VENTflash #124 July 07, 2011

Posted by Victor Emanuel


Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 69 years ago at the age of eight. His travels have taken him to all the continents, with his areas of concentration being Texas, Ari...

Dear Friends,

I have just returned from a weeklong vacation in Barrow, Alaska. After this trip, I feel confident in saying there may be no better place in the world than Barrow to experience the High Arctic, a unique and incredibly beautiful ecosystem. During my visit, I had numerous looks at all four species of eiders, all three jaegers, Sabine's Gulls, lots of shorebirds, several Snowy Owls, and even a polar bear. Over the last couple of days I was thrilled to watch the tundra change from brown to green, and flowers start to appear including lovely purple wooly louseworts and deep yellow arctic buttercups.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Like many birders, I have a special affection for shorebirds. As the writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen has emphasized, they are birds that perform amazing long-distance migrations. When you only know shorebirds as migrants or winter residents, there is something very special about seeing them on their breeding grounds in high plumage The two most common shorebirds at Barrow are Pectoral Sandpiper and Red Phalarope. The Pectorals were everywhere—standing on mounds, in the road, and flying low over the tundra. As part of their courtship display, they produce an amazing series of low, sonorous hoots that are the characteristic sound of the tundra at Barrow in June.

Few shorebirds undergo as dramatic a change from non-breeding plumage to breeding plumage as the Red Phalarope. Prior to this trip, I had seen this species a few times on migration, mostly at sea, but only a couple of times in glorious breeding plumage. At Barrow they were ubiquitous and exceedingly tame. I never tired of admiring the stunningly beautiful females as they swam in small ponds right next to the road. American Golden-Plovers have always been among my favorite shorebirds. I have seen them every spring in Texas ever since I started birding, but seeing them in full breeding plumage on the tundra is truly a sight to behold.  Their amazing, slow-motion courtship flight is marvelous.

Anyone who goes to Alaska should go to Barrow. It is an experience like no other and is not to be missed.

The next VENT tour to Barrow will operate June 26-28, 2012 and may be taken as an extension to our Alaska Mainland and Grand Alaska tours. This trip will be led by Kevin Zimmer and Barry Zimmer; price to be announced from Anchorage.

In this issue:



I have been enamored with Panama and its birdlife for over 30 years. I fell in love with tropical birds and the Tropics when I started going to Mexico as a young birder, but was frustrated by the lack of a good field guide to Mexican birds. Fortunately, when I first went to Panama in 1979, I carried with me a copy of A Guide to the Birds of Panama by Robert Ridgely. This superb book was the first good field guide published on the birds of any country in Central or South America. Since that first trip, I have visited Panama almost every year and have had many wonderful experiences there.

So why do I like Panama so much?

1. The diversity of birdlife is fantastic and includes many colorful and spectacular species. Birds are everywhere and many are very easy to see. Trogons sometimes perch on telephone wires; motmots sit beside the road; hummingbirds crowd the feeders; and dawn brings an amazing burst of bird activity.

Hummingbird feeders below the tower attract about eight species, none more beautiful than this male Violet-bellied Hummingbird.

Violet-bellied Hummingbird — Photo: Barry Zimmer

2. In addition to the birdlife, there is so much else to see: colorful butterflies and moths, huge damselflies, a wide variety of mammals including monkeys, sloths, coatimundis, kinkajous, agoutis, and capybaras.

3. Panama is a very peaceful and well-run democratic country with friendly people. Some of them, such as Raul and Denise Arias, have become close friends of mine. Raul and Denise have played a seminal role in promoting ecotourism in Panama by creating the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge, two of the best lodges in the world for birders and naturalists.

4. The Panama Canal is something everyone should see. It is truly one of the wonders of the world. All of our Canopy Tower tours include a visit to the superb visitor center at the Miraflores Locks where we watch ships raised or lowered as they transit from one ocean to another. The building of the Panama Canal was one of our country's greatest achievements. In addition to the canal, Panama has a fascinating history including its role in the Spanish conquest of Central and South America and in the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855.

5. Panama is only a short flight from airports such as Miami and Houston. Air service is reliable and reasonably priced. Once in Panama, you will find the infrastructure and services excellent. Green salads and fruit are safe to eat since Panama has a very high level of hygiene. All our Panama tours are moderate in terms of difficulty. There are many early mornings, but no long or steep walks. Almost all of our birding is along roads.

In summary, I cannot imagine a better place for birders and naturalists to visit than Panama. VENT has been operating tours there for over 30 years. No company operates as many Panama tours as VENT or knows it better. All of our tours are led by top notch VENT leaders, as well as very fine Panamanian co-leaders. I hope you will join one of these 10 departures this fall and winter.

Golden-collared Manakin

Golden-collared Manakin — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Please note that among our offerings is a new tour entitled Introduction to Tropical Birding: Panama through the Eyes of a Naturalist, October 26-November 1, 2011, a trip that will be co-led by Steve Hilty and David Ascanio; $2,595 in double occupancy from Panama City.

This trip is appropriate for beginners as well as for experienced birders who want to learn more about tropical birds. In my opinion, there are no better teachers than Steve and David. Both of these men possess a wealth of knowledge about tropical birds, and they love sharing that knowledge with others. They are skilled, patient teachers and great fun to be with. This tour will spend all of its nights at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort where over 100 species of birds may be seen in a day on the resort grounds. The pace of this tour will provide ample opportunity for study and learning.

Our upcoming fall/winter Panama tours:

Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower, October 15-22, 2011 with Barry Zimmer and a local leader; $2,795 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Panama: Fall at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Extension, October 22-27, 2011 with Barry Zimmer and a local leader; $1,595 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Canopy Lodge

Canopy Lodge — Photo: David Tipling/Canopy Tower

Panama: Fall at El Valle's Canopy Lodge, November 5-12, 2011 with Barry Zimmer and a local leader; $2,395 in double occupancy from Panama City. 5 spaces available.

Panama: Christmas at El Valle's Canopy Lodge, December 22-27, 2011 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $1,775 in double occupancy from Panama City.

New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower, December 27, 2011-January 3, 2012 with Tony Nunnery; $2,975 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle, January 5-17, 2012 with Jeri Langham and a local leader; $4,695 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Panama: Chiriqui Highlands, January 21-29, 2012 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $2,845 in double occupancy from Panama City. Register for this tour and Panama's Canopy Tower and receive a $145 combined tour discount per person in double occupancy.

Panama's Canopy Tower, January 28-February 4, 2012 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $2,975 in double occupancy from Panama City. Register for this tour and Panama: Chirqui Highlands and receive a $145 combined tour discount per person in double occupancy.

Panama: El Valle's Canopy Lodge Extension, February 4-9, 2012 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $1,775 in double occupancy from Panama City.

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This past year we received news that the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador has instituted some important changes to the rules of commercial visitation to the Galapagos Islands. The purpose of these changes, we are told, is to alleviate the pressures on ecologically sensitive sites that have resulted from ever increasing tourism to the islands. What this means for tour operators, such as the cruise companies that service the islands, is that no vessel is allowed to visit any particular site within the islands more than once in a given period of time. In other words, whereas our traditional Galapagos itineraries included about seven nights in the islands, future itineraries that offer a comparable experience are now spread over ten nights. The idea is that longer itineraries will prevent any one vessel from returning to a previously visited site before a sufficient amount of time has elapsed. The new rules come into effect on February 1, 2012.

VENT's next Galapagos Islands Cruise will operate November 28-December 7, 2011, aboard the Isabela II. This trip represents the last opportunity for anyone who wishes to visit the Galapagos using a "classic" itinerary, meaning an itinerary that includes almost all the major islands in about a week aboard ship. This is not to suggest that future itineraries will not present high quality travel experiences, but they will be unavoidably longer and more costly.

Isabela II

Isabela II — Photo: Ramiro Salazar

A voyage in the Galapagos Islands is unlike any other. If you desire a comprehensive look at this extraordinary destination in an efficient amount of time, I strongly urge you to consider this November trip. Following an itinerary that promises visits to the most important islands—Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabella, Santa Cruz, and Santiago—we will be in position to see the wildlife for which these islands are so famous, including Galapagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants, Waved Albatrosses, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Darwin's finches, Galapagos fur seals, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and much more.

The Isabela II is among the highest quality vessels available for a Galapagos Islands cruise. Spacious outside cabins feature private bathrooms and air-conditioning; the yacht's three decks offer plenty of public space including a bar, library, lounge, dining room, and sun deck.

I have made many trips to the Galapagos Islands and consider it among my favorite places.

Galapagos Islands Cruise, November 28-December 7, 2011 with Paul Greenfield and Bob Sundstrom; cabins begin at $5,600 in double occupancy from Quito (ends in Guayaquil).

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Our next cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands will operate December 26, 2011-January 16, 2012. For this departure, VENT is teaming with Zegrahm Expeditions for an unparalleled birding and wildlife viewing odyssey to the bottom of the world. We will travel aboard the Clipper Adventurer, on which we have reserved an allotment of cabins exclusively for VENT participants. Some of these cabins are still available and we have been notified by Zegrahm that our deadline for selling the remaining space has been extended to August 15. After August 15, cabins may be reserved only on a space available basis.

A trip to Antarctica represents the trip of a lifetime—a place one must see firsthand to fully comprehend its extravagant wildlife and scenic spectacles. Moreover, the Clipper Adventurer is considered among the best ships to visit the Antarctic. Fully stabilized, and offering excellent accommodations and cuisine, she presents a rare opportunity to experience the majesty of the "White Continent" in maximum comfort. If you have not been to Antarctica, I encourage you to reserve your space soon!

Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, December 26, 2011-January 16, 2012 with Dion Hobcroft and Brian Gibbons; cabins begin at $15,980 in double occupancy from Buenos Aires.

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Polar Bears

Polar Bears — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Two months ago I announced that anyone who registers for our upcoming Polar Bears of Churchill tour, November 5-11, 2011, before July 15 will receive a discount of $1,000 per person off the published fee. This rare offer has received an enthusiastic response and we now have only 3 spaces available. I want to remind our travelers that this special opportunity expires in one week! The fee for this tour is $5,595 in double occupancy from Winnipeg; register before July 15 and pay $4,595.

I feel the VENT tour to Churchill is the best polar bear tour available for several reasons: our tour fee includes internal round-trip airfare from Winnipeg to Churchill; the tour fee is less expensive than what is offered by other operators; we have chartered a full Tundra Buggy exclusively for the VENT group so everyone has his own window; and you are virtually assured of seeing a dozen or more bears per day!

This trip will not be offered again until at least 2014.

Polar Bears of Churchill, November 5-11, 2011 with Brennan Mulrooney; $5,595 in double occupancy from Winnipeg; Register before July 15, 2011 and receive a $1,000 discount.

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Our first tour to Ghana in many years will debut this January 1-12, 2012, and will be led by David Bishop.

You might ask "Why Ghana?" or even "WHERE is Ghana?!" The answers to these questions are that Ghana is an up-and-coming West African country with a rapidly developing infrastructure with quality roads, food, and accommodations; a colorful and vibrant culture; an excellent system of national parks and preserves; a growing ecotourism industry; and a great many birds that occur nowhere else except in other parts of West Africa that are considered unsafe for travel.

Located along the Atlantic Ocean in the heart of West Africa, Ghana boasts alluring white sand beaches in its south, and dense, lush rainforests in its middle, which merge into dry, open savanna of the Sahel in the north. Ghana is home to more than 750 bird species in addition to an intriguing number of mammals, reptiles, and butterflies.

Perhaps most important, despite political turmoil in other West African countries, Ghana is considered "safe".

On this tour, we'll seek a broad range of birds that are endemic to the Upper Guinea forest region, with special attention paid to finding the amazing White-necked (Yellow-headed) Rockfowl, one of only two members of its family.

With the recent rediscovery of the rockfowl in Ghana, birders now have the chance to see this unique bird with more ease and comfort than at any other destination. Ghana offers so much more, however, and this departure is sure to produce hundreds of seldom seen regional specialty birds, mammals, reptiles, and other exciting surprises.

Ghana, January 1-12, 2012 with David Bishop and a local leader; $7,795 in double occupancy from Accra.

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This fall, VENT and Orion Expedition Cruises offer a rare opportunity to join a birding and natural history voyage to the Southern Ocean and the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand, October 22-November 7, 2011. I will co-lead this trip with Barry Lyon. While a few cabins are still available, this announcement represents a last call. Soon we will have to give up the rest of our allotment for this voyage and cabins will be reserved on a space available basis only.

Royal & King Penguins, Macquarie Island

Royal & King Penguins, Macquarie Island — Photo: Orion Expedition Cruises

This expedition will visit almost all of New Zealand's subantarctic island-groups including the Chatham Islands, Bounty Islands, Antipodes Islands, Auckland Islands, Campbell Islands, and Macquarie Island.

Among the many highlights anticipated are up to seven species of penguins, including King, Gentoo, "Eastern" Rockhopper, Erect-crested, Royal, Yellow-eyed, and Little penguins; as many as fifteen species and subspecies of albatrosses, including the huge Wandering and Royal albatrosses; dozens of giant-petrels, petrels, prions, shearwaters, and storm-petrels; a variety of rare native landbirds; a fine variety of marine mammals including hourglass dolphin, orca, and sperm whale; six endemic cormorants; a brilliant botanical diversity featuring the famed megaherbs; and magnificent wilderness seascapes.

New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands, October 22-November 7, 2011 with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon; cabins begin at $9,735 in double occupancy from Auckland, New Zealand.

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Ecuador's Northwestern Andes offer some of the richest birding and best infrastructure in South America. Our tour to this region, Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes, is our flagship Ecuador tour and one that we encourage anyone with an interest in tropical birding to experience.Our next tour will operate November 13-21, 2011 and will be led by Paul Greenfield and Steve Hilty. We expect this tour to sell out as only four spaces are still available.

Golden-headed Quetzal

Golden-headed Quetzal — Photo: Robert (Spike) Baker

Paul is the co-author of the The Birds of Ecuador (2001), while Steve co-authored the monumental Birds of Colombia (1986) and, more recently, Birds of Venezuela (2003). Traveling with these accomplished men presents a rare privilege to be in the field with two of South America's best known ornithologists and most experienced tour leaders.

Amid cool cloud forests we will experience lovely mountain scenery, spectacular birds, and riveting bird spectacles. We anticipate 20 or more species of hummingbirds, leks of displaying Cocks-of-the-rock, and an extraordinary collection of antpittas that must be seen to be believed. For added measure, we also expect to record fabulous birds such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Turquoise Jay, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and an incredible assortment of jewel-like tanagers. For this year's tour, Paul has added an excursion to a new property to see a variety of Chocó (regional lowlands) endemic birds including Moss-backed Tanager. At yet another new site, participants may see the spectacular Long-wattled Umbrellabird.

Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes, November 13-21, 2011 with Paul Greenfield and Steve Hilty; $2,795 in double occupancy from Quito. 4 spaces available. Register for this tour and the Tinalandia Pre-trip and receive a combined tour discount of $80 per person in double occupancy.

Ecuador: Tinalandia Pre-trip, November 9-14, 2011 with Paul Greenfield and Steve Hilty; $1,995 in double occupancy from Quito. Register for the pre-trip and the Northwestern Andean Slopes tour and receive a combined tour discount of $80 per person in double occupancy.

On this pre-trip we will spend three nights at the comfortable Tinalandia Hotel, situated in the Andean foothills, where we will explore a vital lower elevation reserve for many northwestern specialty birds NOT possible on the main tour. We'll also make a day-trip to the very rich Río Palenque Scientific Station, a famous birding hot spot.

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons

I am pleased to announce that Brian Gibbons will join Bob Sundstrom as a co-leader on our Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest tour, September 7-15, 2011. Over the last several years, Brian has led VENT tours to a diversity of destinations, such as Mexico's Copper Canyon, Minnesota and North Dakota, Arizona, California, and Spain. Those who have traveled with him know him as a skilled birder and enthusiastic leader.

This tour captures the spirit of autumn bird migration in the cool Pacific Northwest. A varied itinerary includes birding in the Puget Sound region around Seattle; a pelagic trip out of famous Westport; exploring the Olympic Peninsula, including Olympic National Park; and birding the Victoria area on Vancouver Island. A sample of the many birds expected includes Pacific Coast specialties such as Buller's Shearwater, Tufted Puffin, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Varied Thrush and many others.

Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest, September 7-15, 2011 with Bob Sundstrom and Brian Gibbons; $3,115 in double occupancy from Seattle. 2 spaces available.

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Among our most popular departures, our Grand Australia tour is again on course to sell out; however, one space is still available on both parts of this wonderful tour. If you are a single traveler and have ever wanted to visit one of the planet's most remarkable destinations, I cannot recommend our Grand Australia tour too highly, especially this year. On the heels of a severe drought, the island continent is currently enjoying a year of ample rainfall. This abundance of water almost certainly portends a remarkable spring to come, with a bounty of wildflowers and greater success among breeding birds expected. Our tours to this region are led by Dion Hobcroft, a first-rate birder and general naturalist who is very popular among VENT travelers.

Grand Australia Part I: New South Wales & The Northern Territory, October 1-17, 2011 with Dion Hobcroft; $7,295 in double occupancy from Sydney (ends in Ayers Rock). 1 space available.

Ayers Rock, Australia

Ayers Rock, Australia — Photo: David Bishop

This is our finest, most comprehensive tour of Australia—a grand Australian tour de force. We will travel the entire continent, searching out birds from the common to the rare and most elusive. We begin in Sydney, then wing our way northwest to Darwin, the capital of the vast Northern Territory, before ending at Alice Springs in the "Red Center." We'll visit Kakadu National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, and Ayers Rock.

Grand Australia Part II: Queensland, Victoria, and Plains-wanderer, October 15-November 1, 2011 with Dion Hobcroft; $5,995 in double occupancy from Brisbane (ends in Melbourne). 1 space available.

Part II of our Grand Australia adventure focuses on the southern half of the island continent.  A highlight of this tour is a stay at world-famous O'Reilly's Guest House, but other high points include birding around Victoria and New South Wales seeking a variety of parrots, brush-turkeys, cassowaries, Plains-wanderers, and many others. When taken with Grand Australia Part I, we may compile a total trip list that represents 80% of Australia's bird species.

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Beginning this Friday, I will co-lead one of our annual summer youth camps: Camp Tejano. When I started these camps for young birders and naturalists 25 years ago, I never dreamed that they would become so successful and have such a great effect on birding, conservation, and ornithology. Remarkably, over 400 boys and girls have come through our youth camp program. Many of these people have gone on to pursue careers in ornithology and conservation, while others have become tour leaders with VENT and other companies.

It is a joy and a privilege to be involved as an organizer and supervisor of these camps. Although many talented young naturalists from all over the country have attended our camps through the years, this summer promises to be our best ever in terms of the diversity of the campers. Thanks to the generosity of the Gerhart family, we will have three campers from Central America and two Hispanic campers from our country who all are attending on full scholarships. One of the participants is a boy from Costa Rica who attends the Cloud Forest School at Monteverde, and whose ambition is to be a bird tour leader. When told of this opportunity, his teachers reported to us that he was so excited he was speechless, which they said is very unusual for him. Besides Camp Tejano, which operates in West Texas, we will also operate Camp Chiricahua in Southeast Arizona. I am confident the young birders in attendance will learn a lot about the natural world and will have a great time.