October 2005 Birdletter, Part I November 23, 2005

Part I of the October 2005 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration in McAllen, Texas, Winter Washington and British Columbia, Uganda, our Grand Venezuela tour, our Bering Sea Cruise, Honduras, Thailand and "Real" Birds, and our Palace on Wheels trip.

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VENT'S 30th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

April 26-May 1, 2006

By Victor Emanuel

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of VENT's founding. We are planning a wonderful celebration in one of the world's great birding areas—the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. There will be leaders and celebrities galore, evening lectures, a book signing session, a bird art exhibit, a keynote speech by Scott Weidensaul, and lots of great birding.

In this issue:

VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration

Winter Washington and British Columbia

Uganda

Grand Venezuela

Bering Sea Cruise

Honduras

Thailand

Palace on Wheels

(Also see October Birdletter, Part II)

30th Anniversary Celebration (continued)

The Rio Grande Valley has always been one of America's greatest birding areas with a host of Neotropical birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, and Plain Chachalacas that reach their northern limits in "the Valley." In recent years the Valley has gotten even better with the establishment of such new sites as the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary at Weslaco, the World Birding Center sites at Weslaco, Bentsen, Edinburgh, and South Padre, and various private properties that are now open to birders. Foremost among the latter is the Santa Margarita Ranch near Falcon Dam in the upper Valley. VENT has played a major role in opening up this superb area. On this ranch there is a bluff that overlooks the Rio Grande. During one Spring in South Texas tour, Barry Zimmer, Marshall Iliff, and our tour group tallied 106 species while sitting on the bluff for a couple of hours. Included in that total were Muscovy Duck, Brown Jay, both Ringed and Green kingfishers, Hook-billed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Red-billed Pigeon, Altamira Oriole, Audubon's Oriole, and a very rare Painted Redstart.

More and more birders are visiting the Valley, and they are turning up exciting rarities. In recent years these rarities have included Short-tailed Hawk, Green-breasted Mango, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Social Flycatcher, White-throated Robin, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Slate-throated Redstart, Blue Mockingbird, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Ruddy Quail-Dove, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

The list of tropical birds that occur regularly in South Texas is a long one that includes Green Jays (surely one of the most beautiful North American birds), Great Kiskadees, and Altamira Orioles, as well as Brown Jays, Hook-billed Kites, Muscovy Ducks, and White-collared Seedeaters.

Our celebration will occur during the peak of spring migration. If conditions are right, we could experience a wonderful fallout of warblers, orioles, buntings, tanagers, and other landbird migrants in the low bushes on South Padre Island. If that happens, you can expect to see a wonderful array of migrants without getting "warbler neck."

Besides the great birding, our 30th celebration will afford a wonderful opportunity to visit with a number of VENT leaders and celebrities including Bob and Birgit Bateman, Brad and Alice Boyle, Pete Dunne, Brian Gibbons, Steve Hilty, Marshall Iliff, Lars Jonsson, Kenn Kaufman, Jeri Langham, Barry Lyon, Peter Matthiessen, Brennan Mulrooney, Bob Sundstrom, Scott Weidensaul (our keynote speaker), David Wolf, Barry Zimmer, Kevin Zimmer, and myself.

In keeping with VENT's commitment to conservation, a portion of the revenue from this event will be donated to the Valley Land Fund, an organization that plays a key role in helping preserve land in South Texas.

Don't miss this event! It will only happen once. It will be a lot of fun and will offer great birding and camaraderie.

VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration

April 26-May 1, 2006

$1975 * from McAllen

Limit 112

* We are offering an early signup discount of $250 per person for signups prior to December 1, 2005.

For those desiring an even richer Texas birding experience, we are offering two pre-celebration opportunities:

High Island Migration

April 19-26, 2006

with Bob Sundstrom and David Wolf

$1730 from Houston

Limit 14

Sketching Workshop with Lars Jonsson

April 20-26, 2006

Price TBA

Limit 10

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WINTER WASHINGTON AND BRITISH COLUMBIA

By Bob Sundstrom

I am reminded each year why the Winter Washington and British Columbia tour remains one of my favorite tours: there is such a high percentage of truly splendid bird species present this time of year, and February 2005 was no exception. By late morning the first day of the tour, we found ourselves scoping a stunning gray Gyrfalcon from a distance so close it was hard to get the whole bird in the scope! A few moments before, we had watched a handsome dark morph Rough-legged Hawk hovering just off the roadway, as harriers glided by in all directions. Bald Eagles were so thick in the same area that it seemed that every tree held one or two; those keeping a tally were up to 50 and beyond in the first hour or two, and then lost count. The first afternoon we ferried from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, across Washington's Admiralty Inlet. Loons, grebes, cormorants, and alcids dotted the middle of the passage—including a number of pairs of Marbled Murrelets—and several groups of immaculate Long-tailed Ducks took off right in front of the bow. A brief seawatch at Pt. Wilson produced fine close views of Pacific and Red-throated loons passing by the point, and beautiful drake Red-breasted Mergansers floated by, lit up by the afternoon sun. We tallied 20 species of waterfowl the first day, and would see 31 species for the tour, including dozens of Eurasian Wigeons, thousands of Trumpeter and Tundra swans, a few Cackling Geese, brilliant Harlequin Duck drakes at close range, intricately marked Barrow's Goldeneyes alongside Commons, and plenty of fancy Hooded Mergansers.

The second full day of our tour, as we were studying a series of Thayer's Gulls east of Pt. Angeles, we had the great fortune to come upon an Iceland Gull, wonderfully pale as it sat between a Thayer's and a Western. There are only a handful of Iceland Gull records for the state, and this one was well documented by the group's digiscoping. By the end of the second day we were up to four falcon species, including nice scope views of Peregrine and Merlin, and as we drove the Sequim uplands around sunset, we happened upon a large herd of "Roosevelt" elk.

A morning ferry trip on the third day took us from Pt. Angeles to Victoria, B.C., and birding from the deck en route we got our first views of Ancient Murrelets. Near Victoria we quickly located a couple of Sky Larks which we scoped in detail as others sang nearby. A second ferry that day took us to the B.C. mainland through Active Pass, where hundreds of Pacific Loons and Brandt's Cormorants, and thousands of Mew Gulls were concentrated.

The following day we birded the Boundary Bay area south of Vancouver, B.C. and were treated to perhaps the most memorable sights of our entire tour, as we watched several Snowy Owls perched or slowly flying along the foreshore. Scope views revealed every detail of the lightly barred white plumage, lemon-yellow eyes, and white-feathered feet of these enormous owls—in the ideal low-angled light of a winter morning. Just before locating the owls, we had watched a Virginia Rail walk out on the icy edge of a cattail marsh, as flocks of swans called and flew by in the background. Later that day we added a second Gyrfalcon and found a rare Glaucous Gull, watched two Peregrine Falcons argue over a territory, scoped an endangered "Aleutian" Cackling Goose and a rare for the area Common Redpoll, and walked a trail alongside a family of Sandhill Cranes.

Our final tour days would find us back across the border in the U.S., watching Short-eared Owls flap moth-like across the fields, or scoping a Northern Shrike or a Surfbird among Black Turnstones, or marveling at the sight of more than 20,000 Snow Geese rising from the ground like enormous living snowflakes. We revisited that gray Gyrfalcon, which once more posed for incredible views and photos, bringing the tour full circle, through many great birds and excellent meals, and wonderful winter Northwest scenes of snow-capped mountains, tall evergreens, and long expanses of marine bays and straits.

Winter Washington and British Columbia

February 4-11, 2006

with Bob Sundstrom and Brennan Mulrooney

$2185 from Seattle

Limit 14

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UGANDA

By David Shackelford

By all accounts, our recent tour through the east African country of Uganda was a fantastic experience. From cruising on the Nile River searching through a myriad of wildlife for one of Uganda's star birds the Shoebill, driving through dusty rural villages with local shepherds tending their herds of bizarre Ankole cattle, spotlighting at night in hopes of encountering nocturnal African predators, and trekking through the rainforests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park following the steep trails of endangered mountain gorillas, it was truly unforgettable. In all, we found almost 600 species of birds and a wealth of other wildlife in this, one of Africa's most biologically diverse countries.

Here are descriptions of a few days of this wonderful trip:

Budongo

We spent a day exploring the riches of Budongo, a large isolated forest patch with a well-known section often referred to as "The Royal Mile" where the trees tower above the pathway and the screams of chimpanzees can be heard echoing through the forest. The morning was alive with song as we optically peeled back layer by layer of vegetation to uncover an impressive selection of Central African bird species, some of which—such as the bold Ituri Batis and diminutive Uganda Woodland Warbler—have geographic distributions that are otherwise virtually restricted to inaccessible taboo regions of the Congo Basin! Kingfishers were particularly obliging and we obtained scope views of four different species including the secretive canopy-dwelling Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, found many days later during a return to Budongo after extensive searching. Besides four species of monkeys throughout the day, we were extremely pleased to find the first of two great apes possible during our tour. After a relaxing picnic lunch we were delighted to observe a large assemblage of over 40 chimpanzees as they watchfully crossed the path. The sentinel male kept careful watch as we approached closer to the apes, gradually crossing one by one and climbing back into the trees. It was remarkable to observe the subtle behavioral details of these primates, such as the care the mothers gave to their babies, and how the younger individuals would playfully interact.

Murchison Falls

We made our way further northwest during a warm morning drive into the less frequently visited Murchison Falls National Park. We ate a picnic lunch overlooking our first views of the Nile River, followed by a visit to the mighty Murchison Falls. These legendary falls more than lived up to our expectations, for it is here that the Nile River in its entirety is forced through a ten-meter gap crevasse resulting in the most powerful flow of water on the planet! Elegant Rock Pratincoles wheeled in the forceful spray that burst from the crevasse, splashing our faces and creating a continuous rainbow illusion arcing above the impressive falls. North of the Nile we undertook an open-top safari drive through drier habitat where we saw our first Rothschild?s giraffes and African elephants, which were being rid of parasites by curious Yellow-billed Oxpeckers and bold Piapiacs, a unique species of slender-tailed corvid. There were several birds unique to this drier habitat which we were not to see again during our tour, including the brilliant turquoise Abyssinian Roller, the tiny Speckle-fronted Weaver building a spherical nest of marsh reeds, and the spectacular Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, a massive terrestrial bird with conspicuously long eyelashes and bright lavender and crimson skin formations on its face. We drove back towards our opulent lodge after dark searching for nocturnal wildlife, and managed to obtain unbelievable views of a bird called the Standard-winged Nightjar. This extraordinary bird is overall patterned with rufous and brown, but with exceptionally long racquets that hang from the middle of the wing. As the nightjar flies, these standards dance behind the bird in an elegant figure-eight pattern, giving a spectacular illusion unrivaled in the natural world.

The following morning we embarked early on our boat cruise on the Nile River in search of the enigmatic Shoebill. There are only an estimated 50 pairs of this impressive rare stork in the whole of Uganda, and otherwise its range is virtually limited to the swampy Sudd region of south-central Sudan. We passed through flocks of African Skimmers that flew gracefully, feeding just above the water's surface as dozens of half submerged hippopotamus grunted complacently in bloats of hierarchical dominance. We had spectacular views of several elephant herds feeding and bathing at the edge of the Nile near African crocodiles that basked in the sunlight with their powerful jaws opened wide. At one point we banked the boat and, with our armed guard, took a hike through acacia woodland where we found such pleasures as the Beautiful Sunbird, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, and Gray-crowned Cranes, truly regal creatures adorned with a golden plume of feathers which glisten in the sunlight like an angel's halo. After almost eight hours of scanning through the papyrus swamps which border the Nile River, we suddenly spotted what we had been searching for, the majestic Shoebill! After turning the boat around, everyone was able to meet the stony-eyed stare of this extraordinary bird. The huge Shoebill is so unique that it is classified in a family of its own within the bird kingdom. It possesses an enormous bill strikingly similar to a Dutch clog, which is specialized for capturing lungfish that dwell along the muddy river bottom.

Western Uganda

We next undertook a long day-journey through the rural farmlands and villages of western Uganda. Even from the comfort of our lavish rooms we could see multicolored Saddle-billed Storks and African elephants at the water's edge, and over dinner that evening we could hear the fearsome roar from a pride of nearby lions. The following day we launched a boat to explore the edge of the channel and were able to approach to within meters of African buffalo, elaborately patterned Nile monitors, several bull elephants, and a host of colorful bird species from starlings to falcons. We were also very fortunate at one point to locate a lioness with three tiny cubs following behind her, and experience a close sighting of two giant forest hogs, certainly one of the most grotesque looking animals of the world. Later while riding on the roofs of our safari vehicles through the herds of Ugandan kob and Defassa waterbuck, we were very fortunate to spot two exquisite leopards lying only 20 meters from our position! We were able to watch these majestic creatures at length, taking in every detail of their elegantly spotted fur and delicate behavior before they sleeked away into the impenetrable undergrowth.

Bwindi

After an almost sleepless night in our luxury tents in anticipation of the next day, we made our way to the ranger station where we were driven to begin our ascension deeper into the mountains, a journey that was to take the better part of four hours one way through truly inspiring rainforest. When we were within 100 meters of the gorillas, we were quietly led by a single guide to the family group of eight individuals including two youngsters, several females, and one huge silverback that governs the family fraternity. Weighing in at well over 400 pounds, his dark muscular physique was truly dominating at a distance of only five meters! For a full hour we watched, mesmerized, as these magnificent creatures carried on with the normal rituals of their day. At the end of the day we all knew we had experienced something inexplicably precious that will live with us the rest of our lives.

We hope you will join David Hoddinott on one of the greatest of African tours.

Uganda

January 28-February 16, 2006

with David Hoddinott

$8295 from Entebbe

Limit 12

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GRAND VENEZUELA

This is truly a grand trip covering a marvelous array of habitats and landscapes. It can be combined with our Eastern Venezuela trip, January 24-February 4, for a glorious month in Venezuela. Steve Hilty's recently published guide to the birds of Venezuela makes this trip even more of a joy. Steve and David are a terrific team. Their mutual respect for each other and extensive knowledge is obvious to all who travel with them. I hope you will decide to join our Grand Venezuela tour.

Victor Emanuel

Here is Steve's report on last year's Grand Venezuela trip:

This was a difficult year?two days of drizzling rain at the onset of the trip, bone dry conditions in the high Andes and on the east Andean slope, some windy days, and unusually high water levels at Hato Cedral. Defeating weather-related factors became an overriding goal, at least for your guides. The final species total, however, is similar to previous years, although we definitely worked harder this year. We set a record for the number of ground antbirds seen on this trip?seven antpittas and antthrushes were seen; two additional antpittas were heard (and we came breathtakingly close to seeing one of those). We missed some species we had our hearts set on seeing, but were surprised by unexpected ones, including a rare Magnolia Warbler, an endangered Citron-throated Toucan, a pair of Military Macaws, a Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher (not seen in years) and one of the rarest sightings of all, and a pair of Southern Pochards, which have never been recorded previously on our Grand Venezuela tour.

Goals and personal agendas differed, as on any trip, but some had hearts set on the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, surely one of the world?s most magnificent species and, with considerable personal effort, everyone who wished to see this species saw their wish fulfilled?at least eight males displaying, staring, and about-facing, in full view. For some, it was the defining moment of the trip. Along the way there was a dreamy parade of birds large and small, as we pushed westward through forests, mangroves, farmland, and deserts, and finally circled back into the Andes, admired parakeets in flowering Erythrina trees, walked through shadowy cloud forest, squinted into ultraviolet skies on the high páramo, and finally made a thrilling descent onto the vast, flat, dusty plains called the llanos.

Hato Cedral, Venezuela

Hato Cedral, Venezuela — Photo: Steve Hilty

In the llanos, birds amassed in great numbers at drying pools and diked wetlands in a spectacle that evoked comparisons to wildlife concentrations that might have occurred in the distant past. Wetlands spread like a green carpet to a far horizon, and on that carpet untold thousands, even hundreds of thousands of birds, fed, preened, and loafed in the eden-like serenity of this vast oasis. Our eyes roamed this landscape again and again, as if we could not drink in enough spectacle. Jacanas fluttered before our boat like so many butterflies, waterfowl rose in thunderous sheets, and Agami?s and timid kingfishers lurked in a shadowy swamp of such perfect acoustics it could have housed a symphony. As dusk spread long shadows, a gathering of curassows cued for a short commute across the lagoon. Soon all was settled, save an occasional heron?s complaint, and a flutter of nighthawks heralded the coming of night. The distant ranch house lights now beckon, promising food, conversation, and the thum of fingers on harp and quatro in the background. Under a star-filled sky and the drone of fans, sleep would come quickly.

Here life cycles are played out in a rhythm as old as the plains themselves, and we feel privileged to have been witness, if for a few short days, to this drama of life, one of the truly great dramas of the continent.

Grand Venezuela

February 5-22, 2006

with Steve Hilty and David Ascanio

$4425 from Caracas

Limit 14

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BERING SEA CRUISE

I had the privilege of co-leading our Bering Sea trip with Dion Hobcroft and Barry Lyon this past August. I came away convinced that this is one of the best birding and natural history cruises available anywhere. It covers a marvelous piece of the earth's geography and gives participants an opportunity to see a multitude of seabirds from the comfort of a fine ship. We will offer this trip again in 2006. I highly recommend it.

Victor Emanuel

Here is Dion's report on our 2005 trip:

Sweeping across some of the most isolated and fascinating islands and oceanscape in North America, in unparalleled comfort aboard the Clipper Odyssey, our 2005 Bering Sea Cruise was an outstanding success. We encountered all of the Beringian endemics such as Aleutian Tern, Whiskered Auklet, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake, and Rock Sandpiper. We also had a brief encounter with the globally threatened, near mythical Short-tailed Albatross, and enjoyed unbelievable seabirding spectacles of masses of birds. We observed several rarities in ABA territory including Slaty-backed Gull, Common Ringed Plover, Red-necked Stint, Gray-tailed Tattler, and Black-backed Wagtail. Our travels in Kamchatka provided several more unusual species including superb studies of the giant Steller?s Sea-Eagle, the elusive Middendorff?s Grasshopper-Warbler, and rarer shorebirds like the Terek Sandpiper and Lesser Sand-Plover.

Beyond the fabulous birding we enjoyed marine mammal watching par excellence, superb encounters with killer, sperm, humpback, fin, and gray whales, and views of rarely encountered species like spotted seal and the giant Steller?s sea-lion. We had unique encounters with red and Arctic foxes, and shared some class time with giant Kamchatka brown bears on the Zhupanova River.

Stunning wildflowers were a highlight, particularly in the Aleutians, and especially abundant on Attu. Monkshood, fireweed, louseworts, and lilies lit up the tundra as we rambled through an immense landscape.

Our voyage commenced in Nome. Despite a late liftoff from Anchorage due to fog, we enjoyed an excellent afternoon around Safety Lagoon. Our first great highlights were stunning Long-tailed Jaegers hovering like kestrels, and superb flyover views of the scarce and localized Aleutian Tern. A pair of Hoary Redpolls sat out in the sun allowing superb scope views. There were Pacific and Common Loons, and a rare Slaty-backed Gull was spotted by Victor.

We awoke at sea off St. Lawrence Island—a famous birding destination. We enjoyed an interesting morning at seldom visited Savoonga. Snow Buntings, Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, a few Vega Gulls, a Yellow Wagtail, and some fly-by King Eiders made it a worthwhile exploration. We were keen to get to Gambell, and our time here was especially memorable with our first appreciation of the sheer number of spectacular alcids. The cliffs were teeming with Crested, Least, and Parakeet auklets, and Tufted and Horned puffins. A lucky few had a Dovekie fly past. Investigating small gravel pits at the end of Troutmann Lake, I was lucky enough to find a juvenile Red-necked Stint and three Ringed Plovers amongst a smattering of juvenile sandpipers.

The following morning had us pulling up at St. Mathew Island, perhaps one of the most isolated and difficult islands to access in North America. It is also famous as the home of McKay's Bunting, and we were soon enjoying some fabulous views of this rare little snowflake. A red fox trotted up to its lair in driftwood with a Crested Auklet in its jaws, and two large cubs emerged. Rock Sandpipers and stunning male Lapland Longspurs made for a sensational day. We finished up with a zodiac cruise around Hall Island; spectacular volcanic spires and sea caves alive with tens of thousands of birds make this an incredible spectacle. We enjoyed a great looking Harlequin Duck and some shy Steller's sea-lions.

Continuing south, our next stop was the famous birding island of Saint Paul in the Pribilofs. Home to thousands of northern fur seals, we were keen to find some of this island sanctuary's rarer denizens. This included our first Red-faced Cormorants and delightful Red-legged Kittiwakes. The cliffs at Ridge Wall allowed close-up comparisons of puffins, murres, and auklets. Salt Lagoon produced three rare Gray-tailed Tattlers. A Slaty-backed Gull and King Eiders in the harbor were more bonuses.

Cruising along on one engine due to a broken bearing, we were becoming concerned about making all of our landings. We decided to distract ourselves by seawatching. Fin whales, our first of many Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels had many people out on deck. Those who were not soon came out when the public announcement of Mottled Petrels rang through the staterooms. This was also the day when a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross decided to casually fly past the lunch room. Unfortunately, only a few people were lucky enough to see this global rarity with its giant pink bubblegum bill.

We made it to Chaguluk Island which, like Hall, had an unbelievable biomass of seabirds—truly phenomenal. Equally phenomenal was our ability to get up-close and personal with several hundred Whiskered Auklets that skittered across the rip channels as we looked down on them from a stable deck. It was truly a delight to encounter this rare and restricted alcid. As if not to be forgotten, a Cassin's Auklet was found on board the next morning. We examined this fascinating bird in the hand before releasing it.

Zodiac cruising around Little Tanaga revealed the scarce Aleutian Rock Sandpiper and Song Sparrows. We made close studies of Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Black Oystercatcher before cruising to Kiska. Here we explored the lakes, beaches, and tundra, and enjoyed Eurasian Teal, another Gray-tailed Tattler, and some fascinating studies of Marbled and Kittlitz's murrelets. There were abundant signs of the wartime occupation including a mini-submarine. One group was lucky enough to encounter a Steller's sea-lion flailing around in the surf with a giant halibut.

Overnight, as we passed Buldir Island, more than 500 Leach's Storm-Petrels landed on the ship, disoriented by the foggy conditions and the ship?s lights. A major rescue operation saw bathtubs filled with cold, wet storm-petrels that were released once they had dried off.

We sailed west to Attu, arriving in calm weather and foggy conditions. Our walk around Henderson Marsh and Smew Lake was fabulous. The wildflowers were spectacular. Flocks of Cackling Geese, incredible up-close studies of Ancient Murrelet, and great views of the resident Winter Wren and Aleutian Song Sparrow were amongst the highlights. We journeyed around to the Coast Guard station to pick up some souvenirs, and those who lingered enjoyed an adult male Black-backed Wagtail consorting with two juveniles.

For one of our tour members, Attu was especially significant. Al Currier had served two years in Attu during World War II, spending the first one in a tent and often shoveling out more than two yards of snow just to get out the door. Al was given a special tour by Coast Guard personnel. Visiting his old camp site and the remote war memorial obviously evoked special memories. We were privileged to have Al share this experience with us.

As we sailed west from Attu, we chummed the Stalemate Bank. This was a prolific seabirding site with stunning killer whales, humpback whales, numerous Mottled Petrels, Long-tailed Jaegers, and Laysan Albatross accompanying the ship at different times.

Smooth seas and a lot of hard work by the engine room crew had us back on track to make our landings. The Kamchatka coastline shone in beautiful light, highlighting the incredibly spectacular volcanic scenery. We cleared into Petropavlovsk Harbor, distracted by flocks of Black-headed Gulls, Carrion Crows, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. We made a quick dash to explore the Stone Birch forests around the K9 Dog Kennels (sled dogs). The birding was a bit slow, but with persistence we found Arctic Warbler, Willow Tit, Eurasian Magpie, Olive-backed Pipit, Rustic Bunting, and a Rough-legged Hawk.

Our final full day was spent on the Zhupanova River exploring on foot and in zodiacs. The morning cruise was especially outstanding. We awoke to watch a giant Kamchatka brown bear strolling down the beach. Exploring the delta we had a superb adult Steller's Sea-Eagle that sailed over the top of our zodiacs; we were soon studying more, including perched immatures that allowed close approach. We enjoyed great shorebirds and superb studies of Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and a flyover Black-tailed Godwit. Watching a younger bear catch a salmon right in front of us topped off a wonderful morning.

After lunch we explored the sandspit and dune scrub. More passerines were found including Sky Lark, Yellow-breasted Bunting, Oriental Greenfinch, and an exceptionally cooperative Middendorff's Grasshopper-Warbler. On the sandspit we finished with a last hurrah when we found a small flock of beautifully plumaged Lesser Sand-Plovers. At the end of our voyage we had seen 112 species of birds and 17 mammals.

I would like to thank the Clipper staff for helping the VENT leaders in every way possible to make sure our clients enjoyed the voyage. I would also like to thank Victor and Barry for helping me so much, and ensuring we all had a special and outstanding voyage.

Bering Sea Cruise

June 21-July 5, 2006

with Dion Hobcroft and Brian Patteson

Cabins begin at $7750 from Anchorage

Limit 40

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HONDURAS

Last February we offered our first Honduras trip. It exceeded our expectations, in large part due to the efforts of Robert Gallardo, a Honduran birder and naturalist who helped plan this trip and co-led it with Tony Nunnery.

I first met Robert Gallardo when Barry Lyon and I went to Honduras in August 2004 on a scouting trip. Barry and I both were impressed with Robert and his tremendous knowledge of Honduran birds and natural history, and his commitment to conservation. He and Tony Nunnery, who plays a similar role in Ecuador, made a great team. Barry and I visited Pico Bonito Lodge with Robert. We had heard a lot of good things about Pico Bonito, and all of it was true. It is a lovely facility with great birding right on the grounds. I hope you will join Robert and Tony for a delightful time in Honduras.

Victor Emanuel

Here is Robert's report on our February 2005 Honduras tour:

VENT broke new ground in northern Central America with its first Northern Honduras tour this last February and March 2005. Our group had a varied itinerary that took us into lush lowland and mid-elevation rainforests, arid thorn-scrub forest, mangrove-lined lagoons, a high mountain lake and its wetlands, and semi-deciduous forest, together with two archaeological sites. Such a mixture of stunning landscapes and habitats would have to reveal a variety of birds, and it did.

The Lodge at Pico Bonito and its luxurious accommodations adjacent to Pico Bonito National Park were an ideal place to bird. Up on one of the canopy towers we were afforded a close-up look of a male Lovely Cotinga who sat on his lookout post. Who could have ever thought up such a crazy combination of metallic turquoise blue and royal purple? A Purple-crowned Fairy, Green Honeycreeper, Golden-hooded Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, and Green Shrike-Vireo also paid us a welcome visit while up on top. Next to the conference room a pair of Scrub Euphonias were busy building a nest in a Myrmecophila orchid.

Deep in the rainforest up on the ridge trail we were blessed with a sighting of the elusive Keel-billed Motmot. After coaxing him in, he called incessantly from a low perch and was finally spotted by Tony. An adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle was also spotted on an adjacent ridge.

At the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Sarah spotted the secretive Mangrove Cuckoo perched on the side of Red Mangrove. He was just as curious about us as we were about him. Howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, American crocodiles, and long-nosed bats were also seen that day.

In the arid Aguan Valley we picked up the endemic Honduran Emerald, Double-striped Thick-Knee, White-bellied Wren, and other area specialties.

At the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens we were awarded with a pair of the diminutive Olivaceous Piculet, a gaudy male Great Antshrike, and the uncommon Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.

Our visit to Lake Yojoa proved to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip, as we saw a number of sought after species. Voted as the "trip bird" was the Spotted Rail. An adult was coaxed out into the open using a chick call, and it eventually walked out to the tip of a piece of floating reed and could go no further. If it could have walked on water it would have. This bird has only recently been recorded in Honduras and our sightings constitute the few existing records.

Along a canal we obtained great views of the migratory Sora and two Least Bitterns. We also found Gray-breasted and Ruddy crakes, and had a fly-by of what was probably a Gray-necked Wood-Rail. Peter thought I was letting them out of my backpack as we were "up to our necks in crakes and rails!" To top off our aquatic list we found an American Bittern during a lunch stop. The last Honduran record was in 1936. River otters fed nearby, and Snail Kites fished out snails.

Around the lake we also saw Ferruginous, Mountain, and Central American pygmy-owls. To top off our list, some night walks produced a bunch of Pauraques, as well as the Buff-collared and two Spot-tailed nightjars (the latter is very local in Central America).

Fork-tailed Flycatchers were seemingly everywhere and flitted about trailing their beautiful, long, black tails.

The extension to Copan was rewarding both culturally and naturally. At the Malcote Nature Preserve we saw the Golden-crowned Warbler, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellowish Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, Violet Sabrewing, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. At the main Copan Archaeological site the birding was slow, but the ruins were great. Our local guide, Oscar, is always a great and knowledgeable host. Later that day at Hacienda San Lucas we had an authentic, gourmet, candlelit dinner, and were visited by a flock of White-throated Magpie-Jays. Plain Chachalacas clacked away in the brush nearby.

On our Miramundo (View of the World) day trip we ran into some mixed flocks of birds. Bushy-crested Jays abounded and were accompanied by Yellow-backed Orioles. At the shaded coffee plantation itself we got to see the uncommon Cerulean Warbler, Mountain Elaenia, and Flame-colored Tanager.

To end our last day we visited the Las Sepulturas archaeological site and were rewarded with great views of the Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Green-breasted Mango.

Honduras

February 23-March 3, 2006

with Robert Gallardo and Tony Nunnery

$2275 from La Ceiba, Honduras

Limit 14

Copan Extension

March 3-7, 2006

with Robert Gallardo and Tony Nunnery

$950 from San Pedro Sula

Limit 14

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THAILAND AND "REAL BIRDS"

By David Bishop and Susan D. Myers

Someone who shall remain nameless recently had the audacity to suggest that Real Birds (that's Babblers to the uninitiated) equated with Antbirds! Outrageous. I mean, can you imagine. Whilst I would agree that Antbirds are a pretty nifty group of birds, the indignity of actually comparing them to Babblers goes beyond the pale. This same person then suggested, "Well, what about Antpittas?" Needless to say I was shocked and affronted. Real Pittas—star-spangled gems that are at the core of Oriental birding—are, of course, Honorary Real Birds! If you, like us, have an absolute passion for birding—for birding the tropics, and seeing and experiencing exotic Oriental birds such as Real Birds and Real Pittas—then there is only one place to be this winter and that is with Susan Myers and David Bishop in Thailand and Cambodia.

Thailand—for us the very name is synonymous with great birding, delightfully friendly people, sensational food, and a safe and relatively sophisticated environment. We love birding in Asia and, in particular, Thailand. For us our year isn't complete if we don?t spend a few weeks birding this truly fascinating country. With a birdlist approaching 1,000 and an equally good mammal list, Thailand offers a superb gateway to the joys of Oriental birding. We have been birding in Thailand for nearly 30 and 15 years respectively, and still continue to garner the occasional lifer or surprise experience. Knowledge of Thai birds has improved dramatically over the years such that 20 or even 10 years ago we might have expected a trip list in the mid-300s; now we can reasonably expect to encounter 450 plus. But lists are just that—lists. Our philosophy is that each and everyone who takes a tour with us will come away at the conclusion with a serene sense of place garnished by innumerable memories of exotic and exciting birds, mammals, reptiles, and butterflies seen superbly well and by all participants. We want you to share our passion for Thailand, Asia, and Real Birds.

Now I don't want to get you too excited about Real Birds, so I?ll work up to it slowly by mentioning some of the other possible lesser lights on our Thailand tour. For example, we will be looking for some of those dull old chickens generally known as pheasants. Seriously though, with a bit of luck we could find ourselves watching a glorious male Silver Pheasant displaying to his mate, or an equally humdrum Siamese Fireback trundling down the trail in front of us. Or, with a bit of luck we might even turn up one of those long-tailed efforts they call Mrs. Hume's Pheasant. And oh yes, there's that big green fella—Green Peafowl. We were the first bird tour company in Thailand to view this population but, of course, everyone goes to that site nowadays. Never mind; we are happy to share, and this bird really is something to see. Imagine seeing such a spectacular rarity emerge from the morning mists, crowing and shimmering his extraordinary train in time to catch the first vestiges of sun.

But it's those Real Birds that beckon. At the top of the billing are the true sprites of the forest, Wren-Babblers. Their voices alone are worth traveling to Asia. The aptly named Pygmy can be a pest, but it can also take your breath away. And while you are peering into the gloom of the forest understory, the little darling is literally perched on the tip of your boot staring up at a great big monster! To the cognoscenti these are the ultimate Real Birds, and we shall be on the lookout for several species including Pygmy, Streaked, and Limestone. There is a saying in the Oriental Region that if you don't know what it is, then call it a Babbler and you won't be far wrong. In part this hits the nail on the head because Babblers or Real Birds are so extraordinarily diverse in structure, form, function, voice, and distribution. Now those Antbird thingys are, I agree, rather attractive, BUT they are rather similar and, in all fairness, can they really compare to Real Birds, a group that includes, for example, Parrotbills? To Oriental Region devotees these are among some of the most sought after of all birds. In Thailand we may encounter Spot-breasted, Lesser Rufous-headed, and Black-throated, with a smidgeon of luck.

Then there are the Laughingthrushes. Well named and so effervescent, noisy yet skulking, and darned attractive—we should see one of the very best of all, White-crested, in addition to Black-throated, Greater and Lesser necklaced, White-browed, Chestnut-crowned and, if we are very lucky, White-necked. I might add that it will be important to concentrate because you could become distracted by say, gibbons (white-handed) whooping and hollering overhead, a herd of rumbustious elephants, or one of several species of Hornbills—the Great Hornbill can give you palpitations. So, "Stay alert, the world needs Lerts!" and concentrate on them there Babblers.

You thought we had finished didn't you…well, nearly. Then there are Scimitar-Babblers—great sounds and vicious-looking bills; Mesias—it's hard to imagine anything much more lovely than the Silver-eared; Minlas; Cutias; and just Babblers. And on top of all this are flocks of more birds to distract us such as "oh, aah" Minivets, and convocations of sunbirds—the summit of Doi Inthanon at dawn with Green-tailed and Mrs. Gould's shimmering in the morning sun as they feed avidly at flowering rhododendron. And, oh yes, 16 species of some of the most dapper looking woodpeckers you will ever see. This is just a snippet of what you are in for this winter.

We feel that our combined 45 years of birding and wildlife travel in the Orient enables us to bring a rare breadth of knowledge and experience to the tours we lead in this region. While we work hard to show everyone as many birds as possible, we also take time to enjoy delicious Thai food, visit intriguing temples, and meet Thai people. So come and join us on another magical trip to the Orient.

This tour may be taken alone or in combination with our Cambodia tour, February 1-13, 2006.

Thailand Highlights

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

$3945 from Bangkok

Limit 14

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PALACE ON WHEELS

March 10-23, 2006

By Victor Emanuel

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 (including females with cubs); leopard; dhole (Indian hunting dog); 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.

Tiger

Tiger — Photo: Peter Roberts

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

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