VENTflash #190 August 19, 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,

As we approach the anniversary of our 40th year in business, I find myself reflecting on many of the great moments in VENT’s remarkable history. Many of you probably have never heard about these events so I thought I would tell you about one of the greatest stories ever to come out of a VENT tour.

Steller's Eider

Steller’s Eider, Barrow, AK — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The date was June 27, 1993, and VENT tour leader Kevin Zimmer was in Barrow, Alaska at the tail-end of our Grand Alaska tour. He had already shown the group all of the typical Barrow specialty birds (King and Steller’s eiders, Red Phalarope, Snowy Owl, etc.), except for one: they were still missing Spectacled Eider. In those days, Kevin’s “go-to” spot for Spectacled Eider was at the far end of the Gas Well Road, but since that road had been partly washed out near its beginning, they couldn’t access the prime eider spot using the school bus that the group had rented for transport. Kevin located a 4×4 Humvee that he could use to get the group down the road, but the Hummer could only accommodate three participants at a time—and there were 21 participants!

To determine who went first, Kevin instituted a lottery system with participants drawing numbers from a hat. On the first run, a drake Spectacled Eider was located at the far end of the road, and thus began several hours of shuttling participants three at a time. Miraculously, the eider stayed put, and each group enjoyed great views. At this point it was 10:30 p.m. Because it stays light continuously in the far north in June, Kevin decided to go birding again after the group had retired for the evening. At 1:30 a.m., partway out the Gas Well Road, he stopped to scan some distant shorebirds on the mudflats bordering a large lagoon. He noticed one peep that was larger than the others and had a rusty head and neck. He surmised it was probably a Sanderling in breeding plumage, but something about the bird just didn’t seem right. The bird was feeding out in the water and swishing its head from side-to-side. Kevin approached for better views when, all of a sudden, the bird stopped feeding and raised its bill out of the water. To his amazement, he noted the end of its bill was spoon-shaped! It was a Spoon-billed Sandpiper!

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider, Barrow — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Kevin knew that there were only four previous Spoon-billed Sandpiper records for all of North America and that he had just made a huge discovery. He returned to the hotel as quickly as he could get there and immediately called seven participants, waking them with the message: “There is a Spoon-billed Sandpiper out the Gas Well Road. If you want to go looking for it, meet me in the lobby in 10 minutes.” All seven people came and they all saw the bird. Kevin took them back and woke up seven more people who also went to see the bird. By now it was about 5:00 am. Kevin had been up all night; nevertheless, he woke the last group of seven. When they reached the site, the sandpiper was not in the same place; however, the bird was soon relocated about 100 yards further down the shoreline. While marching the group toward the sandpiper, a jaeger swooped low over the lagoon, scattering every shorebird in sight. When the birds settled down, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was nowhere to be found. Then the fog rolled in and further searching was pointless.

Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer

Kevin took the group back to the hotel at 6:30 a.m., at which time he grabbed an hour of sleep.  After breakfast at 7:30, the entire group returned in the school bus to the beginning of the road and then hiked to the spot where the bird had been hours earlier. This time, after some tense scanning, they re-found the bird! Thus Kevin had found one of the rarest birds ever seen in North America, and thanks to his extraordinary efforts had shown it to all 21 participants. To this day, 22 years later, there has not been another confirmed record of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in North America. I can’t think of any other situation that equals this effort, but what Kevin did is typical of the dedication of all VENT leaders. It is that dedication that has enabled VENT to become the most successful bird tour company in the world.

The great moments will continue next spring when VENT celebrates its 40th Anniversary Celebration in Beaumont, Texas, April 17-22, 2016. I hope you will join us.

In this issue:



Immediately upon arriving at the Canopy Lodge in midmorning, we were greeted by a fabulous Rufous Motmot on one of the feeders.

Rufous Motmot, Canopy Lodge — Photo: Dan Roberts

For a variety of reasons, many people prefer to be away from home for the Christmas and New Year holidays. If you fall into this category or have ever considered traveling during the holidays, I thought I’d remind you that VENT will operate holiday trips to Panama and Belize that promise warm weather, superb birding, and a very tranquil getaway. Looking ahead, please consider that now is the time to make travel plans, as airfares will only become more expensive.

Panama: Christmas at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, December 22-27, 2015 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $2,095 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano and surrounded by jagged ridges and hills, Panama’s Canopy Lodge offers great birding and luxury accommodations amid an enchanting setting. Forested, cloud-wreathed peaks loom over the lodge while the grounds teem with a parade of colorful motmots, hummingbirds, and tanagers.

The late afternoon of our second day was spent leisurely birding and relaxing back on top of the Canopy Tower.

Birding Atop the Canopy Tower — Photo: Barry Zimmer

New Year at Panama’s Canopy Tower, December 27, 2015-January 3, 2016 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $3,095 in double occupancy from Panama City.

The famous Canopy Tower has garnered international attention for its remarkable design, close proximity to an amazing array of wildlife, and attention to high quality service. In a week’s time you’ll see approximately 300 species of birds and an array of mammals, experience a dynamic slice of central Panama, and visit the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal.

Belize: Chan Chich New Year, December 28, 2015-January 3, 2016 with Brian Gibbons; $3,595 in double occupancy from Belize City.

Belize is one of the top travel destinations for Americans as it is close, safe, and stable. To that end, Chan Chich Lodge is one of the highest quality jungle lodges in the world, featuring superb accommodations and abundant wildlife. Many species that have been heavily persecuted elsewhere remain common sights in this area. Ocellated Turkey, Crested Guan, and Great Curassow are among these. Combine this with such special birds as Ornate Hawk-Eagle, White Hawk, King Vulture, Tody Motmot, four species of trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and Red-capped and White-collared manakins and you have the recipe for a fabulous tropical birding experience.

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Catalog cover 2016

Catalog Cover 2016

I’m thrilled to announce that our 2016 annual tour catalogs were mailed last week. While this event is always a cause for excitement at VENT, this year’s main catalog, in particular, is extra special as it commemorates our 40th year in business. It is always a great moment for us to hold the new catalogs in our hands, hot off the press. Our staff puts a lot of effort into planning our tour schedule and creating our catalogs, and we feel that this year’s productions represent our best effort yet.

The main catalog again features the cover art of the great Lars Jonsson, and presents a white Gyrfalcon clutching a prey item, a ptarmigan, while perched in watchful readiness amid a raw expanse of rock and snow. The white and black falcon in a white and black landscape conveys power, a regal bird—the lord of a rugged environment. The beauty, elegance, and lifelike detail of the scene is classic Jonsson. Inside the catalog is a special section that sets forth our history, our core principles, our conservation endeavors, and our milestones. I hope you will take a few minutes to read these pages. In addition, you will discover 80 pages of tour descriptions accompanied by outstanding images from our tour leaders and some of the world’s finest wildlife photographers.

Cruise catalog cover 2016

Cruises & Special Departures Cover 2016

The cover of our 2016 Cruises & Special Departures catalog features a loving pair of Waved Albatross, heralding our trips to the venerable Galapagos Islands. Our Galapagos departures, as well as others to destinations such as Antarctica, the Lesser Antilles, the Amazon River, Spitsbergen, southern South America, and other world-class locations, are described in detail within the pages of the catalog. The majority of these departures offer all-inclusive natural history themes that extend beyond birding, while some place equal emphasis on human history and culture. Most of these trips are ideal for those who desire a vacation with a broader focus, including those who travel with a non-birding spouse or companion.

Even though our new catalogs debuted only a week ago, we have already received glowing reviews from our travelers.

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One of our new tours for 2016 is a European departure: The Netherlands in Winter. “The Netherlands?” you might ask; “In Winter?!” you might wonder. The answer on both accounts unequivocally is “Yes!”


Smew — Photo: Maciej Olszewski/shutterstock

First of all, despite its small size, the Netherlands will surprise with its ecological diversity and associated avian diversity. The country’s position on the North Sea coast, together with an assortment of native woodland and agricultural lands, is conducive to a marvelous regime of landbirds and waterbirds. The wintertime is an especially prime time to be here as this is when a range of waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and more northerly nesting passerines joins an impressive community of resident birds. In particular, the Zeeland Delta is one of the great birding areas of Europe, which in winter hosts huge flocks of waterfowl, including swans, geese, and ducks. Imagine spending a few days with special birds such as the rare and endangered Lesser White-fronted Goose, the very beautiful Red-breasted Goose, and the elegant Smew; or observing flocks of Whooper Swans and Greater White-fronted, Barnacle, Tundra Bean, Taiga Bean, Pink-footed, and Graylag geese.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans — Photo: KOO/shutterstock

Second, this departure is not just a traditional birding tour. Rather, as the tour’s subtitle, Birds, Art & Dutch Culture suggests, this trip promises exposure to many of the non-natural history attributes of the Netherlands. Traveling with good guides, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the history and experience the culture of this tiny country that has contributed so much to the development of the western world. Among our excursions, we’ll tour Amsterdam’s city-center and see the famous canals and mansions for which the city is so famous, and spend time in the Rijksmuseum (National Museum) to savor the masterworks of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Hals. Imagine supplementing your birding with the opportunity to stand in front of Rembrandt’s master work, The Night Watch.

Third, despite the season, the winter is often relatively mild thanks to the moderating effects of the nearby ocean. Also, it is worth pointing out that Amsterdam and its museums are free of the heavy crowds of summer.

Finally, this tour will be led by Machiel Valkenburg, a native of the Netherlands and a superb tour leader. Machiel recently joined VENT and we are delighted to have him on our team. Co-leading this trip with Machiel is Mike Hirschler, a local birder with excellent knowledge of Dutch history and culture.

The Netherlands in Winter: Birds, Art & Dutch Culture, January 3-12, 2016 with Machiel Valkenburg and Mike Hirschler; $3,495 in double occupancy from Amsterdam.

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I am very much looking forward to VENT’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, April 17-22, 2016, because I will get to see so many VENT travelers and tour leaders. It will be such a pleasure to share my favorite part of the world with people who have traveled with VENT for so many years and with people who are new to the VENT tradition.

American Avocets

American Avocets, Bolivar Flats, Texas — Photo: Michael O’Brien

Two of the places I am especially eager to share are the great Bolivar Flats and Rollover Pass, south of High Island. Both areas offer fabulous opportunities to observe and enjoy great numbers of shorebirds, gulls, terns, and other waterbirds at close range. These areas literally teem with birds including seven species of plovers and eight species of terns, plus many other pelicans, cormorants, ibises, egrets, herons, spoonbills, and shorebirds.

Many years ago when there was a fallout of migrating landbirds in a woodlot near the Bolivar Flats, my old friend Ben Feltner and I decided to see how many birds we could see in one hour by visiting those two areas. We recorded a total of 116 species, which we think set a one-hour world record, a record that still stands. This feat attests to the remarkable richness of this region. Both of these areas will be included in our daily field trips at the celebration.

I hope you will join me and 16 other VENT leaders to bird this wonderful part of the world and help us celebrate 40 years of offering some of the highest quality international birding and natural history travel available.

VENT’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, April 17-22, 2016; $2,895 in double occupancy from Beaumont, Texas.

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For the first time in a number of years, VENT will return to Vietnam in 2016 with a Best of Vietnam tour. Leading this trip will be Machiel Valkenburg, one of our newest leaders.


Southeast Asia with Vietnam in Highlight

Perhaps because of the well-publicized natural history attractions of Thailand, nearby Vietnam remains a well-kept secret. However, this hourglass-shaped country in Southeast Asia is equally blessed with great birding and wildlife viewing, as well as an expanding system of parks and reserves to tempt the visitor. On this tour we offer a highlights-type expedition, traveling the country from south to north experiencing Vietnam’s fascinating natural history along with visits to some important cultural sites.

Vietnam is not a large country, but nevertheless it possesses a striking degree of topographic and climatic variability. It is this variability in such a small area that makes Vietnam a powerhouse of biodiversity. Vietnam is among the top 25 countries for species richness; for example, two thirds of mainland Asia’s babblers are found in Vietnam. Vietnam also has a high rate of endemism with seven species of primates and five species of babblers. We will cover most of the major biomes, thus there will be sufficient time to search out such gems as Bar-bellied Pitta, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Siamese Fireback, Red-collared Woodpecker, and a wonderful collection of babblers and laughingthrushes. Some of the other goodies we may encounter include several forest-dwelling partridges, Green Peafowl, Red-vented Barbet, Brown Hornbill, Pied Falconet, and the spectacular Sultan Tit—to mention but a few! We may also encounter some of Vietnam’s wonderful mammals, among which are some of the most beautiful and distinguished primates anywhere in the world. Unlike other natural history tours to Vietnam, our tour also includes visits to such must-see sights as the Imperial Palace of Hue and Hanoi’s French colonial quarter.

The Best of Vietnam, January 17-February 4, 2016 with Machiel Valkenburg; $6,495 in double occupancy from Ho Chi Minh City (ends in Hanoi).

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I am pleased to announce that we will operate new pre-trips to Northwestern Peru prior to our 2016 Amazon River Cruises.

Tumbes Tyrant

Tumbes Tyrant, Northwestern Peru — Photo: Manu Expeditions

Our Amazon River Cruises are among our most popular trips. Based out of Iquitos in northern Peru, our cruises explore the Amazon River upstream in the headwaters region, home to some of the wildest remaining country in Peruvian Amazonia. In offering a Northwestern Peru Pre-trip, we present an entirely different suite of habitats and birds—the perfect complement to an Amazon voyage. On the Amazon River Cruise you will see a marvelous array of birds and mammals of the tropical rainforest, the most biologically diverse ecosystem in the world, whereas in northwestern Peru you will experience a very rich avifauna unique to the dry forest of the Tumbes and Marañon region, with a range of species found nowhere else in the world.

I will never forget my first trip to northwestern Peru in l978. Ted Parker and I had just co-led VENT’s first Peru tour, a trip to the Central Andes and the rainforests of the Southeast. After the tour, Ted suggested we go to northwestern Peru. He told me that along with other LSU staff he had recently seen the mythical White-winged Guan in that part of the country. I knew this spectacular guan had not been seen by any scientist or birder for over 100 years. As it turned out, we were successful in seeing the guan, as well as many other birds that I had never before seen. What impressed me the most was how abundant birds were in the thorn-scrub and riparian habitats of this region and how easy they were to see, including great birds such as White-tailed Jay, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Elegant Crescentchest, Tumbes Tyrant, Crimson-breasted Finch, Peruvian Plantcutter and many others.

Inca Terns and Red-legged Cormorants, Pucusana, Lima, Peru

Inca Terns and Red-legged Cormorants on the Peruvian Coast — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Because our Amazon River Cruise includes a day on the coast near Lima, participants who also take the Northwestern Peru Pre-trip will experience three very different areas of Peru: the dry forests of the northwest; the coast; and Amazonia. If you also register for the Machu Picchu Extension, you will bird the Andes, another wonderful region, in addition to spending time in one of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites.

I hope you will join us for one of our Amazon cruises and combine it with a visit to northwestern Peru.

Northwestern Peru Pre-trip, January 15-22, 2016 with Steve Hilty and a local leader; $3,995 in double occupancy from Lima.

Northwestern Peru Pre-trip, February 12-19, 2016 with Paul Greenfield and a local leader; $3,995 in double occupancy from Lima.

Birding from the skiff

Birding from the Skiff, Amazon River — Photo: David Ascanio

Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey aboard La Estrella Amazonica, January 21-31, 2016 with Steve Hilty and David Ascanio; $6,495 in double occupancy from Lima.

Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey aboard La Estrella Amazonica, February 18-28, 2016 with David Ascanio and Paul Greenfield; $6,495 in double occupancy from Lima.

Machu Picchu Extension: Birds, Ruins & History, January 30-February 6, 2016 with Doris Valencia and a local leader; $4,295 in double occupancy from Lima.

Machu Picchu Extension: Birds, Ruins & History, February 27-March 5, 2016 with Doris Valencia and a local leader; $4,295 in double occupancy from Lima.

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Recently I was in Portland, Oregon visiting relatives; however, the highlight of my trip was breaking away to have lunch with my old friend Spencer Beebe. Spencer is one of the great conservationists of our time, having served as president of The Nature Conservancy International Program and founding president of Conservation International prior to launching Ecotrust in 1991. If you’ve not heard of Ecotrust, it is an organization dedicated to building support for conservation through economic and community development. It is a terrific outfit and I encourage you to visit its website to learn more.

As we enter the final stretch of summer, I am relieved that central Texas, where I live, is finally emerging from a stretch of triple-digit thermometer readings. This year has been rather remarkable in Austin weather-wise. After one of our wettest springs on record, we have endured one of our driest summers ever. At this point, who knows what the fall will bring?

I hope you enjoy the final weeks of summer.