South Dakota road trip produces great birding memories
(published 7-8-08)

I read a lot of bird books, and my all-time favorite is “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman. It's the best birding adventure book I know. Even so, I'd never read it a second time until just before a family trip to South Dakota in June. I'm glad I did—for birders, Kaufman's memoir is the perfect read before hitting the open road.

We left on June 8, the start of a 10-day trip that would cover 2,400 miles in a rented minivan. This was a family vacation, not a birding trip. But clearly there would be excellent chances to see some new species, as well as some western birds that I'd only seen once or twice before. Weeks before we left Glen Ellyn, I spent hours thumbing through my Sibley guide, dreaming of the possibilities. I also acquired a book on birds of the Black Hills, which naturally raised a my birding fever a few more degrees.

The first notable birds occurred long before we reached South Dakota. Just after crossing the Mississippi River on I-90, we stopped at the Minnesota welcome center to stretch. Looking east toward La Crosse, I scanned the river for bald eagles and found one almost instantly. Moments later a black tern went coursing by. These would not be last “good birds” that I'd see while visiting rest areas on the trip. Lesson: Every pit stop is a birding opportunity!

We reached the Badlands on our second day. Before entering the national park we stopped at a scenic overlook to drink in the strange and beautiful landscape. That would have been plenty, but some locally common birds made that little pause even better. A Swainson's hawk was soaring low right above us, and a lark bunting and singing western meadowlark perched on a fence close to the parking area.

I was greatly impressed by the Badlands. The rock formations, the wildflowers, the big sky. Everything. We were greeted by a mountain bluebird at one of our first stops inside the park, and we'd be treated to many more of these powder-blue beauties. Say's phoebe, rock wren, white-throated swift, black-billed magpie, blue grosbeak, spotted towhee and lark sparrow were among other species I found inside the park. Nothing rare, but each one a treat.

After the Badlands we pushed on to our rented cabin the Black Hills, near Deadwood. This would be a chance for some woodland birding, and I aimed to make the most of it with early morning walks before the family was up. The most colorful sighting was a western tanager, a bird I'd encountered only once before, in Arizona. Black-headed grosbeak, Cordilleran flycatcher and Townsend's solitaire were other highlights on the property.

Our cabin was at the edge of a large open meadow, so from the porch it was easy to watch for soaring raptors. I twice spotted a golden eagle high in the sky, identifiable by its overall darkness and shape. This was one of my “target birds” for the trip, and I was to see another eagle at Wind Cave National Park in a few days.

Another target was American dipper, a truly unique species and a local specialty in the Black Hills.That is, if you know where to look. The cabin owners, birders themselves, were glad to help. They directed me to the Spearfish Canyon, which happily was right on our way to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a planned day trip. I found a single dipper in three different locations, the most famous being Roughlock Falls. This was a fun bird to watch as it dipped in and out of the quick-moving mountain streams.

My next “lifer” was a total surprise. On our way to Rushmore one day we stopped at the gleaming visitor center for Black Hills National Forest. A pair of mountain bluebirds was nesting on site, and violet-green swallows were darting about. The center also featured some well-stocked bird feeders, and at one of them I quickly noticed an unfamiliar bird. A red crossbill! The olive-yellow female was soon joined by the more reddish male. Then a couple more females arrived. It was a great show, and completely unexpected.

My best birding moment of the trip occurred at Custer State Park. I knew that three species of woodpeckers that I'd never seen were native in the Black Hills—Lewis's, three-toed and black-backed. Finding any one of them would take time and some luck. At Custer, I got my chance. Driving on the Wildlife Loop, we passed a forested hillside blackened by fire. It looked like perfect black-backed woodpecker habitat based on my pre-trip research.

While my family patiently waited in the van—it was Father's Day, so they were in a compliant mood—I began hiking up the hillside. There was almost no undergrowth, just pine needles, so the walking was easy. I soon heard a drumming sound but the source turned out to be a hairy woodpecker. Then I heard more drumming, close but from a different direction. Obviously I was in the right place for woodpeckers! Moments later, a black-backed revealed itself. I watched as it moved from tree to tree, keeping its distance but still allowing me good views.

Mission completed, I practically flew back down the hill to the van. Nothing beats the feeling of finding a special bird completely on your own.

I'd been dreading the two-day drive back to Glen Ellyn but the first day was a lot more tolerable thanks to some interesting roadside attractions. No, not Wall Drug or the Corn Palace. This is about birds, remember?

One especially nice rest area, on the east bank of the Missouri River, featured a short nature trail where I found singing dickcissels, a grassland species. That was a new “trip bird,” as was the long-billed curlew that flew low over the highway about an hour later. I don't keep a list of birds spotted from a moving vehicle, honest, but the curlew made me think about starting one.

There were lots of little ponds or “potholes” along I-90, and many of them held waterfowl. The urge to pull over and have a closer look was strong but that would have been dangerous. Thankfully, even at 70 mph it was easy to enjoy the yellow-headed blackbirds in the cattail stands. They are spectacular birds, larger than their red-winged cousins.

To compare my trip to Kenn Kaufman's 1973 odyssey would be preposterous. For an entire year, at age 17, he hitchhiked around the country on a shoestring budget. We drove to South Dakota in a minivan and spent freely. But I do relate easily to Kaufman's desire to see new birds in new habitats. That desire makes every trip a little more interesting, no matter how you choose to travel.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.