October 2005 Birdletter, Part II November 22, 2005
Part II of the October 2005 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about Cambodia, Winter New Mexico, El Triunfo Mexico, Panama's Darien Wilderness, Brazil: Amazonian Wilderness in Comfort, and our Eastern Venezuela tour. (Part I includes articles about our 30th Anniversary Celebration, Winter Washington and British Columbia, Uganda, Grand Venezuela, Bering Sea Cruise, Honduras, Thailand, and our Palace on Wheels trip.)
By David Bishop
I never thought it would be possible! Ever since I was a kid and saw the first black-and-white (or were they sepia tone?) photographs of the temples of Angkor Wat hidden beneath giant buttressed forest trees, I had dreamed of visiting fabled Cambodia and the incredible Angkor Wat.
Susan Myers and I have a combined 45 years experience of travel and birding in Asia, so it is a special pleasure for us to announce, at long last, that we will offer the very first VENT birding and antiquities trip to Cambodia. We have restructured our Thailand tour so that these two tours can be taken comfortably together, and they neatly complement one another. Cambodia is a delightfully charming, wonderfully exotic, and very safe country to visit, and we are very enthusiastic about returning there. Whilst the centerpiece of our tour will inevitably be our exploration of the incomparable temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, we can look forward to some very special birding as well.
In this issue:
Angkor Wat — Photo: Susan Myers
The statuesque lowland monsoon dipterocarp forests of Cambodia are still vast—sadly, an increasing rarity today in Southeast Asia. Not since I first went to Borneo have I been so awestruck by the grandeur of a country's forests. The huge buttressed trees that grace both the temples and the surrounding forests are worth the trip alone. These forests give us a rare opportunity to encounter an entire suite of birds that are now so difficult to see anywhere in Asia, including Thailand. Whereas it is always a bit of a struggle to see such species as Black-headed and White-bellied woodpeckers on any tour of Thailand, they are relatively easy to see in Cambodia. Rufous-winged Buzzard and the dapper Black Baza are common woodland edge raptors, and the number of parakeets—huge Alexandrine, pastel-colored Red-breasted, Ring-necked, and the lovely Blossom-headed—is an immediate lesson about the impact the cage-bird industry has had on these charismatic birds elsewhere in southern Asia (except India). In essence, our birding in Cambodia provides the perfect complement to our Thailand tour. BUT, that is only a fraction of the story!
In recent years Cambodia has gained appropriate birding fame for being the country in which to see a number of near-mythical birds. At the top of anyone's list will surely be the extraordinary Giant Ibis. This huge, almost prehistoric-looking bird was thought to be extinct until very recently when a small population was found inhabiting small forest pools in the northern plains of Cambodia. This
is also home to the frighteningly rare White-shouldered Ibis—it may now be even rarer than the Giant Ibis. Susan found a pair at a nest during her exploratory trip, and we intend to repeat that success on our next tour. There is a
good chance of seeing other specialties such as White-rumped Falcon, Collared Falconet, and Red-headed Vulture—I had never seen a vulture in Southeast Asia until I went to Cambodia! The huge swamps surrounding Cambodia's gigantic inland lake (sea?) of Tonle Sap support enormous breeding colonies of several globally endangered species including both Lesser and Greater adjutants, Milky and Painted storks, and Spot-billed Pelicans, in addition to large numbers of Oriental Darters and cormorants. Extensive freshwater marshes and grasslands support virtually the only remaining populations of Sarus Crane, Comb Duck, and Bengal Florican outside India. In addition, these fascinating areas harbor the very rare Eld's deer—we saw several on our scouting trip—as well as the handsome Blue-breasted Quail, Asian Golden Weaver, possibly Oriental Plover, Little and Yellow-legged buttonquail, and Manchurian Reed-Warblers, to mention but a handful.
We will conclude our exploration of Cambodia with a boat trip to see the recently described Mekong Wagtail, as well as a chance to encounter the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. All the while River Terns, Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, and dainty Wire-tailed Swallows will shadow our path. Cambodia was a total surprise to both of us in so many ways: the cuisine is outstanding—a near perfect blend of Indochinese and French; the hotels are very attractive; and things work surprisingly well. For example, whereas two years ago the
roads were absolutely miserable, they have improved beyond belief. But it is Angkor Wat to which one's mind will inevitably return. Despite all the hype we can assure you that you will not be disappointed. Far from it. Angkor Wat and its neighbor Angkor Thom are so remarkably beautiful, adorned with some of the finest stonework we have ever witnessed, and all in the midst of simply gorgeous forests.
Now is the ideal time to visit Cambodia with leaders who really know Asia.
This tour may be taken alone or in combination with our Thailand Highlights tour, February 12-28, 2006.
February 1-13, 2006
with Susan Myers and David Bishop
$3895 from Bangkok
By Barry Zimmer
We arrived at the top of Sandia Crest (over 10,600 feet elevation) on the last day of our Winter New Mexico tour and were greeted by stunningly beautiful scenery and frigidly cold conditions. Spruce and fir trees were covered in recent snow, as was the entire landscape overlooking the Rio Grande Valley some 4,000 feet below. It was a stark contrast to all the gorgeous sunny, warm days (all with highs in the 60s or low 70s) we had previously experienced on the trip. We had ventured to this elevation and braved these wintery conditions to search for some upper elevation species not possible elsewhere on our route. Specifically, we were looking for rosy-finches. Sandia Crest has sporadically played host to a mixed flock of rosy-finches each of the last several winters, making it the most southerly locale in the country where any rosy-finches can be found. As is typical for this group of birds, however, their presence is unreliable at best, as the nomadic flocks move throughout the upper reaches of the range. We downplayed the possibility of actually seeing any rosy-finches to the group, and reminded them of other possible new species (such as Cassin's Finch and Steller's Jay) that we had a more reasonable chance of finding.
Fortunately, one can view the feeders at the Sandia Crest House from the warmth and comfort of the inside of the building. We were just settling in and, in fact, had not been inside for more than a minute, when we spotted a large whirling flock of birds moving south along the ridge towards the feeders. "Rosy-finches!" I screamed, certainly loud enough for all patrons of the gift shop and restaurant to hear. Quickly this roving band of nomads descended on the platform feeder just 15 feet out the window. Often thought of as the most difficult of the rosy-finches to add to one's list, Black Rosy-Finch was most common in this group. With their sooty black bodies washed in stunning rosy pink, at least 20 Black Rosy-Finches crowded onto the feeder. Amongst them were ten or more Gray-crowneds and a handful of Brown-cappeds (another very difficult bird to see and along with Black Rosy-Finch, a United States endemic). They fed in a frenzied manner for a few minutes and then, as quickly as they had appeared, they departed. We were stunned and at the same time ecstatic at our good fortune. Never before had any species of rosy-finch been seen on this tour, and we had all three in minute's time. Within a half hour, a different flock came in with slightly different make-up. This one was dominated by Gray-crowneds, and in amongst them was one of the Hepburn's race, a possible split in the future. Other birds frequented the feeder as well, with Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches, and Cassin's Finches all making frequent appearances. We ate lunch as we watched the parade of birds, and eventually headed back down towards Albuquerque to lower and warmer conditions.
Of course this was just one of many highlights on this always birdy tour. The Rio Grande Valley from El Paso to Albuquerque harbors large numbers of wintering waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows each winter, and this year was no exception. World famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge provided us with incredible flights of over 10,000 Sandhill Cranes and nearly 35,000 Snow and Ross's geese as they came and went from their roosting areas. The sights and sounds of the mass takeoff in the morning is a spectacle not soon forgotten. Other refuge highlights included numerous Bald Eagles and a stunning male Cinnamon Teal. Nearby Water Canyon, located in the Magdalena Mountains to the west of the refuge, yielded such treats as a gorgeous male Williamson's Sapsucker (unexpected), Acorn Woodpecker, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Townsend's Solitaire, and Western Bluebird. Further south in the vicinity of Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, we added Mountain and Eastern bluebirds to complete the trio, Bridled Titmouse, Phainopepla, Golden-crowned Kinglet, stunning Hooded Mergansers, and regal Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles.
Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge — Photo: Barry Zimmer
Our tour began in El Paso, and birding here and around Las Cruces produced a long list of highlights including numerous Western and Clark's grebes; 500 Common Mergansers in one flock; Harris's Hawk; a field full of Long-billed Curlews; wonderfully close studies of Burrowing Owls; Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds; six species of wrens including the incomparable Canyon; an amazing total of ten Crissal Thrashers; Green-tailed Towhee; Rufous-crowned, Black-chinned, Black-throated, Sage, Lincoln's, and Brewer's sparrows; Lark Bunting; and an incredible flock of over 10,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds swirling in to a marsh at dusk to roost.
Wait—I forgot to mention the fantastic display of the sunning Greater Roadrunner, the 37 Wood Ducks in view at one time at the nature center, the roosting Western Screech-Owl, and the wonderful scenery and sunsets. Did I mention the weather? With the exception of our trek to Sandia Crest we had sunny, nearly windless days throughout with high temperatures reaching or exceeding the 60s every day of the tour. Meanwhile much of the rest of the country was being pounded by rain, snow, and wind. This tour was, simply put, a wild success.
January 5-11, 2006
with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney
$1505 from El Paso (ends in Albuquerque)
This is not a trip for everyone since it involves hiking every day, but the trails are good and the rewards are enormous. We've had participants who were 80 years old who loved this trip, and some people have taken it twice.
We have a terrific team of leaders in Brad Boyle and Hector Gomez de Silva. Brad is an outstanding professional botanist, as well as a terrific birder and naturalist. He is a veteran of many wilderness trips in various areas of Central America, and has co-led this trip with Greg Lasley six times.
Hector is one of the foremost birders and naturalists in Mexico. He has spent a lot of time at El Triunfo. Hector has led many bird tours, including several for VENT.
I hope you will join Brad and Hector for a wonderful wilderness experience.
— Victor Emanuel
Here is Brad's report on our 2005 El Triunfo trip:
We were nearing the end of our first day on the trail. Having gained nearly 4,500 feet of elevation, first by truck and then on foot, we were thankful for the coolness of the forest and the gently descending trail. Soon we would be at El Triunfo! We had already seen great birds along the way?migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Russet-crowned and Tody motmots, Elegant Euphonia, Brown-capped Vireo, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird to name just a few?and expectations were high as we entered this strange world of misty half-light, towering treeferns, and massive, moss-draped oaks and wild avocado trees. Still, we were feeling the miles, and thoughts of hot showers and a hearty meal were beginning to overshadow our enthusiasm for natural wonders. But all fatigue was banished by the words that came crackling over my radio.
"Pavón…encontramos pavones"…Horned Guan…we've found Horned Guans!
Scouting ahead, our local guides had heard and then spotted not one, but two Horned Guans feeding in a tree overhead. Their discovery sent us speeding down the trail at a pace no one would have thought possible just minutes before.
Horned Guan — Photo: Ted Eubanks
We arrived in plenty of time. The guans were in no hurry. We watched entranced as what appeared to be a mated pair preened, stretched, and ate, plucking berries and following each other from branch to branch in ponderous flapping hops. We could see every beautiful and improbable detail, from the black pin-striping on the white bib and the bare orange throat patch, to long yellow legs and broad white band across the tail. And best of all, the marvelous orange-red "horn"?a sort of ridiculous party hat of unknown function, worn identically by both sexes. Unlike any other member of the family Cracidae in appearance and behavior, the Horned Guan is restricted to isolated cloud forests in southwestern Chiapas and adjacent Guatemala. We felt fortunate indeed to have had such excellent views of this remarkable bird.
Over the next few days we had close encounters with Horned Guans on virtually every trail, setting a record unequalled by any previous El Triunfo tour. Even in the relatively small area covered we saw at least 13-14 individuals. Let us hope our experience reflects a trend throughout the range of this highly endangered species.
Other memorable experiences include a close-up inspection (of us!) by an endemic Fulvous Owl, a Black-crested Coquette diligently working the tree Fuschias, a diminutive Mazama deer stepping delicately into view at the edge of the clearing, and a puma growling somewhere just off the trail, fortunately more interested in females (pumas, that is) than us. And who could forget the sight of Resplendent Quetzals chasing through the forest canopy, their iridescent tails trailing like kite streamers? This was a bumper year for Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, and many of us were treated to the sight of this most lovely of all thrushes deliberately hopping along the edges of the clearing.
The hike down the Pacific slope of the Sierra Sur traverses a rich diversity of tropical habitats and, as with previous years, each new forest type presented featured its own distinctive complement of birds: widespread tropical species, long-distance migrants, and highly local endemics. In the beautiful cypress zone, we found the Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. In Cañada Honda, a flock of Azure-rumped Tanagers flew in above our heads to feed on the fruits of an endemic fig tree. In the oaks zone: hundreds of migrating warblers, a lone Gray-collared Becard, and overhead a calling Great Black-Hawk. The foothills near Paval brought numerous parrots, trogons, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and sparrows, including the enigmatic Prevost's Ground-Sparrow?different in both voice and plumage, and almost certainly specifically-distinct, from the Prevost's (Cabanis's?) Gound-Sparrow of southern Central America. During the final daylight hours of the tour: Giant Wren, White-bellied Chachalaca, Yellow-winged Cacique, and three species of owl on the grounds of our hotel in Tapachula?including a star performance by a pair of Pacific Screech-Owls. And then there's Sumidero Canyon, 3,000-foot cliffs, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, and ten species of oriole.
In addition to breaking records for Horned Guan sightings, we also recorded a record high number of species for the tour, thanks to an exceptionally skilled and diligent group of participants. New species added to the tour include Spotted Rail (no kidding—in a roadside pond on the way to Jaltenango), Dickcissel (no doubt on their way home from Argentina to Nebraska), and a fly-over of the El Triunfo clearing by a Brown Pelican (go figure!).
March 18-28, 2006
with Brad Boyle and Hector Gomez de Silva
$2850 from Tuxtla Gutierrez (ends in Tapachula)
By Victor Emanuel
Wilderness enthusiasts, here is a trip for you. We are proud to announce our return to the huge Darien National Park in Panama, February 14-23, 2006, in conjunction with the Panamanian conservation group ANCON. This remote region on the doorstep of South America is without a doubt the single richest area for wildlife in Central America. Almost all of the large indicator species of wilderness are present, including Great Curassow, Crested Guan, four species of macaws, Crested Eagle, and mammals like tapir, jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and brown-headed spider monkey, plus a stunning array of rare and hard-to-find birds.
Darien is home to so many endemics and special birds that an entire plate in A Field Guide to the Birds of Panama is devoted to them including Russet-crowned Quail-Dove, Rufous-cheeked Hummingbird, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Beautiful Treerunner, Varied Solitaire, and Green-naped Tanager. In addition to these endemics, Darien is one of the best places to see such range-restricted species as White-headed Wren, Black-tipped Cotinga, Stripe-throated Wren, Dusky-backed Jacamar, Double-banded Graytail, Speckled Mourner, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Greenish Puffleg, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Sooty-headed Wren, and Gray-and-gold Tanager.
On our Darien trip you'll have a good chance to see such top quality birds as Tiny Hawk, Great Green Macaw, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Tawny-faced Quail, Bare-crowned Antbird, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Thicket Antpitta, Ocellated Antbird, Great Jacamar, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Brown-billed Scythebill, Sharpbill, Tody Motmot, Wing-banded Antbird, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush.
Darien is the place where we have most frequently experienced one of the most fascinating phenomena of the Neotropics, army ant swarms. The army ant swarms we've encountered in Darien are some of the biggest we've ever seen, and have the greatest diversity. Often they have included such spectacular ant swarm attendants as the striking Black-crowned Antpitta and the roadrunner-sized Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.
We won't see all of these, but just knowing that they are possible makes this area very special. Our birding here will be entirely on foot, much of it inside the gorgeous forests of various types, while an optional hike and two-night camping trip (fully outfitted for us) onto the isolated Cerro Pirre ridge will put us within reach of several endemics found nowhere else in the world.
Our headquarters will be the old mining camp at Cana, at the base of Cerro Pirre at a pleasant 2,000 feet above sea level, with dormitory-style accommodation and well-prepared Panamanian food. An amazing variety of birds can be seen right here around the clearing edge and nearby airstrip.
This trip will be short and to-the-point—a perfect mid-winter getaway—and you couldn?t ask for stronger leadership. Hernan Arauz is widely acknowledged as the top Panamanian birding guide and is a true expert on the Darien, while David Wolf has led over 100 tours to southern Central America, including some of the first to ever visit the Darien. They hope that you will be able to join them this coming February.
February 14-23, 2006
with David Wolf and Hernan Arauz
$2895 from Panama City, Panama
By Andrew Whittaker
My expectations were high for this exciting new Amazonian trip. However, little did I know that the trip would surpass even my wildest dreams!
Just months prior to our trip, the Brazilian government announced the creation of the new Aripuaná Forest Reserve, which now encompasses the Roosevelt Lodge in the middle of an enormous 3,600,000 hectare reserve.
"Harpy! Harpy Eagle, right bank," I shouted, after spotting this tremendous raptor hunting upriver, flying between low treetops right along the river bank. Approaching closer, we were rewarded with incredible close studies of this immense raptor, the world's most powerful eagle. We will never forget how it stared directly into our eyes with its own huge dark eyes, as it curiously moved its head from side to side while shaking its bushy crest, following our movements as our boats drifted close below its perch. A truly unforgettable birding moment!
Our relaxed afternoon boat excursions were a great success. We paddled along secluded, crystal-clear blackwater or turquoise-colored streams flowing through pristine forests, and were rewarded with multiple highlights. One afternoon trip stood out from the rest, as a rarely seen Zigzag Heron flew across the stream into tape playback, then hopped along branches towards us in full view—more like a giant antpitta than a heron, giving us exceptional views in great light of this normally crepuscular active species. Its mate then joined it, and we were probably the first group ever to see this miniature heron copulating. Razor-billed Curassows also graced the banks, and we had point blank views of one of these huge cracids as it walked along a fallen tree showing off its odd, bright red razor-edged beak. Other highlights included repeated magnificent views of the recently described Kawall?s Parrot, and both Broad-billed Motmot and Pygmy Kingfisher as they perched within meters of the boat.
Morning forest walks were also extremely rewarding with superb studies of three new species of antbirds still unnamed; we were the first group ever to see these! We had repeated, excellent studies of both the much sought after endemic White-breasted Antbird, as well as the near endemic stunning king of the forest floor, the brightly colored Black-bellied Gnateater at point blank range. Tape playback gave us excellent views of the secretive, recently described Cryptic Forest Falcon, Rufous-necked Puffbird, Snow-capped Manakin, and lovely Starred Wood-Quail. Exploration of stunted campina forests on white-sandy belt areas produced the recently re-discovered Buff-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher; and who could ever forget the splendid Black-girdled Barbets perched side-by-side in the sun?
Primate encounters were truly impressive with 10 species seen well, and countless memorable moments with huge groups of woolly monkeys and white-faced saki monkey. These were topped by fabulous close encounters with the brightly colored Prince Bernhard?s titi monkey described only in 2002, and excellent studies of the cute Tassel-eared type of a yet unknown Callathrix marmoset!
Afternoon trips up to the airstrip were also a group favorite, with great scope studies in the sun of several brightly colored canopy inhabitants including Red-necked Aracari; Short-billed, Purple, and Red-legged honeycreepers; Swallow, Bay-headed, Turquoise, and Paradise tanagers; Yellow-bellied and Black-faced dacnis; Pompadour Cotinga; and Olive and Green oropendolas.
This was a world-class birding and nature experience at a top-of-the-class Amazonian wilderness lodge with a combination of outstanding personal service, magnificent food, and pristine wilderness, resulting in an unforgettable Amazonian trip with multiple memories that we will treasure forever.
March 30-April 10, 2006
with Andrew Whittaker
$5495 from Brasilia (ends in Porto Velho)
Limit 7VENT many years ago, and I had the privilege of co-leading our first Eastern Venezuela tour with him. We have run it every year since then.
Steve Hilty, author of Birds of Venezuela, and David Ascanio are a terrific team. They both possess tremendous knowledge about the birds of Venezuela and excel at showing these special birds to others. I hope you will join them for our January 2006 trip.
— Victor Emanuel
Here is Steve's report on last year's Eastern Venezuela trip:
This trip turned up a surprising number of exciting new avian distributional records in Venezuela?s far southern frontier and, as always, a terrific mix of large showy birds and small, difficult-to-see species as well.
This is a frontier region, with accommodations as rough and, at times, as minimalist as one might imagine. Travelers don?t visit for luxury, nor do residents, many of whom are little more than temporary themselves in this region where gold fever and the lure of instant riches has left little time for usual comforts. There is a hint of the ?gold fever? in naturalists and birders here too, because the area is one of the most endemic-rich on the continent, and some adjacent areas have, to this day, still been relatively poorly explored ornithologically.
It is against this background that we travel so far east and south, to Venezuela?s very borders with Guyana and Brazil. Here, in an avifauna distinctive from that of the Amazon, we prowl misty mountain forests for shy endemics while immense, flat-topped mountains, the ?tepuis of legend? loom in the distance, ever mysterious, evocative and tantalizing. We can?t reach them, but we can enjoy their unsurpassed beauty from a distance, knowing that along the single mountain road that leads up to a vast savanna that spreads between them, we can see most of the same species that occur even higher on these silent monoliths.
If the far south is an enchanted fairyland of bellbirds, Capuchinbirds, colorful tanagers, and an assortment of exotics, then our last destination, the Río Grande forestry reserve, is quite the opposite. It is, in almost every respect, a typical, humid lowland rainforest with towering trees, reddish iron-rich soil, and a rich complement of forest birds that includes some of the smallest species in the world, as well as one of the largest and most imposing. We came for the Harpy Eagle and, although we were not successful in seeing an adult this year, an enormous seven-month-old juvenile in a nest showed most of the trappings and behaviors of his adult peers as he awaits the complex and perilous world of adulthood. Just spending a day in the presence of this already regal youngster was a privilege, and during the remaining day-and-a-half we visited a variety of nearby, and not-so-nearby sites, determined to fill in blank spots on our lists and in our minds. It was a chance to dip into the richness of this ancient Guyanese avifauna. We watched with rapt attention as a Musician Wren performed its complex repertoire, as hummingbirds visited flowering vines in the canopy, and as mixed flocks swirled past, leaving us in despair of ever seeing all those fleeting shadowy forms. But we did, eventually, see most of them, and much more besides. And we leave, wanting more, longing to return to this exciting avifauna.
January 24-February 4, 2006
with Steve Hilty and David Ascanio
$3215 from Caracas
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