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South Dakota Birding Hotspot

Lake Thompson Area

Kingsbury County / Miner County

Click on points to view actual ground photos and birding information for those locations.  Use the Google tools to switch between road maps, terrain, or satellite images.


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).


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 species.

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 in birdlife. 

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 point 5, 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 Sanderlings, 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 point 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 American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, Hudsonian Godwits, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Dunlin.  The Lake Thompson area also can hold very large numbers of wading birds, some of which sometimes have bred in the area.  Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and Black-crowned Night Herons are usually around, while I also have occasionally found American Bitterns and White-faced Ibis.

Ducks, Grebes, and other waterfowl can be present in huge numbers at times.  Eared Grebes, Western Grebes, and Pied-billed Grebes 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 Snow Geese (and lesser numbers of Ross's Geese) can often be found during migration, both on the lake and in the surrounding fields.  Common Loons are often found here in migration, and South Dakota rarities have been found here on occasion (Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter).

Gulls, terns, and other water birds are usually around, as long as open water exists.  In addition to large numbers of Ring-billed, Franklin's and Bonaparte's Gulls at times, other rare gulls can sometimes be found here.  Forster's Terns and Black Terns breed in the area, while Common Terns and an occasional Caspian Tern can be found in migration.  American White 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.  Upland Sandpipers 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 Eastern and Western Kingbirds, along with Dickcissels and Western Meadowlarks, are seemingly on every fenceline.  I always find Orchard Orioles during my summer visits, along with Red-headed Woodpeckers in the shelterbelts adjoining the grasslands.  Scads of Sedge Wrens are found in the wetter grassland areas, while cattail areas are filled with Marsh Wrens, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Sora, and Virginia RailsNorthern Harriers are often found flying low over the grasslands and wetlands, while Red-tailed Hawks and Swainson's Hawks are also often found.  Around the lake, Bald Eagles and Osprey are often found in migration, and this is the only location I've seen Peregrine Falcons at in southeastern South Dakota. 

Other Birding Locations (sorted by distance):


Bird Photos from Lake Thompson Area

Ross's Goose - Chen rossii

Blue-winged Teal - Anas discors

Northern Shoveler - Anas clypeata

Ross's Goose

Blue-winged Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail - Anas acuta

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

Northern Pintail

Lesser Scaup

Ring-necked Pheasant

Eared Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis

Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis

American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

American White Pelican

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus

Black-crowned Night Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax

Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis

American Bittern

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Cattle Egret

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

Little Blue Heron - Egretta caerulea

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

White-faced Ibis

Little Blue Heron

Swainson's Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Sora - Porzana carolina

Semipalmated Plover - Charadrius semipalmatus

Red-tailed Hawk


Semipalmated Plover

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana

Spotted Sandpiper -  Actitis macularia

Solitary Sandpiper - Tringa solitaria

American Avocet

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Calidris subruficollis

Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolor

Marbled Godwit

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Wilson's Phalarope

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger

Franklin's Gull - Larus pipixcan

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

Black Tern

Franklin's Gull

Great Horned Owl

Western Kingbird - Tyrannus verticalis

Tree Swallow - Tachycineta bicolor

Bank Swallow - Riparia riparia

Western Kingbird

Tree Swallow

Bank Swallow

Marsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

Blue Grosbeak - Passerina caerulea

Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Marsh Wren

Blue Grosbeak