Southeast South Dakota was the destination for many birders this weekend. Attendees from surrounding states attended the fifth annual South Dakota Birding Festival at Fort Randall in Pickstown, SD. From the tiniest wren to the Great Egret, there were birds of all shapes and sizes to enjoy. If nature and wildlife are your thing, this was the place to be.

South Dakota Birding Festival

The three day event featured talks and field trips to introduce visitors to over 400 species of birds found in Southeast South Dakota. Beginners as well as experienced birders compared notes and learned about techniques for spotting and identifying birds.

Instructional talks covered identification, tools and techniques, bird banding and backyard bird feeders. Field trips were held at Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge and Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge.

Private Access

Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge is a permanently restricted area and admission to the public is only available once a year during the birding festival.

Attendees were treated to pristine fields and forests of Cottonwood and Box Elders. Field trips proceeded on foot down to the Missouri River and via towed wagon to the North Mundt higher elevation.

Missouri River along Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge

Missouri River along Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge

Bald Eagles

Birdwatchers watching bald eagles in their nest.

Birdwatchers watching bald eagles in their nest.

Bald eagles with their huge nest were one of the highlights of the fieldtrip through Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rangers provided a large spotting scope so guests could get a close-up view, while remaining a safe football-field distance from the nest.

Bald eagle sitting in a tree

After the eagle spotting, it seemed that everyone had an eagle story to share. Unfortunately for many of God’s little creatures, the stories all revolved around their demise at the talons of an eagle. Blue geese, cats, ducks and even the family Chihuahua were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were swept up and away by these mighty hunters.

Ted Floyd – Birding Magazine

You could honestly say that Ted Floyd wrote the book on birding, and was a highly anticipated speaker at this year’s event. Many of the classes and field trips were led by Floyd, noted author of the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America and editor of Birding, the official publication of the American Birding Association.

Ted Floyd leading bird watching session at Karl Mundt refuge

Ted Floyd leading bird watching session at Karl Mundt refuge

Floyd explained that birds can best be identified through a whole series of observations – not just by color and patterns as some field guides suggest. He emphasized that time of year, location, and behavior were also good indicators to assist in accurate identification.

Banding with Dr. Dave Swanson – U of SD

Dr. Dave Swanson, Professor at the University of South Dakota, demonstrated and explained the techniques used to capture and band birds in the field at the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge.

The first bird caught was a Northern Water Thrush who was probably on his way to the boreal forests of Canada after wintering in northern South America.

Northern Water thrush being banded

Dr. Dave Swanson demonstrates bird banding techniques

The second one caught was a beautiful Yellow Warbler.  Through banding records, it’s now known that Yellow Warblers live at least 12 years.

The banding process consists of many steps, including recording the bird’s length, weight, and fat content, as well as attaching a numbered band to one of its legs. Information is then sent to USGS (United States Geologic Survey). Hopes are that people finding a bird with a band will then report it to .

One of the nets used to catch birds for banding

Nets used to capture live birds for banding

Large, wispy nets are set up in flyways and are so thin that birds can’t see them until they have actually flown into them. The bird then falls into the folds of the net, and is suspended there until someone comes to get them out.  At that point they are carefully removed for banding.

Everyone learned something

I’ve never considered myself a “birder” to this point, so I felt that I had a lot to learn. Knowing that most other people coming to the event probably were birders, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in. Quite pleasantly, everyone was so very approachable, you never felt like you were asking a dumb question.

One of the other interesting things for me was to look at the equipment everyone was using. In talking to both Ted Floyd and a local birder, Kelly Preheim, turns out both were using a Canon SX50 compact camera with a built-in 50x optical zoom lens.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak high atop a tree

Rose-breasted Grosbeak courtesy of Kelly Preheim |

Kelly showed me this nice close-up image she shot of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that I could barely see in my 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Turns out, her 50X lens is roughly equivalent to shooting with a 1000+mm lens on my DSLR. This photo was captured with a $300-$400 camera, proving that sometimes less really is more.  If you’d like to see more of her photos, check out her Flickr stream at or her blog at

The event wrapped up Sunday afternoon with a species check-off and count at the Fort Randall Chapel.


Want to give it a try?

If you think birding might be for you, there’s an event nearby in Mitchell, South Dakota this coming weekend.  The first Mitchell Prairie Birding Festival will be held May 9-10, 2015.  For more information, write


Where’s the bird?

To give you an idea of how difficult it can be to spot the birds you hear, take a look at this photo of a normal view in the woods.  Do you see the bird? The second photo gives you a close-up of the bird.



It was right there in the middle.  That’s why most birders always carry binoculars.


where's the bird