January 2006 Birdletter, Part I January 19, 2006

Part I of the January 2006 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about Alaska Mainland, Spring Birding in Bulgaria, Montana Spring, VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration, Classic China: Hong Kong and Sichuan, Brazil's Dry Forests of Minas Gerais and the Rio Araguaia, and Mato Grosso, Brazil: The Pantanal and Chapada.



By Barry Zimmer

The vivid blue throat with the rusty red bull's-eye literally glowed in the frame-filling Questar view. The varied and beautiful song tumbled forth, first as the bird perched, and then in a fabulous skylarking display. A second male arrived, chasing the first with a backdrop of snowy peaks and rolling tundra domes. A great sighting of a Bluethroat is almost certain to be atop the favorite list of any Alaska tour, and our 2005 tour was no different. As we soaked up the incredible views of the two Bluethroats, someone in the group noticed a sow grizzly with three grown cubs working downslope toward the Nome River just a few hundred yards away. We watched these majestic bruins for over ten minutes as they foraged in the thickets across the river. Overhead a pair of Golden Eagles soared across the valley heading for their nesting site just up the road. A pair of belligerent Mew Gulls gave chase. An Arctic Warbler let loose with its trilling song just across the road, and was joined in chorus by Golden-crowned and Fox sparrows and the haunting song of a Gray-cheeked Thrush. Welcome to Nome and VENT's 2005 Alaska Mainland tour!

In this issue:

Alaska Mainland

Spring Birding in Bulgaria

Montana Spring

VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration

Classic China: Hong Kong and Sichuan

Brazil: The Dry Forests of Minas Gerais and The Rio Araguaia

Mato Grosso, Brazil: Pantanal and Chapada

Alaska Mainland – continued

Enjoying some of the best Alaska weather in memory, we traveled from Anchorage to Nome to Seward to Denali and back, tallying 165 species of birds, 22 species of mammals, and endless breathtaking vistas. In the Nome area, the highlights were almost too numerous to mention. One day along the Council Road some members of the group saw all five species of loons in just a few hours, including the rare Arctic. A Bristle-thighed Curlew put on a great show for the hardy hikers near Coffee Dome, and we had wonderful scope views of three Gyrfalcons at two nest sites.  Although it was a down year for ptarmigan in general, we had great studies of both Rock and Willow right next to the road. A Rock Sandpiper sitting on a nest with a backdrop of tundra flowers was certainly a thrill, as were the Bar-tailed Godwits on the high tundra, the Yellow Wagtails in flight display, pairs of Northern Wheatears on rocky outcrops, Aleutian Terns overhead, and the Arctic Warblers which seemed to call from every thicket. Three separate herds of musk oxen were exciting, particularly the one at our picnic lunch that watched us from just a couple of hundred yards away. And how about the "common" Nome fare? Long-tailed Jaegers are one of the most visible birds in the area. Lapland Longspurs skylark from the roadside every few hundred yards, while Hoary Redpolls frequent nearby snowbanks. Fabulous breeding-plumaged Pacific and American golden-plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Red-necked Phalarope dart about the tundra and small ponds. This is truly sensory overload!

The Kenai Peninsula nearly matched Nome for excitement. A female Spruce Grouse with chicks, a black bear, and a very close Three-toed Woodpecker en route to Seward started the parade of memorable sightings. A fantastic boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park resulted in excellent views of Kittlitz's, Marbled, and Ancient murrelets; Parakeet and Rhinoceros auklets; Horned and Tufted puffins by the hundreds; Red-faced Cormorants; humpback whales; bow-riding Dall's porpoises; cuddly sea otters; and spectacular calving glaciers—all this under sunny skies and near 70-degree temperatures!

Denali National Park yielded a great mammal display with 13 more grizzly bears, several moose, and a gray wolf. Avian highlights for this portion of the trip included an astounding 12 Northern Hawk Owls, 17 Willow Ptarmigan, three Bohemian Waxwings, and three Northern Shrikes.

Even the Anchorage area produced memorable moments with a very close Red-necked Grebe carrying her black-and-white-striped babies on her back, 50 or more Hudsonian Godwits studied from 30 yards away, and a family of Barrow's Goldeneye (including a stunning male) viewed at leisure on a hatchery pond.

Our 2005 Alaska Mainland tour, like others before it, was an incredible success. With numerous bird species found nowhere else in North America, unmatched mammal viewing, and the best scenery on the continent, it is truly a must destination for all naturalists.

Alaska Mainland

June 13-24, 2006

with Barry Zimmer and Marshall Iliff

$4895 from Anchorage

Limit 14

Pribilof Islands Pre-trip

June 8-13, 2006

with Marshall Iliff

$2795 from Anchorage

Limit 14

Barrow Extension

June 24-26, 2006

with Barry Zimmer

$1545 from Anchorage

Limit 14

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Spring Birding In Bulgaria

by Peter Roberts

Of all the countries in Europe, why go to Bulgaria? A good question, with equally good reasons: quite simply, Bulgaria offers the greatest variety of birds in southeastern Europe. So why go to southeast Europe? Again, the answer is quite simple: Europe is shaped like an elongated triangle with corners in the far northeast, southwest, and southeast. VENT already offers two superb birding trips to these far corners (Estonia, Finland & Arctic Norway in the northeast, and Central Spain in the southwest), and Bulgaria complements these tours perfectly. These three easy tours provide a huge percentage of all European birds, and virtually all the European specialties—an essential trio indeed.

Bulgaria, in the Balkans and edging the Black Sea coast, has a wide range of beautifully preserved habitats stretching from the Greek and Turkish to the Romanian borders. There are coastal marshes, sand dunes, freshwater lakes, superb limestone sea cliffs, ancient unspoiled deciduous woodland, steppe grasslands, deep rocky gorges, and pine and spruce-clad mountains peaked with alpine tundra. Combine that with a strategic position on the edge of Eastern Europe, making it an important migration point for birds coming out of central Asia, and we have a perfect recipe for brilliant birding.

Bulgaria boasts many central Asian species on the western edge of their range, and found only in this region of Europe: Levantine Shearwater; Pygmy Cormorant; Great White and Dalmatian pelicans; Ruddy Shelduck; Ferruginous Pochard; Black Stork; Red-footed and Eleonora's falcons; Levant Sparrowhawk; Sombre Tit; Eastern Orphean, Paddyfield, Eastern Bonelli's, Olive-tree, River, and Icterine warblers; Semi-collared Flycatcher; Rosy Starling; Rock Nuthatch; Masked Shrike; Eurasian Nutcracker; Spanish Sparrow; and Black-headed Bunting. Along with this exciting list of "must-see" species is a superb collection of classic European/Mediterranean species.

We visit one of the best sites in Europe for Wallcreeper, as well as areas immensely important for raptors—29 species are possible including Golden, Imperial, Steppe, Booted, Greater and Lesser spotted, White-tailed, and Short-toed eagles; Eurasian Honey-Buzzard; Long-legged Buzzard; Eurasian Griffon; and Cinereous and Egyptian vultures.

We'll show you well over 200 species of Europe's finest birds, and a good 50 or more will be different from anything you may have seen in western or northern Europe! This is simply one of the richest European bird faunas to be found in a short, unusual, and welcoming destination. None of our European tours are arduous, being fairly easy, "drive-up" birding with walks either easy or optional. We show you all the best birds without any great requirement for early mornings or late evenings. It is sometimes quite possible to "mop up" and know that you've seen just about everything in a location, with time to spare for a little cultural aside or a coffee at a roadside café—very civilized indeed!

Since the collapse of communism, Bulgaria has been making great efforts to "westernize," though it is still wonderfully rural. The people are friendly, the culture and history are fascinating, and wildlife tourism is developing well. Roads, transportation, and hotels are all of a reasonable standard and, of course, we have brilliant local bird guides who not only take us to the very best birding sites, but also add so much more by their eagerly offered insights and discussion about all aspects of their country.

Spring in Bulgaria

May 9-23, 2006

with Peter Roberts and Milko Dimitrov

$3895 from Sofia

Limit 14

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By Brennan Mulrooney

Our 2005 Montana Spring tour was another resounding success. It's hard to go wrong in such a superb destination. Montana offers a feast for the senses. We enjoyed scenic valleys split by rushing rivers, towering mountains home to stoic glaciers, and sprawling prairies that seemed to roll on forever. An unusually wet spring challenged us at times, but also brought a bounty of wildflowers for us to gaze upon. A surging vole population sustained a healthy population of owls, and it was no great surprise that our three favorite birds of the trip were all from this unique and charismatic group. But, of course, this trip was not just for the birds, and how could it be with such fantastic mammal viewing opportunities (22 species seen this year), the aforementioned wildflower show (over 50 species identified), and a general wealth of nature that's hard to beat anywhere?

We began our journey by making our way from Missoula to the Mission Valley. A light rain dotted our windshield as we began climbing the dirt roads of the National Bison Range. It was here that we got our first taste of Montana's bounty. Brilliantly colored Lazuli Buntings and Bullock's Orioles dazzled us from the streamside vegetation while perfectly camouflaged Grasshopper Sparrows played hide and seek on the grassy hillsides. Pronghorn watched us with their impossibly large eyes, and we had our first of what would be daily sightings of both white-tailed and mule deer. And, of course, there were the bison. We had excellent up-close views of several as they grazed right at the side of the road.

The afternoon and much of the next morning were dedicated to exploring the waters and back roads of Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge. We searched through the large flock of nesting Western Grebes for the look-alike Clark's Grebe, finally spotting its bright orange bill among the crowd. Innumerable swallows of six species swirled around our heads with Vaux's Swift zipping through the throngs to spice things up a bit. And then there were the owls—Short-eared Owls (easily over 20) fluttering over the fields foraging and doing their wing clapping displays, a Long-eared Owl that we scoped as it sat quietly on its nest, and a family group of Great Horned Owls, the youngsters still sporting fuzzy heads.

Our next destination was incomparable Glacier National Park. We made the most out of our two full days in the park, traversing the entirety of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, as well as exploring a less visited portion of the park, the North Fork. The scenery here has to be experienced to be believed; it just gets better with every turn in the long winding road. Vying for our attention all along were some very special birds and mammals. We found mountain goats working their way across steep rocky faces, and a group of ram bighorn sheep lounging by the roadside. At Logan Pass, a hike through the snow rewarded us with a pair of White-tailed Ptarmigan at close range. As we marveled at their perfect camouflage, a hoary marmot scurried out into the open, a mammal rarely glimpsed in the lower 48.

As exciting as our time up on the mountain was, the undeniable highlight awaited us in a meadow on the North Fork. As we hiked down the forest trail, a large bird was sighted up ahead on the edge of the clearing. We tried to stay quiet as we excitedly crept ahead and, as our reward, we found—perched on a snag in the meadow—a Great Gray Owl. We were all in awe of this magnificent bird. We watched it for several minutes as it intently scanned and then floated over the meadow, its long feathered legs hanging below it. What an experience!

Out on the East Front our good luck continued, as we encountered such prizes of the prairie as Sharp-tailed Grouse, Prairie Falcon, Upland Sandpiper, Sprague's Pipit, and McCown's and Chestnut-collared longspurs. But the real showstopper had nary a feather on it. As we drove along a country road, we spotted a large animal in a roadside ditch. We quickly stopped the vans, and an American badger sprung up from its hiding place and went rumbling across the prairie. It stopped at intervals to turn back and give us a look, showing us its distinctive black and white face. Our time at the 7-Lazy-P Guest Ranch was a great way to cap the trip. The warm hospitality of Chuck and Sharon, the fantastic home-cooked meals, and the terrific varied birding of the East Front all combined to make this the perfect end to our time in Montana.

Montana Spring

June 1-10, 2006

with Denver Holt and Brennan Mulrooney

$3010 from Missoula

Limit 14

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1976 ? 2006

APRIL 26?MAY 1, 2006



We are tremendously excited to celebrate our 30th anniversary in one of America's greatest birding and wildlife areas, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Few other regions in the country offer such unequaled birding opportunities combined with easy accessibility to diverse locations. A wide variety of bird species found within our borders are confined to southernmost Texas. Many of them are widespread, while others are local and occur only seasonally or in small numbers.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is essentially divided into four distinct zones: the brush country and coastal prairie, the lower valley and coast, the middle valley, and the upper valley. Field trips will be offered on a daily basis to all of these areas and, over the course of the event, every participant will have a chance to experience each of these great places, and to spend time in the field with the majority of the tour leaders.

Just a few of the "Valley specialties" we can expect to see include White-tailed Hawk, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Tropical and Couch's kingbirds, Green and Brown jays, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira and Audubon's orioles. We should also see a number of Mexican species that are recorded every year, such as Hook-billed Kite, Groove-billed Ani, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, and White-collared Seedeater. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is also an outstanding destination for observing more widely occuring species of waterbirds and raptors. Millions of hawks, shorebirds, and songbirds are pouring north through the region at this time of year.

Our celebration will be based at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, located in McAllen. We have assembled an all-star team of tour leaders, bird and wildlife artists, nature writers, and guest lecturers, including Victor Emanuel, Robert Bateman, Pete Dunne, Steve Hilty, Marshall Iliff, Lars Jonsson, Kenn Kaufman, Jeri Langham, Barry Lyon, Peter Matthiessen, Brennan Mulrooney, Bob Sundstrom, David Wolf, Barry Zimmer, and Kevin Zimmer. Scott Weidensaul, noted journalist, author, and speaker, will deliver the keynote speech on the final evening at Quinta Mazatlan, a beautifully restored adobe home and compound owned by the city of McAllen, and a satellite site of the World Birding Center. In 2004 Scott retraced the legendary 1953 journey of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher across America, which they documented in the classic Wild America. Scott will discuss his new book, Return to Wild America. As both an articulate and impassioned speaker, Scott has become a popular lecturer. He is an ardent conservationist and lover of nature.

Also in attendance will be representatives from Leica Sport Optics, our Celebration co-sponsor. Leica, one of the world's leading manufacturers of high quality optics, provides VENT tour leaders with binoculars and spotting scopes. This will be an excellent opportunity to have your optics questions answered by the experts.

Join us in McAllen this April and make new friends, renew old acquaintances, and help us celebrate our 30th birthday!

VENT?s 30th Anniversary Celebration

April 26-May 1, 2006

With Victor Emanuel, Robert Bateman, Pete Dunne, Steve Hilty, Marshall Iliff, Lars Jonsson, Jeri Langham, Barry Lyon, Peter Matthiessen, Brennan Mulrooney, Bob Sundstrom, David Wolf, Barry Zimmer, and Kevin Zimmer

$1975 from McAllen

Limit 112

We are offering two pre-celebration trips which participants may wish to combine with the celebration for an even richer Texas birding experience: High Island Migration, April 19-26, with David Wolf and Bob Sundstrom ($1730 from Houston, limit 14), and a Sketching Workshop with renowned nature artist, Lars Jonsson, and Victor Emanuel, April 18-25 ($2795 from Houston, limit 10).

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By Dion Hobcroft

The itinerary changes I made for our 2005 Classic China trip paid off handsomely. A major bonus now is that we have two days on the eastern Tibetan plateau with great views of the endangered Black-necked Crane. The changes taking place to the infrastructure in China are unparalleled in the history of any country. This year only 40 kilometers was on unpaved road. The hotels are typically excellent, the food tasty, and conditions healthy. This was my fourth birding tour in Sichuan, and my seventh in China.

A visit to a new bamboo park in Chengdu (the capital city) put us on the right track with outstanding views of the striking Rufous-faced Warbler and a tame Red-billed Starling. We enjoyed Hoopoes probing the lawns and Vinous-throated Parrotbills chittering in waves through the bamboo. A visit to the stunning Leshan Buddha, a 70-meter-high seated Buddha carved into the mountainside to protect boat travelers, also yielded some good sightings with a super view of the stunning Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and a skulking Tiger Shrike. Two full days exploring Emei Shan, a sacred Buddhist peak, coincided with good weather including sunny weather at the summit. Golden Bush-Robins sang with gusto and Vinaceous Rosefinch, saturated in deep red, fed near our feet. The narrow trail behind the Wannian Monastery provided studies of the scarce Grey-headed Parrotbill, an incredible hammering display from the diminutive Speckled Piculet, and superb studies of the Chinese Blue Flycatcher.

Last year we made two day-trips to the mountain called Wawu Shan, and this year we spent three nights here in the Gong Tong Villas, quaint hotel rooms styled like Swiss chalets but, importantly, right in the forest. This has proved to be one of China's premier birding sites. Exploring mid-montane bamboo forests we found several of China?s rarest endemics including repeat views of the Emei Shan Liocichla, a great encounter with the stunning Red-winged Laughingthrush, a male of the rare Blanford's Rosefinch and, in one afternoon drive, we saw the unbelievable total of five male Lady Amherst's Pheasants. The cable car to the summit provided the recently discovered Sichuan Treecreeper, Fulvous Parrotbill, and a host of other rarities.

Back to Chengdu we were off early to Wolong Giant Panda Reserve. We had arranged permission to spend the night at the Wuyipeng Panda Research Camp, recently rebuilt and significantly improved. The trail up is a pretty long uphill slog, but we took it gently and enjoyed some good sightings as we regained our breath. Once on the plateau we started to get some great birds including Fire-capped Tit and the endemic Sooty and Pere David's tits. The next morning we were serenaded by the raucous squawk of the invisible Koklass Pheasant, but enjoyed some great sightings including a stunning male Temminck's Tragopan, plus Great, Three-toed, and Spectacled parrotbills. We watched the outstanding singing display of the Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler.

We had a relaxing morning at the Giant Panda Breeding Centre enjoying the interactions of these "so cute baby fluffballs." It had to be a fulfillment of every zoo director's wildest dreams as four babies rumbled and tumbled beside us. We enjoyed roadside birding and hit the jackpot when we found a male Golden Pheasant calling in a roadside bush, partially concealed. Other good rarities included Black-browed and Songar tits.

The next morning we were up early and off to the Balang Shan Pass which at 4,500 meters was the highest ascent we made. We had spent the past week acclimating ourselves, and this day unfolded as one of the most fascinating birding days I have ever enjoyed. Heavy overnight snow forced down many migrants and the alpine meadows were seething with birds. Hundreds of Brandt's Mountain Finches, the stunning Grandala (perhaps the bluest of all birds), Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Giant Laughingthrush, flocks of Snow Pigeons, a rare White-backed Woodpecker, and dozens of Kessler's and Chestnut thrushes were all great birds, but it was hard to beat four especially memorable sightings. A pair of the highly endangered Chinese Monal was scoped in a snowfield as the sun broke through and highlighted their iridescence. A family of Verreaux's Monal-Partridge, one of China's toughest endemics, was scoped and then digiscoped beside the road. A Snow Partridge trundled out, stopping to provide a magic up-close view. As if these chicken birds were not enough, a fantastic surprise unfolded when I flushed a Yellow-legged Button-quail that fluttered up and down, deciding to hunker down in the snow where its usually superb camouflage is useless.

Next we were off to the Tibetan plateau and spent two nights in Hong Yuan. Wild grasslands and freshwater meadows support thousands of yaks and attendant yak cowboys. Nomad tented camps spring up and the housing architecture becomes distinctly Tibetan. The bird fauna changes totally. We made sightings of 15 Black-necked Cranes and especially enjoyed the changing of the guard on one nest, as a stiff-legged male swapped with his female partner after a long cold night of incubation duty, the cranes trumpeting in unison. This is the wild song of a wild place. Stunning Citrine Wagtails, songful Tibetan and Oriental skylarks, the powerful Upland Buzzard, energetic Hume's Groundpecker, and a vagrant Rufous-tailed Shrike were further scene setters. We explored up to the first bend of the Yellow River and enjoyed special sightings of Saker Falcon and the unusual White-rumped Snowfinch.

We finished our tour in Jiuzhaighou—a world heritage reserve of unbelievable wilderness beauty. Braided waterfalls, and blue and green alpine lakes set in boreal forests ringed by Himalayan style peaks, it provided a truly spectacular setting in which to go birding. Good sightings continued with Blood Pheasant, nesting Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, and a striking Crested Kingfisher.

Breaking our return drive to Chengdu we explored Mount Qing Cheng. It was a top spot with a Hwamei, Eurasian Hobby, Streak-throated Scimitar-Babbler, Dusky Fulvetta, White-crowned Forktail, and Sulphur-breasted Warbler showing well. Our list grew further and, even on our last morning, we were still adding a few extras including garrulous White-throated Laughingthrush, Eurasian Common Kingfisher, and a superb male white Asian Paradise-Flycatcher. We finished up with 266 species. Our 2006 tour will also include a visit to Hong Kong.

Classic China: Hong Kong & Sichuan

May 10-June 1, 2006

with Dion Hobcroft and Susan Myers

$7130 from Hong Kong

Limit 14

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By Andrew Whittaker

Dazzling Golden-capped, Caatinga, and Yellow-chevroned parakeets added a fantastic splash of color, while a striking adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle on the ridge overlooked a wonderful scene. Deep in spectacular sandstone canyon, surrounded by majestic swollen-trunked bombax trees and towering spires, we were captivated by a duetting pair of Barred Forest-Falcons, their barking and cackling voices magically echoing off the canyon walls. As the day unfolded, this unique dry deciduous forest lived up to all of our expectations, affording spectacular views of the impressive Moustached Woodcreeper, the recently split Wagler's Woodcreeper, Red-billed Scythebill, the recently described beautiful endemic São Francisco Sparrow, White-naped Jay, Spot-backed Puffbird, Spotted Piculet, Stripe-breasted Starthroat, Long-billed Wren, the rarely seen Reiser's Tyrannulet, and Caatinga Black-Tyrant. Breaking out of the taller forest led us into the bird-rich stunted caatinga where we were rewarded with Red-cowled Cardinal, Silvery-cheeked Antshrike, the recently described Caatinga Antwren, Stripe-backed Antbird, White-browed Antpitta, and multiple spectacular studies of the endemic Great Xenops.

Overlooking the mighty San Francisco River, our comfortable well-positioned hotel offered a nonstop parade of birds during lunch including Aplomado Falcon, Giant Wood-Rail, and Bare-faced Ibis. Farther south along the banks of this mighty river we had excellent studies of the recently described Bahia Nighthawk, White-bellied Nothura, Chestnut-capped Foliage-gleaner, Rusty-breasted Nunlet, Caatinga Cacholote, Campo Oriole, and Minas Gerais Tyrannulet—one of the rarest and most endangered birds in South America!

A brief stop in Brasilia National Park rewarded us with Toco Toucan, Bare-faced Curassow, the stunning Helmeted Manakin, White-striped Warbler, and Streamcreeper.

Imagine beautiful deserted white sandy beaches that squeak—yes, squeak—as you walk on their extra fine white sand; these river islands on the Rio Araguaia are absolutely magnificent and untouched. The low scrubby habitat is a birder's paradise where birds abound. One of our highlights was a spectacular study of an as yet unnamed new species of spinetail that we watched at point-blank range and photographed well; we even found a nest! Other highlights included the spectacular Crimson-fronted Cardinal, flocks of rare Orinoco Geese, Golden-collared Macaw, Peach-fronted Parakeet, Pied Lapwing, Horned Screamer, Jabiru, Red-Legged Seriema, Araguaia Spinetail, Xenopsaris, Rusty-collared Seedeater, Scarlet-throated Tanager, Riverside Tyrant, and Agami Heron. Birding in seasonally flooded forest and nearby cerrado rewarded us with White-crested Guan, Yellow-faced Parrot, Red-shouldered Macaw, Sungrebe, Zigzag Heron, the endemic and poorly-known Bananal Antbird, Glossy Antshrike, Blond-crested Woodpecker, the stunning male Horned Sungem, the recently described Chapada Flycatcher, and Zimmer's Tody-Tyrant.

This was an excellent inaugural trip with a total of 350 bird species, and mammal highlights including two oncilla (small spotted cats), giant river otter, pink river dolphins, the odd endemic moco (closest to a rock hyrax), and many wonderful memories. I do hope you can join me in 2006 on this diverse and exciting trip to see two spectacular regions of Brazil brimming with endemics and little-known species.

Brazil: Northern Minas Gerais and Rio Araguaia

July 4-20, 2006

with Andrew Whittaker

$3895 from Belo Horizonte (ends in Brasilia)

Limit 8

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By Kevin Zimmer

The Pantanal was drier than I had ever seen it before, and it was only late July, with the rainy season not due to start until October! This was not a complete negative, because it did have the effect of concentrating birds and other wildlife in the few remaining wet areas and along the permanent streams and rivers. Thus, we were treated to small pools crowded with 30 magnificent Jabirus and twice as many Wood Storks, along with throngs of lesser herons and egrets. Our daily boat trips along the Rio Pixaím were packed with a nonstop parade of kingfishers of five species, along with an abundance of wading birds, including more Boat-billed Herons than I can ever remember seeing before. River trips in the Pantanal can jade you in a hurry, with a procession of Sunbitterns, Sungrebes, Gray-necked Wood-Rails, and up to 10 species of herons and egrets in a single trip. In spite of this, each boat excursion managed to yield an indelible highlight, be it giant river otters swimming right beside our boats, a lovely adult Agami Heron lurking on the bank, or a habituated Black-collared Hawk swooping down to deftly pluck thrown fish from the surface of the water. Grunting herds of capybara (blockheads!) and malevolent-looking caiman lining the banks of the narrow river contributed to the other-worldly, National Geographic atmosphere of the place, and accentuated the point that water is the lifeblood of this thirsty region.

Although not hurting us with the waterbirds, the drought was having a pronounced effect on the passerines and other birds of the gallery forest and woodlands. The woods were eerily quiet for much of our stay, although this was likely due at least as much to a cold front that had arrived just prior to our visit as it was to the drought. Daytime temperatures dropped into the 60s, and nights cooled off to the 50s, which made for pleasant birding conditions but low bird activity. Near the end of our stay, when temperatures soared back to around triple digits, bird vocalization and activity picked up noticeably. So, although a few of the smaller fare proved unusually difficult or unresponsive, it should be noted that we were treated to sensational views of Hyacinth Macaws (seen nearly every day), Bare-faced Curassows, the rare Ochre-bellied Guan, Plumbeous Ibis, Toco Toucan, and all of the other glamour birds of the region. Other highlights that stand out include crippling views of a Great Potoo on a day roost; a male Helmeted Manakin too close to focus on; wildly displaying pairs of Streamer-tailed Tyrants; a stunningly beautiful male Scarlet-headed Blackbird that taped in right on top of us; the sight of dozens of Nacunda Nighthawks floating over the marshes like giant moths; the animated duets of the Black-capped Donacobius; the antics of a foraging Crane Hawk; an extremely obliging Pearl Kite; and eight delicate Long-tailed Ground-Doves all jostling for position on the same branch.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaw — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

For all of the specifics, much of the joy of birding the Pantanal is just about being in a place that thrives with life, even in a time of extreme drought. Each morning we awoke to a blizzard of birds at the lodge feeders—a flurry that lasted as long as the food held out. Each evening we were treated to prolonged flights of Turquoise-fronted Parrots and various species of parakeets. Even in the heat of the day there were birds to be had for those who searched. Some measure of the birdiness of the region can be taken from our daily lists. Of our five full days in the Pantanal (not including the travel days at each end), our lowest day's tally was 142 species of birds, and our best day was 196!

Then it was on to the Chapada dos Guimarães, a land of red rimrock formations and cerrado brushlands. It was drier than normal here as well, but that didn't stop us from nearly cleaning up on the various specialties of the region. Excellent looks at the rarely seen Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant were a highlight of our cerrado birding, but competed with point-blank views of a male Coal-crested Finch, a perched male Horned Sungem, and duetting Chapada Flycatchers and Suiriri Flycatchers in the same tree! There were lethargic White-eared Puffbirds and skulking Collared Crescent-chests, perched Blue-winged Macaws, a dazzling male Blue-tufted Starthroat, a young male Yellow-billed Blue-Finch that nearly landed on us, and a most cooperative Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. But the prize, hands-down, was the spectacular Orange-breasted Falcon, first spotted by Deb, that perched in beautiful light at close range and proceeded to pluck and devour a pigeon or dove (species unidentified) while we lapped up scope-filling views!

Mato Grosso, Brazil: Pantanal Safari & Chapada Dos Guimaraes

June 3-15, 2006

with Andrew Whittaker

$3295 from Cuiaba

Limit 8

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