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Annual birding festival flies into Charles Mix County

Birders are shown in this May 2012 file photo during the Second Annual South Dakota Birding Festival, held in the Pickstown-Wagner area. (Republic file photo)

PICKSTOWN -- As May arrives, so does South Dakota's biggest birding event.

Starting today, the Fourth Annual South Dakota Birding Festival will be held. It runs through Sunday in Charles Mix County with stops in Pickstown, Lake Andes and Wagner.

Mike Bryant, the wildlife refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the event was moved earlier by a couple of weeks in hopes of better attendance. He expects 80 to 90 birders at the three-day event. That would be double what it had in its inaugural year in 2011.

"It really is a great time to be out there," Bryant said. "There a wide variety of species that are migrating at this time of year, so I think it will be a lot of fun."

The festival starts at 6 p.m. today in Pickstown at the Rainbow Room, with registration and a social. Dave Swanson, a professor of biology at the University of South Dakota, will present on identifying the warblers of South Dakota at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, field trips will be held at the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge throughout the morning and afternoon and will include bird banding, which allows some birds to be tracked and their data to be analyzed.

At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the event will move to the Armory in Wagner, where speakers will discuss bird feeding and landscaping for birds. Then, a banquet will be held.

The keynote speaker at the event will be Lynn Barber, a Rapid City-based birder. She has participated in big-year events, which are when birders try to spot as many species as possible in a calendar year. In 2012, she identified 350 bird species in South Dakota as part of her in-state big year, many of them in the Missouri River valley of south central South Dakota.

The event closes Sunday, with viewing at the Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge in the morning. The refuge is usually closed throughout the year to allow for bald eagles to roost along the Missouri River in their natural habitat without being disturbed by the public.

"We do evaluations each year to make the festival better, and we've had numerous people tell us that getting to go down below at the Karl Mundt refuge is their favorite part," Bryant said. "A lot of people look forward to that."

In the last three years, the birders have spotted an average of 140 different species during the festival weekend. Some of the interesting birds included Clark's grebe, Western grebe, a Least bittern, green heron, hooded merganser and the Eastern screech owl.

Registration for the event is still open. Bryant said those interested can come to the Rainbow Room tonight and register for the weekend for $35, or can participate on Saturday for $20.