VENTflash #172 February 12, 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,

For over 20 years, VENT has been chosen by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to organize its annual Chairman’s Council and Administrative Board retreats. This year’s trip, from which I’ve just returned, was to Southwestern Louisiana in the vicinity of Lake Charles, and was co-led by the Lab’s Executive Director, Dr. John Fitzpatrick; Director of Annual Fund and Stewardship, Scott Sutcliffe; Barry Lyon; and me.

Northern Shovelers were plentiful as well.

Northern Shoveler — Photo: Barry Zimmer

We chose the Lake Charles area for this year’s trip because its extensive marshes and rice fields are the wintering grounds for thousands of waterfowl and a wonderful array of wading birds. Despite unusually cold weather, the trip was a great success. Nineteen species of waterfowl were seen including large flocks of Snow and Greater White-fronted geese. The ducks, meanwhile, were in gorgeous breeding plumage. Since ducks are usually easy to see, and often are common, they are sometimes under-appreciated. The drake Northern Pintail in breeding plumage, with its elongated tail feathers, rich brown head, and light gray body, is one of the world’s most elegant birds. The drake Northern Shoveler, equally attractive, features a bright green head and deep rufous sides. A drake Cinnamon Teal, a rarity in Louisiana, was also seen. This small duck, more of a western species but a rare bird in these parts, is bright cinnamon with a brilliant red eye. For a grand finale, on the morning of our last day together, we watched a tractor preparing a fallow rice field for planting, ahead of which flushed 15 King Rails, 10 Virginia Rails, 8 Soras, and a lone Yellow Rail.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one of the most important organizations in the world for bird research and conservation. Its website provides a cornucopia of information. We are proud of our long association with this remarkable organization.

In this issue:



Throughout VENT’s history, most of our international tours have operated in Latin America. This is due largely to the allure of the Neotropics, where the majority of the world’s bird species are found. That said, VENT also has a long tradition in Africa, Asia, and Australia, where a robust program of tours offers access to some of the world’s greatest wildlife viewing destinations.

Along with the bee-eater, the European Roller is one of the more glamorous birds of the Hungarian plains.

European Roller — Photo: Péter Csonka/Ecotours Wildlife Holidays

The one part of the world that has not received as much attention is Europe, a continent better known for its cultural marvels rather than its birding attractions. Over the last five to ten years, thanks to trips I’ve made to Greece, Italy, Scotland, and Sweden, my eyes have opened to the fantastic avian riches that Europe holds. The birding in Europe is well-balanced, bird family-wise, with spectacular waterfowl, birds of prey, shorebirds, wading birds, and songbirds. In fact, some European birds, such as Black Stork, Eurasian Dotterel, European Roller, and European Bee-eater, to name a few, rank among the world’s most beautiful birds.

With this in mind, I’ll take the opportunity to introduce you to a Europe that you too might not have been aware of, a continent boasting outstanding natural history and thrilling birding. In 2014, VENT will operate five European tours to the southwestern, western, and eastern parts of the continent. Some of these trips focus primarily on finding regional specialty birds and widespread residents, enhanced with touches of history and culture, while others are “Birds & History” tours in which birding activities are combined with historical walking tours and visits to famous archaeological sites.

I hope you will consider joining us for a European tour in 2014!

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Our tour will kick off in Lisbon, a colorful, culturally rich capital city on the Atlantic coast of Portugal.

Lisbon, the culturally rich capital city of Portugal

Comprising the Iberian Peninsula in southwesternmost Europe, Portugal and Spain encompass one of the continent’s greatest birding regions. Our Southern Portugal: Birds & History tour represents our first-ever foray to the lovely country of Portugal. Containing many of the same birds that occur in Spain, Portugal offers a wonderfully complex and colorful history which we will explore in-depth; our Spring Birding in Spain tour provides exposure to a vertical transect of one of Europe’s most alluring countries with emphasis on regional specialty birds and northbound migrants.

Southern Portugal: Birds & History, May 3-14, 2014 with João Jara and Rafael Galvez; $4,495 in double occupancy from Lisbon. This tour was sold out until recently; cancellations have resulted in the availability of two spaces!

The highly sought Azure-winged Magpie is an elegant bird of Portuguese woodlands.

Azure-winged Magpie — Photo: Faísca

Our Birds & History trip to the country’s southern half promises an abundance of spectacular birds, beautiful landscapes, history, and culture. Our trip is timed for the latter half of spring migration and the onset of the breeding season; consequently, we anticipate encounters with a wonderful variety of birds, including Little and Great bustards, Black Stork, Red-legged Partridge, Cinereous Vulture, Spanish and Bonelli’s eagles, Audouin’s Gull, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-necked Nightjar, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Rufous Bush-Robin, Azure-winged Magpie, and Eurasian Golden Oriole. Interweaving with our natural history pursuits will be an emphasis on Portugal’s history, including the Age of Discovery. At various times we’ll be joined by licensed historians who will lead us on walking tours of the historic districts of Lisbon, Évora, Mértola, and Tavira, where we’ll wander over winding streets through historic plazas and squares en route to an array of castles, cathedrals, museums, Roman ruins, and modern promenades and cafés.

Spring Birding in Spain, April 24-May 11, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Santiago Villa; $6,050 from Sevilla (ends in Madrid). Sold out!

Spain possesses one of the largest bird diversities in Europe, and this comprehensive tour explores the best birding areas on the Iberian Peninsula, from the wetlands on the Atlantic coast to the high mountains of the Pyrenees, the savanna-like habitats of Extremadura, the dramatic Sierra de Gredos, and the dry grounds of the Ebro Valley steppes. Representative of the many specialty birds we’ll seek are Black Stork, Eurasian Spoonbill, Lammergeier, Spanish Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Azure-winged Magpie, European Bee-eater, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, Wallcreeper, White-winged Snowfinch and many others. Hallmarks of this trip are great accommodations including picturesque guesthouses, good food and wine, and easy birding on moderately-paced days.

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Featuring timeless landscapes, architectural and historical wonders, and marvelous spring birding, Scotland and England are enticing late spring destinations. Our Scotland in Style tour explores the birds of the Scottish Highlands from our base at picturesque Grantown-On-Spey within beautiful Cairngorms National Park. Our Southern Britain: Birds & History tour immediately follows Scotland in Style, where the focus shifts to Southern England and its combination of varied birding and world-class historical sites.

Loch Beannacharain, Scotland

Loch Beannacharain, Scotland — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

These unique and exciting European tours are ideal for the serious birder as well as birders with non-birding partners, friends, or family—each offering impressive lists of birds and powerful insight into the complexities of English and Scottish history.

Scotland in Style, May 8-17, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker and Phil Jones; $3,295 in double occupancy from Inverness.

The Scottish Highlands offer some of the finest scenery and best birding in the British Isles. On this tour we will explore the Highland region, seeking its special birds and visiting several places of high historical and architectural significance. Based out of a single-site accommodation, our birding activities will target localized specialty birds and widespread resident species alike, such as Arctic Loon, Eurasian Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Tawny Owl, Crested Tit, Ring Ouzel, White-throated Dipper, Scottish Crossbill, and raptors such as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle, Red Kite, and White-tailed Eagle.

Our non-birding activities will see us delve into the depths of Scottish history. Our accommodation is central to many fine castles and sites of historical significance such as Cawdor Castle, Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, Culloden Battlefield, and stunning Balmoral Castle.

Southern Britain: Birds & History, May 17-28, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker and Phil Jones; $3,495 in double occupancy from London. 4 spaces available.

Pied Avocet

Pied Avocet — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

This tour is based entirely from a comfortable hotel in the English countryside of Kent—the “Garden of England.” Much of Britain’s essential history is found in southeast England, and this tour gives a tremendous overview of the thousands of years of English history while also visiting prime wetland nature reserves and migration hot spots to search for resident and migrant birds.

Kent is the richest area for birding in Britain. We’ll visit several of the United Kingdom’s top nature reserves with large, comfortable blinds. We expect to see such avian dandies as Eurasian Spoonbill, Purple Heron, Great Bittern, Red-legged Partridge, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Shelduck, Spotted Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Hobby, Pied Avocet, Common Cuckoo, Common Kingfisher, Green and Great Spotted woodpeckers, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Bullfinch, Firecrest, Dartford Warbler, Yellowhammer, and many more.

Britain possesses a monumental history from the time of the Romans to World War II. There are countless castles, fortifications, churches, stately homes, and museums to choose from—everything from ancient Roman towns to fascinating industrial archaeology. There are vivid links with every era from the Stone Age to the present. Different themes beckon to be discovered: Chaucer’s medieval Britain; British Naval Glories; King Henry VIII; Invasions and Conquests; Dickens and Darwin; the sites of London; and even a mixed birding/cultural visit to France.

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For the first time in over a decade, VENT will return to the Eastern European country of Hungary with an Autumn Migration in Hungary tour, August 30-September 11, 2014. Although little-known to many travelers, Hungary is, in fact, one of the premier birding areas of Eastern Europe, and home to one of the great cities of the world in Budapest. Years ago, I co-led a similar-styled tour and found Hungary to be a beautiful, fascinating, and bird-rich country.

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker — Photo: Ecotours Wildlife Holidays

This exciting trip includes visits to several national parks and preserves, including the famed Hortobágy National Park, and some cultural highlights. From Budapest, we’ll travel counterclockwise through wetland and grassland ecosystems, the vast Hungarian steppe country, and forested rolling hills of the northeast at a dynamic time of the year, autumn migration, when resident birds are joined by thousands of southbound waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Among the tour’s many avian attractions are raptors: Saker and Red-footed falcons, and White-tailed, Imperial, Short-toed, and Lesser Spotted eagles; a superb diversity of shorebirds and waders; flocks of Eurasian Dotterels; Ural Owl; up to eight species of woodpeckers, including Black Woodpecker; concentrations of Black Storks with a few lingering White Storks; and Hawfinch.

For a touch of cultural infusion, on one evening we will have a traditional dinner in a wine cellar with a tasting of local wines, while our trip culminates with a grand finale tour of Budapest.

This tour will be led by VENT leader Brian Gibbons and local leader Attila Steiner, who together will make a marvelous team. With high quality birding in close proximity to outstanding history and culture, I cannot recommend a trip to Hungary too highly!

Autumn Migration in Hungary, August 30-September 11, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Attila Steiner; $3,995 in double occupancy from Budapest.

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Looking ahead to the next couple of months, I am delighted to report that most VENT tours are full, including many with waiting lists. If, however, you are someone who is open to making relatively late travel plans, I thought you would be interested to know that spaces are still available on a handful of upcoming tours to Jamaica, Venezuela, and here in the U.S. All of these tours promise exciting birding at a beautiful time of year: 

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

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler, Texas — Photo: Greg Lasley

Rockport, Texas: A Birding Workshop with Kenn Kaufman and Victor Emanuel, March 19-23, 2014; $1,395 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi. 2 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). 4 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).

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.

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

South Florida & The Keys, April 24-30, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,395 in double occupancy from Key West. 4 spaces 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). 4 spaces available.

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After an unusually cold winter in many parts of the country, we are all looking forward to spring. While in Louisiana last week, I saw buttercups, the first spring flowers, and flocks of geese in V-formation were already heading north.

After a superb array of trips during the first month of the year, I am confident that all of our tours departing this month will be equally wonderful.

Finally, this weekend, February 14-17, marks the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Everyone can participate! Check the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more information.