Lyon County Guide

Where to Bird Lyon County, Minnesota

A birder called me to ask, "Where should I go birding in Lyon County? I've only got four hours." Initially, I'm jealous - four hours is a lot of birding time to a parent of a young, growing family. But, setting aside my envy, the answer comes quickly. "The Camden State Park/Black Rush Lake area". With its extreme habitat diversity this is the place to start a quick birding adventure in Lyon County.

Just 10 minutes south of Marshall on Highway 23, Camden State Park contains the largest tract of contiguous, public, bird habitat in Lyon County. The riparian woodland cutting through the remnant prairie landscape offers opportunity for birders to view both prairie, and woodland species. Extensive efforts to reclaim the prairie to a more native form have added to the richness of the prairie landscape. Gray Partridge, Northern Harrier, several sparrows (including Grasshopper Sparrow), and Upland Sandpiper nest here, while Short-eared Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, and a dozen sparrow species can be seen during migration. Roads and trails through the woodland - especially along the river, and along transitional zone between prairie and woodland - take you through prime birding areas of the park. Woodland nesting species such as Great Crested Flycatcher, Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, and Scarlet Tanager can be found in summer, while both spring and fall bring an array of woodland migrants through the park - especially along the ridgeline, or along the Redwood River. Moving flocks of warblers, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, thrushes and sparrows are relatively easy finds during migration.

My favorite areas base from the Group Camp. This mid-section of the park offers quick access to the prairie/woodland ridge line West of the group camp, and several lesser-used sections of trail along the river to the South. When not birding, I run these trails regularly, and often hear towhee, Ovenbird, flycatchers, and warblers in the spring and early summer, and in fall am constantly startling sparrows, and am kept company by waves of Golden-crowned Kinglet in the trees along the ridge line. In Spring and early Summer, also make sure to walk the trail along the north picnic area long the river, where Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Connecticut, Mourning, and Blue-winged warblers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo can be seen. Along the river in the Campground and the North Picnic Area is another migration-time favorite. Look for nesting Northern Rough-winged Swallow and the colony of Bank Swallows along the steep cut bank, and watch the feeders at the house along the river for finches (especially in winter) Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. If you're in this area between 7am and 9am be sure to listen for a Pileated Woodpecker tending to its almost-daily routine. In the fall, the short trails by the horse camp are loaded with wild grapes that attract vireos, thrushes, and mimics thrushes, and the open area of the horse camp provide excellent roosting and hunting for migrating raptors including Bald Eagle, Cooper's, Broad-winged, and Rough-legged Hawks. Camden State Park also has a small lake [Brawner] that is a frequent stop for Osprey, thrushes, and flycatchers (including Olive-sided). Though the Brawner Lake area is usually not accessible in winter, and is quite dull for summer birding its just a short drive through and an easy lake to scan.

With less than an hour left its time to check out Black Rush Lake - just across Highway 23 from Camden. The proximity of this 600+ acre USFWS waterfowl production area to Camden provides exceptional birding diversity in short order. Ducks, bitterns, grebes, rails, and blackbirds abound in migration and summer - including nesting Ruddy Duck, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. During migration Eared Grebe, Cattle Egret, White-faced Ibis, and American Pipit can be seen, and excellent viewing for a variety of shorebirds exist when the water levels are low enough to expose mudflats. In the late summer and fall, gulls abound at the open wetland adjacent to the Lyon County landfill, so scanning through the flocks in fall might be worthwhile for unusual migrants.

As a Lyon County employee, I would be remiss to not mention Garvin County Park. South of Marshall 15 miles on Hwy 59, or just 2 miles North of US Highway 14, it is smaller in size, but similar in scope to Camden. The Cottonwood River cuts through the prairie here to create a deep, oak-covered ravine that contains several similar woodland birds as Camden. This is the only place in Lyon County I've heard Whip-poor-Will in the spring, or seen Eastern Towhee (nesting?) in summer, and I've experienced fall hawk migration "fallouts" that would WOW! The Hawk Ridge Counters. (There's also a nice lookout tower up "Merton's Hill") Because of its rich habitat and smaller size, getting through the park takes less time, yet still provides similar warbler, flycatcher, and sparrow diversity as Camden, and you are just as likely able to see Wild Turkey, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, or Scarlet Tanager. Again, Garvin does not have much in the way of winter birding except for the permanent residents, but is an enjoyable park in any season.

Your four hours are up, but you're quite done. On your way home going north on Highway 23, you MUST stop at Sham Lake (and other nearby lakes) located on the East side of highway 23 across from the City of Cottonwood. There something about Sham Lake that draws unusual birds. Red-throated Loon, Least Tern, Clark's Grebe, Surf Scoter. It is The Lake with Karma in Southwest Minnesota, and worth a stop when the water is open.  With only one more minute left - there's one more task… to call the local birders with your sightings… please?

Written by Roger Schroeder
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