VENTflash #179 September 25, 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,

This month has been a special one for me as I have spent time with friends in two wonderful places: Big Bend National Park in West Texas and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Our arrival in Big Bend National Park that evening was highlighted by a glorious sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Two weeks ago I went with a friend to Big Bend, one of my favorite places in the world. While better-known parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone are famous for their dramatic geologic features, the magic of Big Bend lies in the vastness of its desert and in a majestic “sky island” mountain range. The park takes its name from the pronounced bend in the course of the Rio Grande River, which forms Big Bend’s southern boundary. The most obvious feature here is the Chihuahuan Desert, a botanical community composed mainly of Creosote, yuccas, and Lechuguilla. Rising from this desert are the Chisos Mountains, the product of a caldera eruption that occurred millions of years ago.

During our visit, clouds were abundant over the mountains every day, appearing over the ridges each morning as rolling banks. On one of our hikes, we visited a site with lots of Long-stemmed Columbines and Chatterbox Orchids. On another occasion, following a rainstorm, we walked in Tuff Canyon, a narrow defile carved through the surrounding thick layers of volcanic ash by years of erosion. On our last afternoon we walked down to the famous Window and enjoyed great sightings of Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, Scott’s Orioles, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and a female Black-headed Grosbeak.

On our all-day hike to Boot Springs, Mexican Jays were our constant companions.

Mexican Jay — Photo: Barry Zimmer

I have been to Big Bend about 20 times. Each visit to this magnificent park is special.

A few days ago I returned from a short trip to Colorado where I spent a few days visiting old friends in Estes Park. September is a beautiful time to be in the Rockies. Many of the groves of aspen trees had turned bright golden, and Elk were bugling in the meadows. On one day we hiked to Emerald Lake, while on another day we entered Rocky Mountain National Park and drove over Trail Ridge Road (over 12,000 feet) to Grand Lake on the western side of the park. The house where I stayed had a bird feeder and bird bath outside the breakfast room. On one morning we observed 14 species of birds from the breakfast table. The star of the show was a Green-tailed Towhee, a great Western bird.

In this issue:



If you are considering a tropical getaway this winter, I can’t recommend our Amazon River Cruises highly enough. VENT will operate two trips this winter: January 8-18 and February 19-March 1. Cabins are still available on both departures.

Hoatzin and chicks, Hato El Cedral, Venezuela

Hoatzins and Chicks — Photo: David Ascanio

I doubt there is another trip in our repertoire of tours where one can enjoy as complete a natural history experience in as relaxed a setting as on our Amazon River Cruise. Upon embarkation the ship becomes your home for the next week, precluding the hassles of packing and unpacking and continually changing accommodations. Contrary to popular misperceptions, there are not hordes of biting insects in Amazonia and it is not terribly hot. During the warmest time of the day we will be on our air-conditioned ship. Our vessel, La Estrella Amazonica, features an environmentally friendly design and spacious rooms with private viewing decks. It is one of the most comfortable river boats available for an Amazon River Cruise.

If you’ve still not made your winter travel plans, I strongly encourage you to consider this marvelous opportunity to explore one of the great ecosystems of the world.

Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey Aboard La Estrella Amazonica
* January 8-18, 2015 with Steve Hilty and David Ascanio; $6,295 in double occupancy from Lima. 3 cabins available.

* February 19-March 1, 2015 with David Ascanio and Andrew Whittaker; $6,295 in double occupancy from Lima. 6 cabins available.

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Looking ahead to the new calendar year, I am reminded that January is a wonderful month for birding right here in the U.S. In particular, the southern tier of the country holds special appeal for its superb winter birding opportunities and equally good weather. This January, VENT will operate a suite of short domestic tours with offerings spanning the width of the country. Departures to favorite traditional destinations as California, Arizona, and New Mexico will be complemented with two new workshop-style tours in Montana and Florida. All of these trips are led by experienced VENT leaders who bring fun and enthusiasm to their tours. 

A large group of Snow Geese descended into a corn field on the north end of the refuge.

Snow and Ross’s Geese, Bosque Del Apache NWR — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Winter New Mexico, January 7-13, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $1,995 in double occupancy from El Paso (ends in Albuquerque).

We’ll travel the length of the Rio Grande River Valley from El Paso to Albuquerque viewing concentrations of waterfowl, cranes, raptors, sparrows, and resident specialty birds. A visit to famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a trip highlight.

Montana Winter Raptor Workshop, January 9-13, 2015 with Denver Holt and Matt Larson; $1,295 in double occupancy from Missoula.

The area north of Missoula, Montana is renowned for its large numbers and diversity of wintering raptors. Join renowned owl researcher and raptor expert Denver Holt for a raptor-centric trip focusing on improving identification skills and learning a bit about raptor natural history.

Winter Southern Arizona, January 19-25, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $1,995 in double occupancy from Tucson.

One of our most popular wintertime trips, this tour promises an abundance of wintering waterfowl, raptors, sparrows, and more, in tandem with a collection of resident specialty birds. 

California Thrasher

California Thrasher — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Winter Southern California, January 25-31, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $1,995 in double occupancy from San Diego.

This tour may be taken by itself or in complement to the Winter Southern Arizona tour. We’ll seek a number of California specialty birds in addition to a wide range of wintertime visitors. From the Pacific coast to the Salton Sea, this trip promises a large list of birds and plenty of excitement.

Winter Florida Birding Workshop, January 26-31, 2015 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,095 in double occupancy from Orlando.

The Atlantic coast of north-central Florida is a birder’s dream, featuring large numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, gulls, terns, songbirds, and Florida specialty birds. Join Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis for an action-packed weekend in one of the country’s most productive wintertime birding areas.

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Several weeks ago I announced VENT’s return to the Eastern Mediterranean with a Birds & History cruise from Athens to Istanbul aboard the Sea Cloud, June 18-29, 2015. As it has been 10 years since we last offered a similar program, I knew this opportunity would be met with excitement. What I had not anticipated was how quickly the trip would nearly sell out! Only four cabins are still available!

Sea Cloud

Sea Cloud — Photo: Courtesy Sea Cloud

This program is perfect for anyone with interests in ancient Greek history and birding as it combines strong elements of both against a backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful and historic settings. In addition, for many, the chance to spend a week aboard the beautiful Sea Cloud is perhaps of highest appeal.

A marvelous itinerary includes two days in Athens; sailing the Aegean Sea; visits to the islands of Chios and Lesbos; and exploration of Western Turkey and the famed archaeological sites of Pergamon, Troy, and Assos. Our trip culminates with a visit to Istanbul, one of the world’s most historically rich and exotic cities (Trip Advisor has rated Istanbul the #1 city to visit in your lifetime). In our travels we’re sure to cross paths with a variety of regional specialty birds and more widespread resident species. Among the possibilities are Levantine Shearwater, Short-toed Eagle, European Bee-eater, Blue Rock-Thrush, Woodchat Shrike, Black-headed Bunting, and many others.

In addition to me and Barry Lyon, this trip will be co-led by Dr. Paul Woodruff, a professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Texas, and Peter Zika, a botanist extraordinaire with extensive experience in international travel.

Greece & Turkey: From Athens to Istanbul aboard the Sea Cloud, June 18-29, 2015 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, Dr. Paul Woodruff, and Peter Zika; cabins start at $8,895 in double occupancy from Athens (ends in Istanbul). Only four cabins still available!

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From time to time I enjoy sharing news about VENT leaders with our travelers. On this occasion I highlight Dion Hobcroft.

Dion Hobcroft

Following a recent private trip to Borneo, led by Dion, participant George Jett made a monetary donation to Rainforest Trust in Dion’s honor to protect 100 acres of forest in Indonesia’s Gunung Sahendaruman Reserve on Sangihe Island. The Indonesian island of Sangihe, long noted for its endemic wildlife, holds the highest concentration of threatened bird species anywhere in Asia, and possibly the world.

Deforestation has already claimed much of Sangihe’s forests, while the illegal pet trade and hunting continue to take a toll on the island’s endemic species. To conserve Sangihe’s tropical forest as well as its rare and endemic species, Rainforest Trust has partnered with Burung Indonesia to establish this nature reserve, which will be Sangihe’s first protected area.

On behalf of all of us at VENT, I commend you George, for your commitment to conservation and for graciously recognizing Dion.

Dion Hobcroft is based in Australia and anchors our program of Australasia tours. He lives in Sydney with his wife Lise and their two children, Grace and Daniel.

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The month of September has been an important one for birds and bird conservation. In the last few weeks, two scientifically based documents have been published that provide important information on the current health of North American birds, with critical insight into what the future holds for the most at-risk species.

Audubon Birds & Climate Change Report

Audubon Magazine, Sept.-Oct. '14 Cover

Audubon Magazine Cover, Sept.-Oct. ’14

The Audubon Birds & Climate Change Report is the first study of its kind to predict how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Audubon scientists used three decades of citizen-scientist observations to define the “climatic suitability” for each bird species—the range of temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal changes each species needs to survive. Then, using internationally recognized greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they mapped where each bird’s ideal climatic range may be found in three future time periods (2020, 2050, and 2080) as the climate changes.

Of special interest to VENT is that Audubon’s chief scientist, and architect of the report, is Gary Langham, who co-led VENT tours many years ago with his father Jeri Langham, who is a longtime VENT leader. Click here to read the full report.

The State of the Birds

The State of the Birds 2014 is authored by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative—a 23-member partnership of government agencies and organizations dedicated to advancing bird conservation. The report is based on extensive reviews of population data from long-term monitoring. It looks to birds as indicators of ecosystem health by examining population trends of species dependent on one of seven habitats: grasslands, forests, wetlands, ocean, aridlands, islands, and coasts. This year’s report is also a five-year check-in on the indicators presented in the inaugural report in 2009. Click here to read the full report.

I encourage you to check out both of these reports and see what our bird scientists are telling us.

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If you are considering a fall or winter getaway, I thought you’d like to know that spaces are still available on a fine assortment of upcoming VENT tours departing in the November–January period. Each trip offers amazing encounters with birds and other wildlife in destinations as diverse as the tundra at Churchill, Manitoba to the rainforests of Panama and Ecuador. In addition, we will operate a handful of year-end tours for those who prefer to be away from home for the holidays. 

Rufous Motmot, Panama

Rufous Motmot, Panama — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Polar Bears of Churchill, November 1-7, 2014 with Bob Sundstrom; $5,995 in double occupancy from Winnipeg. 6 spaces available.

Panama: Fall at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, November 1-8, 2014 with Barry Zimmer and a local leader; $2,595 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes, November 15-23, 2014 with Paul Greenfield and Steve Hilty; $2,895 in double occupancy from Quito.

Panama: Christmas at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, December 22-27, 2014 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $1,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. 3 spaces available.

New Year at Panama’s Canopy Tower, December 27, 2014-January 3, 2015 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $2,895 in double occupancy from Panama City. 4 spaces available.

Belize: Chan Chich New Year, December 28, 2014-January 3, 2015 with Bob Sundstrom; $3,595 in double occupancy from Belize City.

New Year in Colombia: The Santa Marta Getaway, December 29, 2014-January 5, 2015 with Steve Hilty; $3,295 in double occupancy from Bogotá. Register by October 15 and receive a discount of $250.

Panama’s Canopy Tower & El Valle, January 5-17, 2015 with Jeri Langham; $5,295 in double occupancy from Panama City. 6 spaces available.

Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center, January 8-17, 2015 with David Wolf and Paul Greenfield; $3,695 in double occupancy from Quito.

Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes, January 15-25, 2015 with David Wolf and Paul Greenfield; $2,995 in double occupancy from Quito.

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Chimney Swift

Chimney Swifts — Photo: Greg Lasley

At different times I have written about Austin’s remarkable urban wildlife spectacles. The best-known of these is the huge Mexican (Brazilian) Free-tailed Bat colony that resides under the Congress Avenue Bridge in the spring and summer months. Each night, hundreds of people assemble on the bridge to watch at least 750,000 bats emerge and fly down the Colorado River. In the last five years, people have gathered every night during July to witness the remarkable concentration of over 200,000 Purple Martins converging on a north Austin roost site. The end of summer, meanwhile, brings gatherings of Chimney Swifts, where concentrations of hundreds of birds may be seen at dusk, circling together before descending to roost in chimneys, stacks, and other structures.

With the arrival of autumn comes anticipation of other spectacles, such as the southbound movement of hawks and songbirds, and the season’s first arriving waterfowl. Next week I will be on the Georgia coast leading our Little St. Simons Island Fall Migration Workshop where I hope to see many birds of the season.

I hope your autumn is off to a good start and that you find the opportunity to spend time in nature.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel