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West of Sioux Falls, in western Minnehaha County and eastern McCook County,
there are a number of wetlands and lakes typical of the "Prairie Potholes"
region of the northern Great Plains, areas that can be wonderful for birding.
Specific "hotspots" I like to check out are noted in the map to the right, but
by simply driving around the area, you will encounter a number of wetlands and
other birding locations.
I have a route I generally take through the area, starting at Wall Lake and Dewey Gevik Nature Area.
From Dewey Gevik, 462nd Avenue heading north cuts through some nice wetland
habitat, About 1 1/2 miles north of Dewey Gevik is Makoce Washte prairie, 40
acres of land managed by the Nature Conservancy (east side of 462nd avenue,
half a mile north of Highway 42). When I get to 462nd Ave. and 263rd street
(3 miles north of Dewey Gevik), I head west, all the way until hitting
McCook County. This road will take you past a number of wet meadows,
wetlands, and deeper open water lakes, and cuts right through the middle of
Weisensee Slough, one of my favorite places to bird (see
on the map on the right). I then visit Lake Vermilion (eastern McCook
County, points 2 and
6) before heading back east on 261st
Avenue (point 5), which also passes through a number of
"birdy" wetlands. I usually conclude a visit to the area by going to
Beaver Lake near Humboldt (point 4) and/or Grass Lake (point
43.57295° N, 97.12705°
W (coordinate for Weisensee Slough in extreme western Minnehaha County).
The western part of Minnehaha County, unlike the eastern half, is part of
the "Prairie Potholes" area of the northern Great Plains,
formerly glaciated lands that are sprinkled with depressional wetlands.
While many wetlands have been drained in the Prairie Potholes, many still
remain in this area. Like many Prairie Pothole wetlands, it's a dynamic
system, with wetland size and condition dependent upon season and moisture
over the proceeding months and years. Some are relatively permanent weltands,
many of which may have open water to a moderate depth, while others are
transitory wetlands. With the historical landscape of the area, many
areas are poorly drained, and even grasslands and pastures may temporarily
turn into marshy meadows during wet times of the year. Several larger,
permanent bodies of open water are also present in the area, including the
Lake Vermilion near the border of Minnehaha and McCook counties.
Birding conditions change with the season and recent climate. For
example, one of my favorite birding locations in the region is Weisensee
Slough in the far western part of the county (Point 1
above). During wet periods, Weisensee slough has extensive open water,
attracting diving ducks, Pelicans, cormorants, and other species that
typically require deeper water. Many years, Weisensee is a mix of shallow
open water habitats, with vast expanses of cattails/bulrushes. There
have also been years where Weisensee is almost completely dry, with wetland
vegetation dying and being temporarily replaced by upland weeds and grasses.
Because of variable wetland conditions from year to year (and season to
season), the birding can vary dramatically. During wet springs when wetlands
expand onto the surrounding landscape, there can be large expanses of open
shallow water and mudflats, and birding for shorebirds can be spectacular.
During prolonged wet periods, the open water is good for ducks, other
waterfowl, and gulls and terns. In very dry periods, wetland and open water
species may be restricted to the larger, permanent water bodies in the area.
Points of Note (Click on numbers on the map to see
information and photos for each location):
As noted in to "Directions" section, I tend to drive the same roads and visit
some of the same locations during any trip to the prairie potholes west of Sioux
Falls. One of my favorite birding locations anywhere in the Sioux Falls area is
Weisensee Slough in far
western Minnehaha County (point
1 above, also labeled as "Englehardt Slough" on some maps). It's
one of the larger, shallow, dynamic wetlands in the area, with water levels that
fluctuate dramatically between seasons. With a gravel road (261st street)
cutting through the heart of Weisensee, it's also one of the most accessible
Prairie Pothole wetlands, with wonderful views often present right from the
Just to the west of Weisensee, in far eastern McCook County, is Lake
The large reservoir is popular with fishermen and boaters, and with a lot of
activity in the summer months, the main lake often isn't great for birding.
However, two areas on Lake Vermillion can be wonderful for birds. The first
is the small spillway on the south end of the reservoir (Point
2), feeding into the east fork of the Vermillion River. In the spring
when the water is often high and flows are in the spillway are high, it
often attracts a lot of birds. On the other, north end of Lake Vermillion
where the water enters the reservoir (point
6), the habitat is characterized by extensive cattail marshes
and shallow water habitat. It's a little used part of the reservoir
compared to the area closer to the dam, but is often very birdy. It's a
wonderful area to explore with a kayak.
Once I leave the Lake Vermillion area, I often take
261st street towards the east (Point
5). Highlight this specific road is really a proxy for noting what most
gravel roads are like in this area...quiet gravel roads that pass by a
number of wetlands and small ponds. Along this road near highway 19 are
multiple small wetlands that have been very good for birding over the years.
Unlike the large Weisensee slough, these are smaller and often ephemeral,
but with the same extreme water fluctuations that can bring different types
of birds dependent upon the current condition.
Continuing onward on 261st street, the road meets paved 459th avenue.
Heading south from here, the road curves along the western edge of
Grass Lake (Point
3). This is one of the larger permanent water bodies in the area, with
deeper water than most of the ephemeral wetlands. Cattail and other wetland
vegetation is less prevalent along the margins than in most water bodies
here, but that deeper water is excellent for holding birds such as diving
ducks, cormorants, and pelicans.
One final location I sometimes visit is
Beaver Lake, just southeast
of the town of Humboldt (point 4).
It's another larger lake characterized by deeper open water, and holds
similar birds as does Grass Lake. While I've often seen very high numbers of
waterfowl and other water-associated birds, access is an issue. A road goes
along the south edge of the lake for a short stretch, and highway 38 goes
near the north edge, but it's a more difficult site for getting really close
looks at birds. Note along the south road, there's a thin strip of trees
between the road and the lake that often are great for holding songbirds.
Most of the land around the scattered wetlands and ponds is cultivated
cropland, with limited birding potential. However, there are a number of
waterfowl production areas with large grassland areas surrounding wetlands,
areas that can be quite good for prairie species.
Birds of Note:
Wetland and aquatic species are the main attraction. After a snowy
winter when ample meltwater has fed the wetlands of the area, the shorebird
migration in spring can be absolutely spectacular. Species such as
American Avocets that are
sometimes difficult to find near Sioux Falls are often at Weisensee Slough and
other wetlands in the area during the spring months. The "typical" migrants that
are often seen are Baird's
Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers,
Dunlin, and several others.
However, other species seen here include both
Hudsonian Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones,
Piping Plover, and
All of the expected waterfowl for eastern South Dakota can potentially be
found here. The area is a prime location to see migrating geese, with
White-fronted Geese, and Ross's
Geese (along with the ever present
Canada Goose) all coming
through in good (to astounding) numbers each spring. With shallow water
habitat in much of the area, dabbling ducks are widespread from spring
through fall (dependent upon species), while diving ducks are present on the
deeper water bodies. Areas such as
Weisensee Slough can
have incredibly high concentrations of
Northern Shovelers, and
Pied-billed Grebe are
very common, and both Horned
and Eared Grebe are often
seen. Western Grebe are less
common, as they typically prefer deeper waters, but they are sometimes seen
on Grass Lake and
Beaver Lake. The
latter two lakes are also water bodies where I've seen migrating
Common Loons on multiple
Wading birds and other large water birds are often found in the Prairie
Potholes. Great Egrets
and Snowy Egrets are regularly
seen here, while Cattle Egrets
have occasionally been seen.
Great Blue Herons and Green
Heron are common.
American Bittern and
Night-herons may also be common at times, but are more difficult to see
in the vast cattail expanses in this area.
White-faced Ibis (one of
my favorites) are also seen on occasion.
Gulls and Terns are seen regularly during migration.
Ring-billed Gulls are the
omni-present gull in South Dakota, and
Bonaparte's Gulls are also
regular and common migrants. Black
Terns show up around mid-May and sometimes breed here, with
Forster's Terns migrating
through the area.
Double-crested Cormorants patrol all the deeper water bodies.
The extensive cattail marshes found throughout this area attract the
usual host of passerines.
Blackbirds (and the ever present
are abundant in western Minnehaha County, with one or both species found in
practically every patch of cattails.
Marsh Wrens are also abundant,
while Sedge Wrens are often
found in the wet grassy meadows that abut many of the cattail marshes.
are...everywhere. Both Sora and
Virginia Rail are common,
but difficult to observe.
While not the primary target species when I visit the area, the upland
habitats can also hold good numbers of birds, particularly in around some of
the more extensive grassland patches.
Upland Sandpipers aren't
a common breeding species in Minnehaha County, given all the cropland, but
they can sometimes be found here. I rarely see
Gray Partridge, yet most of
the sightings I've had have been in western Minnehaha County. With the
farmsteads and stands of old trees,
are commonly seen, as are Brown
Thrasher. It's been a hotspot for
Blue Grosbeaks for me, and
Eastern Bluebirds are
also here. Finally, be sure to check the wetland edges and adjacent wet
meadows for the elusive Baird's
and Nelson's Sparrows
Other Birding Locations (sorted by distance to