My 11 Best Bird Watching Spots in South Dakota You Should Try

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases with no additional costs for you.

South Dakota is a midwestern state that is relatively large and famous for the Mount Rushmore National Monument. The state is also rich in birdlife, with an impressive 440 species of birds recorded. 

The best bird watching spots in South Dakota are large prairies such as Fort Pierre National Grasslands and lakes such as Sand Lake, Lake Andes, and Lake Oahe. The mountainous areas of the Black Hills and the Badlands are also suitable for finding higher-elevation birds.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 11 birding spots in South Dakota:

Fort Pierre National GrasslandsSharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie-Chicken
Sand Lake National Wildlife RefugeRuddy Duck and Clark’s Grebe
Oakwood Lakes State ParkBonaparte’s Gull and Ring-billed Gull
Badlands National ParkGrasshopper Sparrow and Burrowing Owl
Lake Andes National Wildlife RefugeDickcissel and Blue-winged Teal
Oahe, Downstream Recreation AreaIceland Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake
Lacreek National Wildlife RefugeAmerican White Pelican and Willet
Newton Hills State ParkBlue-winged Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo
Black HillsAmerican Dipper and Cordilleran Flycatcher
Waubay National Wildlife RefugeRed-necked Grebe and Upland Sandpiper
Great Lakes Birding TrailChestnut-collared Longspur and Piping Plover
Best Places to Bird Watch in South Dakota

Read on to get more details on the best bird watching places in South Dakota and which species you can expect to find in each spot.

Best Bird Watching Spots in South Dakota
Best Bird Watching Spots in South Dakota

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in South Dakota

South Dakota is a land-locked state between Kansas in the south and North Dakota in the north. The state is mainly prairie, but there are also wetlands, basswood and oak forests, glacial lakes, and various impoundments. 

1. Black Hills

The Black Hills region of South Dakota has a similar avifauna to the Rocky Mountains. This means you can see some interesting birds that are not easily found elsewhere in the state.

The vegetation is ponderosa pine and spruce trees. A unique bird you can see in the area is the American Dipper. This bird is only found in fast-flowing streams; in the Black Hills, you can find the Dipper in Spearfish Creek.

Species of birds in the Black Hills include Cordilleran Flycatchers, Canyon Wrens, Veerys, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Ruffed Grouse, and Western Tanagers.

Birds to look for in the highest elevations include the following species: Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Solitaire, American Three-toed Woodpecker, and Red Crossbill. 

2. Fort Pierre National Grasslands

This large area of grasslands provides a home for many species of birds. Fort Pierre National Grasslands make up 116,000 acres of land. There are small ponds in the grassland, flat areas, and gently rolling hills.

Birds you can find breeding in the prairie include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Upland Sandpiper, and Marbled Godwit. The Marbled Godwit nests close to the ponds because they prefer moister grassy areas. 

Wilson’s Phalaropes can be seen in the wetlands, while Burrowing Owls can be found in prairie dog towns.

You should check for Bobolinks, Short-eared Owls, Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, and Grasshopper Sparrows in the grasses. You should also easily see Dickcissels because the males perch prominently on grass stems.

Golden Eagles and Gyrfalcons sometimes frequent the area during winter and may be seen along with a few other overwintering birds, such as Lapland Longspurs.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

3. Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is a prairie pothole area that is situated in the Great Plains region of South Dakota. You can take the 15-mile autoroute, which passes various wetlands and marshes. This route is only open from April to October; you can only walk in the refuge during other times of the year.

The refuge is 21,498 acres and encompasses Sand Lake and surrounding vegetation. This vegetation includes prairie grasses, woodlands, and cultivated lands.

Sand Lake is a Globally Important Bird Area with a record of 268 species. A complete checklist is available and can be used on your trip.

Bird species you can find here include nesting Snowy, Cattle, and Great Egrets. You can also find many waterfowl species in the open water areas.

Such species include the Western Grebes, Clark’s Grebe, Ruddy Duck, and Blue-winged Teal. Black Tern and Forster’s Tern can also be seen in the refuge.

Yellow Warblers, Clay-colored Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Bobolinks, and Sedge Wrens may be seen in the refuge as they breed here.

4. Oakwood Lakes State Park

Oakwood Lakes is an excellent spot to see migrating birds in spring. The park comprises a series of glacial lakes, reed beds, and wooded and grassy areas. You can also camp in this park, which is a big positive because you can search for nocturnal birds like owls.

There are trails you can take, which let you easily access most of the woodland and grassland regions of the park.

You can find the following bird species: Pied-billed Grebe, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and Baltimore Oriole. These species also nest in the park, as do the Green Heron and Great Blue Heron.

You can see the Franklin’s Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Ring-billed Gull on or near the lakes.

Gulls are most common in spring, so March and April are good bets for visiting this park. Lakes also always have ducks and geese present at various times of the year.

5. Badlands National Park

This park is scenically beautiful, with rugged cliffs and grasslands providing a home for many birds and other wildlife. Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres in size and is in the southwestern part of the state. 

It has a scenic drive, allowing some bird watching from the car. There are also hiking trails in the park.

Bird species you should look out for in the grasslands include Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Vesper Sparrow, and Grasshopper Sparrow. 

You will also likely see Loggerhead Shrikes, Lark Buntings, and Burrowing Owls. You need to check out the prairie dog towns for the Burrowing Owls.

The Lark Buntings are usually found in grassy areas. Near the cliffs and often seen on the drive, you should watch for Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, and White-throated Swifts.

6. Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is located in the southern part of South Dakota, comprised of a lake within a prairie. There are also woodlands surrounding the lake, which, along with the grassy areas and open water, provide lots of habitat for birds.

In summer, you can see the following bird species here: Dickcissel, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole, Willow Flycatcher, and Warbling Vireo.

You can find shorebirds in the refuge when the water level is lower and there are muddy edges. Shorebirds you can find here include Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers. According to the checklist, many more shorebirds and other bird species are found in the refuge.

7. Oahe, Downstream Recreation Area

The area just below the dam of Lake Oahe is where many people go to bird watch because the area attracts a lot of birds. Many species of gulls can be seen during the year at this spot.

Birds you can find here include Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, Iceland Gulls, and even Black-legged Kittiwakes.

You should also watch Ospreys and Bald Eagles, often seen perched on the edge of the dam or river or catching fish in the water.

Cottonwood trees lining the dam and river can produce many birds, including woodpeckers, warblers, and other species. 

TOP TIP: Some bird species fly very long distances, so how do they recognize each other? Read this guide to find out. As birds fly around during the day, how do they remember where their nests are? This article explains.

8. Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge

Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge is 16,410 acres in size and located in the south. It is found on one side of the Nebraska Sandhills area and, therefore, has prairie and wetland areas present. You can walk along trails and on dykes that border the dams.

The lakes in the refuge are where you can find the following bird species: Western Grebe, Northern Pintail, American White Pelican, and Trumpeter Swan.

Shallow water areas attract American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and American Avocet. Wilson’s Phalaropes and Willets can also be viewed on the wetland edges.

Wilson’s Snipe also occurs in the refuge but is tricky to see due to their camouflage and reclusive nature. Sora and Virginia Rail are in the reeds and can also be challenging to spot.

9. Newton Hills State Park

This park is 1,063 acres in size and is situated just south of Sioux Falls. The habitats include hills that are covered with forests. The area was formed from glaciers and also has a few areas of prairie grasses. 

Birdlife is rich in the park, which is why it is on my list of best birdwatching spots. The birds you will typically find in the park include Eastern Wood-Pewee, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. 

The beautiful Wood Thrush and Blue-winged Warbler can also be seen in the park. Keep a watch on the trees for the bright red Scarlet Tanagers, which, if present, can often be seen flying between trees.

The park is well-suited for migrating species. It would be best if you kept an eye out for orioles like the Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. Both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been recorded at Newton Hills.

10. Waubay National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is in the prairie pothole region of the state. The potholes are depressions formed by glaciers that hold water. These water bodies are good for attracting waterfowl to the area, including Western Grebes and Red-necked Grebes. 

At least 245 bird species have been recorded in this 4,650-acre refuge. Birds you can find here include the following: Forster’s Terns, Franklin’s Gulls, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Marbled Godwits, and Upland Sandpipers. 

Check the grassy patches for species such as the Bobolink, Grassland Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. You can contact the refuge to find out more information.

TIP: Check out my recommended products if you are looking for the best and trusted equipment for birdwatching in the wild or on your backyard (Amazon link):

11. Great Lakes Birding Trail

This south-central region includes three big reservoirs, hence the name Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Birding Trail encompasses prairie potholes, grasslands, woodlands, and the large lakes of the Missouri River. 

The area is unique in that you have both western and eastern species in the same area. For example, you can find both Western and Eastern Bluebirds here. Other birds to look for include Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and Marbled Godwits.

Best Time to Bird Watch in South Dakota

Bird watching can be done at almost any time in South Dakota. It is essential to realize that winters are freezing, so you should keep this in mind and check the weather before planning a trip.

Gulls and Sandhill CranesSpring
Dickcissels and OriolesSummer
Best Time to Bird Watch in South Dakota

The South Dakota State Bird

Ring-necked Pheasant -  The State Bird of South Dakota
Ring-necked Pheasant – The State Bird of South Dakota

South Dakota designated the Ring-necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, as the state bird in the 1940s. This is a large and easy-to-identify bird. 

The males have brighter colors with a long coppery tail with black markings. The female is brown but paler underneath compared with the male. Both males and females have black tail bars and black spots on the sides of the body.

These pheasants are most often found walking on the ground, but they can take flight when needed. They prefer moist edges of grasslands and open areas and avoid arid habitats. 

Bird Watching Laws in South Dakota

A person is not permitted to take, transport, or harm any wild bird unless a small game bird. No bird, game, or wild can be transported or sold in or outside the state.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


South Dakota is a state you should add to your travel plans. The state is terrific for finding prairie birds, including the endangered Prairie-Chickens.

Other habitats, such as hills, woodlands, pine and spruce forests, and prairie pothole wetlands, provide ample opportunities to see more birds and add to your life list of species.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

Recent Posts