July 2005 Birdletter August 10, 2005

The July 2005 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about our Palace on Wheels trip, the Polar Bears of Churchill, Panama's Foothills of Nusagandi and El Valle, our Jungle Rivers Cruise and Attu Cruise, South India and Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Emperor Penguin Cruise Opportunities, Asia in 2005, Suriname Wilderness, Wintertime Birding in Newfoundland, Finding a Rare Bird, Short West Mexico, Celebrating Argentina in 2005, and California & Arizona.

PALACE ON WHEELS

March 10-23, 2006

Our 2004 Palace on Wheels tour was just as successful, if not more so, than our inaugural 2001 tour. Rated as one of the top ten luxury trains in the world, the Palace on Wheels offers a smooth and comfortable journey across central India, and an intimate look at its people, its history, and its impressive wildlife. When not onboard the train, we will stay at luxurious hotels such as the Oberoi in Delhi and the Amar Vilas in Agra. Visits to India's architectural marvels, such as the exquisite Taj Mahal, will leave us captivated and enthralled.

On our 2004 trip we saw tigers (several, including females with cubs) every day we were in the field. We also saw leopard; dholes (Indian hunting dogs); guar-the world's largest species of wild cattle; and an exciting array of great birds including some very local specialties such as Painted Spurfowl, Painted Francolin, and White-naped Woodpecker, in addition to many others. These are only a few highlights from among a number of memorable wildlife spectacles and great birding.

I hope you'll join us in 2006 for another unique mix of birds, nature, history, and culture. Our leaders will be Jerry Bertrand, David Bishop, Victor Emanuel, Bob Fleming, Steve Hilty, Dion Hobcroft, Barry Lyon, Susan Myers, and David Wolf. Pre- and post-trips will be offered to Bandavgarh, Kaziranga, Bharatpur, Corbett National Park, and the Princely Cities.

Palace on Wheels

March 10-23, 2006

$9995 from Delhi

Limit 80

In This Issue

Polar Bears of Churchill

Panama: Foothills of Nusagandi & El Valle

Jungle Rivers Cruise and Attu Cruise

South India & Sri Lanka

Trinidad and Tobago

Emperor Penguin Cruise Opportunities

Asia in 2005

Palace on Wheels 2006

Suriname Wilderness

Wintertime Birding in Newfoundland

Finding a Rare Bird

Short West Mexico

Celebrate Argentina in 2005

California & Arizona

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POLAR BEARS OF CHURCHILL

By Bob Sundstrom

Our Polar Bears of Churchill tour rates as one of the most exceptional wildlife viewing experiences anywhere in the world. The tour coincides with the massing of the Hudson Bay population of polar bears near the southwest shore of the Bay. Here hundreds of bears await the autumn formation of sea ice, so they may resume their accustomed life atop the ice where they traverse many miles, find mates, and hunt their primary prey, the ringed seal.

Our 2004 trip began with a night in Winnipeg, and then we flew to the town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, at the southwest corner of Hudson Bay. When we arrived at the airport outside Churchill, a few inches of snow whitened the arctic tundra and spruce-dotted taiga. After a good lunch in a friendly café, our driver took us out toward historic Cape Merry, where we had our first of many intimate views of arctic wildlife. Several pure white Arctic foxes trotted near the roadside, comically fluffy in their luxuriant fur. Sharp eyes detected a couple of huge, white hares sitting on the snow among glacier-smoothed boulders, with only the black tips of their ears giving them away-our first Arctic hares. Moments later someone spotted two more foxes, which turned out to be two different color morphs of red fox: one a handsome red morph and the other the much rarer silver morph, with charcoal-colored fur with silver tips.

We had four full days to explore the tundra and Hudson Bay shoreline east of Churchill, as we rode with a highly experienced guide on a tundra buggy reserved just for our group. (A tundra buggy is something like an extra-wide bus riding high on tall, wide tires.) The foxes and hares of the first afternoon had only keened our anticipation for seeing polar bears. And we were not disappointed, to say the least. In fact, we saw 18 different polar bears the first day before lunch! And what an unforgettable sensation-to watch a nearly one-thousand-pound white bear casually amble up toward your tundra buggy on feet like furry snowshoes, and then look you in the eye as it stands up with its enormous paws against the vehicle!

As it turned out, our days on the tundra buggy were exquisitely timed for maximum bear sightings. We saw a high of 43 bears in one day (a conservative count) and a low of 24, for a total of over 140 bear sightings during our four days on the tundra buggy. The opportunities for photographs were seemingly endless, and bears were often close at hand. There were huge 10 to 15-year-old males, some with a golden tinge to their white fur, as well as lots of intermediate age bears. We were delighted to see a female with small yearling cubs, a trio which passed very close to the buggy as a brilliant arctic sunset unfolded in the background. Over the four days on the tundra buggy we saw bears sleeping in the snow or atop piles of seaweed; rolling on their backs in the sun and pawing the air like great dogs; walking across the tundra or out toward the sea ice with their noses raised, sniffing for seal prey; and mothers with cubs running off nearby males.

On our final day on the buggy, we were lucky enough to see several pairs of polar bears sparring-perhaps the ultimate highlight of polar bear watching. One pair were very large males, full adults, which gently sniffed each other's noses and faced each other with mouths agape, before standing on their hind feet and playfully sparring with huge open paws, and then bear-hugging, tackling, and wrestling on the snowy ground. This went on for minutes, with periodic breathers, until finally the bears collapsed to snooze belly down on the snow. Another sparring pair were three-year-old sibling cubs that rolled around together like fat, white pandas, mouthing each other's necks and waving their feet in the air.

And there were birds too: large coveys of winter-white Willow Ptarmigan and one group of Rock Ptarmigan, as well as several Snowy Owls. A couple of Gyrfalcons hunted and perched near a giant grain terminal on the bay. A mixed flock of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs worked the tide line, and in scrub willows we recorded what was apparently the latest fall record ever of Blackpoll Warbler for the province of Manitoba. It was pure serendipity, too, that famous arctic wildlife photographer Norbert Rosing was in Churchill, and gave a very well attended slide show at the Center Complex, just a short walk from our comfortable hotel. The bears will be back this fall, and we hope you can make it to Churchill then too.

Polar Bears of Churchill

October 30-November 6, 2005

with Bob Sundstrom

$3450 from Winnipeg

Limit 18

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PANAMA: FOOTHILLS OF NUSAGANDI & EL VALLE

By Kevin Zimmer

Straddling the Continental Divide, the foothills of Panama harbor a unique avifauna that includes both lowland and highland species, as well as birds of both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes. This tour, designed to pick up where traditional Canal Zone tours leave off, offers some of Central America?s most exciting birding, set amidst beautiful middle-elevation forest and in a refreshingly moderate climate.

Our first morning will take us to the lowlands of the Bayano Valley where we will search for such prizes as Cocoi Heron, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Red-billed Scythebill, Black Antshrike, Rufous-winged Antwren, Bare-crowned Antbird, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-eared Conebill, Orange-crowned Oriole, and many others. Afterwards, we will drive to Burbayar Lodge, straddling both the Continental Divide and the boundary between Panama Province and the Kuna Indian Comarca of San Blas. This region, known as Nusagandi, is home to some of Panama?s rarest and most sought-after birds.

Burbayar is a charming rustic lodge, and its owner, Ignacio Ruiz Osaba, is a most gracious host. The nights here are pleasantly cool, the forest is amazingly devoid of biting insects, and the lodge offers exceptional food. And the birds are incredible! Among the many prizes are the two banner species of the area: the Speckled Antshrike, and the Sapayoa. With relatively small ranges, localized distributions, and uncertain taxonomic affinities, both species have attained an enigmatic, near-mythic status among birders and ornithologists alike. The Nusagandi region may be the premier spot in the world for finding both birds.

Other potential prizes include Plumbeous Hawk, Tawny-faced Quail, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Black-crowned Antpitta, Dull-mantled Antbird, Black-headed Antthrush, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Stripe-throated Wren, Rufous-winged Tanager, Black-and-yellow Tanager, Sulphur-rumped Tanager, and many more.

 

We will conclude our tour in the foothills of Coclé Province, basing ourselves out of a brand new and very comfortable lodge at El Valle. Nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano, and surrounded by jagged ridges and hills, our lodge enjoys a magnificent scenic backdrop and ready access to lush forests that are alive with colorful hummingbirds and tanagers. Among the many species that we will be searching for are such gems as Rufous-crested Coquette, Snowcap, White-tipped Sicklebill, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Orange-bellied Trogon, Blue-throated Toucanet, Tody Motmot, Lance-tailed Manakin, Emerald and Speckled tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Blue Seedeater.

Based out of two primary locations (with first and last nights in Panama City), this tour offers a unique taste of some of the best birding that Panama has to offer. It can be combined with our January 3-10, 2006 Panama?s Canopy Tower tour, for a more comprehensive survey of central Panamanian birds.

Panama: Foothills of Nusagandi & El Valle

January 10-19, 2006

With Kevin Zimmer and a local leader

$2795 from Panama City

Limit 10

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ATTU

Jungle Rivers Cruise Sells Out – Attu almost Full

In April we announced that we would charter the Clipper Adventurer for a trip along the northeast coast of South America in October 2006, if we could get 35 people to sign up by June 30 of this year. We had committed to limit the trip to 80 participants rather than the 116 passengers the ship holds, if we had enough interest to charter the ship. We were astounded by the response. A few days before the deadline, we sold the last spaces on this cruise and are proceeding with our charter. Our inaugural trip to this region in October of last year was a great success. We are convinced that our 2006 trip will also be a marvelous experience and very much appreciate the support from our clients that has made it possible for us to charter.

We have also had a tremendous response to our September 7-25, 2006 Attu trip. Only a few spaces remain available on that exciting voyage.

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GRAND SOUTHERN INDIA

South India and Sri Lanka

By David Bishop

An enchanting focused ramble through Southern India, The Andaman Islands, and Sri Lanka. Incomparably rich culturally and in endemic birds, plus many large spectacular mammals.

People often ask me what my favorite country is to visit. This is always a hard question to answer concisely. For example, I adore Papua New Guinea, in part because of the long and close association I have had with the place. Borneo will always have a special place in my heart because I love tropical forests, and Borneo is so rich in spectacular and highly visible birds and mammals. However, I just can?t help but keep coming back to India. The Indian continent is so excitingly varied, ranging as it does from the world?s highest and most dramatic mountain range to the tropical forests of the far south, with vast deserts on its western borders and a heartland still covered with "tiger-infested" woodlands interspersed by some very bird-rich marshes. The subcontinent?s antiquities, cultures, food, and wildlife are a perfect reflection of this geographic diversity, making it impossible to explore the country in one fell swoop. If truth be told, I?ve traveled throughout India since 1979 and still haven?t seen it all. So we have devised (and continue to devise) several tours that thoroughly cover digestible chunks of the country.

We plan to kick off 2006 with our tried and trusted tour of Southern India and the lovely Andaman Islands. This is a safe, easy, and comfortable tour with lots of big, exciting mammals and birds including a large number of bird species found nowhere else in the world. Furthermore, it provides a perfect combination tour with a trip to Sri Lanka. Susan Myers will lead the Sri Lanka tour, and then she and I will co-lead the South India tour. I cannot imagine a better way to start the year than to be back in India, and especially in the south. In early January the lowlands and foothills will be comfortably warm, while you will certainly need a jacket and sweater on our early morning jeep rides at higher elevations. For those of you who have been to north India, you will find that the south is notably greener, lusher, and generally more sedate, and the birding is simply marvelous. With all the new splits advocated in the fine new book, Birds of South Asia, The Ripley Guide, you have the opportunity to garner even more endemics than ever before. We expect to see them all! Not an idle boast, because Susan and I know this part of the world intimately, having traveled and birded there innumerable times.

Just imagine: instead of digging your car out of a snowdrift this winter, you could be completely exhilarated as a pack of dhole (Indian wild dogs) corner an equally ferocious wild boar. Vicious tusks exposed, the male switches from side to side as one dog, then another, dashes in for a nip before making a smart retreat. Peacocks, hornbills, and Nilgiri langurs hoot in alarm, and only the presence of an alternative food source saves the pig for another day. And all this at genuine photographic range.

Sri Lanka amazes even the most experienced traveler with its birdiness and friendliness. Despite all of this country?s endemics, I can?t get the southeast coastal wetlands of Bundala out of my mind. Birds, birds, birds everywhere-thousands of birds AND elephants, including a cantankerous teenager that decided to test his courage and charge our jeep-great for the adrenalin rush but, as my daughter says, ?just testing Daddy.? Back to the birds-in late December the lagoons and tanks of the south will be literally teeming with birds: globally threatened Spot-billed Pelicans; Lesser Adjutants; tens of thousands of shorebirds including pratincoles, Broad-billed Sandpipers and, you never know, a vagrant Spoon-billed Sandpiper; and fabulous photographic opportunities for really great images of large congregations of wading birds including large numbers of herons, egrets, and bitterns. As if all this weren't enough, the surrounding areas of scrub and woodlands rock to the presence of pastel-colored Orange-breasted Green-Pigeons, peculiar Blue-faced Malkohas, and Indian Pittas, while overhead a challenging array of raptors patrol the skies.

Join us this winter for a combination of food, culture, antiquities, and wildlife you will never ever forget.

P.S. If you were wondering about the Andaman Islands, we anticipate seeing an impressive number of endemics there in only two days, including the splendid Andaman Crake, of which we have one of the few tapes in existence!

Sri Lanka

December 26, 2005-January 10, 2006

with Susan Myers

$4130 from Colombo, Sri Lanka

Limit 8 (only 1 space left available)

Southern India

January 8-30, 2006

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

Price TBA

Limit 14

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TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

By Bob Sundstrom

Each visit I make to Trinidad and Tobago brings home to me more clearly why a trip to this two-island nation has long been considered a favorite Neotropical birding experience for so many. Now the selection of an excellent new ecolodge for the Tobago part of our itinerary-Cuffie River Nature Retreat-adds another exquisite facet to our trip. During breakfast at Cuffie River in February 2005 we watched five male White-necked Jacobins compete for space on the hummingbird feeders, their white tails flashing like speedy butterflies. Male Ruby-topaz Hummingbirds came too, a dull black until just the right angle of light lit to a shimmer their topaz-yellow breasts and ruby crowns. Tropical species like Blue-crowned Motmot, Barred Antshrike, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar were easy to find on the lodge grounds. The group was impressed with the gracious hospitality and wonderful meals at Cuffie River Nature Retreat.

From Tobago we took a boat to Little Tobago where, from a strategic overlook, we watched dozens of Red-billed Tropicbirds on the wing, their streamer tails undulating behind them, as both Red-footed and Brown boobies appeared below. An Audubon's Shearwater sat under a large leaf at its nesting site. Forest trails on Tobago yielded such island specialties as the rare White-tailed Sabrewing, Blue-backed Manakins sporting red velvet caps and glittering blue backs, and flashy White-fringed Antwrens.

A few images from our December 2004 Trinidad and Tobago tour help illustrate the avian richness of the larger island of Trinidad. Consider our first morning on Trinidad: sunrise found us sipping coffee and birding from one of the most renowned birding spots, the Asa Wright veranda, overlooking the Arima Valley. Action was nonstop, as a wide range of bird species visited the fruit tray feeders and nectar feeders. Both Purple and Green honeycreepers swarmed the fruit, dazzling in their brilliant iridescence. Silver-beaked Tanagers with plumage like red velvet fed side by side with exotic Blue-crowned Motmots; Great Kiskadees and Crested Oropendolas jockeyed for feeding space; and red-rumped agoutis scampered back and forth under the feeding area. Hummingbirds were there in force: two male White-necked Jacobins graced the hummingbird feeders within arm's length as Copper-rumped Hummingbirds and Blue-throated Sapphires jousted with feisty White-chested Emeralds; and a tiny Tufted Coquette visited a host of small blossoms. All this before breakfast!

By 8:30 a.m. we were walking down the Discovery Trail, soon to watch two Bearded Bellbird males as they belted out their stentorian notes-in the scope you could see their rubbery wattles wiggle at each song delivery. We had our first views of splendid male White-bearded and Golden-headed manakins, and along the Chaconia Trail a couple of tassel-tailed Green Hermits guarded heliconia blossoms from a lurking Rufous-breasted Hermit. An afternoon walk along the entrance road was equally productive: a flock of brilliant Turquoise Tanagers, a very confiding Little Hermit, and scope views of a Violaceous Trogon. Perhaps the best sighting of the walk was not a bird at all; one of the groundskeepers tipped us off to a nearby boa constrictor, which we were able to walk right up to as it lazed on a fallen heliconia. This beautifully patterned, thick-bodied snake probably measured close to seven feet.

Two days later we drove to the highest elevation we would reach on the tour. Two Channel-billed Toucans posed in lovely light below us on a bare branch for the view of a lifetime: every hue, including rich red and yellow, was beautifully saturated, as they sat together and called, and the sky dropped away below them into the mist-filled valley. Lovely Bay-headed and Speckled tanagers worked the same fruiting trees, and a Black-faced Antthrush stalked back and forth in the shadowy understory. A male White-tailed Trogon perched in the open in a huge immortelle tree, and both Red-rumped and Golden-olive woodpeckers appeared nearby.

Our last day on Trinidad was a very special one. In the morning we walked down the Guacharo Trail on the Asa Wright grounds to Dunstan Cave, where we visited an Oilbird colony. Views of these strange, almost haunting birds from inside the cave opening were excellent. That afternoon we boated through famous Caroni Swamp, a mangrove estuary. Our boatman soon showed us a Cook's tree boa, a silky anteater asleep on a branch, and a roosting Common Potoo. A group of Rufous-necked Wood-Rails perched nervously on mangrove roots as we continued on toward the climactic moment of the day: we watched hundreds and hundreds of brilliant Scarlet Ibis fly in to roost on a single small mangrove island, joined by hundreds of Snowy Egrets and smaller numbers of other herons. An unforgettable sight and an ideal finish to the trip. But we weren't quite finished; as we headed back among the mangroves again, a huge Cocoi Heron flew over the boat, and then a group of perhaps ten hefty Greater Anis straggled across from one mangrove thicket to another, showing off their blue-black plumage and distinctively humped bills. A fine finish to a wonderful tour.

Trinidad and Tobago

December 9-18, 2005

with Bob Sundstrom

$2645 from Tobago (ends in Port of Spain)

Limit 14

Trinidad and Tobago

February 19-28, 2006

with Bob Sundstrom

$2985 from Tobago (ends in Port of Spain)

Limit 14

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Emperor Penguin Cruise Opportunities

By Victor Emanuel

In November 2001 VENT took a large group to the other side of Antarctica. One of the main goals of that trip was to visit several colonies of Emperor Penguins, one of the world's most magnificent birds. I was privileged to co-lead that expedition with Greg Lasley, Peter Matthiessen, and Robert Bateman. We not only had wonderful visits to three colonies of Emperors, but also saw a marvelous array of seabirds and a number of other penguin species, including Royal and Yellow-eyed, that were new for me. I regard that voyage as one of the best trips of my life.

Quark Expeditions, the company that organized that trip, has informed us that they are offering their Lords of Antarctica trip in November/December 2005, and will not offer it again for several years, if ever. They have only a few spaces still available, so we will not be able to have an allotment of cabins and send a VENT leader.

Quark also informed us that starting in the fall of 2006, they will offer shorter, less expensive trips from Ushuaia, Argentina to an Emperor Penguin colony in the Weddell Sea.

We would be glad to book a space for you on any of these trips. If you book through VENT you will pay the same price as if you book directly with Quark. We will give a voucher worth $300 to anyone who books one of these cruises through VENT. If you can afford it, both in terms of time and money, I would recommend the longer trip since that voyage visits Emperor Penguin colonies, and also visits several subantarctic islands where you can see other penguin species not seen on Antarctic voyages that depart from South America, including the Royal, Yellow-eyed, and Snares penguins.

Quark Expeditions Cruises

Lords of Antarctica, Emperor Penguin Adventure:

November 8-December 4, 2005

Embark Hobart, Australia and disembark Lyttelton, New Zealand

December 4-29, 2005

Embark Lyttelton, New Zealand and disembark Hobart, Australia

Emperor Penguin Safari:

October 20-November 2, 2006

November 1-14, 2006

Begins and ends in Ushuaia, Argentina

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Asia in 2005

By Victor Emanuel

The Asia year got off to a sublime start with our classic tour of Thailand. Susan Myers reports that the birding was better than ever, but that the meals our wonderful chef/driver devised in the field defy description. An early morning at "the bog" on the summit of Doi Inthanon produced a mouthwatering list of specialties: Rufous-throated Partridge, Dark-sided Thrush, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, sensational views of Slaty-bellied Tesia, and a whole mess of wonderful babblers or, as David refers to them, "Real Birds!" However, arguably the greatest highlights were the incredible forest dwelling mammals seen one night in Khao Yai National Park: slow loris, large and small Indian civets, common and three-striped palm civets, common barking deer, sambar, and Malayan crested porcupine. VENT tours to Asia consistently produce an astonishingly rich list of some very exciting mammals.

Owing to popular demand, we operated two tours to what many regard as our elite destination-Bhutan. On the first tour, Dion Hobcroft reported that despite a bit of rain and snow our early spring Bhutan tour produced exactly what we hoped for-a bevy of early migrants that are difficult to see or never seen on our Classic Bhutan tour. Some of Dion?s highlights were a fallout of thrushes including a field of 100+ White-collared Blackbirds together with such Bhutan rarities as Chestnut Thrush and Dusky Thrush; good looks at mega-rarities such as White-bellied Heron; Wallcreeper; Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler; the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis; and a copulating pair of never-before-seen-in-the-field Himalayan palm civets.

While all this was happening, David Bishop was leading our Classic India tour that ranged from the lovely glades and woodlands of Central India to the far western deserts of Rajasthan back to Delhi, and on to charismatic Corbett National Park and the western Himalayas. David was bubbling with enthusiasm about the tour, describing it as his best ever in 30 years of leading tours to India-and it?s not hard to see why: near perfect weather combined with (he says) the world?s best cuisine, fabulous antiquities, and some extraordinary wildlife experiences that included a total of 11 tigers including one female hunting at dusk in Bhandavgarh National Park that really set the adrenalin pumping; close views of three endangered Great Indian Bustards; being charged by a cantankerous female Asian elephant that had the jeeps retreating in a hurry!; 36 species of raptors including a whole mess of vultures of at least seven species attending a rather smelly carcass; a pair of Collared Falconets that plucked damselflies from right under the clients? noses; 5,000+ Demoiselle Cranes swirling on great thermals as they migrated north; ten species of owls, all seen during the daytime, including Rock Eagle-Owl with young; Tawny Fish-Owl with young, and a gorgeous Mottled Wood-Owl; extraordinary views of Malabar Pied and Great hornbills; 16 species of woodpeckers; a pair of the very localized White-bellied Minivet; and, of course, a wonderful collection of "Real Birds" including fine looks at a stunning group of six Red-billed Leiothrix.

David and Dion then led our revamped Assam tour which now includes the forests of Nameri in addition to Kaziranga. One of our clients aptly described Kaziranga as the "Serengeti" of Asia, and with so many Indian one-horned rhinoceroses, Asian elephants, Asian water buffalo, and swamp and hog deer to mention but a few, it?s not hard to imagine why this epithet is so appropriate. The birding wasn?t too bad either with 250+ species in just a few days including an astonishing number of big, easy to see but, sadly, globally rare birds: Greater Adjutants including a flock of 25 soaring low over the group?s heads; displaying Bengal Floricans-a strikingly handsome bustard; Slender-billed Vulture-now critically endangered-they saw several; glorious looks at Ruddy Kingfisher; ten or more of the impressive Great Hornbill; exceptional studies of such localized grassland specialties as Slender-billed and Jerdon?s babblers, and the stunningly impressive Black-breasted Parrotbill; a pair of truly exotic looking Sultan Tits-eyeball to eyeball; and a small group of Finn?s Weavers that graced our very fortunate group-this may be one of the few bird tours to ever see this species in the wild! Our Assam tour was so successful that we have decided to offer two tours there in 2006.

David Wolf joined David Bishop this year on VENT?s 15th tour of Bhutan, and it was gigantic! However, everything paled in comparison to the leopard that stood on the road right in front of the group (all of whom were on foot) before it dashed off uphill, flushing a female Satyr Tragopan for good measure. As one hardcore birder-client commented, ?That was easily worth 50 lifers.? Needless to say, there was so much more: this year was the year of the tragopan with a total of eight, yes, eight individuals seen including a dazzling group of three glorious males on the road at one time!; hordes of Himalayan Monal and dapper Blood Pheasants; a simply spectacular 40-minute-long study of a pair of foraging Ward?s Trogon-those colors just have to be seen to be believed; for the fifth year in a row an amazingly responsive pair of Beautiful Nuthatches; literally hordes of "Real Birds" including excellent looks at nearly all the possible laughingthrushes; crunching views of the very rarely seen Fulvous Parrotbill; and some endearing encounters with several wren-babblers including other-worldly experiences with Scaly-breasted. Rufous-necked Hornbills were in good form and, together with Great Hornbills, provided several fabulous photographic moments. This was also a good year for mammals, and in addition to such "usual" fare as golden langur, we had great views of two serow, a goral that skipped across in front of the bus, and a daytime Hodgson?s flying squirrel.

Our March 29-April 22, 2006 Bhutan tour with David Bishop and Susan Myers is sold out. Dion Hobcroft will lead an additional Bhutan tour March 24-April 18, 2006.

Contact the VENT office for more information on our upcoming tours in Asia:

2005

Malay Peninsula

August 3-15, 2005

with David Bishop

$3595 from Kuala Lumpur

Sri Lanka

December 26-January 10

with Susan Myers

$4130 from Colombo, Sri Lanka

(one space left)

2006

Southern India

January 8-30

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

Price TBA

Cambodia

February 1-13

with Susan Myers and David Bishop

Price TBA

Thailand Highlights

February 12-28

with Susan Myers and David Bishop

Price TBA

Palace on Wheels

March 10-23

with Jerry Bertrand, David Bishop, Victor Emanuel, Bob Fleming, Steve Hilty, Dion Hobcroft, Barry Lyon, Susan Myers, and David Wolf

$9995 from Delhi

(pre- and post-trips available)

Assam: Kaziranga and Nameri

March 21-30

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

Price TBA

Bhutan

March 29-April 23

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

(sold out)

Bhutan

March 24-April 18

with Dion Hobcroft

Price TBA

Classic China: Sichuan

May 10-June 1

with Dion Hobcroft and David Bishop

Price TBA

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SURINAME WILDERNESS

A New and Expanded Itinerary

By Steve Hilty

Suriname is vintage tropical America?one of the last remaining outposts in the American tropics where you truly feel you have stepped back in time. Paramaribo, its capital city, which not insignificantly is home to 70% of all the people in the country, seems weary of the heat and humidity. Dutch-style wooden buildings beg for paint and attention, people move slowly, stores open late and close early, and luxuriant rainforests poised at the edge of town seem poised to overwhelm this sleepy tropical capital. We found 35 species of birds living behind our hotel in Paramaribo, and another 60 or so in the botanical garden. A Spectacled Owl called from a large tree that spread its branches over luxury automobiles in a casino parking lot, then flew across the boulevard to a residential area. This is Paramaribo.

Because there is more undisturbed rainforest left in Suriname than remains in all of Central America, birders and naturalists have lionized this tiny country as a birding Mecca?a place where adjectives like ?big? and ?spectacular? have become commonplace. Our bird list amply reflects this. Imagine Gray-winged Trumpeters and Black Curassows parading in roads; Capuchinbirds growling; Guianan Red-Cotingas whistling; two dozen gorgeous Guianan Cocks-of-the-rock displaying; two Harpy Eagles (yes, two!); a rare Boat-billed Tody-Tyrant; several Sharpbills; such canopy rarities as Red-billed Pied-Tanager; Blue-backed Tanager; all the toucans, parrots, and macaws you could want; and assorted oddities and microhabitat specialists such as Rufous-crested Elaenia, Spangled and Pompadour cotingas, Rose-breasted Chat, and Blood-colored Woodpecker?all in one trip. It is routine in Suriname. And, our next trip features two new areas that promise even more wildlife.

Suriname is, in fact, something of a forgotten corner of the world. It is a blend of races and skin colors unlike any other. It is a country isolated by languages (whom might we encounter outside of Suriname that speaks ?Suriname tongue,? or even much Dutch for that matter?), an ethnicity that looks inward, and a climate that slows the pace of life to a crawl. By contrast, ours is a time of exaggeration and braggadocio, when things move at warp speed, and all things are hyped with muscularity?power naps, power walks, power plays (some of you even bring power bars along to eat)?and everything is super, from models, stars, and bowls, to men and women. As we move now beyond the millennium, we are inexorably drawn into a global acceleration of practically everything that touches our lives. We stay in communication with all things and all people; we are pumped on steroids, inflated egos, and hyperbole, fixated on winning, and getting somewhere?anywhere?fast. Suriname lets you step back from all of this. You are free to be yourself, to let your thoughts wander, and feelings flow. It is a place to communicate not so much with others as with yourself. Lie back in a hammock, relax, let the night breezes caress you and wrap you in a cooling embrace, enjoy a secret thought or fantasy, or the touch of a loved one, and listen as the sultry, tropical breath of night carries you far away. In the distance an owl purrs, and soon a nightjar cries.

Suriname is, in most respects, the quintessential, third world, tropical rainforest experience?the smells, the sights, the sounds, and the people all blending into a kind of timelessness?yesterday, today, and tomorrow all become one: the same foreboding, rain-streaked skies, the same jungle of green, with ants marching to unheard rhythms, with philodendrons rampaging upward in an eternal quest for light, with moss and bryophytes inexorably claiming all bare surfaces, and with bellbirds clanging, manakins dancing, and antshrikes growling in a burlesque of feast and famine, and sex and death, as timeless as the ancient hills that we trod. All around us the forest, like a great aspirating engine, ebbs and flows with life. Spider monkeys call, long melancholy cries to communicate with distant brethren. Dawns are filled with the lamenting calls of forest falcons, and a cacophony of bird song as individuals strive to communicate for mates. Above it all the great monolith of Voltz Mountain towers, weathered, smoothed, ever silent. Suriname is primeval planet earth, the forests, the rivers, and the stars as they have always been. We are reassured and humbled. Somehow, for all our wealth and sophisticated technology, it is tiny forgotten Suriname that shows us best who we really are.

With a new, expanded itinerary, we expect our next Suriname trip to be better than ever.

For those who want a glimpse of vintage Suriname, Paramaribo, and a camp on the Coppename, read part three of Ivan T. Sanderson?s Caribbean Treasure, 1939, Viking. Republished in paperback in 1963 by Pyramid Books.

Suriname Wilderness

January 4-17, 2006

With Steve Hilty and David Ascanio

$4475 from Paramaribo

Limit 14

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WINTERTIME BIRDING IN NEWFOUNDLAND

By Marshall Iliff

Our second Winter Newfoundland tour differed markedly from the first in at least one respect: the weather! Don?t get me wrong, we had our share of bad weather (75 m.p.h. winds, driving snow, and 20° F would qualify), but on the 2003 tour we didn?t have anything but bad weather. In 2004 we enjoyed three calm (but cold) mornings of landbirding. While our total species count (69) was not far off the total for 2003 (66), the difference in weather was reflected strongly in the landbird totals. Where we had just 18 species of landbirds in 2003, we totaled 30 in 2004.

Dovekie was, of course, the most-wanted bird. Our paths first crossed with Dovekies on our very first morning when we set up a seawatch at Cape Spear. After noting fly-bys of species like Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, a late Northern Gannet, and a variety of gulls, we began to notice the passage of a very few Dovekies far offshore. These tiny birds were little more than specks even in the telescope, but patience paid off when Jim Edwards spotted one passing to the south just meters from shore. Most people had good, close fly-by looks for their life bird, but we all hoped to get some better looks at one on the water. The next afternoon, after a few more fly-by experiences at Bear Cove Point, we were successful in this goal. Huddled in a cluster in the lee of our vans, which were perched precipitously on the cliff by the lighthouse on a coastal promontory, a cooperative pair of Dovekies was spotted simultaneously by two participants. They preened, floated, and dove just meters from shore. Everyone had great scope looks at these diminutive alcids. We saw several others later in the trip.

Dovekies were certainly not the only seabirds of interest. Great Cormorants, a species unique to the northeastern coast within North America, were seen often and well. Another bird special to the rocky northeastern coasts is the Purple Sandpiper, and we found these intertidal denizens thrice on the trip. Other highlights of the rocky coasts included numerous groups of Common Eiders; a gaudy male Harlequin Duck attended by a small flock of females; a lone Atlantic Puffin persistently diving among the waves off Cape Race; flocks of Snow Buntings and redpolls working the roadsides; fly-by Thick-billed Murres and Razorbills at Cape Spear; and a lone female King Eider tucked in among Common Eiders.

Our trip was not limited to coastal birding, and we balanced our time checking areas of open fresh water in St. John?s. Gulls are a highlight on our Newfoundland tour, with 8 species seen on our 2004 tour: Herring, Great Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland all by the hundreds; tens of Black-headed Gulls and a few Lesser Black-backed; and, while a fly-by Black-legged Kittiwake and a few hardy Ring-billed Gulls represented our seventh and eighth species on the trip, the rarest bird of all was, in fact, a Herring Gull. Technically, it was Larus argentatus argentatus, a European form of our Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) and found only a few times before in the U.S. Clements already splits these two forms into separate species, and it is possible that the AOU may follow suit (so we may have had 8 species of gulls on one lake!). The open water of Quidi Vidi Lake was occupied by throngs of ducks, and their variety was matched by their quality: American Black Ducks and Mallards were the commonest, followed closely by Northern Pintail, with singles or a few of Wood Duck, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and Greater and Lesser scaup. Better still, there were several Eurasian Wigeon (more Eurasians than Americans) and a small flock of Tufted Ducks.

The great weather for landbirding lifted my heart, since we had struggled very hard to get any species in the inclement weather the year before. In 2004 we had 8 finches: White-winged and Red (one) crossbills, Pine Grosbeak, American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak, and Common Redpoll. Other notable landbirds were Cedar Waxwing, Black-capped and Boreal (great looks!) chickadees, and a surprise Nashville Warbler. A final highlight was not a bird but a mammal-a river otter that Beverly spotted curled up on the rocks at Cape Spear. While we watched, the otter perked up, yawned, stretched, and then loped off across the icy rocks of the rugged Cape to find a more secluded resting place.

I look forward to tempting the weather of the North Atlantic again in 2005. Despite the blowing winds and frigid air outside, it was hard to feel chilled with such great birding and such warm hospitality from the Newfoundlanders.

Wintertime Birding in Newfoundland

December 6-11, 2005

with Marshall Iliff and Kim Eckert

$1835 from St. John's, Newfoundland

Limit 14

 

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Finding a Rare Bird

A "Big Year" for Warblers

By Victor Emanuel

As much as I enjoy common birds such as Cardinals and Blue Jays, I have to admit it is very exciting to find a rare bird. It is even more satisfying to find a rare bird in your home area.

On June 30 I was hiking up a small canyon just west of Austin with my friend, Kitty Coley, who leads tours for the National Geographic Society. We were enjoying good looks at Red-eyed Vireos, Black-crested Titmice, Acadian Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, and even a Louisiana Waterthrush. I saw a small bird across the canyon on a fallen dead branch. I got on it and saw it was a White-eyed Vireo. Then I saw another small bird feeding on the ground among some fallen leaves. The first thing I noticed was that its forecrown was rich rufous. The rufous area covered about half its crown. Then I noted that it had a white stripe over its eye, and then I saw that its throat and upper breast were yellow! I quickly realized I was looking at a Rufous-capped Warbler, a Mexican and Central American species that only rarely turns up in the United States. The last mark I noted was its dark lores. Then it disappeared behind a small bush. Unfortunately my friend Kitty never saw it, even though we spent an hour trying to relocate it. Since this bird had never been seen in the Austin area, and since I had seen it for only a few seconds, I started to wonder if the whole thing had been a dream.

I returned to this canyon on the morning of the 4th of July with two friends, Kurt Huffman and Barry Lyon. We relocated the bird and Kurt got photos. This is the rarest bird I have ever found in Central Texas. I have lived here 27 years. It was very exciting.

Seeing this rare warbler brought back memories of being with John Rowlett below Falcon Dam on February 10, 1973 when he called up a Rufous-capped Warbler that we both saw. That was the first record of this species in the United States, and still is the only record in the Rio Grande Valley area of South Texas. Then David Wolf found one in Big Bend a few years later, the second U.S. record. Since those initial observations, there have been occasional sightings in southern Arizona and southwest Texas. At Chalk Bluff near Uvalde, Barry Lyon and I showed one to the campers who were on our first Texas youth camp. This species probably is present every year in small numbers in the United States and may even breed, but it is still a very rarely seen species.

The Rufous-capped Warbler is not the only tropical species that is making news this summer. For years the Tropical Parula has been mostly seen in South Texas, especially on the King Ranch. This summer one turned up just west of Austin, another was seen in New Mexico and, amazingly, yet another was found in Fort Collins in northern Colorado. The last weekend in June, Barry Lyon and I saw several Tropical Parulas at Dolan Falls, a Nature Conservancy sanctuary in the western part of the Texas Hill Country.

Since warblers have long been my favorite birds, and since I knew that I would have an opportunity to see a lot of warblers this year, I have decided to try to see more this year than any year of my life. I saw a lot during the three-and-a-half weeks I spent on the upper Texas coast in April, more in Central Park, and then added the Connecticut, Hermit, and Townsend's on our Birding Across America by Train tour.

My warbler list now stands at 40, thanks to that Rufous-capped Warbler. I have a chance to add more in Arizona, Big Bend, and Grand Manan, and could top 50 for the year.

I hope you'll join us in 2006 for some great warbler-watching!

These tours were especially designed for warbler-watching:

High Island Migration

April 19-26

with Bob Sundstrom and David Wolf

$1730 from Houston

The Big Apple in May

May 10-17

with Andrew Farnsworth

Price TBA

Point Pelee and The Kirtland's Warbler

May 13-21

with Kim Eckert and Brennan Mulrooney

Price TBA

Also offering some great opportunities to see warblers:

High Island Introductory

April 14-18

with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon

$995 from Houston

Dry Tortugas

May 3-6

with Kim Eckert

Price TBA

Missouri and Arkansas: Ozarks and Prairies

May 5-14

with Steve Hilty

$2150 from Springfield

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SHORT WEST MEXICO

By Marshall Iliff

Our first ever Short West Mexico tour was an amazing success. Rancho Primavera lived up to the positive reports we had heard. The food (cooked by Monterey nutritionist Bonnie, and ranch owner Pat Morrow) was phenomenal at all times, and the fresh-squeezed juices, lemongrass tea, and delectable desserts were especially welcome treats. The ranch was hospitable and homey, and afforded chances at swimming and trampoline-jumping for those that tired of the birds around the ranch.

But who could tire of the birds around the ranch? During our stay there we recorded 136 species on ranch property, including an amazing 122 in a single day! (Had we stayed longer and tried harder, I would expect 20 to 30 more species on ranch property.) From the porch we regularly saw San Blas Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, Great Kiskadees, and Black-vented Orioles. The hummingbird feeders attracted a kaleidoscope of hummingbird colors?big, showy Cinnamon Hummingbirds and small, jewel-like Broad-billeds; similar Ruby-throateds and Black-chinneds to test our identification skills; and an occasional Berylline and Calliope to boost the variety. The hillside behind the ranch produced some of our better birds, including two more hummers: a female Golden-crowned Emerald and a showy male Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird with its absurdly long tail. The ranch ponds were always worth a visit and we hit them five or six times during our stay, with new species for our list every single time. At dusk, herons, egrets, and ibis would arrive from the surrounding valley to roost at the pond, sometimes accompanied by ducks. The pond highlights included a Blue Mockingbird out in bright sun; a sneaky Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush; and a subtle but distinctive White-throated Flycatcher performing for us. The other ranch highlight was discovering a fruiting fig tree in the fog one morning. A Rufous-backed Robin began a barrage of new species that would include White-throated Robin, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and others?all visiting that one tree for fruit. In all we must have seen almost 30 species in that one tree. We even found Rosy Thrush-Tanager on the Ranch?a secretive but spectacular cross between a catbird and a Scarlet Tanager, with a long bill like a Rock Wren.

The good birding was not limited to the ranch though. On one day we headed down through unique West Mexican thorn forest in search of some specialties. Our number one target eventually cooperated, and everyone had smashing views of two male Red-breasted Chats while they serenaded us. Other thorn forest birds, such as the incredibly showy Orange-breasted Buntings, cryptic Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a heard-only Flammulated Flycatcher, and a giant Plain-capped Starthroat, just added to the excitement. A hot afternoon search for another specialty culminated in success as well. Near La Presa Cajon de Pena we took a side road and trolled for a really unique roadrunner relative?the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. We finally got a response, and despite a difficult situation (looking into the sun), managed to tape the bird right in on top of us so that everyone could get incredible looks at this incredible bird. The bare skin around its eye was unique and seen so well that this ranked among the top birding experiences of the tour.

For a change of pace, on other mornings we climbed in elevation to the pine forests of La Bascula, and the pine-oak of Cienega de Ojuelos. Specialties there included Black-capped Vireo (wintering), Painted Redstart, White-striped Woodcreeper, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Mexican Hermit (wow!), Tufted Flycatcher, Gray-collared Becard, and many more. In lowlands areas of Cruz de Loreto, Puerto Vallarta, and Laguna de Quelele in adjacent Nayarit we amassed even more birds. Among many migrant North American birds and waterbirds, we had such specialties as Mexican Parrotlet, Northern Jacana, Roadside Hawk, Crane Hawk, Mangrove Warbler, Blue-footed and Brown boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds in droves, a rare Franklin?s Gull among other species, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and Wood Stork. Stunning views of Dickcissels flying ¼ mile overhead and looking every bit like a House Sparrow were a tour highlight for many.

Other species seen over the course of the tour included Squirrel Cuckoo, White-throated and Black-throated magpie-jays, Rufous-bellied and West Mexican chachalacas, Masked Tityra, Lilac-crowned Parrot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Rose-throated Becard, and Stripe-headed Sparrow, among many others.

 

Our 2006 Short West Mexico tours are limited to 6 participants, are each priced at $1695 per person, and depart from Puerto Vallarta. There are direct flights to Puerto Vallarta from many U.S. cities.

January 7-13, with Marshall Iliff

January 15-21, with Marshall Iliff

January 29-February 4, with Brian Gibbons

February 6-12, with Brian Gibbons

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CENTRAL ARGENTINA

Celebrate Argentina in 2005

 

By Steve Hilty

 

Central Argentina

If Córdoba, in Central Argentina, is the Yin of Argentina?bustling upscale towns, dry hilly woodland, chaparral and deserts, then the second half of this trip, in northern Corrientes, is the Yang of Argentina?quiet, rural, vast wetlands, ruler-flat haciendas, and humid woodland along watercourse. What a contrast! And the contrast in birds couldn?t be more different!

The Yin: From busy Carlos Paez to chaparral-like Córdoba hills we saw five Andean Condors, the endemic Córdoba Canastero and Olrog?s Cinclodes, and a third endemic form, the Oustalet?s Cinclodes (C. oustaletti), all the first day. The second day brought hints of Chaco heat in wooded foothills and a burst of Chaco specialties?a pair of Spot-winged Falconets, rare Black-bodied Woodpeckers, Chaco Puffbird, Chaco Earthcreeper, Lark-like Brushrunner, Brown Cacholote, and surely the world?s densest population of Scimitar-billed Woodcreepers.

The next days took us still deeper into the heart and heat of the Chaco as we sought specialties of deserts and salt-encrusted lagoons, among them the lovely Salinas Monjita, Chaco Owl, and Olive-crowned Crescent-chest. Visually this was West Texas, Lake Patagonia, and the Salton Sea all wrapped up in one.

The Yang: Imagine five rare Saffron-cowled Blackbirds, Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrants, Streamer-tailed Tyrants, Yellow-rumped Marshbirds, and a dawn blitz of marshland birds within sight of a major metropolis. Then, end the day in quiet solitude on a lake on an Argentine hacienda. For the balance of the trip we wandered the hacienda, visited lagoons, woodlands, and grasslands, and made a long foray in search of the exotic Sickle-winged Nightjar, a species so poorly known we are surely one of the few groups ever to glimpse it. The hacienda was a veritable Noah?s Ark of exotica?Yellow-breasted Crakes, Strange-tailed Tyrants, Black-and-white Monjita, Ochre-breasted Pipits (very local), Lesser Grass-Finches, five species of Sporophila seedeaters, and Scarlet-headed Blackbirds. This was the Everglades and Venezuelan llanos with an Argentine twist.

This is our second offering of Central Argentina. The first one, in 2003, far exceeded birding expectations, in no small way due to the efforts our Argentine guide, Germán Pugnali, whose knowledge of these off-the-beaten-track regions, and of the haunts and habits of the birds, made it all seem far too easy. Join us in this celebration of opposing forces, of contrast and balance, and help keep the birding forces in your life positive.

Southern Argentina

While preparing the bird and mammal list after this trip, memories flooded back?of birds and animals, long roads, bustling Buenos Aires, the Patagonian coast with penguins and whales, the plains of Calafate and its glaciers, and seven thousand years of human history in cold Beagle Channel waters. This is a trip like no other…longer, and sometimes with fewer kinds of birds each day, but what a place it is! The Pampas, Chaco, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego are regions almost larger than life, filled with hope and history and romance, and today occupied by Argentines who showered us with friendliness wherever we went.

Many of the birds I consider highlights are range-restricted species, but ones we are able to find most trips. In 2004 our list also included several that have rarely been seen by any commercial tour? Patagonian Tinamou (with babies), Austral Rail (for ten minutes), Yellow Cardinal (a family), a pair of Pampas Meadowlarks, and displaying Chaco Pipits. These species are no mere mortals?they are the stuff of dreams. Other more earthly highlights included Lesser Rheas; dozens of Elegant Crested Tinamous (not in your wildest dreams would you imagine so many tinamous); spectacles of waterfowl; Andean Condors; Giant Wood-Rails; Austral Pygmy-Owls; two species of cacholotes; Crested Gallitos; a parade of canasteros from north to south (it wouldn't be Patagonia without canasteros); Diademed Tanager; two Yellow-bridled Finches; some mammal oddities including maras, guanacos, and southern right whales; and several lovely orchids.

Everywhere there were stories to tell, sights to see, plenty of steaks, salads, and wines to savor, some long drives when heads began to nod, some history (i.e. Haberton Ranch and settlement of Tierra del Fuego) and good company. Before the trip ended we had bought bottled water in every supermarket and kiosk south of Buenos Aires, enjoyed "liquid" yogurt (some of us) and a couple of lamb parrillas, downed a few bottles of Guilmes beer, some tried Mate (very Argentine!), a few tried the mushrooms (Cyttara darminii) on Tierra del Fuego (or at least looked at them), and a couple of us sampled a large proportion of all the Argentine wines ever bottled. We also learned how to operate metal shutters on Argentine hotel windows, managed to open bathroom doors without hitting the toilet or sink (most of the time), learned to love croissants (media lunas) and cafe con leche (coffee with milk) for breakfast and, of course, we photographed everything in sight.

Everyone enjoyed Buenos Aires?beautiful, exciting, very European in manners, and boasting a marsh brimming with birds just blocks from downtown. Argentina generally offers travelers one of the most diverse of all travel experiences in Latin America?from deserts and marshes to pampas grasslands, Patagonian scrub, and subantarctic Nothofagus forests in Tierra del Fuego.

Both trips will be led by Steve Hilty, who has been guiding in Argentina since 1984, and an Argentine guide.

Central Argentina

November 13-24, 2005

With Steve Hilty and a local guide

$4350 from Buenos Aires

Limit 14

Southern Argentina

November 23-December 9, 2005

With Steve Hilty and a local guide

$6450 from Buenos Aires

Limit 14

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California & Arizona

By Barry Zimmer

Just when you thought a tour couldn?t get any better or more successful, our 2004 California & Arizona trip outdid itself. Always a tour with a high species total (averaging over 250), great rarities potential (consistently our best trip for finding Mexican vagrants), and many hard-to-find regional specialties, our 2004 trip was arguably the best ever. It is frankly hard to know where to begin in listing the myriad highlights. Let?s start with over-the-border strays. We had four Ruddy Ground-Doves with a pair in each state (this species has become virtually annual on this tour), a stunning male Rose-throated Becard near Nogales (one of the first winter records ever for Arizona), a Rufous-backed Robin at Lake Patagonia that sat in a bare willow for several minutes about 15 feet over our heads, and a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers putting on a show during our picnic lunch in Montosa Canyon. Four Mexican vagrants on the same trip! Other rarities recorded on this trip included a stunning male Harlequin Duck in Mission Bay, a Zone-tailed Hawk in Brawley (that obligingly appeared 54 seconds before our deadline to leave!), a Ruff at the Salton Sea, a Blackburnian Warbler in San Diego, and a brilliant male Bullock?s Oriole in Green Valley.

This tour, however, would be superb without any rarities at all. Many difficult to locate California specialties and southwestern specialties are found with regularity on this trip. On the California portion of the tour we tallied Ross?s Goose (over 2,000 in one field!), Ferruginous Hawk (six total), California Quail, the declining Mountain Plover (79 in one flock), Snowy Plover (40 on a volleyball court!), Surfbird, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Yellow-footed Gull (the Salton Sea is the only location to see this species in the United States), Red-breasted Sapsucker, Nuttall?s Woodpecker, the endangered California Gnatcatcher, California and Sage thrashers, Wrentit, Townsend?s Warbler, and the coastal Sage Sparrow among many others. In addition, the highly sought White-headed woodpecker and Lawrence?s Goldfinch have been found on about fifty percent of past tours.

Our success in Arizona equaled that in California. Highlights included Prairie Falcon; Golden Eagle; Costa?s and Magnificent hummingbirds; Gilded Flicker; Red-naped Sapsucker; Lewis?s and Arizona woodpeckers; Hammond?s, Dusky, Gray, and Vermilion flycatchers; Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet; Bendire?s, Crissal, and the phantom-like Le Conte?s thrashers; gorgeous Painted Redstart and Lazuli Bunting; and a tremendous variety of sparrows including Rufous-winged, Black-chinned, and Sage, Green-tailed Towhee, and McCown?s Longspur. A feedlot near Tucson with over 5,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds also deserves special mention.

Somehow I forgot to mention the stunning Cinnamon Teal and Surf Scoters, the wonderful Whiskered and Western screech-owls, and the always entertaining Canyon Wren that was voted one of the group?s favorite birds. As I said, it?s hard to know where to start listing highlights on a trip like this. Among our 255 species were 28 species of waterfowl, 18 raptors, 26 shorebirds, an incredible 11 species of woodpeckers, and seven thrashers. Combine this with the generally pleasant and warm mid-winter weather (you can?t say that in much of the United States in January and February) and you can see why this tour is so appealing! Join Brennan Mulrooney and me in January 2006 for winter birding at its best.

California & Arizona

January 23-February 1, 2006

with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney

$2350 from San Diego

Limit 14