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Lake Thompson and surrounding waters and wetlands are
found primarily in Kingsbury County in eastern South Dakota. The northern edge of Lake Thompson is approximately 6
miles southeast of DeSmet, and 4 miles southwest of the town of Lake Preston.
The southern edge of the lake is approximately 6 miles west of Oldham.
From I-29, the Lake Thompson area can be reached by taking
the Brookings exit off of I-29, on Highway 14 west. Approximately 30 miles
west of Brookings is the town of Lake Preston. Lake Thompson is 4 miles to
the southwest of Lake Preston.
From Madison, the Lake Thompson area can be reached by
going north on Highway 81 approximately 15 miles, to 218th street. Go
west towards Oldham, which is about 15 miles. Another 6 miles west of
Oldham, is the "Oldham grade", the once flooded road that cuts through the
southern edge of Lake Thompson.
Geographic Coordinates: 44°
13' 26" N, 97° 26' 32" W
(coordinate of "Oldham grade", cutting through the southern part of the
Lake Thompson is the largest natural water body (not a man-made
reservoir) in the state of South Dakota. The lake is approximately 9
miles from the northern to southern edge, and approximately 3 1/2 miles wide
at its widest point. Water levels have fluctuated wildly over recent
decades. The entire basin was dry, even being farmed during the 1930s.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the area was a large slough, but with limited
open water in comparison to today. A wet period in the late 1980s
resulted in dramatic filling of Lake Thompson (as well as other eastern
South Dakota lakes and sloughs), with a rise in water level of nearly 20
feet over 1980s levels. The lake had become the largest natural lake
in the state of South Dakota, supporting a very popular and productive
fishery. Surrounding farmland was swallowed by the expanding lake, and
several roads were covered with water. "Oldham grade", shown on the
image below as 218th street, bisects the southern edge of the lake, but the
road was closed for most of the 1990s due to water lapping over the road.
Water levels have fallen significantly since the 1990s,
but continue to fluctuate in response to wet or dry years.
.Oldham grade is now again paved and used as a highway, with water that once
ate away at the roadbed now approximately 10 feet lower in elevation.
The dramatic fluctuations in water levels have had a significant impact on
available bird habitat. The lake today now still has vast expanses of
open water, but the surrounding landscape is again reverting to the shallow
marshes and sloughs that characterized the area prior to the late 1980s.
Open water areas, shallow mudflats left by retreating water, large expanses
of cattail marshes, and surrounding wet meadows make a diverse landscape
capable of supporting a wide variety of both aquatic and upland bird
The entire Lake Thompson area is dotted by wetlands, ponds, and other
large lakes, making the entire region very hospitable to shorebirds,
waterfowl, wading birds, and gulls. Lake Whitewood, Lake Henry, and
Lake Preston are some of the largest and closest lakes, while countless
smaller bodies of water are found in the area. Significant areas of
grassland can also be found in the area, some of it under the Conservation
Reserve Program. These adjoining grassland areas also can be very rich
Points of Note (Click on numbers on the map to see
photos of the locations):
There is a very diverse array of habitats around the
lake, from open water, shallow water and mudflats, large areas of cattail marsh,
grassland, and scattered shelterbelts. There are some areas I typically
visit though, usually making a clockwise route around the entire lake. The first of these is along "Oldham Grade", the once flooded
road that bisects the southern edge of the lake (point 1
on map to the right). The
birding along this road can sometimes be spectacular, particularly during
migration when large expanses of shallow water and (depending on what water
levels were changing at the time) areas of exposed mudflats can hold thousands
of shorebirds, wading birds, gulls, terns, and pelicans. Note there are
also many dead trees visible from Oldham grade (from when the lake dramatically
filled in the late 1980s). Look in these trees for raptors, which can
sometimes include Bald Eagles,
Osprey, or occasionally a
Peregrine Falcon (when
shorebirds are around, typically).
Another area In normally visit are the grasslands and fields on the west
side of the lake (point 7). If you're headed west across Oldham
Grade (218th street), take the 3rd road to the north after leaving the
southern edge of the lake (3 miles west of the lake on 218th). Going
north along this road will eventually lead you to the northwestern part of
Lake Thompson, but along this road are very many hayfields and grasslands
(Conservation Reserve Program lands). These areas can be truly
excellent for grassland species. The closest area to Sioux Falls where
I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers in the summer is along this road.
It is also excellent for other typical grassland species.
The next spot I normally visit is the large cattail marshes in the
northwestern part of the lake (point 6). When I first
started birding in 2000, this area was actually shallow water and open
mudflats, and was the best spot for migrating shorebirds that I knew of.
As the water level of Lake Thompson has dropped, much of the water has since
receded from this area, leaving an area of massive expanses of cattails.
It is an excellent area for marsh birds.
Another place I always check during migration is
along the northwestern shoreline of Lake Thompson. This area is
unique, in that a long shoreline of sandy beach is found here. It is
the only place to date where I have found
Ruddy Turnstones and
two species that enjoy this sandy habitat. There are times when this
sandy shoreline is excellent for all types of shorebirds.
While making the route around Lake Thompson, I also usually head over to
point 8, a road cutting through a water/wetland area on
Lake Whitewood. Lake Whitewood nearly always has good numbers of
breeding Western Grebes and
Eared Grebes near the road. The most
interesting feature is long former road bed cutting across the lake at
8, a feature that always holds large numbers of
American White Pelicans and
Double-crested Cormorants in the summer. Lake Whitewood has also been
the location where I've had the greatest luck finding
Black Terns and
Black-crowned Night Herons.
One last point of note that had been truly excellent in the past for
shorebirds and marsh birds,
point 4, on the extreme
southern edge of the lake. Just a few years ago, this area had a large
area of open shallow water, mudflats, and cattail marshes. As the lake
level has dropped, this area is now primarily cattail marsh. While
still good for marsh species, it is no longer the tremendous spot for
shorebirds that it used to be.
Click on the numbers on the image to the right for actual ground photos for these
locations and others.
Birds of Note:
Lake Thompson and surrounding area is one my favorite birding
locations, given the diversity of bird species you can find in the area (see
photos below). There are several species that I have found at Lake
Thompson, but have never seen before elsewhere in the state. The main
attraction are the shorebirds, wading birds, marsh birds, waterfowl, and gulls.
Nearly any shorebird that has been found in the state
could be found here during migration. There are several species that
are often found at Lake Thompson that I've had trouble finding elsewhere in
southeastern South Dakota, including
Ruddy Turnstones, and
Lake Thompson area also can hold very large numbers of wading birds, some of
which sometimes have bred in the area.
Great Blue Herons,
Black-crowned Night Herons are usually around, while I also
have occasionally found
American Bitterns and
Ducks, Grebes, and other waterfowl can be present in huge
numbers at times.
Western Grebes, and
all breed on the lake, and it is the only location in this part of the state
where I have seen Clark's
Grebe (twice). Massive numbers of
(and lesser numbers of
Ross's Geese) can often be found during migration, both on the
lake and in the surrounding fields.
are often found here in migration, and South Dakota rarities have been found
here on occasion (Harlequin
Gulls, terns, and other water birds are usually around, as long as open
water exists. In addition to large numbers of
and Bonaparte's Gulls
at times, other rare gulls can sometimes be found here.
and Black Terns
breed in the area, while
Common Terns and an occasional
can be found in migration.
Pelicans are seemingly always around when open water is
available, often in huge numbers.
As if all the water birds aren't enough, as mentioned above, grassland
areas around the lake can also be very productive.
are nearly always found on the west side of the lake in the summer, with
large numbers of Bobolinks
also found in the same area. Both
and Western Kingbirds,
along with Dickcissels
Meadowlarks, are seemingly on every fenceline. I always
find Orchard Orioles
during my summer visits, along with
Woodpeckers in the shelterbelts adjoining the grasslands.
Scads of Sedge Wrens
are found in the wetter grassland areas, while cattail areas are filled with
are often found flying low over the grasslands and wetlands, while
and Swainson's Hawks
are also often found. Around the lake,
and Osprey are
often found in migration, and this is the only location I've seen
at in southeastern South Dakota.
Other Birding Locations (sorted by distance):