Built in 1938 as a cooperative effort between Walworth County and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Lake Hiddenwood Recreation Area is the product of a dammed creek valley and the planting of trees along the valley walls. What makes Lake Hiddenwood interesting to birders is its status as the largest woodland, protected from the wind by valley walls, for many square miles of north central South Dakota. Lake Hiddenwood provides food and protection to migrating birds as they make their way to the boreal forest of North America. The number of birds that find this spot can be extraordinary and impress even the most seasoned birder.
A product of its time when it was common to “improve” on nature, Lake Hiddenwood is formed by a 50’ high and 1000’ long damn. The lake winds through the valley floor for three-quarters of a mile and is up to a quarter of a mile wide. The south side valley walls have been planted with Ponderosas Pine, Green Ash, Elm, and Box Elder trees. Many Cottonwood Trees grow near the lake. Planted in neat rows, as was the fashion of the 1930’s, time has started to rearrange the trees to a more random configuration. The understory is comprised of mostly Honeylocus, Honeysuckle, Chokecherry, Plum and Buckthorn. Typical of the WPA is the characteristic natural stonework. There is a stone stairway leading up the south valley wall, a stone wall bordering the picnic shelter and tucked away along the east and north sides are picnic sites bordered by stonewalls with stone fireplaces. Sadly, the stonework has been largely neglected and is in need of maintenance. Trails wind around the lake and stream and for the most part are easy to navigate.
I first visited the park on May 17th , 2002 and was amazed to find warblers dripping off the trees. It seemed every bush had at least three birds hopping from limb to limb and every tree had ten. The vast majority of birds were Yellow-rumped Warblers, the most common spring warbler in South Dakota, but the shear numbers were amazing. I returned on May 18th , 2003 to find Lake Hiddenwood dripping with Yellow Warblers. My last trip to Lake Hiddenwood included camping for three days in late May, the 27th thru 29th, 2005. Although I would not say that birds where dripping off the trees, I did find the largest concentration of birds I had found that spring. Yellow Warblers and Tennessee Warblers were present in numbers. Three of South Dakota’s Empidonax flycatchers were present and could be heard singing throughout the day. Willow, Least and Alder Flycatchers are most reliably identified by song, giving a birder the chance to compare all three of their songs in close proximity. One of the best birding locations in the park is below the dam’s spillway. The trail that circles the lake flanks both sides of the creek supplied by the spillway. I observed a Connecticut Warbler for three consecutive days by the creek. In the winter of 2004-5 a Goshawk was utilizing this habitat. Throughout the park Vireo’s were present including a number of Philadelphia Vireos. A brilliant male Bay-breasted Warbler could be found in the campground for our entire stay. Other warblers encountered included a male Black-throated Blue along the stone stairway, Canada Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Mourning Warbler. A Cape May Warbler was found in 2003 in the pines along the south side. My warbler list for Hiddenwood has twenty species for just five days birding in May and I have observed ninety-two species of birds within the park boundaries.
Lake Hiddenwood Recreation Area is indeed a migrant bird trap. Along with being a great birding hotspot, its location at the northern boundary of our state means that when spring migration is nearly over in southern part of our state it can still be strong at Lake Hiddenwood. A birder can extend spring migration for a few days by traveling to Lake Hiddenwood Recreation Area. I thank those that planned and labored to build this park that we may enjoy the great birding it now offers. Contributed by Robert F. Schenck