Learning About Birding at the South Dakota Birding Festival

Last Updated on January 5, 2015 by Jody Halsted

Our many thanks to the Southeast South Dakota Tourism Association for inviting us to be part of the South Dakota Birding Festival.

“Look Mom, ” my youngest says as she contently stares out our window, “it’s a red-breasted warbler.”

Is it? I have no idea. But she is likely correct. Ever since our trip last spring to the South Dakota Birding Festival, her interest in the feathered friends that surround us at home and as we travel has increased. At a glance she can name dozens of birds, while I am lucky to squeak out a handful without help of a birding book or app.

Spotted at the South Dakota Birding Festival
The bright yellow spot gives him away.

The South Dakota Birding Festival – a Great Place for Beginners to Learn about Birding

It was a bit intimidating, our first day at the South Dakota Birding Festival. I was packing my basic photography gear (which is really pretty good stuff), and the girls each had their own camera and small binoculars which, we found, are better used for football games than birding. All around us were ‘serious’ birders armed with high-powered binoculars and cameras equipped with prominent zoom lenses.

Avid bird watchers at South Dakota Birding Festival
Avid bird watchers armed with high powered binoculars

We were woefully under-prepared.

Though it was beyond obvious that we were new to birding, the other festival goers took us under their wings (pardon the pun), letting us peek through their binoculars to view birds in the far distance, and offering pointers on how to begin bird watching without going broke.

As we wandered through the tall grasses of the Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge, a young doctor from Sioux Falls explained to me that bird watching is his relaxation tactic. Being still, surrounded by nature, is his therapy, his escape from the hectic world.

Juvenile Golden Eagle at Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge
The Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center is filled with local wildlife, like this juvenile Golden Eagle.

I found that most birders began simply, placing feeders in their backyards and enjoying the colorful songbirds that visit in the summer. From there, curiosity took over. Wanting to know more about the birds they were seeing, as well as a growing curiosity of other birds, they were drawn deeper into bird watching.

Which is where we find ourselves, at the cusp of backyard birding and searching for birds in their natural habitat.

How to Begin Birding Without Going Broke

Birding doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby, nor should it be when you are beginning. As with any hobby, it’s best to begin slowly and work your way up.

Backyard Birding

The best place to begin birding is in your own backyard. Buy a few inexpensive bird feeders and bird food. If you can, designate a small part of your yard to a bird bath and wildflowers. And, most importantly, don’t kill the bugs with harmful pesticides. They are an important food source for birds; a bug-friendly environment is a bird-friendly environment.

Birding Apps

Having a birding app or two on your mobile device is incredibly handy when you’re on the go.

Audubon Birds (Multiple platforms; $3.99) An incredibly thorough app, this is the one we use most often. Photographs, descriptions, bird sounds, and range maps. We really like the ease of use with this app.

Merlin Bird ID App (Google Play & iTunes; free) A bird ID wizard. With a few simple questions the app helps you ID birds based on size, color, activity and location. Great for beginners.

Peterson Guides (iTunes; variable prices) To identify backyard birds, get the free Feeder Birds of North America guide. If you’re out and about, the 99¢ Birds Pocket Edition is a great starter app. These are very basic apps, with only family groups listed; not great for identification.

North American Birds Free (Google Play) A nice app, this focuses mostly on bird sounds. You can also ‘check off’ birds you’ve seen, as well as play a few games to help you identify birds.

Best Birding Books for Kids

While apps are handy, a birding book or two is nice to have around when you’re looking for more information or great images.

National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America This is our favorite book. Though it only profiles the country’s most popular birds, they are the birds kids are most likely to spot easily, which helps increase their interest and curiosity. Filled with photos and fun facts.

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America The ‘next step’ for beginning birders. This guide features 300 of the most common birds across the US and Canada. Plenty of terrific color photos, as well as range maps, bird behaviors, and fun facts.

Backyard Birds  This book is great for younger birders to identify the birds in their back yard.

Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book This book covers 48 common birds. It is filled with easy to read facts, as well as stickers for each bird. Also includes a birding log to note when and where you saw the bird.

What About Binoculars?

Don’t rush out and purchase the most powerful binoculars money can buy! Consider the weight of the binoculars and who is likely to be carrying them, as you study your options. I like Birding Binoculars 101 to assist with the basics and help guide your purchase, but I really recommend visiting a sporting store to hold and test binoculars before purchasing.

About the South Dakota Birding Festival

Southeast South Dakota is one of the top 10 birding areas in the country with over 322 species of birds. Located along a busy migration route, the spring festival in Pickstown draws birders of all ages and experience.

A highlight of the festival are the field trips into the Karl Mundt Wildlife Refuge. Established as a refuge for Bald Eagles in the 70s, the grounds are private, opened to the public once a year, during the birding festival.

Eagles Nest Carl Mundt Wildlife Refuge, South Dakota
It’s difficult to photograph an eagles nest in a way that viewers can really appreciate the enormous size of the nest. This is an eagle’s nest at the Karl Mundt Wildlife Refuge. The nest was created with sticks and branches as large as my arm – it was truly huge!

The South Dakota Birding Festival is filled with educational opportunities that appeal to the novice birder, as well as the more experienced birder. Bird banding was a highlight last year, as was the sessions on creating a welcoming backyard space for birds.

Holding a bird at the South Dakota Birding Festival
Holding one of the banded birds.

South Dakota Birding Festival : Official Website

Far from being an activity for older people, we found bird watching to be an activity that bridges age gaps, a relaxing hobby that opens pathways for conversation and appreciation of nature.

Just a note: some of the links above are affiliate links. Purchasing via affiliate links does no add to your cost and helps to pay for the costs associated with maintaining this website. Thank you for your support!


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