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North Alabama Bend is a protected area of approximately 550 acres managed by
the Army Corps of Engineers. It consists of land transferred tot he Army
Corps in 2009, with "main management objectives to preserve, protect, and
enhance the natural features and functions to provide habitat for native
fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species". The general
region is named for the steamboat North Alabama which sank in this region of
the Missouri River.
North Alabama Bend is about 3 miles southwest of the city of Vermillion. It's
easily accessible with parking right next to a state highway.
There are multiple parking locations where access
to North Alabama Bend is available, but directions here refer to the parking
lot at "Point 1" in the image map, as this parking lot provides the easiest
access to the river itself, and it's nearby forested habitat. The parking
lot isn't well marked. but can easily be accessed. From the
intersection of highways 50 and 19, just west of Vermillion, head south on
Highway 19. You'll pass through cropland on both sides of the road
before encountering a large open grassy area on the west side the highway,
about 1.25 miles south of the Highway 50 and 19 intersection. A
parking area is found at the far northeastern corner of North Alabama Bend,
but better access is provided by the parking lot further south. Continue
south until you are ~1.75 miles south of the Highway 50 and 19 intersection.
This is the first location where you'll see extensive trees that
approach the highway. The parking lot is at the boundary of where the
trees, grassland, and highway meet, on the west side of the road.
42° 45' 45.67" N, 96°
57' 28.38" W
(coordinate of recommended parking area).
North Alabama Bend offers 550 acres of some
terrific mixed habitat, with representation of prairie land, riparian
woodlands, open savannah, and free-flowing Missouri River habitat.
It's the latter that's the attraction of the region for me. With the
damming of the Missouri River and construction of multiple dams from Gavin's
Point dam near Yankton, northward through South and North Dakota, hundreds
of miles of free-flowing Missouri River habitat was lost in the mid-20th
century. In South Dakota, it's only the region from Gavin's Point Dam and
eastward where the Missouri River flows unfettered by dams.
From a birding perspective, the reason that's important is that there are
many species (animals and plants) that historically depended upon the
free-flowing, shifting water levels of the Missouri. With inundation
from the dams, hundreds of miles of natural sandbars were lost, areas that
specialized nesting birds such as
Least Terns and Piping
Plovers depended upon. However, in this part of the Missouri, a more
natural flow of the river occurs. This includes sandbar regions that shift
and change as water levels change from year to year. At North Alabama
Bend, except in areas of very high water levels, there are often expansive
sandbar regions that offer perfect nesting habitat for Least Terns and
North Alabama Bend would be a great birding location even without the
adjacency to the river, and the sandbar habitat. Massive cottonwoods and
other deciduous trees line the banks of the Missouri and surrounding
lowlands, offering some wonderful woodland birding. A large portion of
North Alabama Bend is also grassland and prairie habitat. As one walks the
main trails through North Alabama Bend, a birder can often simultaneously
hear the calls of woodland birds on one side of the trail, and grassland
species on the other side.
Note I myself am continuing to discover what North Alabama Bend has to
offer. I only "discovered" the area myself in the spring of 2020!! I've now
been down a number of times, and only once have I encountered another human
being while birding. It's a hidden gem, but one well worth your time.
Points of Note (Click on numbers on the map to see
photos of the locations):
In addition to a few ground photos and notes about
areas to bird at North Alabama Bend, note the following link to an overview
image depicting the well-maintained trails.
Overview Image - North Alabama Bend Trails
Good birding can start right from the parking lot!
The parking lot right off Highway 19 is right at the intersection of the
extensive prairie land to the west of the highway, and a strip of deciduous
forest that lines the highway to the south of the parking lot (Point
1 in the map up above). Open the car door and you may well hear
a simultaneous chorus of both woodland and prairie birds.
highlights one of the two big prairie loops. Grassland, wildflowers, and
sumac and other shrubs are found here, with broad unbroken expanses of
habitat that are increasingly rare in South Dakota. The prairie loops also
have three dugout ponds that provide water and attract wildlife, a relict of
when this land was grazed with cattle.
highlights one area of forested land at North Alabama Bend, but there are
many locations where forest species can be explored. Treed areas range from
open savannah, with widely spaced tree and abundant herbaceous or shrub
undergrowth, to much more dense and impenetrable looking forest land.
highlights the star attraction of North Alabama Bend for me...the
free-flowing Missouri River and it's wonderful sandbar habitat. Note that
conditions may change on the river as the seasons and water levels change.
represents the unknown for me! In my explorations to date I haven't found
any kind of maintained trail that penetrates the large forested area on the
western side of North Alabama Bend. Given that past bird reports for the
area include some goodie forest species like
Whip-poor-will, it's an area
I hope to explore in the near future.
Note that the sandbars themselves are restricted areas, to protect
breeding Piping Plovers and Least Terns. When visiting the areas, please
respect the warning signs and stay off of the sandbars themselves. Note you
can usually get a pretty decent view of the specialty birds from the
Missouri River shoreline.
Birds of Note:
The variety of habitat at North Alabama Bend, from
grassland, to forest, to riparian area, to open river and sandbars, means
there's a wide diversity of bird species that can possibly be seen. Any day is
potentially a good day here, but the highlight for me are the
Least Terns and
Piping Plovers that use the
sandbars on the river for nesting.
Many of the typical grassland species can be found here, as can many of
the typical eastern deciduous forest species. See the individual point
location pages above for insight into some of the commonly found birds in
each of these habitats. Some of the "good" birds (for southeastern South
Dakota) that can potentially be found here include:
Prairie/grassland/shrubby areas (excluding the more commonly found
grassland birds in eastern South Dakota):
Other South Dakota Birding Locations (sorted by distance):
Additional Information - North Alabama Bend:
Overlook showing the free-flowing Missouri River and the
large expansive sandbars present in the general area of North