Reflections on Asheville
by Wendy Clark
Our Birds, Beers, Biltmore and Blue-Ridge Reader Rendezvous in April 2021 was the first significant birding tour that BWD had hosted since COVID reared its ugly head one year earlier. With 12 attendees, our wonderful local guides, and our experienced staff-hosts and guests, our group was eager and optimistic as we met during our first evening in a private conference room at our hotel in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. As staffers Kelly Ball and Wendy Clark checked-in each attendee as they arrived, they quickly surmised that this group was excited, ready for birding, and long-overdue for social interaction with birding friends after a lengthy hiatus during pandemic lockdown.
Our tour partners at Ventures Birding were the ultimate hosts! Simon Thompson and Chris Jacquette, owners and partners at Ventures Birding, not only provided first-rate bird-guiding during our tour, but they also provided homemade meals and goodies for our group throughout the event. The entire Ventures Birding staff radiated southern hospitality from start to finish. Their warmth, personal touches, and enthusiasm about sharing their hometown with our birding group made this tour one of our favorites of all-time.
The Birds, Beers, Biltmore, and Blue-Ridge tour was designed to include not only great birding, but also meaningful cultural experiences as well. Our first full day of birding took us to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we saw a host of migrating warblers and scarlet tanagers, and we had great looks at a family of black bears, too! We kept a safe distance from mama bear, and enjoyed watching her babies climb the large pine trees along the parkway—which was in full bloom on that sunny day. If you haven’t seen Asheville in springtime, it’s a feast for the senses. The flowers, forests, smells, and natural soundtrack can be overwhelming, and you can easily get lost in the experience. We lunched at a park atop a mountain at a high elevation—there were icicles and snow flurries around us!—having driven up from warm and sunny temps below. We had great looks at hawks and raptors during our posh, homemade picnic lunch, and the dramatic temperature change at the higher altitude was a keen reminder that mountain life is not for the faint of heart! You can easily migrate from “sunny and warm” to “cold and snowy” in a matter of minutes if you head into the mountains. We finished the day at our first brewery, Sierra Nevada, where we enjoyed dinner and local craft beer.
On Saturday we birded at Jackson Park and Hooper Lane, and still managed to see dozens of bird species despite the torrential rains that arrived. Some of our group decided to brave the weather and went out to see ducks and shorebirds in the rain, with great success. The rest of our group stayed in for a birding-by-ear presentation from expert guide Kevin Burke. We birded again late in the day when the weather broke a bit, and we saw additional warbler species with especially great looks at American redstart and blackburnian warblers to close the day. Our most elegant dinner of the tour took place at the stunning Omni Hotel’s Grove Park Inn. Situated amid the Blue Ridge Mountains with an epic view, most of our attendees said this was the most beautiful hotel and scenic view they had ever experienced. The Omni Hotel is a world-renowned resort and spa located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, and their four-star dinner buffet did not disappoint! We finished the day at the Highland Brewing Company Taproom and Cecilia’s Culinary Kitchen as we sat along the peaceful Swannanoa River and watched the sunset.
Sunday’s agenda included an entire day at the historic Biltmore Hotel. We birded the Biltmore in the morning and afternoon, and enjoyed a guided tour of the historic Vanderbilt family mansion. Our group divided into birding and tour groups, and we added bobolink, summer tanager, and blue-winged warbler to our growing list, to name just a few species. Our lunch was served in the Biltmore’s Historic Carriage House, and our group had the venue all to ourselves! It was a perfect day in the most glorious setting, with great birds, great friends, and a once-in-a-lifetime tour of one of America’s most beautiful historic mansions.
On our final day we enjoyed a full morning of birding at Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary, where we added even more birds to our list. We had great looks at a green heron, eastern phoebe, Baltimore oriole, and a beautiful, yellow-billed cuckoo that made a final fly-by appearance as we were finishing our lunch on the pavilion. Our event ended on a high with nearly 80 bird species despite the rain, and many life birds for individual birders in our group.
This COVID-safe tour was a success on all counts, and we were thrilled to have safely navigated our group during this amazing tour despite our collective pandemic concerns. Everyone in our group was vaccinated, everyone was courteous and considerate of others, and we remained socially distanced and masked (when in public) throughout the event. Everyone on this tour raved about their experience, and it was a long-overdue, much-needed time of birding and fellowship with birders and friends. All hail Asheville, Ventures Birding, and COVID-safe birding travel with Bird Watcher’s Digest!