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Gavin's Point Dam
about 4 miles west of Yankton. Simply take Highway 52 west out of Yankton,
and you'll see a turn to the south which takes you across the dam itself, to the
Nebraska side of the river and Reservoir.
51' 45" N, 97° 29' 7" W
(coordinate at center of Gavin's Point Dam).
Gavin's Point Dam is a mile and a half long structure
along the Missouri River, on the Nebraska/South Dakota border, about 4 miles
west of Yankton, South Dakota. The dam forms Lewis & Clark Reservoir,
which itself is about 16 miles long and 2 to 2.5 miles wide. Gavin's
Point Dam is the furthest downstream (last) of the series of large dams
along the Missouri River, and was designed to control water levels for
navigation downstream, but other uses include to control flooding, generate
electricity, and provide recreational opportunities.
From a birding standpoint, the area offers a diverse
array of habitats. The vast open water of the reservoir and the
year-round open water below the dam attract a variety of water-loving birds,
including the opportunity for rarities seldom seen in South Dakota.
Wetland areas around Lake Yankton (below the dam) offer habitat for marsh
birds, while forest areas along the Missouri River bluffs and around Lake
Yankton offer great habitat for woodland species.
Points of Note (Click on markers on the map to see
closer images of the locations):
A trip to the Gavin's Point Dam area should always include a stop below the
dam, in the tailwaters of the Missouri River (Point 1 on the map below and to
the right). Interesting birds may be found at all seasons, but it's the
late fall and winter that often are the best from a birding standpoint. As
with other Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota, the Gavin's Point Dam area
offers the possibility of seeing some true rarities in the state, particularly
gulls and waterfowl. As temperatures plummet and other open water in the
area freezes over, the constant stream of open water below the dam attracts large numbers of Bald Eagles,
attracted by not only the open water, but the stunned baitfish that pass through
the dam. Take a trip to the area in December through February, and there's
one particular Cottonwood tree (see point 1) on the Nebraska side where I can
almost guarantee you'll find a
Bald Eagle (or two, or three, or 12), and in all likelihood, it
could be the closest you ever come to a wild eagle in your lifetime. From
the sidewalk adjacent to the tailwaters on the Nebraska side, you can view what
is at times frenzied bird activity in the late fall, with eagles, gulls, and waterfowl searching
for food, especially just as most of the water on the main lake and around the
area has started to freeze over. Stand on this sidewalk on a winter's day, and you may very well
have Bald Eagles
cruising the tailrace waters in front of you, right at eye level and within
spittin' distance (or so it seems). This area is also one of the
best locations in the state to find
Osprey (in the fall), even before they started raising and
releasing Osprey in
this area. Be sure to scan the waters and skies in this area for rarities,
as you never know what gull or waterfowl species may show up. This area
even hosted a wayward Brown
Pelican a few years ago.
Lake Yankton (Point 2), on the South Dakota side below the dam, is
another great place to look for waterfowl. It seems there are often
often patches of water, even in
winter, making it another place that's
attractive for water birds. On the eastern side of Lake Yankton is
Chief White Crane Recreation Area (Point 3). There are many campsites
scattered throughout, but there's also some very nice thick forest that can
be quite good for woodland species. This area is closed to motor
traffic in the winter, to reduce disturbance to
Bald Eagles on
day roosts, but you can walk through the area.
Point 4, on the western
side of Lake Yankton, is another good spot to bird. There's a lot of
wetland vegetation here, and it's over in this part of the lake where
there's most often open water in the winter.
Another good place to look for gulls and waterfowl is the Marina, on the
northeast corner of Lewis and Clark Reservoir (Point
5). The structure protecting the marina seems to be a
favorite place for gulls to hang out, and there are often waterfowl just off
the jetty, or sometimes in the marina itself.
One final place I always check is on the Nebraska side, west of the
visitor's center (Point
6). As you take the road past the visitor's center, the
road will turn south, and go towards a golf course. Just before
getting to the golf, course, turn right. This little road goes through
an open grassy area on the right, that's been one my most reliable spots for
finding Eastern Bluebirds. As you head towards a parking area
overlooking the lake, you'll pass scattered cedar trees and brush, areas
that have been great in migration for me at times. At the parking
area, you can take a trail which heads down through the forest. It's a
nice area to look for woodland species.
Birds of Note:
The big draw for birders in the Gavin's Point Dam area is probably the
Bald Eagles which
can be so numerous below the dam in late fall through the winter months.
The steep bluffs rising up from the south side of the river have a thin strip of
trees between the road and the water below the dam, and those trees are favorite hangouts for
the eagles as they scan the water below for an easy meal. Especially in
the fall, the Bald Eagles have competition from
Recently, Osprey have
been raised in special towers on the shores of Lake Yankton, areas where young
birds are raised and released in the fall.
I've had good luck for other raptors below the dam as well. I've
seen both Cooper's Hawks
(summer) and Sharp-shinned Hawks around Lake Yankton, and
while walking through the Chief White Crane Recreation Area, I've twice come
across adult Northern Goshawks.
Red-tailed Hawks are also commonly
found in the trees below the dam.
Snowy Owls have
been spotted on the dam itself in the winter (unfortunately, not by me!!).
Another big attraction for birders in the area is the potential for rare
gulls. The biggest congregation of Gulls I've ever seen in my life was
one December, on Lewis and Clark Reservoir just above the dam. Nearly
all the water above the dam was frozen, except for a ring of open water
about 300 yards across. There was some kind of fish kill, with dead
fish ringing the open water, and thousands of gulls taking advantage of the
feast. As in much of South Dakota, most of the gulls in the area are
However, as with the other Missouri River dams, you never know what rarity
may show up. Other gulls I've seen by the dam are
Glaucous Gull, and
Waterfowl, including the potential for rarities, is another big attraction
to the area. Common
Loons are often found here in migration, and a
was also once spotted here.
are indeed common below the dam in winter, and scanning the water may also
Red-breasted Mergansers, especially in migration.
are another common species around the dam in winter, while
not-so-common species have included
Surf Scoter in migration. A
has been spotted above the dam (marina area), and there has even been a
visiting Brown Pelican,
as mentioned above. If you're one who is inclined to chase the
rarities, the Gavin's Point Dam area is definitely worth your time.
The forest and open areas away from the water can also be very good for
birding. The area near the visitor's center (on the Nebraska side) has
been my most reliable place to find
and there have now been a couple of times where
have been reported in the area in winter. Cedar trees are common in
the bluffs and draws on the south side of the river, and with heavy berry
crops often comes large influxes of migrants and wintering birds. The
cedar trees on the Nebraska side are one of the most reliable places I know
of to find what are often an unreliable and nomadic species,
The forests in Chief White Crane Recreation Area and around point 6 (above)
on the Nebraska side have yielded
Eastern Towhee, and many other typical "eastern forest"
species. One thing that always manages to warm my heart, even in the
dead of winter, are the large numbers of
that always seem to be around, even in the coldest of weather.
There are times when activity below the dam is incredible, with gulls,
waterfowl, and eagles seemingly everywhere. And there have been times
when activity in and around the water has been extremely slow, including
times when you're hard-pressed to find a single gull. However, given
the diversity of habitats in the area, I never come away empty-handed on a
trip to the area, as slow days near the water are often compensated for by
big days in the upland areas on the Nebraska side of the dam, or in the
forests of Chief White Crane Recreation area.
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