VENTflash #173 March 18, 2014

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’ve recently returned from the Eastern Caribbean where I co-led our Lesser Antilles Cruise aboard the Sea Cloud. In a little over a week, we traveled from Antigua to Barbados birding our way through a region that is home to some of the world’s most beautiful tropical islands including Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. Legendary for their postcard-paradise scenery, these islands are equally famous to birders and naturalists for their remarkable biogeography, especially endemic birds. In the Caribbean, almost all the birds are range-restricted to one degree or another, but it is the endemic parrots and hummingbirds that attract the most attention.

Purple-throated Carib

Purple-throated Carib — Photo: Steve Gast

Our birding field trips were very successful as we saw all five of the marvelous parrots that are found in the region: Red-necked, Imperial, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent parrots. All of these parrots are threatened, but thanks to conservation efforts by RARE, the populations of all of these birds are now stable or increasing. As for the hummingbirds, we saw the four species unique to the Lesser Antilles including the stunning caribs—Purple-throated and Green-throated—the dashing Antillean Crested Hummingbird, and the gorgeous Blue-headed Hummingbird. On top of this we were treated to scores of endemic doves, flycatchers, thrushes, thrashers, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more. Participants who joined our pre-trip to Antigua, Montserrat, and Barbuda were treated to two other endemics, the Barbuda Warbler and the Montserrat Oriole—neither of which has ever been seen previously on a VENT tour!

The success of our trip was enhanced by the addition to our staff of botanist Peter Zika and historian John Harrison, whose lectures and interpretation made this trip a well-rounded adventure.

This cruise marked the eighth time that VENT has chartered the Sea Cloud, considered by many the most beautiful sailing ship ever built. Although we’ve not yet made an official announcement, we have chartered this historic vessel again next year for a wonderful Birds & History voyage in the Mediterranean: Greece & Turkey: From Athens to Istanbul aboard the Sea Cloud, June 18-29, 2015.

I hope you can join us.

In this issue:



Every year VENT offers at least 135 birding and natural history tours to over 100 destinations worldwide. Of these, Southeastern Brazil, in my estimation, ranks among the world’s top destinations for birding, with many spectacular birds found nowhere else and where accommodations and food are of excellent quality.

Pin-tailed Manakin

Pin-tailed Manakin — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Last year’s trips tallied 500 species, of which an amazing 170 are endemic to this region. Some of the special birds recorded by our tour groups were Swallow-tailed Cotinga, Bare-throated Bellbird, Pin-tailed Manakin, Red-breasted Toucan, and Azure Jay. The hummingbird and tanager shows in Southeastern Brazil are some of the best in South America. Twenty-two species of hummingbirds were seen, more than half of which are found nowhere else. The tanager family includes some of the most beautiful birds in the world. These trips saw 29 species of tanagers including 15 endemics. Many of the hummingbirds and tanagers were seen at feeders, which presented the opportunity for taking photos and for repeated observation of such stunning birds as the Brassy-breasted Tanager and Green-headed Tanager.

My first trip to Brazil occurred in 1980 when I traveled there with the late Ted Parker, who was already a legendary Neotropical birder. Every day brought wonderful experiences such as watching a flock of Saffron-cowled Blackbirds walking through short grass as a Black-and-white Monjita hovered overhead; or gazing at Itaimbezinho Canyon after seeing my lifer Azure Jays in the magnificent Araucaria forest. I will never forget staying at the Hotel Do Ipe, Ted’s favorite lodge, where the feeders were filled with tanagers, the food was superb, and a host of other species were found just up the road. The VENT Southeastern Brazil Part II tour spends four nights at this charming hotel which is on the slopes of Itatiaia Mountain.

Our Southeastern Brazil trips run in October when spring comes to the region. The climate at that time of the year is delightful and the birding is terrific. For anyone who loves birds and nature there is no better place to be in October than Southeastern Brazil, and no better person to be there with than Kevin Zimmer, a very popular VENT leader who was chosen by Princeton University Press to co-author the definitive guide to the birds of Brazil.

Brassy-breasted Tanager, Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013

Brassy-breasted Tanager — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

This fall we will again operate our two-part tour to this magnificent destination, either segment of which can be taken separately or combined for the full Southeastern Brazil experience:

Our Southeastern Brazil Part I tour explores an impressive variety of habitats, ranging from the upland grasslands and Araucaria forests of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, to the coastal restinga woodlands of Santa Catarina and the montane forests of the scenically spectacular Serra da Graciosa mountain range. On this tour we expect to see well over 300 species of birds, including over 100 endemics.

Southeastern Brazil Part I: Coastal Paraná, Santa Catarina & Rio Grande do Sul, October 3-15, 2014 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $3,995 in double occupancy from Curitiba (ends in Porto Alegre).

Part II concentrates on the heart of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, located entirely within the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. It covers fewer habitats than Part I, but spends much time in the lovely Serra do Mar range, where rugged peaks clothed in lush forest descend to meet white sand beaches and aquamarine coastal waters. We expect 350–400 species of birds, and over 120 endemics among them, including some sensational hummingbird concentrations.

Southeastern Brazil Part II: Heart of the Atlantic Forest and Serra do Mar, October 13-27, 2014 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $4,995 in double occupancy from Sao Paulo (ends in Rio de Janeiro).

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Steller's Sea-Eagle

Steller’s Sea-Eagle — Photo: Peter Harrison

Our program of cruises for birders and natural history enthusiasts continues this summer with back-to-back voyages in the North Pacific Ocean. For these trips, Wild Alaska and Wild Siberia, we will partner with Zegrahm Expeditions, one of the most respected names in expedition-style travel, to present two opportunities to explore one of the most remote corners of the planet. The marine environments of the North Pacific Ocean hold some of the most nutrient-rich waters on Earth. These waters, in turn, sustain an incredible biomass populated by bears, otters, a plethora of marine mammals, eagles, and millions of seabirds. Each of these departures promises extraordinary experiences in nature, headlined by world-class scenic wonders. Both departures will travel aboard the very lovely Caledonian Sky. A few cabins are still available on each of these amazing trips, neither of which will be offered again for at least two years.

Wild Alaska with the Aleutian Islands

Bird spectacles are among my favorite phenomena. Last summer, while co-leading our Wild Alaska cruise, I was thrilled to see over 1,000 Tufted Puffins on a single occasion near Kodiak Island. There were hundreds in the water in small groups right near our Zodiacs and hundreds more in the sky. Nearby were groups of Sea Otters and many other birds including gorgeous Harlequin Ducks and Black Oystercatchers. This was just the first day of a fantastic cruise that explored much of the Bering Sea from the Alaska Peninsula to remote oceanic islands to Nome. For this summer’s departure, our program will again include the Alaska Peninsula (with Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island), but instead of exploring the northern reaches of the Bering Sea, we will explore far to the west, going all the way to Attu and the outer Aleutian Islands and beyond! This trip will be led by Brian Gibbons. 

Kamchatka Brown Bear at Nataliya Bay

Kamchatka Brown Bear — Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Wild Alaska with the Aleutian Islands, July 11-27, 2014 with Brian Gibbons; cabin prices start at $12,470 in double occupancy from Anchorage (ends in Petropavlovsk). Combine with Wild Siberia and receive a 5% discount.

Wild Siberia: Kamchatka, Sea of Okhotsk, and Sakhalin Island

The vast lands and seas of the Russian Far East, as embodied in the name “Siberia,” are incredible repositories of natural history. On this voyage to this lightly populated region we’ll witness the scenic splendor and magnificent wildlife spectacles that comparatively few have seen. We’ll lay eyes on the snow-capped volcanoes and wildflower-studded tundra of the Kamchatka Peninsula, navigate the spectacular shoreline of the Sea of Okhotsk, and observe a multitude of Asian birds on Sakhalin Island. Russian Brown Bears, whales, Steller’s Sea-Eagles, and millions of seabirds are the epitome of wildness here—all set against a backdrop of scenic splendor and a rich and complex human history.

Wild Siberia, July 25-August 12, 2014 with David Wolf; cabin prices start at $14,970 in double occupancy from Petropavlovsk (ends in Sapporo, Japan). Combine with Wild Alaska and receive a 5% discount.

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A scenic shot of the Kenai Peninsula.

The Kenai Peninsula — Photo: Barry Zimmer

With only a few months before the start of the summer travel season, I want to remind you that spaces are still available on our Alaska Mainland tour. For anyone who loves birds, nature, and dramatic landscapes, a trip to Alaska is a necessary pilgrimage. VENT has been offering tours to Alaska for over 30 years. Our Alaska Mainland tour is essentially a highlights tour, visiting the Anchorage area, incomparable Nome, the majestic Kenai Peninsula and Kenai Fjords National Park, and, of course, mighty Denali National Park. We’ll seek a range of Alaska specialty birds and mammals in addition to other birds of the far north. Our Alaska Mainland tour is led by Barry Zimmer, a popular leader who has over two decades of experience guiding tours in Alaska. I have been to Alaska a number of times and regard it as one of the world’s top wildlife viewing destinations.

Alaska Mainland, June 16-27, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $6,695 in double occupancy from Anchorage.

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From time to time I share with our travelers news of changes at VENT, especially those concerning our office staff and leaders. This month I am pleased to report two items of good news:

First, VENT’s Board of Directors appointed Barry Lyon as Chief Operations Officer (COO). In his position, Barry will be in charge of tour planning and office management, among a range of other new responsibilities. Barry has been with VENT for 19 years, ten years as a tour leader and nine years as a member of our office staff. He will continue to lead a couple of tours a year, but most of his time will now be spent in the office.

Second, I am happy to announce that Kate Harvey has joined our office staff on a part-time basis. Some of our longtime travelers might remember Kate from years ago when she worked at VENT as a Tour Operations Manager. Kate left VENT a long time ago to raise a family. Now, many years later, with her children grown, she has rejoined our team where her addition makes our outstanding office staff even better. Among her many responsibilities, she is our receptionist and, additionally, assists Tour Operations Managers and Assistants with tour registrations and database management. We offer her a warm welcome.

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl, Minnesota — Photo: Brian Gibbons

I’m delighted to inform you that Minnesota native Erik Bruhnke will co-lead our annual Minnesota and North Dakota tour, June 2-10, 2014. Erik is an outstanding leader with a passion for birds and for showing them to others. His addition to this tour combines excellent local knowledge with that of veteran VENT leader Brian Gibbons. This is a very special trip that seeks some of the country’s most charismatic and difficult to find birds including Yellow Rail, Great Gray Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Connecticut Warbler, and Baird’s Sparrow. Spaces are still available on this outstanding tour.

Minnesota and North Dakota, June 2-10, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Erik Bruhnke; $2,695 in double occupancy from Duluth. Limit 14. 4 spaces available.

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The official start of spring is now only days away. While many people prefer to be at home in the spring, VENT offers opportunities to celebrate the joys of the season in a variety of destinations at home and abroad. If you’ve not yet made your spring travel plans or are open to “last minute” travel, I thought you might like to know that spaces are still available on an array of April and May tours:

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). Limit 14. 2 spaces available.

Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension, April 12-16, 2014 with Barry Zimmer; $1,395 in double occupancy from Laredo (ends in San Antonio). Limit 7. 2 spaces available.

Dry Tortugas, April 21-24, 2014 with Michael O’Brien; $1,695 in quadruple occupancy from Key West. Limit 11. 1 space available. Can be combined with South Florida & The Keys. 

Displaying a sky-blue body plumage, and a medley of other pastel colors, the Eurasian Roller is a widespread and beautiful European bird that favors open country habitats.

European Roller, Portugal — Photo: Faísca

South Florida & The Keys, April 24-30, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,395 in double occupancy from Key West. Limit 14. 1 space available. Can be combined with the Dry Tortugas.

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). Limit 14. 2 spaces available.

Southern Portugal: Birds & History, May 3-14, 2014 with João Jara and Rafael Galvez; $4,495 in double occupancy from Lisbon. Limit 12. 4 spaces available.

Scotland in Style, May 8-17, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker and Phil Jones; $3,295 in double occupancy from Inverness. Limit 14. 5 spaces available. Can be combined with Southern Britain: Birds & History.

Southern Britain: Birds & History, May 17-28, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker and Phil Jones; $3,495 in double occupancy from London. Limit 14. 2 spaces available. Can be combined with Scotland in Style.

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). Limit 14. 2 spaces available.

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). Limit 14. 2 spaces available.

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Wandering Albatross on Nest, South Georgia Island

Wandering Albatross on Nest, South Georgia Island — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

It goes almost without saying that a trip to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands represents the pinnacle of nature travel. At once famous for its astonishing beauty, extraordinary wildlife spectacles, and remarkable human history, Antarctica is a destination of legend and lore, of timeless and irresistible appeal.

This December, VENT will operate its next voyage to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands Islands, December 15, 2014-January 8, 2015. For this departure we will team with Quark Expeditions for the full Southern Ocean experience. Unlike many operators, which visit the Antarctic Peninsula only, we choose highly regarded operators whose programs include the wildlife rich Falkland Islands and the alpine citadel that is South Georgia Island, for these latter locations are, in fact, where most of the wildlife is found.

I have been very fortunate to have been to Antarctica more than 10 times over my career and I can honestly say that nature-based travel doesn’t get any better than a trip to the White Continent.

Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, December 15, 2014-January 8, 2015 with Brian Gibbons; cabin prices start at $18,880 in double occupancy from Ushuaia.

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Yet another shot of a Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Golden-cheeked Warbler — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Much of the country is still experiencing winter weather, but spring is coming! The year’s first returning Neotropical migrants have appeared in Central Texas including our famous Golden-cheeked Warblers. It is exciting to think of all the millions of birds that will be heading north over the next few months. For a birder and naturalist, every spring is special—a rejuvenating time of beauty when the season’s first flowers and the return of our glorious songbirds are a time for celebration.

This April I want to take in as much of the spectacle of spring migration as possible, and will spend the entire month at my beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula near High Island, watching spring unfold and sharing it with lots of old friends. In the meantime, tomorrow I depart for the Central Texas Coast where I will co-lead our annual Rockport, Texas Birding Workshop with Kenn Kaufman, Kim Kaufman, and Barry Lyon.

Finally, from the world of birding comes the exciting news that the second edition of the Sibley Guide to Birds was released this past week. Incorporating the most recent taxonomic changes (which have been substantial in recent years) and 66 new color plates, this field guide becomes an instant necessity to the library of most birders.