Eastern South Dakota was once >95% grassland and scattered wetlands. Trees were limited to riparian areas or pockets where the landscape was protected from the tree-killing effects of fire, and of course, there used to be no agriculture or urban land use. Now of course the story is completely reversed, as pockets of unbroken grassland are rare in many parts of the state, as cropland has become the dominant land use. In an area where grassland used to be king, it can now be quite difficult to find some of the traditional grassland bird species.
For some species, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, they’re forever gone from most of eastern South Dakota. For other bird species, they’re found scattered in pockets of remaining suitable habitat. Right around Sioux Falls, there simply isn’t a lot of grassland. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does provide farmer payments in multi-year contracts in return for keeping the land in a grassland cover, but in recent years, CRP has sharply declined in the Dakotas, with the demand for corn and soy driving extensive expansion of cropland at the expense of what pockets of grassland remain. For birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers, you’ll occasionally find one in a small remaining pocket of grassland, but there’s very little in the way of a “go-to” for place for birds, with extensive grassland, right around Sioux Falls.
In South Dakota, the three counties where I bird the most are Minnehaha (where I live), Lincoln (just a few miles south), and…Kingsbury County. Kingsbury County isn’t even adjacent to Minnehaha or Lincoln county…in fact it’s well over an hour drive to even get to the edge of Kingsbury County. The attraction of Kingsbury County for me is two-fold. Lake Thompson is the largest natural lake in South Dakota,and the region has extensive open water, shallow water habitats, mudflats, and wetlands. The other attraction for me is the west side of Lake Thompson. There are some very large cattle operations in the area, and instead of cropland, much of the land is kept as grassland and pasture. There are also large areas of alfalfa fields. Unlike many pastures around here that are overgrazed to the point of erosion becoming a problem, the land in this area seems pretty well managed, with a mix of taller grasslands and (seemingly) responsibly grazed grasslands.
The result is one of the best areas I know in the general vicinity for finding grassland birds. I drove the area yesterday on a GORGEOUS, sunny, cool day, and was just reveling in the sounds and sights. There’s one particular road that’s now closed due to fluctuating water levels on Lake Thompson itself. The road gets no traffic and isn’t maintained much anymore, but it’s no problem for my little pickup. No people, some very nice grassland habitat, and some wonderful birds. This is one of the few places around here where I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers. If you go to the central part of the state, Upland Sandpipers are seemingly on every other fence post in the big grassland areas. You just don’t see them all that often in much of eastern South Dakota, so it’s always a treat to find them here.
Singing Bobolinks are another big attraction for me for this area. I sometimes see (and hear) Bobolinks right around Sioux Falls, but it’s nearly always a single bird, trying to utilize a small remaining piece of pasture or an alfalfa field. On the west side of Lake Thompson you hear them singing everywhere…one of my favorite sounds in the world, with their long, tinkly songs. Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds are numerous, seemingly always fighting for fenceline foraging and perching rights. It’s a place where I see Orchard Orioles in numbers I’ve never seen elsewhere. The bug-like calls of Grasshopper Sparrows sound out from their hidden perches, as do the buzzy songs of Clay-colored Sparrows. It’s the same kind of experience you sometimes find in areas of extensive grasslands in the central part of the state, such as on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but it’s so much closer to home.
A wonderful day! I just hope the land in that area continues to be managed as it is right now, and that it too doesn’t succumb to the ever expanding cropland in the area.