VENTflash #174 May 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,

As many of you know, I own a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula north of Galveston, Texas. I don’t get down there as often as I would like, but this month I had the pleasure of spending sixteen days at this wonderful retreat, visiting with friends and birding at a number of famous nearby birding areas including High Island, the Bolivar Flats, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Following is a day from my journal:

Victor Emanuel and Dorian

Victor Emanuel and Dorian “Biking for Birds” Anderson

“I am sitting on the porch of my cottage at the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula. Looking to the southwest I can see Galveston. Huge ships are coming out of Galveston Bay. Along the shoreline in front of my house are several thousand American Avocets, 27 Great Egrets, 15 Snowy Egrets, several Tricolored Herons, a Roseate Spoonbill, about 600 Black Skimmers, and hundreds of other birds. This is the twelfth morning I have woken up and greeted the day here. I grew up in Houston and have birded this coastline from my teenage years. The Upper Texas Coast will always be a special place for me. This spring I have birded High Island on many days and have seen 24 species of warblers and many other migrants. I have also seen a lot of old friends, had lunch with a VENT tour group, and met many interesting people. One special treat was seeing my old friend Dorian Anderson. Dorian attended four VENT/ABA youth birding camps as a teenager. On January 1 he began a remarkable journey: he is riding his bike around the country on a “biking and birding Big Year” from Boston to Oregon and then returning to Texas to end the year in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. He is using this effort to raise money for conservation. He has raised over $11,000 to date.

Dorian spent the last two nights with me. We spent much of yesterday birding near my house where highlights included a flock of 70 Franklin’s Gulls that had arrived from wintering in central Chile and 7 Hudsonian Godwits that had flown here from southern Chile. We ended the day with a gorgeous pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers.

As I watched Dorian ride away this morning, I thought about the adventures that await him. He will see North America as no other birder ever has."

You can follow Dorian on his remarkable journey by visiting his blog:

In this issue:



If you’ve not yet made your summer travel plans, I thought you’d like to know that spaces are newly available on upcoming trips to the Galapagos Islands and the famed Pantanal region of Brazil.

Galapagos Islands Cruise

Nazca Booby

Nazca Booby, Galapagos Islands — Photo: Barry Zimmer

For this summer’s cruise to the Galapagos Islands, VENT has taken a half-charter on the 32-passenger M/V Evolution. Although this departure has been sold out for months, I am delighted to inform you that our travel partner, International Expeditions, has just released additional cabins for sale to VENT travelers! If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands, especially during the desirable summer travel season, I encourage you to consider this trip. The Evolution is one of the best ships in the islands and our itinerary is one of the best available, visiting most of the major islands and producing most of the key birds and other wildlife. This tour will be led by Ecuador-based VENT guides Paul Greenfield and Tony Nunnery.

Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard M/V Evolution, July 25-August 3, 2014 with Paul Greenfield and Tony Nunnery; $6,595 in double occupancy from Quito.

Brazil: Pantanal

Despite the apparent closeness of this cat, we keep a safe enough distance so as not to disrupt its normal behavior. This Jaguar was photographed just before entering the river. The sunlight on the spotted coat is magnificent.

Jaguar in the Pantanal — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

This September VENT will operate a private tour for New Jersey Audubon to the wildlife-rich Pantanal region of southern Brazil. This trip is almost sold out, with only two spaces still available. With departure only four months away, we are making these last two spaces available to VENT travelers. This is an exceptional opportunity. Our three regularly scheduled trips to the Pantanal this summer are sold out! Because of the high probability of seeing a Jaguar, in addition to an array of other spectacular wildlife, the Pantanal has emerged as one of the world’s premier wildlife viewing destinations. These spaces will be sold on a first-come basis.

Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada Dos Guimaraes, September 1-13, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker, David Ascanio, and Dale Rosselet; $6,250 in double occupancy from Cuiaba. 2 spaces available.

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This is a last call announcement for our upcoming tour to Colombia: The Central & Western Andes. With the departure date only a little more than a month away, I want to focus your attention on this outstanding travel opportunity, especially for those who can travel on short notice.

Black-and-gold Tanager

Black-and-gold Tanager — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Our Central and Western Andes tour, June 9-24, 2014, visits four exciting destinations in the Central Andes and two incredible bird-rich sites in the Western Andes.

Colombia boasts the world’s longest list of birds, now near 1,900 species, and this exciting tour route capitalizes on the spectacularly rich montane avifauna, famous for its hummingbirds and tanagers. We’ll have an opportunity to search for a good number of Colombia’s endemics, among them the Yellow-eared Parrot, critically endangered Indigo-winged Parrot, hummingbirds, antpittas, dozens of colorful tanagers including the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager, Black-and-gold Tanager, and Red-bellied Grackle among many others. This trip also presents an opportunity to travel with Steve Hilty, author of the landmark field guide Birds of Colombia.

Colombia: The Central & Western Andes, June 9-24, 2014 with Steve Hilty and a local leader; $6,495 in double occupancy from Bogotá.

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Early last month I was faced with the sad and difficult news that my longtime friend Peter Matthiessen passed away following a battle with leukemia. Peter was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century and the first person ever to win the National Book Award in both Non-Fiction and Fiction genres. He was a larger than life figure and one of my closest friends.

Victor Emanuel and Peter Matthiessen

Victor Emanuel and Peter Matthiessen

I first met Peter Matthiessen at a dinner party in New York City in December 1974. The previous December, National Audubon had sent the author and journalist George Plimpton to Texas to do a story on the Freeport Christmas Bird Count, a tradition I started in 1956. George and I became fast friends, and, in our time together, he told me he wanted me to meet his oldest friend Peter Matthiessen. Coincidentally, I had recently read The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972), Peter’s masterful account of his travels in East Africa. Something that caught my attention was the book’s dedication to his late wife Deborah Love Matthiessen. Based on that dedication, and George’s description of Peter as his oldest friend, I thought I had better meet him before he passed on. When I entered the Plimpton’s living room I was surprised to see a young man sitting with a very attractive young woman. They turned out to be Peter and his date Maria Eckhart.

Peter invited us to spend the weekend with him at his home in Sagaponack on Long Island. That weekend was the beginning of one of the most important friendships of my life. Peter, also a birder and a naturalist, co-led one of VENT’s first tours with John Rowlett and me in April 1976. On that trip, we started in Houston, birded the piney-woods and the entire Texas coast, and ended in South Texas. One of the highlights were close views of Greater “Attwater’s” Prairie-Chickens on a private ranch. We were allowed on the ranch only because the owner was a great admirer of Peter’s writing. The most memorable part of the trip was an afternoon when Peter read selections from The Snow Leopard (to be published in 1978 and later would win the National Book Award for Contemporary Thought, 1979, and Non-Fiction, 1980). While with our tour group aboard a boat to see the Whooping Cranes in Rockport, we asked Peter to co-lead a tour with us to Kenya and Botswana and to become an associate of our new company. He agreed to both requests.

The Snow Leopard

The Snow Leopard

Over the next 40 years, Peter co-led 26 VENT trips to locations as diverse as Peru, Namibia and Botswana, Tanzania, Bhutan, Churchill, Greece, and the Lesser Antilles. Among the most memorable tours I co-led with Peter were cruises to Antarctica from southern Argentina and from Tasmania. The latter trip visited three colonies of Emperor Penguins. Another memorable trip was a tour to northern India and Bhutan on which his friends William Styron and George Plimpton were participants. After the tour ended, Peter and I went to China to visit Poyang Lake and then on to Japan. On that trip we saw all eight of the crane species of Asia including the Siberian, Black-necked, and Red-crowned cranes. He described some of our adventures in a wonderful book, The Birds of Heaven (2001). Peter and I co-led VENT’s first-ever “Tundra Buggy” trip to look for Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba in October 1980. That trip was featured on CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. In the 1990s, Peter was also one of the leaders on our Palace on Wheels trip in India, and a keynote speaker at VENT’s 30th Anniversary Celebration in McAllen, Texas, April 2006. In his speech he noted that his VENT trips had been a very important part of his life.

Peter was one of my dearest friends. I was privileged to travel with him to all seven continents and to visit him and Maria (whom he married in 1980) many times at their home in Sagaponack. We shared a common interest in birds and nature, and Peter, who in his endlessly varied life was also a Zen Buddhist monk, wrote of me in an article that I had a Zen approach to birding because every time I saw a bird it was as though I was seeing it for the first time. Peter had that same attitude. Our mutual love of birds and nature was what connected us, but we also had common interests in literature, ideas, history, social issues, and culture.

Shadow Country

Shadow Country

Peter was a kind, gentle, caring man. He is one of the greatest writers our country has ever produced. His National Book Award-winning Shadow Country (2008 in the category of Fiction), is a masterpiece. He was a passionate conservationist. I admired his integrity, his generosity, and his intellect. He was one of the finest men I have ever known. My nickname for him was “Curlew” because he loved shorebirds above all other birds. His nickname for me was “Warbler” because warblers are my favorite birds. Whenever I called, I would say, “Curlew” and he would reply, “Warbler.”

The day before he died I spent most of the day on the porch of my small beach house on the Texas coast that overlooks a salt marsh and the adjacent Bolivar Flats. There was not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine was brilliant. Ten thousand avocets and many other birds were feeding nearby. I knew Peter was near the end and I thought of him often during the day. Numbers of Whimbrels had spent the night on the flats and flown inland at first light, but later in the day I was surprised to see a lone Whimbrel flying over the marsh. With my binoculars I kept the bird in view a long time as it flew back and forth. Then, all of a sudden, it dropped into the marsh and disappeared.

More thorough accounts of the life of Peter Matthiessen appeared in The New York Times Magazine, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing,” April 3, 2014; and in an obituary published in The New York Times, April 5, 2014.

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There is no place that is better for birding in October than Southeastern Brazil, where VENT has operated tours for over 30 years. No company has more experience in this region, or a more knowledgeable leader than Kevin Zimmer who, along with Andrew Whittaker, is literally writing the book on this marvelous country’s birdlife.  He and Andrew were chosen by Princeton University Press for this monumental work.

Brazilian Ruby (male)

Brazilian Ruby (male) — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our Southeastern Brazil tour is available in two parts, with a pre-trip option to Iguacu Falls. If you take all three segments, you will see over 170 species of birds found nowhere else in the world, including a dazzling collection of hummingbirds and tanagers. The climate is great for these tours and the accommodations and food are very good. Descriptions of each of these tours appeared in the previous edition of VENTflash (#173). A few spaces are available on all of these fine tours. I hope you will join us for one or more of them.

Southeastern Brazil: Iguacu Falls Pre-trip, October 1-5, 2014 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $2,495 in double occupancy from Iguacu Falls. Discount of $150 in double occupancy and $225 in single occupancy when combined with Southeastern Brazil Part I.

Southeastern Brazil Part I: Atlantic Forest Endemics & Southern Grassland Specialties, October 3-15, 2014 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; 3,995 in double occupancy from Curitiba (ends in Porto Alegre). Discount of $150 in double occupancy and $225 in single occupancy when combined with Southeastern Brazil: Iguacu Falls Pre-trip.

Southeastern Brazil Part II: Best of the Atlantic Forest, 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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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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Papuan Lorikeet at Kumul Lodge, August 2013

Papuan Lorikeet, New Guinea — Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Four spaces are still available on our Papua New Guinea Highlights tour that will operate this September. This relatively short trip is designed around the premise of a “best of” tour to New Guinea’s top birding sites. As you may know, Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most remarkable birding and natural history destinations. The birds-of-paradise are of greatest interest, but the island also hosts many other spectacular birds including cassowaries; mound builders; a gorgeous array of doves, parrots, and kingfishers; fairywrens; and bowerbirds. This tour will be led by Dion Hobcroft, a leader with plenty of New Guinea experience.

An optional pre-trip to West New Britain provides exposure to the Bismark Archipelago and a chance to see birds we won’t encounter on the main tour.

Papua New Guinea Highlights, September 1-14, 2014 with Dion Hobcroft; $12,495 in double occupancy from Brisbane, Australia. Discount of $600 per person in double occupancy and $825 in single occupancy if combined with Papua New Guinea: West New Britain.

Papua New Guinea: West New Britain, August 27-September 4, 2014 with Dion Hobcroft; $3,895 in double occupancy from Brisbane, Australia. Discount of $600 per person in double occupancy and $825 in single occupancy if combined with Papua New Guinea Highlights.

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With the onset of the summer travel season only a month away, I thought you might like to know that spaces are still available on a number of outstanding VENT tours departing in June, July, and August. Whether you are able to travel on short notice, or require a longer timeframe to plan your travel, we have a variety of domestic and international trips from which to choose:


A male White-eared Hummingbird was also present in Miller Canyon. We had nine species of hummingbirds on our tour.

White-eared Hummingbird, Arizona — Photo: Barry Zimmer

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

Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, June 8-14, 2014 with Bob Sundstrom and Rafael Galvez; $2,095 in double occupancy from Seattle. 2 spaces available.

Alaska Mainland, June 16-27, 2014 with Barry Zimmer; $6,695 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 3 spaces available.

Nature of Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito, June 17-23, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,795 in double occupancy from San Pedro Sula. 4 spaces available.

Grand Costa Rica, July 7-21, 2014 with Jeri Langham; $5,395 in double occupancy from San José. 1 space available.

Avian Jewels of Arizona, July 20-27, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $2,195 in double occupancy from Tucson. 6 spaces available. 

Tumbes Tyrant

Tumbes Tyrant, Peru — Photo: Manu Expeditions

The Pacific Northwest: An Introductory Birding Tour, July 23-27, 2014 with Bob Sundstrom; $1,695 in double occupancy from Seattle. 4 spaces available.

Northern Peru’s Tumbes & Maranon Endemics, June 27-July 4, 2014 with Andrew Whittaker; $4,895 in double occupancy from Lima. 4 spaces available.

Autumn Migration in Hungary, August 30-September 11, 2014 with Brian Gibbons and Attila Steiner; $3,995 in double occupancy from Budapest. 4 spaces available.

Autumn Grand Manan, September 1-7, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $3,495 in double occupancy from Bangor. 7 spaces available.

Panama’s Canopy Tower: Birds & Butterflies, August 16-23, 2014 with Michael O’Brien and a local leader; $2,595 in double occupancy from Panama City. 6 spaces available.

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Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Fort Travis, Texas

Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Fort Travis, Texas— Photo: Bert Frenz

All over the world, birds that spent the boreal winter in tropical regions are heading back north to their breeding grounds. Here in North America we are fortunate to have the opportunity to witness one of the greatest of these migrations: the trans-Gulf of Mexico crossing of millions of songbirds and shorebirds. Seeing a bird during spring migration is made even more meaningful by an awareness of the bird’s journey to your observation site.

A flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers spent several days feeding in the short grass of Fort Travis, a county park on the shore of the Gulf near my Bolivar cottage. One male bird even performed its courtship display. These sandpipers winter in grasslands in southern Brazil and Argentina. It is remarkable to me that this group may have migrated non-stop from its wintering grounds to Fort Travis! It is encounters with birds such as this that make spring such an exciting time of the year.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel