Last month, members of the Bird Watcher’s Digest staff led our fourth Reader Rendezvous birding tour of the year, and our second “birdtography” tour featuring our production director and award-winning professional photographer, Bruce Wunderlich. Here is a summary of the group’s adventures with birds, bears, and Bruce!
The morning before the event officially began, several of us went birding at Cades Cove, and started the trip with some voyeurism: wild turkey sex (the turkeys were wild; the sex was not), up close and impersonal. Those turkeys were exhibitionists, and took their time about it. It was not exciting (for those of us watching), but it was still cool to witness!
Late in the afternoon we met up at Strawberry Patch Inn on the banks of the Little River in Townsend, Tennessee. Attendees checked in and gathered on the back porch as we made introductions.
Dinner was at Riverstone Family Restaurant, and we were joined by two spouses. The 12 of us sat around one long table and got to know one another.
We met at 7 a.m. for what would become a three-day ritual: form our car pools and make a quick trip to the IGA for a takeout breakfast. Then it was on to the Cove, located on “the quiet side” of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Let’s not spend too much time reflecting on the traffic. Suffice it to say that we frequently sat in “bear jams.” Thus is the nature of Cades Cove in June.
On our first full day of the Rendezvous, there was, unfortunately, no turkey sex at the entrance, but turkeys were predictably in that field. Those of us who bird by ear called what they heard over the walkie-talkies, often echoing what those in other cars had just said. We pulled onto Sparks Lane, where a red-shouldered hawk was surprisingly cooperative.
We arrived early enough to beat the traffic, so we decided to drive the full loop as an introductory tour of the Cove. Not far past the backside visitor center we were nearly first in line for a bear jam as a mama and her two cubs walked alongside the road beside us, then crossed the road right in front of us! We courteously pulled into a nearby parking lot, but cars behind ours did not. The bears were uncomfortably close as they ambled by, headed away from us. Many cameras were snapped, and many of the resultant photos were amazing. It was a cool experience!
About 7/8ths around the loop, we turned onto the other end of Sparks Road and birded meadows alongside. Cedar waxwings, eastern kingbirds, and great crested flycatchers were cooperative. A prairie warbler teased us, as did yellow-breasted chats, but the indigo buntings and common yellowthroats were reasonably cooperative, too.
Dawn, editor of BWD and staff birding guide, left to fetch lunch, from Good Vibes by the River. It was served at a pull-off near the beginning of Sparks Road by a stream and under shade. Our sandwiches were delicious!
We headed back onto the loop to the second crossroad, Hyatt Lane, for more field birding. We drove to “the owl place” and spread out in search of the barred owl that is resident and regular there. That’s when the skies suddenly opened, and most of us got drenched to our skivvies. So, we drove to the visitor center near the entrance and got ice cream. Some of us bought T-shirts just to have dry clothes. The rain stopped, but it was pretty late in the afternoon, so we called it a day.
On the back porch of the Strawberry Patch Inn, Bruce and Dawn gathered ‘round a PC to view entries for a bird photo contest. We all benefitted from Bruce’s critical eye and comments on what made some photos worthy, and others not.
After dinner on our own, we met at sunset at a fire circle (sans fire) by the river to go over our bird list for the day. At various times along that Little River, we had bald eagle flybys, mamma wood ducks with little ducklings, and a belted kingfisher. It was on the Strawberry Patch lawn that our Arizonan attendee Bethany got a satisfying look at her “lifer” northern cardinal!
RR Day 2 took us on a moderate hike to beautiful Laurel Falls, a few miles away from Cades Cove and Townsend. With the previous day’s rain, the falls were really flowing. On the hike back down, a black-throated green and a black-and white warbler responded to pishing and came into within a few feet of several lucky photographers!
When we returned, we had a picnic lunch under a tent at Apple Valley Cafe. Afterward, as we headed back toward the Cove, which is closed on Wednesdays, we decided to try for Louisiana waterthrush on a side road next to a stream. We didn’t find one, but it was afternoon, after all.
Once again, the skies opened up, so we headed back to Strawberry Patch. Bruce met on the back porch with some of the attendees and discussed some of his favorite dos and don’ts for bird photography, as well as Adobe Lightroom photo-editing software, photo organization, and file storage management practices.
We reconvened at 7:30 to head for the Foothills Parkway, a ridge-top scenic drive, for photos of sunset. It was a cloudy sunset to be sure, but still beautiful and cool to look down on the Smokies. Whether targeting birds or distant landscapes, Bruce regularly suggested ideas for improving images.
Day 3, and back to the Cove, with time spent mostly on Sparks and Hyatt lanes.
We returned to “the owl spot,” and spread out to try to find it. Bonnie did! The owl was perched on a branch above the stream and seemed totally indifferent to the crowd of humans gathering beneath her. We watched for a good long time while she studied the stream, and then she hopped into the water! She grabbed two crawfish and ate them while shutters clicked. What a cool, unforgettable experience!
Dawn again fetched lunch from Good Vibes by the River while the rest of the group birded. Our sandwiches were, once again, delicious.
At one point on Hyatt Lane, a mama bear had four cubs treed for naps. Those baby bears looked like monkeys climbing and clambering around in the high branches!
Again it rained, and we retreated to the visitor center/gift shop at the entrance for ice cream. But it was late in the day, so we went back to the Strawberry Patch Inn afterward.
In the evening, we met up at Little River Pub & Deli to do our final bird count for the trip, and to enjoy each other’s company. By now the group had bonded. According to her spouse, “Bethany had found her people.” We all did! We would be sad to part company with our new friends.
Friday morning: Instead of the usual IGA, we went to Good Vibes by the River for a delicious dine-in breakfast—by the river. Then back toward the Cove, to Sparks Lane for a last little bit of birding. A female blue grosbeak graced us with her presence as a parting gift.
This Rendezvous, with only eight participants, seemed particularly cohesive. We all really got to know and like each other. Everyone was encouraging and fun, and light-spirited. Photographically, it was a satisfying experience, too. We enjoyed comparing photos, sometimes of the same target taken at the same time, but with different settings or angles, or with different lenses. It was a joyful learning experience, a pleasant pace, a lovely setting, wonderful new friends, and bears!
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