VENTflash #171 February 01, 2014

Posted by Victor Emanuel


Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 70 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,

Last week I was in Titusville, Florida with VENT leaders Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and Barry Lyon, representing VENT at the 17th annual Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. This event proved to be one of the best birding festivals I have ever experienced. The organizers did an outstanding job with the exhibition hall and field trips, and the wintertime birding was fantastic. I especially enjoyed seeing Sandhill Cranes (the remarkably tame Florida subspecies) and a fine variety of waterfowl, while Palm Warblers were simply ubiquitous. Each day ended with an evening keynote presentation, all of which were excellent. On the final night, Michael and Louise delivered an especially fine presentation entitled “Birds, Butterflies, & More: The Secret to Never Having a ‘Slow’ Day in the Field.”

Emperor and Adelie penguins

Emperor and Adelie penguins — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

As always these festivals provide a great opportunity to see folks who have been on our tours and to meet people who are interested in taking their first VENT tour. They also provide the opportunity to network with other people in the birding community. VENT attends more festivals than any other bird tour company. We do this as a way to spread the word about VENT and to support conservation.

Upon my return to the office, I was delighted to receive more good reports from VENT tours that operated this month. Our cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia & The Falkland Islands, led by Andrew Whittaker, was a great success. The group was very fortunate to see one of the most sought-after birds in the world, the magnificent Emperor Penguin, and was able to disembark on Prion Island to see nesting Wandering Albatross.  Our Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes tour, led by David Wolf, had a spectacular ending at Papallacta Pass, where David spotted some distant Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. The pass sits at a high elevation, but that didn’t stop David from hiking over to the birds and gently herding them over to the group.

In this issue:



I regard Birding Across America by Train as the best tour idea I’ve ever had.  It is truly different from any birding tour ever offered by any company. In conception, the idea was a simple one: select three very different parts of our country, spend a few days in each, and travel between them by train. The three areas we chose for this trip are the Adirondacks of New York, the prairies and potholes of North Dakota, and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. I like to think of this trip as a three-course meal with time between courses to watch the changing landscapes as we cross the country from east to west, nearly from sea to shining sea.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck — Photo: Brennan Mulrooney

My friend Peter Matthiessen, who wrote Wildlife in America (1959), told me that even after traveling all over the world, our own country remains one of his favorite places. I couldn’t agree more. After a first night in Albany, we drive to the Adirondack League Club near the town of Old Forge where we stay in cabins on a beautiful private lake. Our trip is timed to be in these northeastern forests just as spring is unfolding. The trees are just leafing out, the warblers and other summer residents are returning, and the woodland flowers, trilliums, Gold Thread, and others are bursting into bloom. We then return to Albany to board Amtrak’s Lakeside Limited and travel to Chicago where we connect with the Empire Builder.

I love train travel because you can watch the country change as you look out the windows. The Adirondack forest is a mixture of magnificent spruces, pines, and firs, as well as a great variety of broadleaf trees. Traveling west across Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, the forests are composed exclusively of broadleaf trees. At sunset, you cross the Mississippi River. The next morning, when you awake in western Minnesota, you look out on a landscape almost devoid of trees! You disembark in Minot, North Dakota and spend three days birding the prairies and potholes. The summer resident birds will have returned, including waterfowl in lovely breeding plumage. Migrants will still be passing through including shorebirds headed to the tundra and warblers headed to the forests of Canada. On some trips, we have seen over 100 Red-necked Phalaropes and 200 Wilson’s Phalaropes! We will make a particular effort to see the special prairie birds including Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Sandpiper, Sprague’s Pipit, and Baird’s, Le Conte’s and Nelson’s sparrows.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse — Photo: Tom Lawler

Heading west from Minot, we will follow along the Missouri River in the path of Lewis and Clark. We’ll see Pronghorn, perhaps a Coyote, and occasionally a moose. Later in the afternoon, the Rockies will appear in the distance, which we will cross a few hours later when having dinner while the train rumbles along the Flathead River. The next morning we will look out our windows and see the Columbia Plateau of eastern Washington, pass through the longest train tunnel in the country, and emerge on the western slope of the Cascades amid lush forests and rushing streams.  After detraining in Edmonds, we will cross Puget Sound on the ferry to the Olympic Peninsula where we will spend three days birding the forests and rocky coastline, looking for such special birds as Harlequin Duck, Sooty Grouse, Black Oystercatcher, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklet, Pacific Wren, and Varied Thrush.

After one of our early trips, John Norris, a client and friend from Dallas who had come on the train trip with his wife, said to me, “Victor, Terry and I never want to come on another one of your trips since no other trip we could ever go on could equal this trip.”

Of the hundreds of trips I have led in my career, this is one of my very favorites. Because our initial departure, led by Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis, is almost sold out, we’ve added a second departure that I will co-lead with Barry Lyon. I hope you will reserve one of the remaining spaces. Please note that we will not offer this trip again until 2016.

Birding Across America by Train, May 25-June 7, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $7,295 in double occupancy from Albany (ends in Seattle). 1 space available.

Birding Across America by Train, May 18-31, 2014 with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon; $7,295 in double occupancy from Albany (ends in Seattle).

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Tien Shan Mtns., Kazakhstan

Tien Shan Mtns., Kazakhstan — Photo: Mary Jean Hage

VENT will return to Central Asia this May with an exciting tour to Kazakhstan. On this trip we’ll explore the spectacular birdlife and unspoiled landscapes of one of the world’s largest but least known countries. Kazakhstan is a beautiful destination offering pristine steppe, desert, marshlands, and the towering, snow-capped Tien-Shan Mountains. We’ll encounter a suite of range-restricted birds—up to 260 species are possible—including an array of special birds such as Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck, Demoiselle Crane, Macqueen’s Bustard, Himalayan Griffon, Sociable Lapwing, Ibisbill, Himalayan Snowcock, Great Black-headed Gull, displaying Black Larks, and a host of lovely Himalayan birds.

Those continuing on the Uzbekistan Extension will visit the fabled cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara viewing beautiful ancient architecture including a phenomenal array of turquoise-tiled minarets, mosques, medrassahs, and mausoleums. A very special birdlist includes local and Asian species: Long-tailed Shrike, White-tailed Lapwing, Menetrie’s Warbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Persian Nuthatch, and others.

Dion Hobcroft, an expert on Asian birds, will lead these trips with a local leader. Please note that we will not offer these tours again for at least two years.

Kazakhstan: Birding in the Heart of Central Asia, May 16-31, 2014 with Dion Hobcroft and Machiel Valkenburg; $6,645 in double occupancy from Astana (ends in Almaty).

Uzbekistan Extension, May 31-June 8, 2014 with Dion Hobcroft and Machiel Valkenburg; $3,045 in double occupancy from Tashkent.

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Change is an unavoidable aspect of life, and the last couple of months have seen some important changes at VENT.

Last fall, our longtime Controller, Gordon Maxim-Kelley, departed to pursue other opportunities. Gordon was with us for 22 years and played an important role in the growth of our company. We appreciate his years of service and wish him well. Replacing Gordon is Mike Ard, who brings a strong academic and business resume to his new position. We are confident Mike will bring new talent and energy to the financial operations of VENT, and are delighted to welcome him to our team.

Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez

I also want to inform you of the departure of another longtime employee, David Bishop. Based in Australia, David joined VENT as a tour leader in 1985 and played a crucial role in the development of our Australasia program. Through the years, many of you traveled with David throughout Australia, Indonesia, India, and other parts of the Asian mainland. We wish David well in his future endeavors.

Joining the VENT team on a part-time basis are some up-and-coming leaders who possess the key ingredients of good people skills and good birding skills. These are the fresh faces of Rafael Galvez and Erik Bruhnke, who will co-lead VENT tours this spring to Texas and Portugal and Oregon and Washington respectively.

A native of Peru, but a longtime resident of South Florida, Rafael Galvez is an accomplished birder and illustrator with travel experience throughout the U.S., Latin America, and Eurasia. He served several years as a board member of the BirdLife International affiliate in the Republic of Georgia, developing educational and conservation programs. He is active with the Florida Keys Hawkwatch and Tropical Audubon Society in Miami.

A graduate of Northland College (Ashland, WI), Minnesota resident Erik Bruhnke possesses a lifelong fascination with birds. He has worn many hats in his impressive career that includes teacher of field ornithology at his alma mater, breeding bird surveyor, count interpreter at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, and birding guide. Erik is a keen photographer and writer whose material appears regularly in major birding publications.

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Over the years, word of mouth has been the most important source of VENT’s growth. To reward such referrals, we operate a New Customer Referral program for VENT travelers who bring us new participants (excluding spouses and children). If based upon your referral, someone who has never traveled with us before registers for and takes their first VENT tour, you will receive a voucher for $500 which may be used on any future VENT tour, cruise, or special departure!

To demonstrate the program’s potential, some of our travelers have earned multiple discounts on future VENT tours when they encouraged several people who had never traveled with us before to take their first VENT tours.

Some restrictions do apply, and I encourage you to check the VENT website for a more detailed explanation of our New Customer Referral program.

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If you haven’t made travel plans for the late winter/early spring period, I thought you would be interested to know that spaces are still available on a selection of outstanding March and April tours to the American Tropics and here in the U.S.: 

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse — Photo: Brian Gibbons

Jamaica, March 5-12, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Brandon Hay; $3,345 in double occupancy from Montego Bay (ends in Kingston). 5 spaces available.

Eastern Venezuela: Tepui Endemics and the Orinoco River Delta, March 6-17, 2014 with David Ascanio; $3,795 in double occupancy from Caracas. 3 spaces available.

Rockport, Texas: A Birding Workshop with Kenn Kaufman and Victor Emanuel, March 19-23, 2014 with Kenn Kaufman, Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, and Kim Kaufman; $1,395 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi. 4 spaces available.

Spring in South Texas, April 3-12, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $3,295 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi (ends in Laredo). 5 spaces available.

Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension, April 12-16, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and a second leader to be announced; $1,395 in double occupancy from Laredo (ends in San Antonio). 

Of course, the target of any hike to Boot Springs is a sighting of a Colima Warbler. This species is found nowhere else in the United States except Big Bend National Park. We tallied an impressive eight individuals for the day with many great views.

Colima Warbler, Big Bend, Texas — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Colorado Grouse, April 10-19, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Brad Schram; $2,695 in double occupancy from Gunnison (ends in Denver). 2 spaces available. 

South Florida & The Keys, April 24-30, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,395 in double occupancy from Key West. 5 spaces available. 

Dry Tortugas, April 21-24, 2014 with Michael O’Brien; $1,695 in double occupancy from Key West. 1 space available.

Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country, April 25-May 4, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer; $2,895 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso). 6 spaces available.

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This winter has been much colder than normal for many parts of the country, including where I live in Austin, Texas. For this reason I am very much looking forward to the first spring flowers and, of course, the first returning warblers. The best description I have ever read about a person’s thoughts about warblers is in Burnt House to Paw Paw by Merrill Gilfillan. This little book is about a spring road trip Merrill made in West Virginia. He writes, “Each winter, latter January or Candlemas, when the light has turned, but not much else, I begin to think of them just stirring in the Tropics, their colors brightening, and the restlessness setting in. From that point on, I am waiting. I pull down a copy of Frank Chapman’s Warblers of North America, and read a snatch now and then as the snow blows—a paragraph on the winter haunts of the Blackpoll or the migration routes of the Cerulean. Just a taste to rekindle the good, the planetary sumptuous.”

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

In about a month and a half, I expect to see my first returning spring warblers. In the interim, I will be seeing resident warblers on our upcoming Lesser Antilles cruise, February 16-24, 2014, while participants on our February and March tours in the Neotropics will be enjoying both wintering and resident warblers alike.  By April, the Texas coast will be awash in warblers, and by May they will appear all over the country. How wonderful that will be!

Finally, I am very glad to report that the final amount needed to save the Paton hummingbird house in Patagonia, Arizona has been raised. The property will be purchased from the Paton heirs on February 18. It will be owned and managed by Tucson Audubon. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made a donation and to thank our partners, American Bird Conservancy and Tucson Audubon Society.