February 12–14 was a big weekend for Bird Watcher’s Digest as we headed to south-central Indiana to lead our first Reader Rendezvous event in a year! We had a full schedule of birding trips booked in 2020, all canceled from March onward, and we were more than ready to travel again—with several adjustments made, of course, to keep our participants and staff healthy, safe, and comfortable while still getting out there with the birds.
We were a tad nervous leading up to the event—would the magic of past Rendezvous still be there, the chemistry between the attendees sharing their passion and excitement for birds, even at six feet apart? After all, our tagline is “Birding is better with friends!”
Our worries were soon put to rest. The joy and love of birds prevailed and bonded our group pretty much immediately. We had limited the number of attendees to eight people, and our participants included both old friends who have traveled with us previously and new friends joining us for the first time. Our group also included two BWD staff members (me and our publisher, Wendy Clark) and our very knowledgable and personable local guide, Dave Rupp from IndiGo Birding Nature Tours.
It was a tad bit chilly, but not even single-digit temps could keep us from having an amazing, ultra birdy time. On the very first evening, actually the very first hour, we spied our first whooping cranes of the weekend (a lifer for some!) and enjoyed a front-row seat with some of the closest looks you could ask for of short-eared owls on the hunt at dusk. With a start to the trip like that, everything else we saw was just icing on the cake!
Over the next two days, Dave expertly guided us throughout the Goose Pond State Fish and Wildlife Area, which I quickly figured out is not actually a pond—it is a vast wildlife area with a variety of habitats, including wetlands and marshes but also meadows and forests. Hence the wide variety of bird species here and why it is a birding hotspot! We tallied thousands of birds, including countless skeins of honking sandhill cranes, greater white-fronted geese, and snow geese streaming overhead. We had great looks at a few of the highly endangered whooping cranes just off the roadside near the visitor center. And the relatively limited open water was prime real estate, hosting loads of ducks, including shovelers, redheads, canvasbacks, gadwall, mergansers, coots, and more—plus 50+ tundra swans at one spot!
In addition to waterfowl, the raptors of Goose Pond and nearby Beehunter Marsh delivered quite a show. I’ve never seen so many harriers in my whole life as I did this weekend—in fact, one evening while we were watching for short-eareds to make an appearance, I had five glorious gray ghosts (male harriers) in view in my bins! FIVE! That is a birding moment you won’t soon forget.
Another raptor highlight for me was on Sunday, a cold but gorgeous sunshiny day when we saw several rough-legged hawks slowly gliding overhead, offering ample opportunity to study their wing pattern against the vibrant blue sky and learn how to distinguish them from other hawks. We watched a few hovering as they searched the snowy cornfields for prey—similar to how a kestrel hunts, and a behavior that other hawks of similar size do not exhibit. I’d previously only seen rough-leggeds perched very far away on a dreary winter day when a birder way more experienced than I did the identifying—so it was extremely gratifying to get to know this gorgeous hawk better and be able to readily identify it by the end of the weekend.
We also had spectacular looks at numerous bald eagles, a very cooperative merlin, and did I mention the harriers?? Plus of course there were plenty of songbirds, including loads of adorable horned larks with several handsome Lapland longspurs among other sparrows—American tree, fox, white-crowned, white-throated, Savannah, song, swamp sparrows and towhees and juncos, too. We picked some rusty blackbirds out of some flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds, and we enjoyed the company of some more common but always enjoyable eastern bluebirds, Carolina chickadees, and… and… I could keep going because the birds were nonstop! Our final species count for the trip was 67. Not too shabby for mid-February!
Oh, and on our mammal list, we had two standouts: a playful mink that was rolling around in the snow and a PAIR OF BOBCATS!! That was a lifer for most of us, and an Indiana lifer for Dave. It truly was a remarkable weekend.
In addition to giving special thanks to Dave, who knows Goose Pond like the back of his hand and skillfully steered us to all these birds, I want to give a shoutout to Angel’s Cup of Heaven Catering, who had delicious meals waiting for us each morning and when we returned to the inn for our lunch breaks. And the Pleasant Grove Farm Inn was the perfect headquarters for our event, with lovely and cozy accommodations just adjacent to Goose Pond and with plenty of birds to watch on the property while we enjoyed our meals.
Even though an impending snowstorm necessitated ending the event a day early so everyone could return safely home before the snow hit, the weekend was full and fun and our guests were more than satisfied by their experience. I for one am pinching myself that I am lucky enough to get to experience a memorable weekend like this and call it “work.”
We are delighted to be hosting Reader Rendezvous once again and hope you will consider joining us on a future trip. Many of our upcoming events are sold out, but there are still some spots left—check out our schedule to see where we’re headed next!
Check out Jessica’s photos during the event!
About the Author
Jessica Vaughan is Assistant Editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She is the mother of four young birders and lives in Columbus, Ohio.