March 2005 Birdletter April 03, 2005
The March 2005 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about Alaska, the Amazon and the Pantanal, Outback Australia, the Bolivian Highlands, Summertime Cruising with the Birds, Summer Eastern Venezuela, Big Bend Summer, Grand Australia, Autumn Grand Manan, Madagascar, Cruising the Bering Sea, and a book announcement about Steve Hilty's book, Birds of Tropical America.
Alaska—A Unique Birding and Natural History Destination, by Victor Emanuel.
Alaska—there is no place like it in North America or perhaps in the world—a vast land of forests, mountains, and tundra, mostly untouched by man, home to a marvelous array of birds and mammals including some of the most spectacular on the continent.
VENT has been conducting Alaska tours since 1980, longer than almost all other bird tour companies. Our Alaska tours are renowned for their excellent leaders and well-designed itineraries. Every year they record a wonderful array of Alaskan birds and mammals including such species as the Bar-tailed Godwit, Pacific Golden-Plover, Arctic Warbler, and Bluethroat—all species that breed only in this part of North America and winter in the South Pacific or Asia….
In This Issue:
Every year we offer two Alaska tours: Grand Alaska and Alaska Mainland. The only difference between them is that the Pribilofs are included in Grand Alaska, and are offered as an optional pre-trip to Alaska Mainland. Both trips have optional post-trip extensions to Barrow. Grand Alaska can also be combined with our Gambell/Nome tour.
Alaska is huge. It is almost one-third the size of the lower 48 states! Our tours visit all the best birding areas including Nome, Denali, and the Kenai Fjords National Park. Alaska is the best place in North America to experience the birds and other wildlife of the subarctic and boreal regions.
Scenes from Alaska
We are at Safety Lagoon southeast of Nome. The morning light is brilliant. It is about 75 degrees and there is almost no wind. On our drive out here Marshall spotted a Minke whale that was surfacing just offshore. While we were looking at the whale, Marshall spotted a male Spectacled Eider. Then some Harlequin Ducks flew by.
These light-filled Alaskan summer days are so wonderful. As we drive out the Council Road, Norton Sound is to our right. On our left is Safety Lagoon. Its marshy borders attract a marvelous array of ducks and shorebirds. We've already seen three species of eider (King, Common, and Spectacled) and four species of loon (Common, Pacific, Yellow-billed, and Red-throated). Then we spot a pair of Arctic Loons in Norton Sound just 75 yards offshore. All five of the world's loons in one day—how marvelous. We walk down to the beach to get closer to the loons and enjoy superb looks at this rarest of North American loons. In our scopes we can clearly see all the field marks: the uniformly gray head, white flank mark, and more boldly striped neck.
As we study the loons, I look around. All the gulls I see are either Glaucous Gulls or Black-legged Kittiwakes (we had seen a Slaty-backed Gull at the mouth of the Nome River). Offshore there are several Common Eider, and White-winged and Surf scoters. Nearby an Arctic fox appears in the dunes. Arctic ground squirrels scurry about. Between the dunes, some of the ground is carpeted with purple pea that is in full bloom. It is a very arctic scene experienced under wonderful conditions. There is probably no other place in North America as exciting in early June for birders as the Nome area.
Later that afternoon we'll see more Pacific Loons and have the opportunity to compare them with the Arctic Loons we've just seen. We will also enjoy superb looks at a Gyrfalcon perched on a post only 40 feet from our van. Since there is no wind, all day we'll delight in reflections in the water of superbly attired breeding plumage birds including Red-necked Phalaropes, Eurasian Wigeon, and Black Turnstones. On other days we'll see displaying Bar-tailed Godwits, Bluethroats, Yellow Wagtails, Rock and Willow ptarmigan, Hoary and Common redpolls, Northern Wheatears, and much more. We'll also see grizzly bears and musk ox, as well as a wide variety of tundra wildflowers.
We saw all these things during our four days at Nome. Other great sights awaited us in the Pribilofs, Denali and Kenai Fjords.
There is no place I'd rather be in June than Alaska.
June 10-25, 2005
with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf
$7295 from Anchorage
Limit 14 (only 4 spaces left)
June 4-11, 2005
with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf
$3795 from Anchorage
Limit 16 (only 3 spaces left)
June 14-25, 2005
with Barry Zimmer and Marshall Iliff
$4695 from Anchorage
Limit 14 (only 4 spaces left)
Pribilof Islands Pre-trip
June 9-14, 2005
with Marshall Iliff
$2695 from Anchorage
June 25-27, 2005
with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer
$1545 from Anchorage
The Amazon and The Pantanal, Like Chocolate and Raspberry Sauce!
By Kevin Zimmer
Some things, no matter how good they are on their own, are just better in combination. Movies and popcorn, baseball and hotdogs, root beer and vanilla ice cream, chocolate and raspberry sauce—you get the idea. There is a synergism in the combination that makes the whole even more appealing than the sum of the very good parts—it's almost sinfully good! Birding can be that way too. Think of unbeatable food combinations, and chocolate and raspberry sauce may come to mind. Think of unbeatable birding combinations, and the Brazilian Amazon and the Pantanal together are about as good as it gets.
Hyacinth Macaws — Photo: Paul Donahue
Normally, these two superb regions are covered in different tours that are separated by a couple of months. But this year, the stars (not to mention leader schedules) have aligned in a way that allows us to offer the Pantanal and Amazonian Brazil back-to-back. Participants taking both tours will be treated to a staggering showcase of biodiversity, featuring birds of open savanna and cerrado habitats, as well as those of lowland rainforest. The bird list will likely exceed 600 species, and will feature as many as nine species of macaws (including the incomparable Hyacinth Macaw), numerous regional endemics, and several species just recently described to science or recently rediscovered after absences of 100 years or more!
We start with the Pantanal and Chapada tour. The Pantanal is a vast, seasonally flooded savanna that provides one of the greatest birding and wildlife spectacles on the planet. Parallels with the bush country of Africa are obvious, with open landscapes, an abundance of mammals (capybara, giant anteater, marsh deer, giant otter, crab-eating fox, ocelot, black howler monkey, silvery marmoset, and Brazilian tapir are regularly seen, while jaguar and puma are distinct possibilities), and birds everywhere you look. The sheer birdiness of this region cannot be over-hyped! Open pastures have groups of huge Greater Rheas and the occasional Red-legged Seriema. Drying pools of water are crowded with waders of various sizes and colors, from enormous Jabirus with their bizarrely swollen red-and-black necks and outsized bills (we have seen over 200 Jabiru feeding in a single pool!), to outrageously pink Roseate Spoonbills, to Rufescent Tiger-Herons and Plumbeous Ibis, to a blizzard of egrets and Wood Storks. Gray-necked Wood-Rails and Sunbitterns patrol the muddy shores of forest-lined ditches, while Boat-billed Herons spend the daylight hours tucked under the shade of overhanging trees. The air is constantly filled with the screeching of parrots and parakeets—noisy colonies of Monk Parakeets and flocks of Yellow-chevroned and Black-hooded parakeets providing a near constant backdrop for the more musical calls of Turquoise-fronted Parrots, or the ear-splitting grumbles of Hyacinth Macaws, the world's largest parrot.
The number of cracids in this region is particularly impressive. Chaco Chachalacas are everywhere, darting in front of the oncoming car, festooned in the trees bordering the roads, and trying their best to drown out all of the parrots. Spectacular Bare-faced Curassows skulk along the forest edge, and the rare Chestnut-bellied Guan is often to be found feeding in some flowering tree. Mobs of flashy White Woodpeckers are often in evidence, and chattering duets of horneros, cacholotes, and thornbirds of several species fill in the few quiet moments left by the parrots and chachalacas. The ribbons of gallery forest bordering the many streams and rivers are home to such prizes as Golden-collared Macaw, Blue-crowned Trogon, Pale-crested Woodpecker, White-wedged Piculet, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Mato Grosso Antbird, Purplish Jay, and many others. It is not uncommon for our groups to record more than 150 species in a day, with some days approaching 200 species! And most of them are relatively easy to see, with video and photographic opportunities abounding.
From the Pantanal, we travel a few hours to the Chapada dos Guimaraes, a region of spectacular red-rock cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and dazzling sunsets. This area, on the edge of Brazil's enormous Planalto Central, will remind Americans of the canyon lands of Utah or parts of Arizona or New Mexico. Here, in the open brush lands known as cerrado, occur a number of specialized birds that are endemic to interior Brazil and adjacent eastern Bolivia. Included among our targets here are such gems as Yellow-faced Parrot, Dot-eared Coquette, Horned Sungem, Checkered Woodpecker, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Collared Crescent-chest, the recently described Chapada Flycatcher, Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Curl-crested Jay, White-rumped and White-banded tanagers, Coal-crested Finch, Blue Finch, and many more. Crowned Eagle is a rare possibility that has been seen on at least three of our tours to this area.
Our Amazonian Brazil tour takes up where the Pantanal-Chapada tour leaves off, in the city of Cuiabá. From here, we fly to Alta Floresta, in the northern part of Mato Grosso state. VENT pioneered tours to this region and, over the years, it has remained one of our favorite destinations. Our base of operations is the Rio Cristalino Lodge which features simple, but comfortable cabanas (with private bathrooms) and excellent food, combined with an extensive trail system and a wonderful canopy tower. This lodge is situated along a beautiful blackwater river, in the midst of a private forest reserve that is itself incorporated within a vast state park. More than 500 species of birds have been recorded from this site, including such specialties as Agami Heron, the recently described Cryptic Forest-Falcon, Dark-winged Trumpeter, Crimson-bellied Parakeet, Kawall's Parrot, Red-necked and Curl-crested aracaris, Black-girdled Barbet, Brown-banded Puffbird, Peruvian Recurvebill, Chestnut-throated Spinetail, Bare-eyed Antbird, Tooth-billed Wren, Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak, and many others. Harpy Eagles are seen occasionally, and spectacular Razor-billed Curassows are frequently seen along the banks of the Cristalino. The lack of hunting in the area has made it a prime location for seeing not only large birds such as cracids, raptors, and macaws, but also for primates and other mammals including Brazilian tapir (on one memorable trip we recorded 12 in a single afternoon boat trip!) and jaguar.
It will be difficult to tear ourselves away from Alta Floresta, but a whole new group of birds awaits us on the second half of the Amazonian Brazil trip. Part II will take us to Manaus, situated at the confluence of the Amazon and the mighty Rio Negro. These rivers delimit the distributional boundaries of many species, making for very different avifaunas on opposite banks. Thus, we will be dealing with a north bank (of the Amazon) avifauna that is quite different from the south bank avifauna at Alta Floresta. Our primary base here will be a comfortable riverboat, chartered exclusively for our group, with air-conditioned cabins and excellent food. We will use it to explore the river island avifaunas of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, islands that can rival the Pantanal for sheer abundance of birdlife. We will use the mid-afternoon and evening hours to reposition our boat, allowing us to be on-site for the prime birding hours of the morning. Among our targets are such specialties as Lesser Razor-billed Curassow; Festive and Short-tailed parrots; Zimmer's Woodcreeper; Scaled, Parker's, and Red-and-white spinetails; Black-and-white Antbird; Castelnau's Antshrike; Klage's Antwren; Ash-breasted Antbird; White-eyed Attila; Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant; Riverside Tyrant; River Tyrannulet; Brownish Elaenia; and many, many more.
After action-packed mornings of birding on the river islands, we will enjoy the relaxation of motoring along the largest rivers in South America, cool drinks and binoculars in hand! Land-based sites near Manaus will offer access to terra firme and white-sand forest avifaunas, and may produce Red-billed Woodcreeper, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, Crimson Fruitcrow, Pelzeln's Tody-Tyrant, Glossy-backed Becard, Guianan Gnatcatcher, Blue-backed Tanager, and White-naped Seedeater.
Andy Whittaker lives in Manaus, and no one knows the area and its birds better. I authored the baseline survey paper on the birds of the Alta Floresta region, and I'm in the midst of writing an updated paper detailing more recent discoveries. Together, Andy and I have showcased these areas to groups of birders on a yearly basis since 1991. We're itching to show you just how wonderful the Amazon and the Pantanal can be, so join us this summer and see why I think it's even better than chocolate and raspberry sauce!
Mato Grosso, Brazil: Pantanal and Chapada
July 22-August 3, 2005
with Andrew Whittaker and Kevin Zimmer
$2845 from Cuiabá
Amazonian Brazil: Alta Floresta
July 31-August 11, 2005
with Andrew Whittaker and Kevin Zimmer
$3195 from Cuiabá
Amazonian Brazil: Manaus Region
August 9-20, 2005
with Andrew Whittaker and Kevin Zimmer
$2495 from Manaus
Combination discounts available!
By Dion Hobcroft
The famous Australian poet Dorothy Mackellar captured it well when she wrote "I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains." Our Outback odyssey will take us through the heartland of Australia's southern deserts as we try to find all of the special birds of this amazing region. We will enjoy mobs of giant red kangaroos, flocks of Emus whirl-winding across the desert, ancient eroded landscapes billions of years old, lonely ranching outposts, and friendly Outback pubs. Our Outback tour captures it all.
Plains-wanderer — Photo: David Bishop
We are likely to see many of Australia's rarest and most sought after desert rarities, species not offered on traditional itineraries. Amongst the many highlights possible are Plains-wanderer; Budgerigar; Regent, Superb, Elegant, Blue-winged, and Bourke's parrots; Major Mitchell's Cockatoo; Grey Falcon; Letter-winged Kite; Red-lored Whistler; Chestnut-breasted and Banded whiteface; five species of remarkable grasswrens; Cinnamon and Chestnut-breasted quail-thrush; Hall's Babbler; White-browed Treecreeper; Splendid, White-winged, and Variegated fairy-wrens; Mallee Emu-wren; Malleefowl; Australian Owlet-nightjar; and a whole host more.
Our last tour was a tremendous success. Some of the most memorable highlights included the stunning female Plains-wanderer we studied at our feet; an incredible flock of ten thousand plus Long-billed Corellas that flew around our bus in proportions to do the Passenger Pigeon proud; the Corner Country looking like the Garden of Eden with stunning rattlepods and emu-bushes, plus many other ephemerals flowering from horizon to horizon; elusive nomads like Black and Pied honeyeaters display flying around us; drinking champagne at sundown as we appreciated the endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby; a stunning Red-lored Whistler that appeared magically as we traversed an ocean of dwarf eucalypt desert; finding aboriginal flint spearheads and grinding stones; and the many magnificent parrots that illuminated the landscape in outstanding color such as the Red-winged Parrot and Mallee Ringneck.
There are two very important notes about this tour. First, we no longer have camping on this expedition, opting for overnight stays on remote cattle ranches instead. Second, and probably most important, nobody knows this region as well as Phil Maher and myself. Having lived locally and traveled extensively throughout the remote Outback of Australia, we are very well tuned-in to the microhabitats, subtle calls, and particular flowering events that can assist us in tracking down the rarest of the desert nomads. Add to this good food, good roads, beautiful light, and flowering plants, and we have the recipe for a very enjoyable tour. David Attenborough once explained that to visit the deserts of Australia gives you a true feel for the immense age of the Earth, great mountain ranges now eroded to salt lakes. It is a great feeling to enjoy all of this space and to share it with these special birds.
September 3-26, 2005
with Dion Hobcroft and Phil Maher
$6575 from Melbourne
By Steve Hilty
There is something about Bolivia that appeals to the adventurous spirit lurking inside us. Maybe it's because we know so little about it, or because we've gotten our information from movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As a travel destination, Bolivia isn't haute travel to Conde Naste readers. It's seldom in the news, and infrequently aired on travel documentaries. To most of the world Bolivia is a relative unknown, obscure, an idiosyncratic Latin republic in pasticcio couture.
Giant Conebill — Photo: Mimi Hoppe Wolf
Veteran South American naturalists know better. The ink-smeared pages of their fat passports inevitably include Bolivian immigration stamps. Forget stories of annual revolutions, unchecked inflation, bungled military campaigns and backwardness. It may have been true once. Today Bolivia is a story of modest successes, of business, of modernization, and greater access than ever to an exotic flora and fauna. From snow-dashed highlands to steamy jungles, Bolivia is like a seductress whose pleasures, once accessible only to the daring, now tempt a widening audience. We've been tempted, now offering birders two itineraries—one highland, one lowland—travel templates that showcase this country's faunistic riches.
BOLIVIAN HIGHLANDS. The highlands remain gripped in tradition. Lives are hard for many, but distinctive, colorful clothing brightens Quaker gray landscapes, and roads and bridges have been improved in quantum leaps. Lively commerce has come to large cities that now brim with people, and good hotels and food. Once arduous, day-long trips on roads that could have passed for streambeds have been shortened to a few hours. Birds abound, even amidst meager scrub and rocky slopes. Just minutes outside bustling Cochabamba, on high arid slopes, visitors can find Giant Hummingbird, Giant Conebill, Rufous-bellied Saltator, Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, Bolivian Warbling-Finches, even the endemic Bolivian Blackbird. An hour in another direction and visitors enter high, lush cloud forest with quetzals, mountain toucans, colorful tanagers, and flowerpiercers.
Bolivia's highlands are rich in range-restricted species—some 120 species occur mainly within its borders. From rain-shadow deserts to cloud forests, treeline Polylepis woodlands, and breath-defying snowy passes, Bolivia's Andes are a place for dreams. They also are a place where few birders and naturalists have traveled. In Bolivia, visitors stand on the frontier of science, with the chance to see species still poorly known to science. Imagine the scope of wildlife: flightless Titicaca Grebe, three species of flamingos, Andean Condor, endemic Red-fronted Macaw, Giant Antshrike, Rufous-faced Antpitta, earthcreepers, canasteros, mountain-toucans, chat-tyrants, fruiteaters, mountain-tanagers, yellow-finches, and all amidst some of the most magnificent scenery on the continent.
BOLIVIAN LOWLANDS. Our eastern lowland trip has operated since 1991, a dream itinerary designed by the late Ted Parker. Accommodations at the first of two destinations within Noel Kempff Park are luxurious beyond imagination. Reality arrives at the second destination, but dreams of large cats, curassows, macaws, even maned wolves, outweigh inconveniences of more modest dwellings. We have, after all, been dropped in the middle of a six-million-acre wilderness—an area the size of Massachusetts. This wilderness doesn't seem quite tropical. Trees lack epiphytes, table-flat savannas pin-cushioned with shrubs intervene, and "winters" can be cool. The park bird list, however, stands in excess of 620 species, as daunting and provocative as any in the heart of the Amazon.
On a 2000 year trip our Eastern Bolivia group recorded seven species of macaws, and clients listed as highlights a close Ornate Hawk-Eagle; perched Sungrebe; Great Potoo by day and night; Red-billed Scythebill; Collared Crescentchest; two Amazonian Umbrellabirds; Scarlet-headed Blackbird; Swallow-tailed Hummingbird; White Woodpecker; Bat Falcon attempting to capture a Pygmy Kingfisher; Crane Hawk hunting bats in a palm savanna; and a roost of more than 12,000 Creamy-bellied Thrushes. Among 19 mammal species were capybaras, maned wolf, prehensile-tailed porcupine, and a half-dozen primates seen.
Why not put a Bolivian stamp or two in your passport, and some adventure in your travel this year?
July 8-23, 2005
with Steve Hilty
$5350 from Santa Cruz
Limit 8 (sold out)
October 20-November 3, 2005
with Steve Hilty
$2995 from Santa Cruz
Summertime Cruising with the Birds
By Barry Lyon
A number of years ago when VENT first developed the idea of cruises for birders, an ambitious goal was set of providing our clients access to some of the world's most beautiful and remote destinations by means of the small cruise ship. Unlike the old days when travel by boat often meant crowded, cramped, and untidy conditions, the advent of today's expedition vessel represented a permanent departure from those older times. Now birders, regardless of age or physical condition, can experience many of the world's great wild places in total comfort and with all the amenities of home. Good living arrangements, excellent cuisine, and stabilizers have vaulted birding by ship to a highly desirable option for international birding. Never could we have predicted the level of popularity that this program would achieve. In the years since the inception of the birding cruise, we have taken thousands of clients to such far flung places as the Amazon River, Antarctica, the Bering Sea, the Galapagos Islands and other destinations. Each trip is totally unique in its own right, yet each is conducted with the cruise ship as the focal point of the trip.
Most recently, VENT and CLIPPER CRUISES have teamed up to provide you, the discerning traveler, with several exciting new destinations aboard their handsome, modern ships. Boasting a skilled crew and staff, we believe that Clipper knows what it takes to provide the same high levels of customer service that our clients have come to expect.
This summer we are proud to offer departures to three marvelous destinations in the North Atlantic aboard the 330-foot Clipper Adventurer:
Expedition from the British Isles to Iceland, July 17-30, 2005
Remote and rugged, the Isles of the North Atlantic are some of the most intriguing on Earth. They offer an exceptional variety of landscapes—from rolling and verdant moors, lochs, and glens to dramatic geothermal geysers, smoking volcanoes, and Iceland's gleaming ice cap. Midsummer offers the perfect season for our visit. The days are long, wildflowers are blooming, birds are raising their young, and whales bask off deserted beaches. You'll learn about the rich history of settlement by Celts, Norse, Vikings, and Danes as you explore impressive castles and seaside villages. Departing from Edinburgh, the route will take us along the northeastern coast of Scotland, north through the Orkney, Shetland, and Faeroe Islands before heading to Iceland. Along the way we are bound to encounter thousands of seabirds that nest in the north Atlantic. Murres, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, fulmars, and kittiwakes occur in profusion, and all against some of the finest natural scenery in Europe. The rivers, fjords, and volcanoes of Iceland represent more opportunities for viewing spectacular natural scenery and enjoying good birding.
Expedition to Eastern Greenland, July 27-August 12, 2005
Follow in the path of medieval Norse explorers and settlers, including Eric the Red and his son Leif Erikson, who were among the early intrepid settlers of Iceland and Greenland. As our ship sails from Iceland's lively capital of Reykjavik along the magnificent coast, you will visit active volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, fjords, and tiny villages. Train your binoculars on spectacular cliffs where thousands of seabirds nest in profusion, or hike beside geothermal hot springs and waterfalls. Learn of Iceland's legendary sagas—heroic tales of voyaging, warfare, love, and revenge.
Then sail the eastern coast of Greenland to view grandiose icescapes on the world's largest island. Use the Adventurer's onboard fleet of Zodiac landing craft to explore this landscape of stunning fjords, myriad small coastal islands, calm sounds, and cavorting whales. Throughout the journey, you can expect encounters with such seabirds as Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Great Skua, and a wonderful diversity of shorebirds, alcids, and gulls.
The Clipper Adventurer is one of very few vessels in the world that can make this trip. Specifically designed for expedition voyages to remote Arctic regions, her ice-strengthened hull and small size allow you to cruise through narrow channels and fjords and explore up close to shorelines, providing you with more frequent shore visits and maximizing photo opportunities. On board, take advantage of superior comfort levels; exceptional, personalized service; and fresh, made-to-order cuisine prepared by master chefs and an obliging hospitality staff.
Expedition from Iceland to Greenland, August 10-26, 2005
Explore the lands that fringe the Arctic Circle as they brim with life during their brief but brilliant summer. Begin your adventure in Reykjavik, the world's northernmost capital and home to more than half of Iceland's 266,000 inhabitants. Tour Iceland's "Golden Circle" of lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs just inland from its vibrant capital city. As you cross the Denmark Strait en route to Greenland, watch for whales and enjoy the incredibly beautiful scenery, including Prince Christian Sound, a wonderland of glaciers and fjords. In Greenland, savor some of the most remote and pristine scenery in the Northern Hemisphere—towering mountains, cascading waterfalls, steep-sided fjords, volcanic landscapes, thermal springs and geysers, bird-covered islands, and primordial glacial valleys. Visit tiny communities where people still work in traditional ways.
Bird possibilities are numerous as Iceland and Greenland support huge numbers of breeding seabirds, as well as an interesting assortment of European songbirds. Our time at sea and along the rocky coasts will give us excellent opportunities for spotting a variety of birds simply not found further south including Gyrfalcon, Common Ringed Plover, Dovekie, Iceland Gull, and Ivory Gull.
Expedition from the British Isles to Iceland
July 17-30, 2005
with Peter Roberts
Cabins from $5170
Expedition to Eastern Greenland
July 27-August 12, 2005
with Brad Schram
Cabins from $6500
Expedition from Iceland to Greenland
August 10-26, 2005
with Marshall Iliff
Cabins from $6920
Summer Eastern Venezuela
By David Ascanio
Tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk…BONK!. Yes, this was the way our 2004 Summer Eastern Venezuela tour began in Sierra de Lema. It was during one morning while looking for the Guianan Cock-of-the-rock that tour participants experienced the strange voice of the Bearded Bellbird. Later in the trip we had views of an adult and a young male singing on the highest branches of the trees, as if they were willing a female to fly across into their territories.
Another morning we were blasted with another bell-like song: Clong-cling….clong-CLINK!?and had a full view of another Cotingidae: the White Bellbird, singing while expanding its bizarre ornament. This one was singing atop dead branches, and we enjoyed it through the scope for several minutes.
We explored the humid lowland forest of the Alto Cuyuni where the chain-saw-like vocalization of the Capuchinbird was admired with males displaying at the lek. We also spent time at the amazing Sierra de Lema, with sightings of many endemic bird species (24 seen well). Army ants crossed our trail in the Orinoco Delta forest of Rio Grande, while Caica Parrots were vocalizing in flight above the forest. We also visited the Cuyuni Riverine Forest, the shrubs of the Grand Sabana, and the wetlands of El Palmar with a beautiful sunset.
Rain was present sometimes at noon, and only added more birding experiences within a single day. The rainy season in the tropics does not mean rain all day long; usually it means a refreshing and powerful shower that activates the bird life for the afternoons. Some of our memorable tour moments included the sunset at the wetlands of El Palmar; the views of White-plumed and Rufous-throated antbirds; the Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo glimpsed in the forest; a scope view of a Tiny Hawk feeding on a Pectoral Sparrow; the enchanting Musician Wren singing on a twig for several minutes; the Crimson Topaz displaying over the Rio Grande; two species of Crake seen well; and the Harpy, yes the always-majestic Harpy Eagle observed for more than 30 minutes through the scope.
Some of our other experiences included an indigo snake, a couple of tayras running on the Gran Sabana, jaguar tracks, rhino beetles, agouties, blue morphos (in fact, the brightest of the blue morpho butterflies!), Spectacled Caymans, and the always mysterious voice of the red howler monkeys every morning in the lowlands.
I hope you'll join me on our next tour to this region of tremendous ornithological history.
Summer Eastern Venezuela
June 20-29, 2005
with David Ascanio
$2675 from Caracas
Big Bend Summer
By Barry Zimmer
The first five days of our 2004 Big Bend Summer tour were wildly successful. In El Paso, we were treated to extraordinary scope views of a pair of Mississippi Kites, had repeated excellent views of three Calliope Hummingbirds (along with many colorful Rufous), and had several nice looks at the generally skulky Crissal Thrasher.
En route to Big Bend, we spent one day at luxurious Cibolo Creek Ranch where we studied a family group of Zone-tailed Hawks at very close range, and had spectacular views of Common Poorwill, the localized Gray Vireo, and several plum-colored Varied Buntings. The park itself yielded a wonderful bounty of avian treats. An adult Gray Hawk soared over Cottonwood Campground, while a family of Common Black-Hawks entertained us along the river. A nighttime excursion produced very close studies of Western-Screech and Elf owls. Rio Grande Village had its usual array of brilliantly-colored species such as Vermilion Flycatcher (20+ in one day), Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Painted Bunting. Our hike to Boot Springs was rewarded with an impressive eight Colima Warblers, singing Black-chinned Sparrows, and a vagrant Yellow-throated Vireo, while the trail to the Window produced seven Lucifer Hummingbirds and two more Gray Vireos.
We had seen virtually every species we had looked for by the time we arrived in the Davis Mountains, but as the trip wound down with only a day-and-a-half of birding left, we still had one major target. The Davis Mountains are probably the best place in the world to see the spectacular and elusive Montezuma Quail, but even here it can be devilishly hard to find. For over two hours, late in the afternoon, we slowly cruised side roads and walked through a stretch of prime habitat. Evening was rapidly approaching and we had not even heard a peep out of a single quail. Just as we were about to call it quits and hope that we could get one the next morning, we heard the rather eerie whistle of a male Montezuma on a distant hillside. Hurriedly we walked in that direction. The call is somewhat ventiloquial, so it was difficult to know exactly where on the grass-covered slopes the sound was coming from. After a few minutes the calls stopped, and we were met with disappointing silence. I tried whistling for a few minutes, hoping the bird would resume calling so that we could pinpoint its location, but again only silence greeted us. I was literally on the verge of standing up and walking away when I spotted the male quail walking directly toward the group, less than 30 feet away. Frantically I tried to motion to everyone in the group where the bird was, and it soon became apparent that they were looking at another individual. The next few minutes can only be described as surreal, as three stunning male Montezuma Quail literally walked right through the middle of our group. One stopped atop a small rock and began calling in full view less than 10 feet away! Camera shutters clicked and videotape rolled as this wonderful bird performed. Simply put, this was a mind-blowing experience with a species that Victor and I both feel is one of the top birds in the entire world!
Our last day would have nothing to equal our quail experience, but was very rewarding nonetheless. A Buff-breasted Flycatcher (casual in Texas) on Nature Conservancy of Texas property was a real treat, and the valley near El Paso produced 14 shorebirds (including Baird's, Stilt, and Semipalmated sandpipers, and Wilson's Phalarope), side-by-side comparisons of Western and Clark's grebes, and two vagrants: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Laughing Gull.
All in all, it was a truly spectacular tour with fabulous birds (we totaled 162 species), a nice collection of reptiles (including Texas alligator lizard and short horned lizard) and mammals, and stunning southwestern scenery. The weather was especially nice, cooler than normal with some spectacular sunsets and star-filled skies. Contrary to popular belief, West Texas in July is not an unpleasant place to bird. Summer clouds and occasional showers moderate the midday temperature. Mornings and late afternoons are pleasant.
Join Victor and me this coming July for another memorable Big Bend experience.
Big Bend Summer
July 11-18, 2005
with Barry Zimmer and Victor Emanuel
$2095 from El Paso
By Dion Hobcroft
During the five years I have led tours to Australia, I have enjoyed many adventures. It is always a great privilege for me to show off my remarkable country to bird-loving enthusiasts. We always have a great time, with plenty of good food and wine, friendly locals, good roads, and great birds. As Australia is so vast, we have developed a program to enable you to select different regions of this island continent. We have divided the nation into three two-week tours so that you can select the regions that appeal to you the most.
King Parrot — Photo: David Bishop
Part One, September 27-October 13, kicks off in bird-rich Sydney, my hometown. Here we can expect to see in excess of 100 species with Superb Lyrebird, Wandering Albatross, and declining woodland birds like Diamond Firetail or Regent Honeyeater likely to be included in the highlights. Next we take on the tropical Top End, birding World Heritage sites like Kakadu National Park with its giant saltwater crocodiles, aboriginal rock art galleries, and exquisite endemics like Rainbow Pitta and Gouldian Finch. We finish this part in the Red Centre with a visit to iconic Uluru (The Rock) and the West MacDonnell Ranges. As we ramble through a variety of desert habitats, we can expect to see a host of special desert birds like Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, Bourke's Parrot, and the Budgerigar.
Part Two, October 11-27, explores the subtropical rainforests of world famous O'Reilly's where spectacular Australian King-Parrots, Crimson Rosellas, and Regent Bowerbirds may alight on your hand. The stunning forests are home to many special birds including Albert's Lyrebird and Paradise Riflebird. We then explore the richest bird region in Australia, the tropics of north Queensland, home of the Cassowary, Australian Bustard, Golden Bowerbird, and so much more. For a complete change of scenery, we fly to Melbourne on Australia's south coast, where we'll explore the semiarid inland with its Mediterranean style climate. Special parrots, unusual passerines, and wetland birds feature here. We include a search for the Plains-wanderer, an enigmatic shorebird that lives on the remote plains and is almost impossible to find without special help.
We culminate in Part Three, October 25-November 7, by exploring two very special regions. First we visit the southwest corner of Western Australia, centered on the city of Perth. The "wildflower state" protects different eucalypt forests like Wandoo and Jarrah. These forests are home to several spectacularly attractive endemics like the Red-capped Parrot, Red-winged Fairy-wren, and Red-eared Firetail. Dense coastal heathlands protect three of Australia's shyest and most elusive birds: Noisy Scrub-bird, Western Bristlebird, and Western Whipbird. Sightings of these birds do not come easily.
Our final week is spent in Tasmania. In southernmost Australia the climate is cool and misty. The scenery is spectacular and we explore a variety of different habitats as we find the 12 island endemics. Beyond the island endemics are a whole host of other special birds that can be more easily encountered here than on the mainland. These include the Ground Parrot, Swift Parrot, Blue-winged Parrot, Olive Whistler with its hauntingly beautiful song, and the gorgeous Pink Robin.
Our Australian program has grown beautifully during the past five years. VENT offers the best leaders who know this vast country intimately. We all live here! Our itineraries try to enhance birding time without changing rooms every night, to keep the pace more relaxed. We also take the time to explore cultural and scenic opportunities like Uluru and Kakadu. We will always take the time to study interesting mammals, reptiles, and plants. In the past five years I have shown more than 600 species of Australian birds to VENT clients and I have enjoyed every "ooh" and "aah" as those fairy-wrens, parrots, and rarities focus sharply in your binoculars. As they say in the Never Never country in the Top End, "you will never never know if you never never go."
Grand Australia, Part I
September 27-October 13
with Dion Hobcroft and David Bishop
Limit 14 (5 spaces left)
Grand Australia, Part II
with Dion Hobcroft and David Bishop
Limit 14 (4 spaces left)
Western Australia and Tasmania Extension
October 25-November 7
with Dion Hobcroft and TBA
Limit 14 (1 space left)
Autumn Grand Manan
By Barry Zimmer
When asked which area consistently produces the best pelagic birding in North America, most birders immediately think of such great west coast hot spots as Monterey, California or Westport, Washington. Rarely do East Coast locations enter the discussion, where less variety and fewer individuals are generally the norm. I would argue, however, that in the fall, the Bay of Fundy off Grand Manan, New Brunswick, yields consistently the best boat trips anywhere in the continent.
Greater Shearwater — Photo: Barry Zimmer
Our Autumn Grand Manan tour explores this fantastic region at the peak time for pelagic birds, as well as whales. We charter two boat trips to take advantage of the wealth of pelagic birds. Shearwaters by the thousands patrol these nutrient-rich waters at this season. Past trips have yielded as many as 20,000 (!) Greater Shearwaters in one day and, with the aid of chum, some of these are literally brought in to within a few feet of the boat. Sooty Shearwaters also abound, and in amongst these two common species we search for the uncommon, but generally reliable Manx Shearwater. Wilson's Storm-Petrels skitter over the ocean's surface, often by the hundreds, with small numbers of Leach's sometimes joining in. Rip lines and kelp beds often harbor flocks of phalaropes; our 2004 tour had over 400 Red-necked and 75 Reds. Jaegers, both Parasitic and Pomarine, are regular features on our trip, and skuas, while rare, have been seen three times (1 Great, 1 South Polar, and one unidentified) in our past ten trips. Northern Gannets and Arctic Terns appear regularly alongside the boat as well.
The real avian stars may be the alcids, however. We have yet to miss the highly sought Razorbill, and comical Atlantic Puffins are a near certainty (we saw over 80 last year). In addition, Black Guillemots are a daily sighting (even from shore) and Common Murres are regularly seen from the ferry. Many years the superb pelagic birding is actually outdone by the marine mammal show! The Bay of Fundy harbors one of the world's rarest mammals at this season—the northern right whale. Over the last 12 years, we have missed this magnificent creature only once, and many years have had individuals right next to the boat—feeding, playing, and even mating! Humpback, finback, and minke whales are all seen regularly as well. Last year, a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins put on a great show.
As spectacular as the boat trips are, however, they are not the only reason to come to Grand Manan. Early September is a great time for migrant shorebirds and landbirds to filter down the coast. Last year's tour had an impressive 18 species of warblers, including such gems as Blackburnian, Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Canada. We also found a vagrant Lark Sparrow in Maine. Other regularly occurring species on this tour include Great Cormorant, Red-necked Grebe, Common Eider, and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. This charming, picturesque island promises to yield a marvelous week of birding (and some great lobster!). Join Victor and me this coming fall for a trip you won't soon forget.
Autumn Grand Manan
August 29-September 4, 2005
with Barry Zimmer and Victor Emanuel
$2095 from Bangor
By Adam Riley
Madagascar is unlike any other place on Earth. This distant island, the world's fourth largest, supports a unique wonder-world of extraordinary life forms: five endemic bird families; 140 endemic and near-endemic bird species; no less than 38 species of lemurs; and a selection of the world's strangest reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
Ring-tailed Lemur — Photo: Victor Emanuel
Virtually every plant and animal on the island is endemic, and to a large extent threatened (less than 10% of Madagascar's rainforests are still intact), thus making Madagascar one of those "must-visit-soon" destinations. If you have ever dreamt of exploring a beautiful rainforest with trees draped in orchids (over 1,000 species on the island) and mosses, as indris (the largest lemur species) wail their mournful songs in the background, and the hoots of a Pitta-like Ground-Roller emanate from the mid-canopy, then a trip to Madagascar is a must for you.
Our previous VENT Madagascar tour racked up sightings of an unbeatable number of Malagasy endemics including most representatives of all five endemic bird families (ground-rollers, Cuckoo-Roller, asities, mesites, and vangas), while enjoying comfortable accommodations and gourmet meals. We even set a record in group telescope views of the five ground-rollers, undoubtedly Madagascar's most sought-after and exquisite endemics!
Join us this fall for a comprehensive tour of this seldom visited island. Our main two-week tour thoroughly explores the eastern rainforest zone, the bizarre Spiny Desert in the southwest, and the famous lemur reserve of Berenty. Our Western Madagascar Extension takes us to the exciting Ankarafantsika Special Reserve where we will search for some of the world's rarest birds including Bernier's Teal, White-breasted Mesite, Schlegel's Asity, and Van Dam's Vanga.
October 13-29, 2005
with David Hoddinott
$6775 from Antananarivo
Western Madagascar Extension
October 28-November 1, 2005
with David Hoddinott
$2150 from Antananarivo
Cruising the Bering Sea
By Dion Hobcroft
David Wolf, myself, and 24 intrepid VENT expeditioners enjoyed an absolutely perfect voyage in the Bering Sea last July aboard the Clipper Odyssey. Glassy calm seas, blue skies, and spectacular wildflower displays were the order of the day. Our trip began with a very enjoyable day birding in Anchorage, highlighted by a couple of irascible moose, Barrow's Goldeneye, and a Boreal Chickadee. We made our flight to Petropavlosk, the capital city of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, to join the ship. The Clipper Odyssey was to be our very comfortable home for the next 12 nights.
A zodiac tour of the Zhupanova River was one of the first great highlights of our voyage. We enjoyed "megaviews" of the giant Steller's Sea-Eagle, one of the great raptors of the world, and truly a sensational bird of prey. Exploring the coastal dune vegetation we were impressed at the cooperative behavior of the typically supremely skulking Middendorff's Grasshopper-Warblers as they sang out in the open. We also enjoyed stunning Siberian Rubythroats, a pair of the increasingly rare Yellow-breasted Bunting and, as if on cue, a pair of Far Eastern Curlews landed on the beach in front of us, delighting us with their gurgling, rippling song. Heading back to the ship we enjoyed Aleutian Terns and some good views of the rarely seen Long-billed Murrelet.
Over the next two days we made landings at remote and spectacular birding locations. Little Chazma is a geothermal heated area that never freezes over and is home to many wetland birds, including many North Asian species that are only recorded as vagrants in America. A day of birding in the stone birch forests and muskeg just west of Petropavlosk produced Rustic Bunting, Eurasian Bullfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a surprise Jack Snipe, with the forest humming to the song of Arctic Warblers. We enjoyed some superb local hospitality including the best salmon soup I have ever tasted, and the more adventurous enjoyed a dash of vodka. Back on board the ship we had a great presentation of Koriac dancing that was truly wild.
It was time to start cruising east and the calm seas saw everyone up on deck enjoying the seabird and whale spectacular. The captain and staff of the Clipper Odyssey went well out of their way to ensure everyone enjoyed themselves detouring to explore some of our more distant sightings. They placed us right in the middle of a feeding throng of 50 orcas and 130 Laysan Albatross—a sight no one will forget. On another occasion the captain gave chase to an adult Short-tailed Albatross, allowing many people to get a view of this highly sought after global rarity in U.S. waters.
There were numerous Mottled Petrels, breeding plumaged Long-tailed Jaegers, and Whiskered Auklets at point blank range in the tidal rip channels near Adak. There were so many Red-legged Kittiwakes and literally millions of Crested Auklets at Kiska that we could smell the distinct tangerine citrus odor mentioned in the Sibley guide. On top of this, we enjoyed stunning views of 10 cetaceans including rarities such as Cuvier's and Baird's beaked whales, the lightning fast Dall's porpoise, plus giants of the deep including sperm, fin, grey and humpback whales.
All of our landings went very smoothly. We were privileged to make a landing on Attu, perhaps the most hallowed ground in U.S. birding territory. The calm weather and season made it unlikely that we would find any vagrants, but we enjoyed sightings of a very cooperative Rock Ptarmigan and the distinctive leucopareia Canada Geese, now split as the Cackling Goose. Our 2005 voyage will be later in the season with a greater likelihood of finding a rarity. For those who really want to give Attu their best effort, please consider our special Attu charter, September 7-25, 2006.
Saint Paul provided a couple of our own rarities in the form of Grey-tailed Tattler and a very beautiful breeding plumaged Black-headed Gull in the harbor. A great sighting by David allowed everyone to enjoy a couple of Rhinoceros Auklets. The cliffs were alive with nesting seabirds and the camera shutters were whirring at this incredible panorama in the sunny conditions. The wildflowers were exceptional.
Saint Mathew allowed everyone the opportunity for a good walk. After enjoying that perfect snowflake of a bird known as McKay's Bunting, some of the long hikers discovered an out-of-range Common Loon, and enjoyed displaying Least Sandpiper, both Red-necked Phalarope and Rock Sandpiper with chicks, Long-tailed Duck, and a surprise Sandhill Crane on migration stopover from Siberia.
Our final key birding destination was Gambell, and we were not disappointed. I was lucky enough to find a Red-throated Pipit feeding chicks. We enjoyed Slaty-backed and Vega gulls, plus White Wagtail. The big bonus came right at the end. I did a double take when I suddenly realized I had a Dovekie in the telescope on the high cliffs. Then it became four. It was a lucky break to have the perfect conditions that enabled us to scan the cliffs for this Alaskan rarity. Everyone who was still on the island had a very good view of the display antics of these tiny alcids. It also gave our voyage a combined total of 17 species of puffin, murre, and auklet species, impossible anywhere else in the world.
Our last morning found us in Nome surrounded by Arctic Terns before catching our charter flight home. It had been a perfect voyage, and I hope you will join us this year.
Bering Sea Cruise, aboard the Clipper Odyssey
July 31-August 14, 2005
with Dion Hobcroft, Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon
Cabins from $6950
Limit 30 (only 4 spaces still available)
Birds of Tropical America
By Steve Hilty
The University of Texas Press and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours are pleased to announce the reissue of Steve Hilty's book, Birds of Tropical America, A Watcher's Introduction to Behavior, Breeding, and Diversity. First published in 1994, and out of print since 1997, UT Press will reissue this book in March 2005. The reissue has a new epilogue and updated references.
Heralded as the "guide to Neotropical bird behavior that picks up where field guides leave off," this book is a comprehensive and fascinating look into the lives of Neotropical birds, and will entertain and educate amateur and professional alike. Many chapters in this lively book grew out of questions proposed by clients to Hilty while guiding birding trips with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Some of you may even recognize your own questions here, or the questions you always wanted to ask!
Birds of Tropical America is the inaugural volume in the new UT Press Mildred Wyatt-Wold Series in Ornithology. 320 pp; 11 b&w drawings. $19.95.