May is such a wonderful time. After a long South Dakota winter, May brings warm temperatures and green landscapes. From a birding perspective, after a winter of very little species diversity, no other time of year can match the number and variety of species that you can see in a given day. Shorebirds are migrating through the interior of the country, and a trip to a mudflat or shallow water area can easily yield a dozen or more shorebird species. In eastern South Dakota where I live, we can have truly incredibly warbler migrations, with the possibility to see 20+ warbler species in a day. The summer breeding birds also have all arrived by the end of the month, with Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and more bringing a very welcome splash of color after a winter dominated by the cute, but gray/black/white Dark-eyed Junco.
I always try to save some vacation days and go out on all day birding trips in May. I went yesterday, and had a truly wonderful day. The day started with a trip to Newton Hills State Park, about 30 miles south of Sioux Falls. Newton Hills is a relative rarity for South Dakota habitats, a true “eastern” deciduous forest. As such, it often holds eastern U.S. forest species that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in South Dakota. It didn’t take long to hear singing Blue-winged Warblers, a species on the edge of its range in South Dakota. Warbler numbers weren’t all that high compared to what they can be, but there was a nice mix. American Redstarts were relatively common, and Yellow Warblers were everywhere. One of my personal favorites, Ovenbirds, are quite common in Newton Hills and they were certainly doing their best to announce the arrival of spring, with their distinctive, loud songs. Other warblers included Blackpoll Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush.
It was also nice to see all the summer “regulars” at Newton Hills. Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, singing Wood Thrush, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireo…all welcome for both the views and for their songs.
After Newton Hills, I headed up towards the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury county, looking for waterbirds. Lake Thompson never disappoints in the spring. It’s so large, and no matter the water levels for a given year, you’ll always find mudflats and shallow waters that hold shorebirds, as well as deeper water for other birds. The highlight was a Little Blue Heron, a bird more often thought of as a bird of the southeastern United States. It was hanging out with a group of about a dozen Snowy Egrets, and is only the 2nd Little Blue Heron I’ve ever seen in the state. Another highlight were a group of at least 18 Buff-breasted Sandpipers. They are a pretty rare migrant to begin with and are always a welcome sight, but it’s not often you see a large group of them. They’re normally found in short-grass areas, but at least yesterday, this flock was acting like other “shorebirds”, hanging around the edge of a shallow-water lake.
On the grasslands and fence lines, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds had returned, while Bobolinks were seen, and heard, singing their unique, metallic/clinky songs.
Wonderful day, both for the variety of birds seen, from forests, to grasslands, to wetlands, but also for the surprise of seeing some rarities for the state. Gotta love May birding in South Dakota!