January 2006 Birdletter, Part II January 19, 2006

Part II of the January 2006 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about the remote islands of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, our Cruises for Birders, Spring Washington, Estonia, Finland and Arctic Norway (VENT's birdiest European tour), Borneo, Grand Alaska, and Adak, Alaska.



By Peter Roberts

I am fascinated by remote islands and their endemic birds, so it amazes me that São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast still remain poorly known and rarely visited—even by keen birders! "Never heard of it," or "Where's that?" are the usual responses when I mention this marvelous little archipelago that I've visited three times. Here are 12 reasons why you should join the "elite few" with a São Tomé and Príncipe stamp in your passport:

In this issue:

Sao Tome and Principe

Newfoundland and Nova Scotia

Cruises for Birders

Spring Washington

Estonia, Finland and Arctic Norway



Grand Alaska

Sao Tome & Principe – continued

1. The fun of having this select group of fascinating endemic birds on your life list, that others don't! (Nothing wrong with a bit of lighthearted one-upmanship amongst birders!)

2. The fun of going to a place that most people haven't heard of, or don't have a clue where it is!

3. It is a quick and easy trip—just a week on São Tomé and Príncipe is all it takes to "mop-up" the seeable endemics.

4. If you are put off by West Africa, don't worry—we don't go there on this trip! São Tomé is on the equator, 160 miles off the coast, and flights are on good airlines direct from Europe.

5. São Tomé and Príncipe are very scenic, with a lush tropical mix of habitats: thick forest with ancient volcanic plugs towering up above the canopy with some peaks jutting to over 6,000 feet; lowland cocoa plantations with large shade trees (some abandoned and reverting to secondary forest); drier, open savanna scrub; and sandy beaches, fringing mangrove, and low cliffs.

6. Remarkably, despite being "unknown," great accommodation and good food await us. The Bom Bom Resort on Príncipe, gloriously located on an idyllic coastline, has particularly fine food and accommodation.

7. These are friendly and fascinating islands with a considerable history—a major player as a "holding stage" during the peak of the slave trade, and once the largest producer of cocoa.

8. I feel these islands offer just about the easiest endemic birding found anywhere in the world. Twenty of the 25 endemics are fairly easily seen, without much effort, on easy day-trips. This is as good as, if not better than, the more famous endemic hotspots of Galapagos, Hawaii, Fiji, or Seychelles.

9. The endemics are not all dull look-alikes of mainland counterparts—endemic just because the taxonomists say so! No, they include some distinctive, memorable, and unusual birds: Dohrn's Flycatcher is in a genus of its own, its former name of Dohrn's Thrush-babbler suggesting still unclear taxonomic relationships. Black-capped and Príncipe speirops are two species of a small, localized West African genus; they are distinctive, cute, and precocious! The Giant Weaver (one of three endemic weavers here) really lives up to its name; it is a huge beast. The São Tomé Weaver behaves like a nuthatch/treecreeper—quite unusual for a typical weaver. Of three endemic sunbirds, the São Tomé Sunbird is a real treat. I prefer its former name of Giant Sunbird because, like the Giant Weaver, it is humongous compared to others in its family.

10. In addition, there is a fascinating and varied range of other endemics: Paradise-Flycatcher, Scops-Owl, Prinia, Swift, White-eye, Seedeater, Oriole, Thrush, Starling, and four attractive pigeons.

11. This is a "happening" place ornithologically! I was privileged to take the late Jim Clements on his only visit to São Tomé, on a 1995 VENT tour. While there he studied the birds closely, "demoting" two kingfishers to subspecies status and "promoting" the Lemon Dove on São Tomé to full species! It is so under-watched that I have been with groups when we've added new species to the country's list.

12. An interesting "supporting cast" includes West African mainland species you may not have seen such as White-tailed Tropicbird, Long-tailed Cormorant, Western Reef-Egret, Harlequin Quail, Gray Parrot, White-bellied and Blue-breasted kingfishers, Velvet-mantled Drongo, Chestnut-winged and Splendid glossy-starlings, Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch, and Blue-breasted Cordonbleu.

If you desire a longer trip, we can probably arrange for some additional birding tailored to your requirements. We pass through Lisbon in Portugal; perhaps we can organize further endemic birding in The Canary Islands or other Atlantic archipelagos, or in mainland Iberia.

São Tomé Endemic Birds

July 15-24, 2006

with Peter Roberts

$5575 from Lisbon

Limit 12

Back to Top


By Kim Eckert

The ferry to Newfoundland holds the potential for some of the best pelagic birding anywhere. A few Wilson's and lots of Leach's storm-petrels are there every summer, Greater Shearwaters are common along with lesser numbers of Sooty and Manx shearwaters, and several Northern Fulmars are to be expected. Jaegers, usually Pomarines, are seen on most crossings; even a skua (usually, alas, unidentified) crosses the bow on perhaps a third of them, and a few Red Phalaropes are starting to migrate in July. On our 2005 tour, even with the fog, we saw both storm-petrels, all three shearwaters, and the fulmar.

Gannet colony, Cape St. Mary's

Gannet colony, Cape St. Mary's — Photo: Peter Roberts

The next day we visited Cape St. Mary's Seabird Sanctuary. The view here is terrific, with humpback whales and distant shearwaters cruising the ocean for food, and the cliffs lined with literally tens of thousands of gannets, kittiwakes, and murres. Naturally, this is a place shrouded in fog most of the time; this year, when we pulled into the parking lot, the visitor's center was nowhere in sight, even though it was only some 50 yards away! However, luck was with us, and it cleared up nicely as we stood by the gannet rock; enough so that we were able to see the Thick-billed Murres among the Commons.

During our day-long drive to view seabirds, ptarmigan, whales, caribou, and scenery at the headlands south of St. John's, we saw our first humpbacks, caribou were standing by the road, hundreds of shearwaters and scoters rafted close to shore, and the diving gannets were spectacular. On our boat trip to Witless Bay Seabird Sanctuary, we had very close views of puffins (standing less than 10 yards from the boat!), Razorbills, a family of humpbacks, and Green Island's wall-to-wall population of 100,000 murres.

We enjoyed a number of great highlights on this trip. We saw Spruce Grouse twice: a dust-bathing and "anting" female, plus a family of young attended by both parents. Common Eiders chased off a Great Blue Heron that had landed too close to their ducklings. A Winter Wren sang from the top of a 50-foot spruce; such a seemingly odd perch is actually appropriate for this species (and other low-to-the-ground skulkers, like Ovenbird and Mourning Warbler) when singing on territory. One of the prettiest overlooks in all of Cape Breton Highlands hosted the highly sought and secretive Bicknell's Thrush; it was hard to know whether to look at the bird or the view. Less scenic but just as interesting was a rooftop in St. John's, Newfoundland, where a surprising adult Iceland Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gulls chose to summer far from their normal breeding grounds.

We also saw a family of Ruffed Grouse, Great Cormorants atop a sea stack, Black-headed Gulls patrolling tidal mudflats, Arctic Terns nesting next to Commons, no fewer than 19 warbler species (including Black-throated Blue), and much more.

Newfoundland and Nova Scotia

July 5-15, 2006

with Kim Eckert and Brennan Mulrooney

$2895 from Halifax, Nova Scotia (ends in St. John's, Newfoundland)

Limit 14

Back to Top


2006 & 2007

Bering Sea Cruise

aboard the Clipper Odyssey

June 21-July 5, 2006

with Dion Hobcroft and Brian Patteson

Cabins begin at $7,750 from Anchorage

Limit 40

Galapagos Islands

aboard the M/Y Parranda

July 6-17, 2006

with Tony Nunnery

Cabins begin at $4,995 from Quito

Limit 14

Attu (only a few spaces remain!)

aboard the Spirit of Oceanus

September 7-24, 2006

with Larry Balch, Pete Dunne, Victor Emanuel, Steve Heinl, Marshall Iliff, Jeri Langham, Barry Lyon, Thede Tobish, David Wolf, and Barry Zimmer

Cabins begin at $9,995 from Anchorage

Limit 106

Jungle Rivers

October 12-24, 2006

(Sold out—contact us if you'd like to be placed on the wait list)

Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand

aboard the Spirit of Enderby

November 14-December 4, 2006

with Dion Hobcroft

Cabins begin at $6855 from Auckland

Limit 10

Antarctica, South Georgia & The Falklands

aboard the Clipper Adventurer

December 17, 2006?January 8, 2007

with Pete Dunne and Brian Patteson

Cabins begin at $10,545 from Ushuaia

Limit 60

Amazon River Cruise

aboard the La Turquesa

January 20-28, 2007

with Steve Hilty, David Ascanio, and local leaders

Limit 40

Scottish Islands Cruise

aboard the M.V. Grigoriy Mikheev

May 25-June 2, 2007

with Peter Roberts and TBA

Limit 46

Back to Top


By Bob Sundstrom

On our Spring Washington tour we will explore the scenic Pacific Northwest at the peak of the nesting season, when most bird species are in full song and in their finest breeding plumage. In an action-packed nine days, this tour will cover many of the best birding areas in the state at this season. In contrast with VENT's other Washington tours, which feature primarily the western portion of the state, the Spring Washington tour emphasizes the interior of the state east of the Cascade Mountains. Our tour will focus on many of the most sought after northwestern and western U.S. specialty bird species. An amazing 11 species of woodpeckers are likely, including American Three-toed, White-headed, Black-backed, and Lewis's woodpeckers, plus Williamson's, Red-naped, and Red-breasted sapsuckers. Gallinaceous birds figure importantly too, with a good chance for Spruce, Blue, and Ruffed grouse, as well as Chukar and Gray Partridge. We will make a special effort to see such western owls as Flammulated, Northern-Pygmy, and the scarce and endangered "Northern" Spotted Owl is possible. We'll track down the best warblers the Northwest has to offer, including Hermit, MacGillivray's, Townsend's, Black-throated Gray, Nashville, Wilson's, and others. In searching out the region's specialty birds we will have a chance to hear a wide range of wonderful songs, from the haunting, high mountain notes of Varied and Hermit thrushes, and the complex serenades of Townsend's Solitaires, Winter Wrens, and Brewer's Sparrows, to the unmistakable phrasings of Black-headed Grosbeaks and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Our birding begins west of the Cascade Mountains on the trail of species distinctive to that part of the state, such as Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hutton's Vireo, and Hermit Warbler, and soon moves across Snoqualmie Pass to the east slope of the Cascade Mountains and the remarkably diverse habitats of Washington's interior. Our route takes us into several different local mountain ranges and through a whole assortment of western forest types. You will see deep canyons lined with spectacular basalt columns, hillsides lined with stately ponderosa pines, silver-green expanses of native sagebrush, freshwater lakes, rushing creeks, and high elevation stands of fir and spruce—each zone with its own distinctive birdlife. In the Entiat Mountains, Lazuli Buntings and Calliope Hummingbirds sparkle from favorite perches while Lewis's Woodpeckers flycatch from snags, and raucous Clark's Nutcrackers and brilliant Western Tanagers call from the pines. In the species-rich Okanogan region of north central Washington, Bobolinks and Veeries sing along the meadows, Boreal Chickadees share the fir and spruce forest with high elevation woodpeckers and grouse, and Red-necked Grebes, Hooded Mergansers, and Barrow's Goldeneyes nest on roadside lakes. Early June is also an excellent time to become acquainted with a wide range of other wildlife and wildflowers, and to experience the overall natural beauty of the region. At this season one can expect comfortable temperatures and generally little precipitation.

Among the many other birds likely or possible are nesting Common Loons; Western and Clark's grebes; Cinnamon Teal; Virginia Rail; Wilson's Phalarope; Glaucous-winged Gull; Black and Caspian terns; Bald and Golden eagles; Prairie Falcon; Short-eared Owl and possibly other owls; Calliope, Rufous, and Black-chinned hummingbirds; White-throated, Vaux's, and Black swifts; Pacific-slope, Hammond's, Dusky, Gray, and Willow flycatchers; Say's Phoebe and Western Kingbird; Gray Jay, Steller's Jay, and Western Scrub-Jay; Cassin's and Warbling vireos; seven swallows including Violet-green Swallow; Boreal, Mountain, and Chestnut-backed chickadees; Bushtit; Pygmy, Red-breasted, and White-breasted nuthatches; Rock, Canyon, and Bewick's wrens; American Dipper; Western and Mountain bluebirds; Sage Thrasher; Spotted Towhee; Sage, Lark, Brewer's, "Slate-colored" Fox, and Lincoln's sparrows; Bullock's Oriole; Cassin's and Purple finches; Evening and Pine grosbeaks; and Red Crossbill. We may also encounter a considerable variety of mammals such as elk, bighorn sheep, black bear, and snowshoe hare.

Spring Washington

May 30-June 7, 2006

with Bob Sundstrom and Steve Hilty

$2239 from Seattle

Limit 14

Back to Top



By Peter Roberts

Would you like to see:

- Ethereal Great Snipe performing their dusk displays?

- Flocks of male Smew puffed up in crisp black and white breeding plumage?

- Corn Crakes rasping territorial calls from lush flower meadows?

- Eurasian Dotterels and Temminck's Stints filling the scope view as they sit unconcerned on their upland tundra nests?

- Immense White-tailed Eagles and stunning Gyrfalcons soaring over Arctic mountain nesting ledges?

- Mysterious Jack Snipe and Broad-billed Sandpipers lurking in northern peat bogs?

- Capercaillie, Black Grouse, and Hazel Hen "walked up" in open taiga forests?

- Virtually all the European owls and woodpeckers including Ural, Great Gray, Boreal, and Hawk owls; Eurasian Pygmy-Owl; Eurasian Eagle-Owl; and Black, Lesser-spotted, Middle-spotted, Gray-faced, Eurasian Three-toed, and White-backed woodpeckers at nest sites?

- Flamboyant male Ruffs strutting with multi-colored ruffled neck feathers in communal leks?

- Localized specialties such as Bean Goose; Spotted and Little crakes; Eurasian Nutcracker; Siberian Jay; Parrot Crossbill; Siberian Tit; Orange-flanked Bush-Robin; River, Marsh, Blyth's Reed, Barred, Arctic, Greenish, and Icterine warblers; Red-throated Pipit; Citrine Wagtail; Thrush Nightingale; and Rustic and Little buntings as we wander seemingly endless natural forests, marshes, mountains, lakes, and tundra?

- Europe's greatest wilderness areas and remote Arctic coastline teeming with alcids, sea ducks, and loons?

If you would you like to see all this in comfort, in some of the safest countries in the world, and in the excellent care of a specially designed birding tour run by local experts, then our Estonia, Finland & Arctic Norway tour is just for you.

This tour covers three countries of the Baltic/northeasternmost fringes of Europe from 58° to 70° North (well above the Arctic Circle and equivalent latitudes between Seward and Barrow, Alaska, but with an immensely greater variety of habitats). We consistently find up to 240 species—the longest bird list and some of the most "wanted" species from any European birding tour.

Estonia has rich, extensive, and unspoilt areas of prime birding habitats: mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland, marshes, untamed rivers, beautiful natural meadows, scrub, and gently managed farmland. It is no surprise that Estonia holds the European record for most birds seen (195) by one person in a single day.

Finland is a mind-boggling mix of vast pine, spruce, fir, and larch forests laced with over 190,000 lakes. Further inspiring landscapes of open tundra with panoramic mountain ranges and wild Arctic coastlines await us in Norway.

This is a top, must-see European birding destination, best done thoroughly. There are shorter, seemingly less costly tours advertised, but none of these are as comprehensive or cater properly to North American birders as our trip does. This destination is very difficult to cover effectively as an independent traveler because so much depends on accurate, up-to-the-minute knowledge of where key species are nesting that year, especially the many owls, woodpeckers, and regional specialties.

Estonia & Finland

June 3-16, 2006

with Peter Roberts and Antero Topp

$4995 from Tallinn, Estonia

Limit 12

Arctic Norway Extension

June 16-22, 2006

with Peter Roberts and Antero Topp

$3000 from Ivalo, Finland

Limit 12

Back to Top


By Susan Myers and David Bishop

Borneo always lives up to high expectations, and our 2005 tour was certainly no exception in that regard. That said, this year's tour was definitely exceptional! It is always a pleasure to travel with such a diverse, friendly, and witty group of people. We had a lot of fun, and isn't that what it's all about?


Borneo is without doubt one of the best and most enjoyable birding destinations in the world. There were many, many birding and wildlife highlights, of course, but to be shared in the company of an excellent and lively group greatly enhances the experience. Highlights of our tour were many, and varied from astounding birds, a plethora of mammals, and excellent food to lots of laugh-out-loud jokes and asides.


We began our tour with a day-trip to the Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve in the Crocker Ranges where we made a magnificent start with a swag of Bornean endemics that can be very tricky to track down at other sites—notably Mountain and Bornean barbets. A fantastic morning saw us enjoying some exceptional beauties—the rarely encountered Whitehead's Spiderhunter was a special surprise. On our return visit here we were treated to great views of the rarely encountered Fruithunter, and that was just for starters!

We headed up to Mount Kinabalu via the open plains of Kota Belud. The Tempasuk Plains gave us an opportunity to bird the open country and familiarize ourselves with some of the common and garden birds. But, by far, the most exciting bird of the morning was a very responsive and spectacular Ruddy Kingfisher.


Mount Kinabalu looked absolutely resplendent, as did many of the restricted-range birds we were lucky to encounter during our stay here. Our efforts here (sometimes in the rain!) were repaid by fine views of Short-tailed Magpie, Indigo Flycatcher, Sunda Bush-Warbler, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, and another Bornean endemic, the delightfully confiding Mountain Wren-Babbler. Bornean Treepies were fairly common, but some of the other endemics proved to be a bit less cooperative. The road was, as usual, the most "birdy" area, and here we found Maroon Woodpeckers, Sunda and Chestnut-capped laughingthrushes, Bornean Whistler, Mountain Blackeye, and Golden-naped Barbet. We caught up with that diminutive and cunning beast—the Black-sided Flowerpecker—in the gardens while half the group had the incredible luck to watch for ten minutes the very rarely seen Everett's Thrush. And what of those sumptuous meals at our friendly Fairy Garden accommodations—we have rarely tasted better anywhere in Asia.

After returning to Kota Kinabalu and another morning at Tambunan, we flew to Sandakan and then boated up to Sukau on the Sungai Kinabatangan, seeing our first of 13 orangutans and numerous proboscis monkeys before lunch. This splendid area is very worthwhile for a chance to have a break from the rainforest, and we especially reveled in some excellent views of a number of hornbill species including an impressive Rhinoceros Hornbill. Our skilled boatmen steered us toward some great views of Hooded Pitta, unbelievable studies of the near-mythical Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, Black-and-yellow Broadbill, and Red-throated Barbet. Best of all though, were some good views of the astounding Bornean Bristlehead on the Menanggol River, and more than 10 of the severely endangered Storm's Stork. An afternoon trip upriver found us in the company of over 60 of the newly-described Bornean pygmy elephant, bathing and playing just a few yards from our boat. Around the lodge the birding never stopped, and some of the specialties we saw included the remarkable Orange-backed Woodpecker, Little Spiderhunter, and Ferruginous Babbler.

At the humongous Gomantong Caves we were able to observe firsthand the collection of swift nests for eventual consumption by Chinese gourmets. The intrepid workers happily answered our many queries and showed us the white nests of the Edible-nest Swiftlets. We were able to see all three species of the swiftlets on their nests, meaning we could actually identify them for once! Close-up views of a wild banana-stealing orangutan were an added treat.

Danum Valley is one of the most famous birding spots in Southeast Asia and certainly lived up to the high standards we have come to expect. In the lodge gardens we observed orangutans and Bornean gibbons (to hear the calls of this magnificent animal echoing in the rainforest is an unforgettable experience), as well as Grey-breasted Spiderhunter, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker and, incredibly, two Blue-banded Kingfishers. On our first walk out along the road we had two of the best encounters of our tour with a simply brilliant Black-and-crimson Pitta and an extraordinarily responsive Chestnut-necklaced Partridge. Scope views of the nearby tiny endemic White-fronted Falconet were also very exciting. On the trails we caught up with Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, the really cute Rufous Piculet, Green Broadbill (relatively common this year), and numerous babblers—Striped Wren-Babbler being just one standout. Spotlighting proved a bit of fun with some great views of red giant flying-squirrel, as well as Buffy Fish-Owl, slow loris, Malay civet, and greater mouse-deer. Like Taman Negara, Danum can be slow and difficult at times. We were unlucky with the weather—it was unusually dry—but despite this we were privileged to meet some unique and special birds and mammals, as well as just experience the superb rainforest.


Moving on to the southeast coast to Sipidan Island, we reveled in an all too brief day of birding and snorkeling in one of the most heavenly locations one could imagine. It was exciting to track down some of the scarce island specialists such as Nicobar Pigeon and White-vented Whistler, but the star of the day was, without doubt, the mind-boggling biodiversity of the fringing coral reef of this limestone shard. We have not seen such a diversity of fish or numbers of turtles anywhere else in many years of diving and snorkeling.


June 24-July 13, 2006

with David Bishop and Susan Myers

$6335 from Kota Kinabalu

Limit 14

Back to Top


May 17-25, 2006

By Kevin Zimmer

It is with great excitement and eager anticipation that Victor Emanuel Nature Tours announces that we are joining forces with Dan Wetzel of NatureAlaska to offer birders the opportunity to bird Adak Island, Alaska in May of 2006. Adak is a large island in the Andreanof group of the central Aleutian chain, with a resident human population of less than 300. Over the years, it has accumulated a long list of Asiatic vagrants, in spite of the fact that it has received relatively little coverage from birders. Prior to 2004, access to the island was highly restricted, due to the presence of an active U.S Naval base. Birders could only look at Adak on the map and dream about what could have been. But, in April of 2003, the government shut down the Adak base, and relinquished control of the island and its facilities to the Aleut Enterprise Corporation. With that move, Adak became open for tourism.

Adak offers the rare opportunity to search for Asiatic vagrants and Bering Sea specialties in relative ease and comfort. Accommodations are in two-bedroom, two-bathroom houses (three participants quartered in each house) that were formerly occupied by U.S. Navy personnel. Each house has its own living room, kitchen, laundry, and linens. Refrigerators, coffee pots, and dishes and utensils are also available in each home, allowing participants access to personal snacks, coffee, tea, or other beverages outside of common meal times. Access to birding locations is via an extensive system of roads, and we will have vans for transportation. This means that birding excursions will minimize the need for arduous long treks on foot, and will also allow us to bird from the vehicles when the Aleutian weather takes a turn for the worse. The extensive road system also means that we can cover much more ground and many more habitats than is possible in most outpost locations.

So what about the birds? In addition to resident populations of such prizes as Harlequin Duck, Rock Ptarmigan, Bald Eagle, Rock Sandpiper, Aleutian Tern, Horned and Tufted puffins, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Lapland Longspur, Adak offers a tremendous opportunity for seeing a variety of alcids and other seabirds, often right from shore. Ancient, Marbled, and Kittlitz's murrelets can all be common in the nearshore waters, and tubenoses such as Northern Fulmar, Short-tailed Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, and occasionally even Laysan Albatross pass by offshore. A major attraction is the regular presence of Whiskered Auklets, which feed in tidal rips off of Adak. We are likely to see at least a few of these localized alcids from shore, but should see hundreds more if plans for a one-day offshore boat trip materialize. Much of our time will be spent searching for migrants, particularly vagrants from Eurasia. The list of vagrants that have occurred here is long, and includes such prizes as Whooper Swan, Bean Goose, Spot-billed Duck, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Pochard, Smew, Mongolian Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Gray-tailed Tattler, Wood Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Temminck's Stint, Long-toed Stint, Common Cuckoo, Eye-browed Thrush, and Brambling.

Of course, as is always the case, the presence of vagrants is largely weather dependent, and the number of vagrants seen in any single trip is likely to be small. However, the vagrant potential of Adak is great, and largely untapped, and with a full week to cover the island, we should be well positioned to find whatever is there. Birding in these northern latitudes is always ephemeral and transient by nature, and these qualities only add to the unpredictability and excitement of birding Alaskan outposts. Rare birds arrive without warning and leave without notice; conditions are optimal one moment and inhospitable the next. One has to admire the feathered wanderers that return again and again from more hospitable climes to fulfill their reproductive destinies in lands that can be so capriciously unpredictable and unforgiving. Seemingly fragile, always restless, they strike out each spring for shores on both sides of the Bering Sea. And each spring, we wait, anticipating their arrivals, and reveling in our unexpected discoveries. It is a drama that I look forward to repeating, year-after-year. This year, my anticipation is running particularly high, thanks to the opportunity to bird Adak.

Our trip will begin with an overnight in Anchorage on May 17. On the 18th, we will fly from Anchorage to Adak on a commercial Alaska Airlines Boeing 737. We will have a full week to bird the island before returning to Anchorage on May 25. The trip will be co-led by Dan Wetzel, Marshall Iliff, and me. Dan is a long-time Alaska birder, guide, and outfitter, with nearly 40 years of experience in the state, who has pioneered trips to many of Alaska's most remote destinations. I have anchored VENT's Alaska program for the past 20 years, having spent a month of nearly every year since 1985 leading tours throughout the state. Marshall Iliff is one of North America's top field birders, and has been leading VENT tours in Alaska for the past four years. Birders wishing to maximize the potential for Eurasian vagrants, as well as for seeing a number of Bering Sea region specialties such as Gyrfalcon, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Bluethroat, and Northern Wheatear, can easily link the Adak trip with our Gambell-Nome tour, which begins on May 27 from Anchorage.

I invite you to join Dan Wetzel, Marshall Iliff, and me in May 2006, for what promises to be some exciting Aleutian birding on the island of Adak, Alaska. Since we plan to take only 15 participants on our inaugural Adak tour, early reservations are advised.

Adak Island

May 17-25, 2006

with Kevin Zimmer, Marshall Iliff, and Dan Wetzel

$4295 from Anchorage

Limit 15

Back to Top


By Kevin Zimmer

By any measure, our 2005 Grand Alaska tour was a huge success. We enjoyed some of the best weather of any Alaska tour in memory, and although it was a slow year for Siberian vagrants, we had exceptional success with the breeding specialties. As always, Nome got things off to a rousing start.

Our first day on the Teller Road produced a herd of musk ox, scope views of a Gyrfalcon on a nest, a cryptic Rock Ptarmigan (in what was obviously a "crash" year for ptarmigan, this proved to be our only Rock Ptarmigan of the trip), nesting Dippers, and stunningly beautiful Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding dress. Safety Lagoon treated us to point-blank studies of Aleutian Terns right next to the road, a pair of Eurasian Wigeon, and a magnificent pair of Arctic Loons. Farther out the Council Road we saw still more Gyrfalcons, Northern Wheatears, nesting Rough-legged Hawks, and, in the spruce forests near Council, a most cooperative pair of Pine Grosbeaks and a family of Gray Jays, both good birds for the Nome area.

The Kougarok Road served up its usual mix of stunning scenery, big mammals (still more close views of musk ox to go with multiple moose and huge herds of reindeer), and great birds. Among the many highlights were a dazzling male Bluethroat, multiple Arctic Warblers, and an exceptionally close pair of Black Scoters. After having performed well for the Gambell/Nome group just three days earlier, the Bristle-thighed Curlew did not cooperate. We ended our time at Nome with close studies of a pair of first-summer Black Guillemots at Cape Nome, an unexpected rarity.

Next up were the Pribilofs, where a lack of westerly winds meant a lack of Siberian vagrants. Our vagrant luck this year was limited to an exceptionally elusive Hawfinch that played hide and seek with us for hours at Hutchinson Hill, and a longipennis Common Tern at the Salt Lagoon that was far more cooperative. But, you don't visit the Pribilofs for vagrants; you go for nesting seabirds and, once again, we were treated to a true spectacle of breeding alcids, fulmars, kittiwakes, and cormorants on the bird cliffs. What's more, rare sunny skies and a general lack of wind combined to produce ideal conditions for enjoying the spectacle to its fullest. A stunningly immaculate male McKay's Bunting was well worth the hike needed to find it, and represented one of the most difficult-to-find of North America's breeding birds.

News of a nesting Great Gray Owl on the Glenn Highway caused us to cast aside our usual routine for our day of birding the Anchorage area. Employing the reasoning that nothing we could expect to see in Anchorage could top a Great Gray Owl, we decided to go for it, and the strategy paid off in a big way. En route we stumbled onto an unexpected bonanza of Northern Hawk Owls, seeing a minimum of nine different individuals in a 23-mile stretch! The day also produced Trumpeter Swans, scope views of singing Varied Thrush, and crippling studies of American Three-toed Woodpecker. But the Great Gray was the showstopper. We had been cautioned that the bird was no sure thing, since the young had recently fledged and were moving farther from the nest site each day. But after a bit of a hike, persistent deep "WHOOP" notes signaled the presence of an adult owl, and suddenly, like a huge gray ghost, it was upon us. The bird swooped in and landed in a spruce, allowing prolonged, binocular-filling views for everyone. It was only after the bird had been in sight for several minutes that we looked up and saw the perched fledgling with the pink eyelids that was sitting just above our heads!


Denali — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day we were off to Denali, more relaxed than usual since we had already scored most of the big Denali quest birds. The drive up produced a magnificent family of Trumpeter Swans right next to the road, as well as perched Bohemian Waxwings and skylarking White-winged Crossbills. Our day in the park was diminished by dreary, rainy weather, but still produced nice views of a Northern Shrike, a wolf, and more distant views of a couple of grizzlies. The Denali Highway presented us with Upland Sandpipers, Willow Ptarmigan with downy chicks, nesting Horned Grebes, and still more Northern Shrikes and Gyrfalcons.

We finished, as always, with a trip to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula. On our way out of Anchorage, we decided to make a brief stop to mop up some of the common Anchorage birds that we had missed as a result of switching our day of local birding to the Great Gray Owl chase. This turned out to be a great move when, in addition to nice studies of Boreal Chickadees, we were rewarded with crippling views of a male Spruce Grouse! The Kenai Fjords boat trip produced excellent views of multiple Kittlitz's Murrelets, in addition to all of the more usual fare, and our return drive to Anchorage netted us yet another Spruce Grouse, this time a hen with two chicks.

Grand Alaska

June 2-17, 2006

with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf

$7495 from Anchorage

Limit 14

Gambell/Nome Pre-trip

May 27-June 3, 2006

with Kevin Zimmer and David Wolf

$3895 from Anchorage

Limit 16

Barrow Extension

June 17-19, 2006

with Kevin Zimmer

$1545 from Anchorage

Limit 14

Sign up for both Grand Alaska and Gambell/Nome and receive a discount of $595!

Back to Top