It was a first for Bird Watcher’s Digest: a Reader Rendezvous (birding tour) focusing on bird photography. The leader of this event was our own production director, Bruce Wunderlich, who is also a professional photographer, specializing in our charming hometown, Marietta, Ohio—and in birds. In each issue of BWD, you’ll find spectacular bird photos from Bruce’s mammoth catalog. (We’re so lucky and grateful to have him on staff!)
Because we are still living in a time of COVID, our group was limited to six attendees, plus guides: Bruce, me, assistant editor Jessica Melfi, and our truly fearless leader, publisher and president Wendy Clark. All attendees were either vaccinated or tested negative within a few days of the start of the event, and we did a fairly good job of social distancing, especially when we were indoors. Attendees came from Cincinnati, northern Ohio, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh. Tamron was a sponsor of the event, and graciously provided long loaner lenses—great for bird photography—for the attendees to try out.
I’m not a bird photographer and have no desire to be. I enjoy the challenge of finding (by sight or sound) birds, admiring their beauty and learning from their behavior. So, finding birds and helping our guests to spot them was my job for the weekend—as well as, you know, making sure they were happy, comfortable, and satisfied. I also really enjoy meeting and befriending people who are fans of Bird Watcher’s Digest and Watching Backyard Birds, hearing feedback, and gaining insights about our readers. That, I think, helps me assemble magazines that they will find interesting and informative.
The weather wasn’t entirely cooperative during the early May event, but the birds were! Our tour was off to an auspicious start when we happened upon an active and photogenic mourning dove nest on our walk from the Lafayette Hotel to Wendy’s house. Of course, we were respectful of the nesting bird—we practice good birding ethics and etiquette. At Wendy’s we made our introductions, and enjoyed a delicious meal in her lovely, comfy, welcoming home. After dinner, local historian Bill Reynolds led us across the street to Camp Tupper and the Turtle Mound (the Quadranaou Mound) and gave us a short overview of Marietta’s history. (Note to self: Must read David McCollough’s The Pioneers.)
On Friday morning, Bruce took us about an hour north on I-77 to Newcomerstown, a favorite location for photographing an active bald eagle nest at eye level! There was a downy eaglet in the nest, and an attentive parent! While there, attendees also had close encounters with scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks—mating, no less! The weather was drizzly, but the photo ops were excellent.
Back in Marietta that afternoon, we visited to two historic local cemeteries: The Mound, and Oak Grove. At Mound Cemetery, we watched Carolina chickadees attend their nestlings in a hole in a metal fence railing, and then were delighted to spot Cape May and yellow-rumped warblers in nearby trees. Those were much more challenging to photograph than the chickadees! Most of us walked to the top of the ancient Conus Mound, where a northern parula teased us for a while. The birding wasn’t as good at Oak Grove Cemetery, but it was mid-afternoon, after all.
Saturday morning, we met early at the Williamstown Wetlands, just across the Ohio River in West Virginia. We were hoping for a couple of rails that had been spotted there recently, but they were no-shows. Instead, we got tons of swallows, a sweet mama wood duck hauling a literal buttload of newly hatched ducklings, and great looks at a perched-up green heron. The highlight, though, was a mama killdeer and her four little puffballs who huddled under her and roamed in a muddy area nearby.
Our next stop was at the nearby Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The feeders at the visitor center were hopping, and guests included white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. The refuge is Oriole City, and we spotted both orchard and Baltimore. We watched a female orchard oriole collecting long stems of grass right in front of us, flying off to her nest to continue construction, and returning—at least a dozen times.
That afternoon, we headed north along the Ohio River to Newell’s Run, where, on a mudflat we found three sandpiper species (least, spotted, and solitary), swallows galore, a huge flock of red-breasted mergansers, and more. When we had seen all there was to see at Newell’s Run, we headed a bit farther up the road to Newport, Ohio, and hiked a bit on the Kinderhook Trail, part of Wayne National Forest. We heard and saw a few things, but again, late afternoon isn’t the best time for birding—especially in the woods.
Sunday morning was cold and drizzly again, and in a consensus decision, we returned to the Williamstown Wetlands for more killdeer cuteness—and hoping for rails that must have moved on. And then back to the National Wildlife Refuge. There’s just so much bird life in that place.
In the afternoon, we headed to Vienna, West Virginia, which is about eight miles from Marietta, to McDonough Wildlife Refuge. Despite the unsavory weather and poor light, it was hopping with birds. A Kentucky warbler put on quite a show for us, and many folks got satisfying photos. We walked for quite a while on sometimes muddy, sometimes steep slopes, but it was still great to be outdoors, looking for birds. Bruce was helpful in looking at our guests’ photos and suggesting ways they could have been even better. He’s an insightful, encouraging teacher!
Monday morning, we awoke to chilly temperatures but bright sunshine, at last. For our final birding session together, we headed back to McDonough, and, oh boy—great birding! We got warblers and vireos (including a blue-headed!) and much more. While we were eating our picnic lunch, a male summer tanager decided to land on a branch just above our heads!! Thanks very much, sir, for the final photo op!
In early June, Bruce and I will head to the Great Smoky Mountains for the Birds, Bears, and Bruce BirdTography Rendezvous, our second tour with a focus on photography. With foliage fully out by then, songbirds might be harder to spot (and photograph), but Bruce is optimistic about owls (!) and bears (!!). I can’t wait. (Sorry, it is already sold out, but there will be more!)
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About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.