.

Barn Owls also nest in cavities in the cliffs along Lake Oahe. This is one of the few predictable locations in the state where this species can be found. Away from the dam area in the Missouri Breaks and hills are a number of marshy areas that can be good for migrating wading birds and Whooping Cranes have been observed in April and October on several occasions in the Pierre area. Gyrfalcon is rare but regular in winter (beginning about Thanksgiving) along the breaks, where it feeds on waterfowl until ice-up and Sharp-tailed Grouse thereafter. Driving along highways 1804 and 1806 bordering Lake Oahe is the best strategy for seeing winter Gyrfalcons. The gallery forests of LaFramboise and Farm Islands are often good for migrant and wintering songbirds and also host Northern Saw-whet Owls in winter.

Roby Canyon


Satellite View

Roby Canyon is a small picturesque canyon in the southwestern Black Hills that merges into Boles Canyon near the Wyoming border about 25 miles west of Custer, South Dakota (population 8,000). The lower sections of these canyons in the dry southwestern portions of the Black Hills contain a pine-juniper-shrub habitat that is very limited in South Dakota. This habitat contains an interesting assemblage of birds, including the only South Dakota locale for breeding Virginia’s Warblers. Much of this area occurs on Black Hills National Forest land so it is accessible for birders. A Black Hills National Forest map is helpful to determine precisely what property is public and what is private. This area is particularly fruitful for birding in late spring and summer. These canyons are rather remote from population centers within the state and from the main tourist sections of the Black Hills. Thus, they are not well studied and consequently offer the possibility of some interesting finds. Indeed, the breeding population of Virginia’s Warblers is relatively large and widespread in the lower reaches of these canyons, yet it was unknown until 1997. Rattlesnakes do occur in this area in small numbers, so use appropriate caution when hiking through the brush.

The vegetation consists of a Ponderosa Pine overstory, with a middle layer of Rocky Mountain Juniper, and a shrubby understory of Mountain Mahogany and Skunkbush Sumac. This vegetation mix lines the canyon walls and the walls of draws and box canyons leading into the main canyons. The rims above the canyons are mainly vegetated with the shrub component without the overstory and the canyon bottoms of Boles and adjacent Redbird canyons (the larger canyons in the area) are pasturelands. The elevation of the pine-juniper-shrub habitat extends from about 4,500 to 5,200 feet with the higher elevations in the canyons becoming almost exclusively pine forest. There is limited water in the area except for a few springs. These springs and some areas of the canyon bottoms where there is spring runoff have a shrubby, riparian-type, deciduous vegetation that attracts some birds associated with this type of habitat.

The most notable bird occurring here is the Virginia’s Warbler, which has a relatively large breeding population in this area. This is the northeastern most breeding population of Virginia’s Warbler and is removed from the next nearest known breeding population (near Casper, Wyoming) by over 130 miles. In addition to Virginia’s Warbler, an interesting assemblage of birds occupies this area and species with grassland, shrubland, and montane affinities converge here. Many of the species occurring here are restricted to the Black Hills or other conifer forests in western South Dakota. Of these species, White-throated Swift, Dusky Flycatcher, Violet-green Swallow, Pinyon Jay, Plumbeous Vireo, Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler, and Western Tanager occur commonly, making these canyons a good place to search for them. Seven of the nine regularly breeding species of warblers in South Dakota can be found here; only Common Yellowthroat and Black-and-White Warblers do not breed here, although American Redstart is rare. Other birds with western affinities that can be found here include Common Poorwill, Say’s Phoebe, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Rock and Canyon wrens, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Brewer’s Blackbird. Cooper’s Hawks, Wild Turkeys, and White-winged Juncos can also be found in this area or farther up the canyons. The area is has received relatively little birding attention during songbird migration in May and September so we have a lot to learn about the potential for vagrants during migration. Cassin’s Kingbird has been recorded in Boles Canyon on a couple of recent occasions during May and might be a rare, but regular, migrant through the area.

Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge


Satellite View

This 21,500-acre refuge is located about 25 miles northeast of Aberdeen (population 25,000) and encompasses wetlands formed by two dams along the James River. The James River has the flattest gradient of any river in North America, so the river is a slow meandering stream. In the area of Sand Lake NWR, the river occupies the basin of glacial Lake Dakota, which was formed by a glacial moraine that dammed melt-water during the last glacial retreat about 10,000 years ago. At its maximum size, Lake Dakota was about 100 miles long by 30 miles wide. Since this area was part of the lake bottom, it tends to be very flat, which results in a lot of flooding and formation of natural wetlands, especially in spring.

The dams on the refuge create two large lakes, Sand Lake to the south and Mud Lake to the north that comprise the bulk of the refuge. Sand Lake NWR has been classified as a wetland of international importance, and is a great place for waterfowl and other water birds, wading birds, and shorebirds, in addition to providing some opportunities for woodland and grassland birds. At appropriate water levels, the refuge is also home to the world’s largest breeding colony of Franklin’s Gulls. Hundreds of thousands of geese use the refuge as a migratory stopover site. The lakes provide considerable open water, but are lined by cattails, and in many areas cattails and open water are interspersed. At appropriate water levels, there are extensive mudflats, particularly on southern Sand Lake, and these can be absolutely fabulous for migrating shorebirds. Sand Lake is at its best during migration periods in March through May and September through November, but it also provides very productive birding throughout the breeding season, and sometimes attracts interesting winter birds as well.

The dams creating the refuge were completed in 1939 and the lakes formed by these dams are about 16 miles long, but only about 3 miles wide. Just over half of the refuge is composed of wetlands formed by the dams and the wetlands provide and nice mix of cattail marsh, mudflat and open water, with some areas of dead flooded trees that serve periodically as rookeries for herons, egrets and ibis. About a third of the total refuge acreage is composed of grasslands, including some small patches of native prairie. Cropland and small, scattered woodlands make up the remainder of the refuge lands. Because of the shallow gradient of the James River, changes in precipitation can dramatically influence the size and extent of the wetlands, even with some control of water levels provided by the dams. Consequently, certain areas of the refuge can provide fantastic birding in some years, but are completely dry and less attractive to birds in other years. Similarly, breeding rookeries for wading birds move around with the changing water levels.

Sand Lake is justifiably famous for its migratory concentrations of Snow Geese, with flocks of 250,000 or more birds in fall (October and early November) and upwards of 1 million birds in spring (late March to mid-April). Other waterfowl also use the refuge extensively during migration and breeding, including such rarities as Brant, Cinnamon Teal, American Black Duck, Long-tailed Duck, and scoters. In the mid-1990s the refuge hosted over 150,000 nesting pairs of Franklin’s Gulls, but the size and even the presence of colonies on the refuge is dependent on water levels; appropriate water levels provide the flooded marsh that these birds prefer for nesting. Sand Lake is also the best place in the state to observe Glossy Ibis, a recent and still rare addition to the state’s avifauna. Breeding colonies of other wading birds also occur on the refuge, including Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, Cattle, Snowy and Great egrets, and White-faced Ibis. Little Blue Heron is probably more common here than any other place in the state, and the rarer Tricolored Heron has bred on or near the refuge on several occasions. Sand Lake is also a great spot for finding breeding water birds in the state, including such species as Eared, Western and Clark’s grebes, Forster’s and Black terns, and the typical breeding pothole ducks. Bald Eagles nest on the refuge in small numbers, but are much more common when the waterfowl are migrating, sometimes occurring by the hundreds. Extensive cattail marshes host breeding American and Least bitterns, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Common Gallinule has also nested on the refuge.

Grassland areas host breeding Sedge Wrens and Clay-colored Sparrows, and migrating sparrows, including Le Conte’s, are sometimes fairly common. Woodlots on the refuge can attract numerous songbird migrants. Winter can be bleak at Sand Lake, but such winter attractions as Snowy Owl and Gyrfalcon sometimes occur in the area, and snowy roadsides often harbor Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur and Common Redpoll.

Spearfish Canyon


Satellite View

State Highway 14A traverses Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills for almost 20 miles, from just outside of the town of Spearfish (population about 9,000) to Cheyenne Crossing. This scenic highway passes through the winding limestone canyon cut by Spearfish Creek and has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The canyon itself is beautiful, with sheer cliffs, rimrock, waterfalls, and a sparkling stream with a nice riparian zone. The highway is heavily traveled, particularly in the summer months, so traffic noise can obscure some bird vocalizations, but the traffic doesn’t seem to bother the birds much. Spearfish Creek is a clear, fast, bubbling stream, and runs along the bottom of the canyon for most of the length of the Scenic Byway. At its lower end, for about 4 miles upstream from the town of Spearfish, the stream is diverted to provide water for the town and the streambed is usually dry. Spearfish Creek is bordered by a lush riparian deciduous growth that becomes mixed with white spruce above Savoy. The slopes of the canyon walls are cloaked with ponderosa pine and in the upper canyon, north facing slopes have significant patches of white spruce. Exposed limestone cliffs are prominent throughout the canyon, towering well over 100 feet above the canyon floor in many places. The side canyon of Little Spearfish Creek, branching off the main canyon at Savoy is also productive for birding and scenic, and was the site of the winter scenes from the film Dances with Wolves. Summer is the best time to bird Spearfish Canyon, but winter can also be productive for several winter species, such as Evening and Pine grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings that are either absent or difficult to find in South Dakota at other times of the year.

Spearfish Creek is the best spot in South Dakota to find American Dipper, and several pairs nest at various locations along the creek. The Department of Game, Fish and Parks has erected nest boxes for dippers under many of the bridges crossing the creek and these nest boxes are readily used by the birds. They also nest behind Roughlock Falls on Little Spearfish Creek, and this particular spot has probably accounted for many state-first dippers for birders. The riparian vegetation along the creek is also attractive to numerous birds, including breeding Belted Kingfisher, Dusky and Cordilleran flycatchers, Red-eyed and Warbling vireos, Gray Catbird, Swainson’s Thrush, Veery, American Redstart, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Spotted Towhee, Indigo and Lazuli buntings, and Black-headed Grosbeak. The riparian woodlands in the lower canyon can also be good for migrants, including warblers, during May. Incredibly, the riparian forest at the junction of Iron Creek with Spearfish Creek hosted an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush in the summer of 2010, only the third record of this species for North America.

The exposed cliffs attract cliff-nesting species and White-throated Swift, Cliff and Violet-green swallows, and Canyon Wrens are regular here. Turkey Vultures can usually be found soaring over the canyon in summer. Golden Eagle and Prairie Falcons occasionally can be found in the canyon as well. The pine covered slopes of the canyon harbor Western Wood-Pewee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler, Dark-eyed (White-winged) Junco, Pine Siskin and Red Crossbill. In winter, Bohemian Waxwing and Evening and Pine (rare) grosbeaks wander widely and occur occasionally within the canyon. In the upper canyon, where white spruce occurs, birds associated with spruce, such as American Three-toed Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, Ruby and Golden-crowned kinglets, and Townsend’s Solitaire can be found, in addition to many of the pine forest species.


David L Swanson

Department of Biology

University of South Dakota


Number of Species

Number of bird species: 437

As at May 2015


iGoTerra Checklist

iGoTerra Checklist

Fatbirder Associate iGoTerra offers the most comprehensive and up to date birds lists on the web

Useful Reading

The Birds of South Dakota

(3rd Edition) by D Tallman, D Swanson and J Palmer, 441 pages, 29 color photos, 3 color maps, figs, tabs, maps. South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union 2002 ISBN 09299180601

The South Dakota breeding bird atlas.

Peterson, R.A. 1995. South Dakota Ornithologists? Union, Aberdeen, South Dakota.

ISBN: 1883120047

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Useful Information

State Bird

Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus


Audubon Society in South Dakota


Usual list of local chapters

Missouri Breaks Audubon


Newsletter, links, events etc…

Nature Conservancy in the Dakotas


A new and not yet very developed site. Welcome to the home page of the Nature Conservancy of The Dakotas! Here you'll find information on the many ways we're working with the people of the state and the nation to help preserve the diversity of living things by protecting the habitats in which they live…

Prairie Hills Audubon Society of Western South Dakota


P.O. Box 788, Black Hawk, SD 57718, 605-787-6466, Fax 605-787-6466 - Nancy Hilding, President

Sioux Falls Bird Club


Information, photos, site locations, live cams, etc…

South Dakota Ornithologists Union


Founded in 1949, SDOU has been South Dakota's primary statewide organization to promote the study of wild birds, to encourage ornithological research, and to preserve the state's avian records. Birders, environmentally-concerned individuals, ornithologists and other natural scientists all contribute to these efforts.


Abbreviations Key

Adams Nature Area

Facebook Page

Satellite View

The Adams Nature Area is a recent donation to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks. The area is open to visitors but there remains a lot of work in progress…

Sand Lake NWR


Satellite View

The area surrounding Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge was once a vast, rolling grassland interrupted only by the slow moving James River. Settlers arrived in 1887 and brought sweeping changes to the landscape. Farming and grazing depleted essential wildlife habitat causing waterfowl to dwindle to alarmingly low numbers by the 1930s.

Forums & Mailing Lists

South Dakota Birds

Mailing List

List contact: Dan Tallman (tallmand@wolf.northern.edu)

To subscribe to list: majordomo@igc.org

subscribe sd-birds

Mailing List – Discussion Group for South Dakota

Guides & Tour Operators

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

Birding Pal


Local birders willing to show visiting birders around their area…

Trip Reports

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…


Trip Report Repository

CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.

2013 [06 June] - Ian Hillery - US Midwest - Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, & Montana

PDF Report

...it became obvious that an inverted horseshoe route, taking in a more northerly area, was suited to our needs. This would then include the Rockies themselves, the Badlands of South Dakota, and most importantly, Yellowstone National Park. This meant an arrival at Denver in Colorado, and a departure from Salt Lake City…

Places to Stay

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

Triangle Ranch B&B


Also offered is hiking, stockdam fishing, premiere birdwatching, campfire entertainment, vehicle tours and a basecamp for area hunters. Artists and photographers are welcome.


South Dakota Birding Festival


The South Dakota Birding Festival @ Fort Randall has all the makings of a weekend event that holds something for everyone interested in birds found in or passing through the great lakes region of South Dakota. The area boasts at least 322 species of birds of which 164 are breeding species. Experts also tell us that in May there will still be many migratory birds in the area...


Dakota State University


Dakota State University, Madison.

Northern State University


Northern State University, Aberdeen.

South Dakota State University


South Dakota State University, Brookings.

University of South Dakota


University of South Dakota, Vermillion.

W.H. Over State Museum


W.H. Over State Museum, Vermillion. This museum is devoted to the natural and cultural history of South Dakota. It has a nice exhibit of mounted South Dakota birds, as well as northern Great Plains historicalexhibits. Also present is an activity room for kids…


Ask the Birds and They Will Tell You


In the Book of Job we are instructed to, "Ask…the birds…and they will tell you." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Look at the birds." So let's ask the birds, and look at the birds, and see what they have to say. May God bless you in your quest! Bill Bossman…

Olaf Danielson


World Record Nude Birder, Author, and Adventurer. He may be the most interesting man in the world!

Other Links

Siouxland Birding Hot Spots


New to birding and you're not quite sure where to go in the Siouxland area? This page is merely the first link to help you find the best birding in Siouxland. Loess Hills Audubon regularly sponsors trips to these locations…

South Dakota Birds


South Dakota Shorebird Migration Calendar etc…

South Dakota Birds & Birding


Devoted to birds and birding in the State of South Dakota. These pages are created an maintained by Terry Sohl. I live in Brandon South Dakota (right outside of Sioux Falls); and have worked at the U.S. Geological Survey`s EROS Data Center since 1993. The EROS Data Center deals with the collection, analysis, archiving, and distribution of spatial data sets, including satellite imagery, aerial photography, and elevation data.

South Dakota Breeding Bird Atlas 2


The second South Dakota Breeding Bird Atlas, starting in 2008, is a statewide survey to determine the current distribution and status of every bird species breeding in the state of South Dakota. These results will be compared to bird distributions during the first SDBBA (1988-1992) to see what changes have occurred. The surveys are done on 425 3-mile x 3 mile randomly-selected blocks of land, including 124 random blocks from the first atlas. Primary focus of surveys is to document all breeding birds in a block by surveying all of the habitat types within the block. Bird observations are categorized as Possible breeding, Probable breeding, or Confirmed breeding, based on a series of standardized criteria, within that species’ breeding season, which is defined by ‘safe dates’.

South Dakota Department of Tourism, Birding South Dakota


This site includes links to pdfs for several birding trail guide booklets to different areas of South Dakota…

Photographers & Artists

Photographer - Terry Sohl


Some terrific bird photos…

Photographer – Doug Backlund


Some terrific bird photos from South Dakota and elsewhere…