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Birders flock to southeast South Dakota

A group of people looks for birds during a field trip at the 2012 South Dakota Birding Festival near Lake Andes. The third annual festival is this weekend. (Republic file photo)

PICKSTOWN -- Get your binoculars ready. Bird enthusiasts are flocking to Charles Mix County this weekend for the third annual South Dakota Birding Festival. For three days beginning Friday, birders will gather for workshops, hands-on activities and presentations. South Dakota is host to 322 species of birds and more than 50 people have pre-registered for the event, said Jeff Stewart, a community volunteer on the event committee.

"This is the only birding festival in South Dakota," he said. "This is a really good migration site in and around these three communities."

Near the town of Lake Andes is a lake of the same name; there is also Lake Wagner near Wagner and the Missouri River near Pickstown. Plus, the area boasts two national wildlife refuges in Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge and Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge.

"That brings in a lot of migratory birds," Stewart said. "It's just a really good location."

During last year's festival, the 40 birders who attended recorded 150 species of birds. This year the committee is shooting for 75 participants, ranging from first-time to veteran birders.

"It can be quite habit-forming," Stewart said with a chuckle.

Beginners need a pair of binoculars and a good bird identification book, he said. Most bird books list the seasonal range for birds, their song and identifiable marks.

"One little mark on the head or wing can identify one bird from another," Stewart said.

Serious enthusiasts can be seen carrying a spotting scope on a tripod and a camera with a long zoom lens.

"They are generally good conservationists, too," Stewart said of veteran birders.

Some of the speakers this year will present on basic bird calls, bird banding, endangered birds and raptors.

Dr. Dave Swanson will deliver a presentation on Friday about listening to birds and how to identify them by ear. Swanson is a biology professor at the University of South Dakota.

Swanson will also present two hands-on bird banding workshops.

"We'll set up mist nets, which is a real thin nylon net, between poles with vegetation behind it," Swanson said. "When birds fly into the vegetation, they will get tangled in the net."

Swanson will gently remove the birds from the netting and show birders the bird banding grip, which immobilizes the bird so it doesn't hurt itself. If birders are so inclined, Swanson will allow them to hold the birds while he takes measurements and attaches a standard aluminum leg band. The information he gathers is sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory based in Maryland.

"If any are recaptured later, then the band number is turned in and they can tell where that banded bird was and get information about its movement patterns," Swanson said.

Mostly, Swanson and the other birders will capture songbirds, like warblers, sparrows and flycatchers.

Swanson will also lead birding field trips with Nancy Drilling, the South Dakota projects coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Mike Delvaux, the terrestrial science coordinator from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gavins Point Project, will speak about least terns and piping plovers. Habitat for these two birds is diminished in South Dakota due to damming on the Missouri River, but the Corps has spent money to replace it over the years, Stewart said.

The festival will also offer a public presentation at 7:30 p.m. Saturday from the Black Hills Raptor Center. The public is welcome to attend for a $5 charge. The event will be held at the Wagner National Guard Armory on Highway 46.