VENTflash #184 February 03, 2015

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,

Common birds are wonderful, but there is something special about a bird that turns up far outside its known range. Such an occurrence prompts all kinds of questions: Why did it travel so far from its normal range? What route did it take? How long will it stay?
I spend a great deal of time on airplanes and on the road, so I don’t normally chase rare birds. But when a rare bird shows up in my home birding area, that is quite an event.

Striped Sparrow, from A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb

Striped Sparrow, from A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb

I first learned about the Striped Sparrow from Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had called him to ask if he would speak at VENT’s 40th Anniversary Celebration in Beaumont, Texas, April 17-22, 2016. He delighted me by accepting my invitation, and then proceeded to tell me that a Striped Sparrow had been discovered only an hour northeast of my home in Austin!

The Striped Sparrow is a Mexican species endemic to grasslands interspersed with brush, trees, and boulders. It occurs in western Mexico as far north as northern Chihuahua, as well as in southern Mexico. Until now, the bird had never been seen outside of Mexico. One day in the middle of January, Rich Kostecke, an employee of The Nature Conservancy in Texas, was birding on a small county road that runs along the north side of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County. He observed a flock of sparrows feeding at the edge of the road that included Harris’s, White-crowned, and Song sparrows. Then he spotted a large sparrow sporting a prominent black mask, rufous crown, unmarked breast, and heavily streaked back. At the time, he didn’t know what he was looking at, but he did get photos which later enabled him to identify the bird as a Striped Sparrow, the most out-of-range bird ever to occur in Central Texas and the first-ever record for the United States!

To get here, the bird would have traveled at least 500 miles northeast of its normal range, a journey perhaps triggered by the extreme drought that has occurred in northwestern Mexico over the past few years. Recently, my colleague Barry Lyon and I had an opportunity to observe this rare bird for 45 minutes one morning as it alternately perched in some small roadside trees and fed in the leaf litter on the ground. The Striped Sparrow is a very handsome bird that we used to see on VENT tours to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and certainly is a bird that we never dreamed would occur so close to Austin.

In this issue:



Yacare (caimans) at a Waterhole

Yacare (caimans) at a Waterhole, Pantanal — Photo: Barry Lyon

During four decades of international travel, I have developed a list of places that I feel should be visited, if at all possible, by anyone who loves birds and wildlife. Foremost among these is the Pantanal region of Southwestern Brazil, one of the world’s largest freshwater wetland ecosystems.

No description can adequately convey the world-class wildlife spectacles that await you in this amazing area. Only certain areas of Africa are equal to the Pantanal in terms of quantity and diversity of wildlife. Sometimes we hear about destinations where the birds and wildlife viewing opportunities are not as outstanding as they once were. In the Pantanal the opposite has happened. Thanks to conservation efforts and a change in the attitudes of the local people, the Pantanal is better than ever.

VENT has been operating tours to the Pantanal for over 30 years, but my first trip there occurred in the late 1980s when I traveled there with Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Tudor, and Bob Ridgely. In addition to being one of the world’s foremost birders, Roger was an avid photographer. We arranged for a private guide and vehicle for him so he could spend an entire day taking photos. Needless to say, he was in heaven. How I wish he could return to the Pantanal now. There is more wildlife than ever, and all the birds and animals we see are incredibly confiding. When you stop to look at curassows and guans, birds that are usually shy and elusive, they hardly move away. You can literally walk up to a tree where Hyacinth Macaws are peeking out of a nest hole without disturbing them. Giant Otters swim right by with their young.

Few birds are as alluring as the Hyacinth Macaw. This, the world's largest macaw, presents a stunning sight in the Pantanal!

Hyacinth Macaw, Pantanal — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

When birds and other animals are not persecuted they soon become confiding and do not run away when humans come onto the scene. This has happened throughout the Pantanal with many species, but it is most dramatic with the Jaguars. In all other areas of their range in Central and South America, Jaguars are seldom seen. Until recently, very few tourists, or even bird tour leaders, had ever seen a Jaguar. Most sightings usually consisted of fleeting glimpses or seeing an animal at considerable distance. A few years ago the Brazilian fishermen that travel up and down the Cuiabá River in the vicinity of Porto Jofre in Mato Grosso state stopped disturbing the numerous Jaguars that inhabit that area. As a result, Jaguars became habituated to humans and now are accustomed to their presence. Now almost any trip to the Pantanal is virtually guaranteed to produce extended observations of Jaguars, with animals seen resting atop river banks, strolling on open beaches, and swimming across the river. Some visitors have even observed Jaguars killing caimans!

VENT has developed the best Pantanal tours offered by any company. Our leaders have years of experience in showing people the birds and wildlife of that region and sharing their knowledge about tropical birds and mammals. We have chosen lodges that have the best bird and wildlife viewing, the best settings, and the best locations relative to our transportation needs.

Jaguar, male, Rio Tres Irmaos, Mato Grosso, Brazil, July 8, 2011

Male Jaguar, Pantanal — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

A portion of the trip involves a stay on the Cuiabá River. Our groups stay on a floating lodge only 15 minutes by motorboat from the best Jaguar viewing area. Other groups stay in a hotel 30–45 minutes upriver from the prime Jaguar viewing area, and that requires bumpy boat rides to move back and forth. The other advantage to staying in the floating hotel is that you are out in nature rather than being next to a heavily traveled road. One morning I stood outside our room and watched 14 Blue-throated Piping-Guans fly over one by one. It was a marvelous way to start the day. The other places we stay in the Pantanal also have great ambiance and great wildlife. At Southwild Pantanal Lodge the Toco Toucans arrive every morning to visit feeding stations situated only yards away from the dining room, while behind the lodge the owner has erected a viewing tower from which you can watch nesting Jabirus at remarkably close range.

VENT will offer two Pantanal tours in 2015, both of which still have a few spaces available. I urge you to register soon so that you too can enjoy one of the greatest bird and wildlife spectacles in the world!

Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada dos Guiamarães, August 4-16, 2015 with Andrew Whittaker and a local leader; $6,495 in double occupancy from Cuiabá.

Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada dos Guimarães, August 15-27, 2015 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $6,495 in double occupancy from Cuiabá.

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I am sometimes asked for my opinion as to the best place in Africa to visit. That is a difficult question to answer since Africa contains so many wonderful places. My close friend, the late Peter Matthiessen’s favorite African destination was Tanzania where he spent many wonderful days. I know many people would agree with him, but others would choose Namibia and Botswana. These southern African countries contain huge parks with an abundance of birdlife and large mammals.

Namibia, Botswana & Zambia

Namibia, Botswana & Zambia

It was for this reason, 25 years ago, that VENT offered its first Namibia and Botswana tour, a trip I co-led with my colleague David Wolf. That inaugural tour was a great success, so much so in fact that we have offered it every year since. With the addition of Zambia, our Namibia, Botswana & Zambia tour remains one of our most popular trips. For more than 10 years it has been led by Geoff Lockwood, one of the top birders and naturalists in southern Africa. Both Namibia and Botswana are stable, well-run countries with excellent infrastructures including tourism facilities.

In Namibia our tour participants stay at Huab Lodge which was built by my friends Jan and Suzi van de Reep. After a few relaxing and delightful days there we move to famous Etosha National Park. This huge park, one of the natural treasures of Africa, contains many waterholes in an otherwise austere environment where you can see an incredible array of birds and wildlife.

Zebras, Gnus, Greater Kudu and Springbok at Klein Okevi

Zebras, Wildebeest, Greater Kudu and Springbok at Waterhole, Etosha N.P. — Photo: Suzi van de Reep

Visiting a waterhole is an entirely different experience from driving around in a vehicle. Amazing scenes unfold: in the distance you see a herd of elephants approaching, and in remarkably short time are at the waterhole drinking, spraying themselves with water and mud, and bathing. Often present are young elephants of various ages including some so young they cannot yet use their trunks to draw water and must get down on their knees and drink with their mouths. The elephants leave and a herd of 100 Common Zebra come to one side of the waterhole while 30 Greater Kudu drink at the other side. Next, a dozen Giraffes come to drink, their long necks lowered to the water and their forelegs comically splayed far apart.

Our tour stays in full-service camps in three different parts of the park, all of which are blessed with a waterhole adjacent to the camp. Sitting at one of these waterholes after dinner can be equally rewarding. You never know what animal will emerge from the darkness into the light: a Black Rhinoceros, a Black-backed Jackal, a Spotted Hyena, or maybe a Lion. As you drive across Etosha you see herds of Springbok, Giraffes, Impala, and other animals dotting the grasslands for miles around.

elephants arriving at Goas

Elephants arriving at Goas Waterhole, Etosha N.P. — Photo: Suzi van de Reep

After a short charter flight to northern Namibia, you drive to a camp right on the Okavango River. There you enter an entirely different world of papyrus beds, riverine forests, and floodplain replete with egrets, herons, jacanas, kingfishers, and a myriad of other birds. The Okavango provides a perfect complement to Etosha. In Moremi Game Reserve in eastern Botswana you will explore woodland and savannah, enjoying yet another series of bird and wildlife-rich habitats that may yield sightings of African Wild Dogs, Cheetah, Defassa Bushbuck, Pel’s Fishing-Owls, and much more.

Victoria Falls in Zambia provides the perfect ending to your southern African safari. This waterfall of the Zambezi River is one of the most awesome sights in the world. A boat trip on the river affords a chance to see African Finfoots, several species of raptors and vultures, more kingfishers, White-crowned Lapwings, and other great birds.

Our Namibia, Botswana & Zambia tour is limited to just eight participants. It is one of the finest Africa trips offered by any company and one of the greatest wildlife extravaganza trips in the world. 

Pel's Fishing-Owl

Pel’s Fishing-Owl, Botswana — Photo: Geoff Lockwood

Namibia, Botswana & Zambia, August 15-31, 2015 with Geoff Lockwood; $13,995 in double occupancy from Windhoek, Namibia (ends in Livingstone, Zambia). Limit 8; 3 spaces available. 

Namibia, Botswana & Zambia, August 13-30, 2016 with Geoff Lockwood; price to be announced in double occupancy from Windhoek, Namibia (ends in Livingstone, Zambia). Limit 8.

Our optional Walvis Bay Pre-trip to coastal Namibia offers a chance to see a range of shorebirds, other water associated birds, and regionally endemic landbirds not possible on the main tour. Aside from the birds, we’ll witness the famous Namib Desert and its giant sand dunes.

Namibia: Walvis Bay Pre-trip, August 12-16, 2015 with Geoff Lockwood; $2,795 in double occupancy from Walvis Bay.

Namibia: Walvis Bay Pre-trip, August 10-14, 2016 with Geoff Lockwood; price to be announced in double occupancy from Walvis Bay.

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VENT will operate two birding and natural history cruises to the famed Galapagos Islands in 2015: July 10-19 and October 30-November 8.

Galapagos Penguin at Sunset

Galapagos Penguin at Sunset — Photo: Michael O’Brien

For both departures we have chartered (full charter in July, half charter in October) the 32-passenger M/V Evolution, one of the best ships that cruise these waters. Our itinerary visits a majority of the islands in the archipelago and seeks the many special birds and animals for which the Galapagos are so renowned. Giant Tortoises, Marine Iguanas, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Flightless Cormorants, Waved Albatrosses, and Galapagos Penguins are all to be expected, while the Galapagos finches and mockingbirds of Darwin fame will be sought after as well.

The Galapagos Islands feature an incredible biological heritage, of which birds are but one element. With so many attractions, I want to emphasize that our cruises are birding trips as well as full natural history expeditions. With opportunities to engage in other activities such as snorkeling, kayaking, sightseeing, and more, this trip is well-suited for those whose interest is primarily birding, as well as those who travel with a non-birding spouse or companion. Moreover, our trips are led by VENT leaders who possess years of tour leading experience in the Galapagos.

Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard M/V Evolution, July 10-19, 2015 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $6,795 in double occupancy from Quito.

Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard M/V Evolution, October 30-November 8, 2015 with Paul Greenfield and David Wolf; $6,795 in double occupancy from Quito.

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The Manu Biosphere Reserve in southern Peru offers the ultimate Amazonian experience.  I first heard about Manu from the late Ted Parker, who knew more about South American birds than anyone. He had spent a lot of time at the Explorers Inn, which was one of the first-ever lodges built in the Peruvian Amazon. His friend John Fitzpatrick told him about Manu. Finally Ted got to go there. This was in the early 1980s, and although he made only one trip, he discovered an antthrush species previously known from only one specimen collected years earlier. When he returned home he called me to tell me how wonderful Manu was. After all these years, Manu is still wonderful.

Red-and-green Macaws at Clay Lick - Manu, Peru

Red-and-green Macaws at Clay Lick – Manu, Peru— Photo: Pamela Higginbotham

VENT has been operating Manu tours longer than any company. Our tour includes the full transect from the highlands to the lowlands. It is co-led by Steve Hilty and David Wolf, two of our longest serving and most knowledgeable leaders. Between them they have many decades of experience in the Neotropics. Steve wrote the first high quality modern field guide to the birds of a South American country; his Guide to the Birds of Colombia (1986) is revered as a classic. He also wrote Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher’s Introduction to Behavior, Breeding and Diversity (1994). This book is a must-read for anyone interested in tropical birds. On this tour you will have the opportunity to be in the field with these two great experts and learn about Neotropical birds and other aspects of Amazonian natural history.

We have scheduled our Manu tour for September, after the time when a cold front from the south is most likely to occur. These cold fronts can suppress bird activity and make birding even more challenging. Additionally, September sees fewer tourists at the locations we visit than in July or August.

giant river otter, Manu Wildlife Center.

Giant River Otter, Manu Wildlife Center — Photo: Robert (Spike) Baker

Manu provides a wealth of marvelous experiences, among the best of which is the remarkable spectacle of dozens of macaws and other parrots of several species coming to a clay lick to eat the clay. Evidently the clay contains substances that negate the toxins in nuts and fruits the parrots consume.

I hope you will join Steve and David for our Manu tour this fall. I can’t imagine a greater treat than to bird Manu with them.

Peru: Manu Biosphere Reserve: Cloud Forest, Foothills and Lowland Rainforest, September 19-October 5, 2015 with Steve Hilty and David Wolf; $6,495 in double occupancy from Lima.

Peru, Manu: Machu Picchu Extension, October 4-9, 2015 with Doris Valencia and a second leader to be announced; $2,995 in double occupancy from Lima.

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Regardless of where one lives, the spring is a beautiful time everywhere. Warmer days, wildflowers, and returning Neotropical migrant songbirds are primary indicators of what is for many the most cherished time of the year. For VENT, the spring represents the height of our domestic travel program, a time when we operate trips across the continent from California to Florida, from Washington to Cape May, and to a variety of locations in between. If you’ve not yet made your spring travel plans, I thought you would like to know that spaces are still available on each of these outstanding trips: 

Green Jay

Green Jay, South Texas — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Spring in South Texas, April 3-12, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $3,295 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in Laredo). 4 spaces available.

Colorado Grouse, April 10-19, 2015 with Brian Gibbons and Michael O’Brien; $2,895 in double occupancy from Gunnison (ends in Denver). 1 space available.

Big Bend National Park & The Texas Hill Country, April 21-30, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer; $2,995 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso). 1 space available.

Montana Owl Workshop, April 23-28, 2015 with Denver Holt and Matt Larson; $1,895 in double occupancy from Missoula. 1 space available.

South Florida & The Keys, April 23-29, 2015 with Rafael Galvez and a second leader to be announced; $2,350 in double occupancy from Key West. 4 spaces available.

Dry Tortugas, April 29-May 2, 2015 with Rafael Galvez; $1,695 from Key West. 3 spaces available.

California Specialties, April 24-May 3, 2015 with Jeri Langham; $3,395 in double occupancy from San Diego (ends in Santa Barbara). 3 spaces available.

Spring Grand Arizona, May 10-20, 2015 with Barry Zimmer; $2,995 in double occupancy, $3,540 in single occupancy from Tucson. 1 space available.

Rivers & Mountains of Oregon & Washington: An Introductory Birding Tour, May 16-23, 2015 with Bob Sundstrom and a second leader to be announced; $2,195 in double occupancy.

North Carolina: From the Swamp to the Gulf Stream, May 30-June 6, 2015 with Michael O’Brien and a second leader to be announced; $2,795 in double occupancy from Wilmington (ends in Norfolk). 2 spaces available.

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In addition to our domestic spring tour program, we also operate a robust line-up of foreign tours in the March–May period. If you’re looking for a travel opportunity to take you a little further afield, you might consider any of the following fine departures:

Best of Belize: Crooked Tree & Chan Chich Lodge, March 4-11, 2015 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $4,795 in double occupancy from Belize City. 4 spaces available. 

Jamaican Spindalis

Jamaican Spindalis — Photo: Brennan Mulrooney

Jamaica, March 4-11, 2015 with Brian Gibbons and Brandon Hay; $3,495 in double occupancy from Kingston. 5 spaces available.

Best of Costa Rica, March 21-April 2, 2015 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $4,795 in double occupancy from San José. 4 spaces available.

China: Birds & Culture, April 16-May 1, 2015 with Dion Hobcroft; $8,495 in double occupancy from Beijing. 4 spaces available.

Spring Birding in Spain, April 23-May 10, 2015 with Santiago Villa and Brian Gibbons; $6,095 in double occupancy from Sevilla (ends in Madrid). 2 spaces available.

Southern Britain: Birds & History, May 16-27, 2015 with Andrew Whittaker and Phil Jones; $3,695 in double occupancy from London.

Wild Mongolia: Gobi Desert, Steppe Grasslands & The Land of the Khans, May 24-June 8, 2015 with Brian Gibbons; $7,995 in double occupancy from Ulaanbaatar. 1 space available.

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As the days continue to lengthen, our thoughts turn to spring. Some parts of the country are still gripped in winter, but the longer days hold the promise of warmer temperatures and the cycle of life beginning anew. Truly, the spring is one of the most exciting times of the year for any birder or naturalist. In 2015 VENT will again operate a wonderful array of tours tailored to capture the joys of the spring season, including tours to South Texas, the Upper Texas Coast, Big Bend National Park, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Spain, California, Arizona, Cape May, Southern Britain, Oregon, Washington, and Mongolia.

We hope you will greet the spring season with one of these fine trips.