VENTflash #197 January 12, 2016

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,

Although our sights are set fully on the year ahead, I want to share with you the events of an amazing day which occurred toward the end of last year, on December 20, 2015, a day on which I participated in the 59th annual Freeport Christmas Bird Count on the Texas coast. Joining me were friends and birding associates Cullen Hanks and Barry Lyon.

Some of the many special qualities of participating in the same Christmas Bird Count year after year are the memories that we make. Since I have been a part of 55 previous Freeport counts, I have a host of memories that have accrued over many decades. Every year when I return to Freeport, those memories come flooding back—memories of unusual bird sightings and of friends who have birded there with me. This year’s count provided many more great memories that I will fondly recall in the years to come.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler (female, first fall), Freeport CBC — Photo: Cullen Hanks

For the last 15 years, the area of the count that I’ve covered in the morning session is the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area (WMA) which is just east of the small town of Jones Creek. The habitat here contains some woodland, but consists mostly of grassland, scrub, and brackish marsh. Dawn found us parked at the end of the central road that penetrates deep into the WMA, observing a great variety of waterfowl, egrets, herons, ibis, gulls, and terns. Traveling back inland, we enjoyed wonderful looks at several species of sparrows including a number of Le Conte’s, my favorite sparrow. We also saw large flocks of Snow Geese and several White-tailed Hawks.

At about 9:00 a.m. we reached a small area of dense brush familiar to us as a place where we have seen rare birds on past counts. At this point, Cullen’s father, Steve Hanks, had joined us. He and Cullen walked across the road while Barry and I entered the brushy area on a small perimeter trail. Years ago I had seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in this area. This large “warbler” usually winters out of the country further south. I literally was reminiscing about that sighting when Barry said, “I’ve got a Yellow-breasted Chat!” While I was trying to gain views of the bird, Barry spotted a Prairie Warbler; in Southeast Texas this species breeds in low numbers in stands of young pine woodland and winters on the islands and coasts of the Caribbean. In Texas this bird is seldom seen away from its breeding grounds. In winter it is a very rare bird; in fact, it has only been recorded a few times on the Freeport CBC. One record was a bird that I saw about 15 years ago.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBC

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBCPhoto: Cullen Hanks

We called Cullen and Steve over to see the warbler. A minute later, Cullen was looking up into a clump of taller trees when he announced, “I see a Myiarchus.” We looked in that direction and immediately saw two long-tailed flycatchers sitting side by side. At first we assumed they would be Ash-throated Flycatchers since that species has proven somewhat regular on this count, but these birds displayed bright yellow bellies, dark gray breasts, and thick all-dark bills. We soon realized they were Brown-crested Flycatchers, a South Texas species that had been seen on the Freeport CBC only once before!

We continued around the corner of the brushy area and promptly spotted two Fox Sparrows, a large bright rufous and white sparrow that is often missed on the count. Completing the walk around the area and arriving back at our cars, I spotted an adult Bald Eagle, a species that we seldom used to see on the count, but that is now more numerous. Seconds later Cullen said, “I see a Painted Bunting!” We all got on the bird with relative ease and noted it as a first-year male, featuring bright chartreuse above and a yellow wash on the breast and belly. In less than an hour we had seen five species that probably would be seen by no one else on the count. Cullen obtained good photos of all of them.

Since we had done so well at this site, I suggested we drive back south and explore a similarly brushy area. A short time later, with Cullen and Steve on one side of a bush and me approaching from another side, I heard them yell, “anis!” Evidently I had flushed four Groove-billed Anis that then flew toward Cullen and Steve. We all enjoyed superb views of this wanderer from South Texas, a species seen on less than a third of Freeport counts.

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBC

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBCPhoto: Cullen Hanks

At lunch we rendezvoused with the teams that cover nearby areas. Unfortunately, none of the others had encountered any unusual birds. After lunch we birded the town of Jones Creek. On the previous day we had asked a number of homeowners for permission to bird their properties, all of whom granted access. All the people we met on our “scouting” day were quite friendly and had read about the count in the local newspaper. On count day we discovered a Pine Siskin in one of these yards, a bird that has often been missed on recent counts. In another area we located a Black-throated Green Warbler. Capping things off, late in the afternoon Cullen and Barry found a Magnolia Warbler, a species that has been seen on very few Freeport counts.

It had been an amazing day with one unusual bird sighting after another. We had seen over 100 species of birds in our area alone including 11 species of warblers. For good measure, ten of the birds we had seen were not recorded by other parties.

We ended the day near where we started. There, with dusk approaching, we spotted a Short-eared Owl flying over an expanse of grassland and marsh. We held the bird in view for over five minutes and savored its lovely buff markings and floppy flight. This owl sighting was as wonderful as the rare birds we had seen and provided a perfect ending to an unforgettable day.

In this issue:



Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider; Barrow, Alaska — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Fairly frequently I am asked for my opinion about which of VENT’s tours I consider our “best” or “greatest” trips. Typically I hesitate before responding because I honestly feel that all of our tours are outstanding. While superb birding is a hallmark of all VENT tours, our departures, depending on the destination, also feature interesting botany, magnificent scenery, and unparalleled animal viewing—all of which produce experiences in nature of the highest quality. Still, destinations such as East Africa, Southern Africa, Antarctica, the Amazon River, Galapagos Islands, and India are, without question, among the most thrilling places a person could ever visit. To this list I add Alaska.

I am fortunate to have been to our 49th state on a number of occasions and feel that Alaska is as good as it gets for anyone who loves birds, nature, and dramatic landscapes. For nearly 35 years, VENT has offered tours to Alaska, a destination unrivaled in North America for its combination of great birding, wildlife, and scenery. Alaska is home to a broad range of birds and mammals that either do not occur in the lower 48 or are very difficult to find here, and that serve as centerpieces of our tours. Highly-sought species such as Spectacled Eider, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, and many other great birds are complemented by the presence of Moose, Dall Sheep, Caribou, Musk Ox, Grizzly Bear, Orca, and Humpback Whales. As a backdrop to this pageant of wildlife is some of the world’s most grandiose scenery, with places like Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali (Mt. McKinley) boasting pride of place honors.

The prehistoric-looking Musk Ox continued to amaze and delight our group.

Musk Ox; Nome, Alaska — Photo: Barry Zimmer

In June 2016, VENT will again operate five Alaska tours. These trips cover the full sweep of Alaska’s best birding and wildlife areas. If you have ever wanted to visit Alaska, this summer offers the perfect opportunity.

Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome, June 2-10, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $5,295 in double occupancy from Anchorage (internal flights included). Combine this tour with Grand Alaska Part I for a discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy. 7 spaces available.

Any trip to the Gambell/Nome area is filled with excitement. Early June, however, is the best time to visit these remote outposts. Highlights include cliffs filled with nesting seabirds, and lakes, ponds, and Arctic tundra hosting breeding raptors, shorebirds, jaegers, buntings, longspurs, and more. The spectacle of thousands of breeding and migrating birds makes for one of North America’s most sensational birding experiences. And there is always the possibility that rare vagrant birds from Asia will be seen on this trip. As evidence, our 2015 tour produced sightings of Common Ringed-Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover, Wood and Terek sandpipers, Slaty-backed Gull, Dovekie, and “Siberian” Chiffchaff!

Red-legged Kittiwake

Red-legged Kittiwake; Pribilof Islands, Alaska — Photo: David Wolf

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs, June 9-18, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $6,995 in double occupancy from Anchorage (internal flights included). Combine this tour with Gambell/Nome for a discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy.

This tour focuses on two of the most exciting birding areas in Alaska: Nome and the Pribilof Islands. We will emphasize finding Alaskan specialty birds and mammals in Nome, such as Bluethroat, Bristle-thighed Curlew, and Musk Ox, while the Pribilof Islands offer an incomparable seabird experience. Thousands of Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets, Thick-billed and Common murres, Horned and Tufted puffins, and Northern Fulmars nest along its towering cliffs and can be observed almost within touching distance, as can Red-faced Cormorants and Black-legged and Red-legged kittiwakes. With luck, we may even turn up an unexpected Siberian vagrant or two.

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula, June 18-26, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $4,095 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 5 spaces available.

We will seek the many special breeding birds of south coastal and interior Alaska, with excellent opportunities for seeing many of Alaska’s iconic mammals, as well as some of the most spectacular scenery that the continent has to offer.

The scenery in Kenai Fjords is some of the best anywhere in the world. Generally there is a 360-degree panorama of awe-inspiring views.

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Alaska Highlights, June 15-26, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and a second leader to be announced; $6,895 in double occupancy from Anchorage (internal flights included). 6 spaces available.

This tour offers a complete cross section of birds, showcasing three very different areas: the rugged hills, tundra, and seacoast around the old gold-rush boomtown of Nome; breathtaking Kenai Fjords National Park and the adjacent Kenai Peninsula; and the sprawling wilderness in the shadow of majestic Denali (Mount McKinley), North America’s highest peak.

Alaska: Barrow Extension, June 26-28, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Barry Zimmer; $2,395 in double occupancy from Anchorage (internal flights included). 4 spaces available.

This short tour to the shores of the Beaufort Sea offers participants a taste of the true High Arctic. Traveling beyond the ranges of any of our other Alaskan tours, you’ll experience the thrill of seeing four species of eiders on their breeding grounds—including the rare Steller’s and Spectacled eiders, Red Phalarope, and Snowy Owl. Polar Bears are seen on some trips. Note this extension may be taken either with our Grand Alaska or Alaska Highlights tour.

Please visit our website and view the descriptions, tour reports, and field lists from our 2015 tours.

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The star of the show was this male Prothonotary Warbler that was just feet off the boardwalk for quite some time.

Prothonotary Warbler, Texas Coast — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Last June I announced that VENT will host an anniversary celebration this spring to commemorate our 40 years in business. The response in the interim has been strong, with most spaces now sold. At this point, only three months remain until the start of the event, and I am anticipating a sell-out. If you want to be a part of this historic occasion, I urge you to reserve one or more of the remaining spaces soon!

VENT’s 40th Anniversary Celebration will take place in Beaumont, Texas, April 17-22, 2016. This event promises to be one of the most exciting and rewarding programs VENT has ever organized. In attendance will be a remarkable 17 VENT leaders, in addition to some of the most prominent people in the North American birding community including Kenn Kaufman, Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute. In addition, Pete Dunne and his wife Linda, old friends and great supporters of VENT, will be with us for a few days.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, East Texas — Photo: Greg Lasley

The host site of the celebration will be Beaumont, on the Upper Texas Coast, one of the premier birding areas of North America. The Upper Texas Coast is among my favorite birding areas, and the opportunity to share this region that I love so much with a wonderful group of VENT participants will be very special for me.

In addition to great birding, this event will enable participants to see friends with whom they have traveled on previous VENT tours, spend time with many VENT leaders, and attend evening keynote presentations by Kenn, Dr. Fitzpatrick, Denver, and me. Together we will celebrate a major milestone in VENT’s history in one of the most exciting areas of the country for birding at the best time of the year. This is an event you will not want to miss!

VENT’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, April 17-22, 2016; $2,895 in double occupancy from Beaumont, Texas. Limit 112. 15 spaces available.

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Looking ahead to the next few months, the end of winter and the first part of spring is traditionally a busy period at VENT. The American Tropics are always a popular destination at this time while March represents the onset of our spring domestic travel season. If you have not yet made plans for your first travel adventure of the year, I thought you would like to know about opportunities to join upcoming VENT tours that still have spaces available. Tours to Nebraska, Texas, and Florida offer enticing travel close to home while farther flung destinations such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Triunfo (Mexico), the Philippines, and France promise exciting birding in beautiful destinations abroad. I am confident you will be happy with any of these outstanding trips:

Horned Guan

Horned Guan; El Triunfo, Mexico — Photo: Ted Eubanks

Easy Philippines, February 24-March 9, 2016 with Dion Hobcroft; $5,995 in double occupancy from Manila. 2 spaces available.

El Triunfo, March 1-11, 2016 with Brian Gibbons and Jorge Montejo; $2,995 in double occupancy from Tuxtla Gutierrez (ends in Tapachula). 4 spaces available.

Best of Costa Rica, March 12-24, 2016 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $4,995 in double occupancy from San Jose. 3 spaces available.

Ecuador: A Hummingbird Extravaganza, March 17-26, 2016 with Paul Greenfield; $3,095 in double occupancy from Quito. 2 spaces available.

Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse, March 19-26, 2016 with Rick Wright and a second leader to be announced; $2,295 in double occupancy from Omaha. 2 spaces available.

Spring in South Texas, April 1-10, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $3,295 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi; ends in Laredo. 4 spaces available.

High Island Migration, April 22-28, 2016 with Erik Bruhnke and David Wolf; $2,095 in double occupancy from Houston. 2 spaces available.

France: Birds & Art in Provence, April 24-May 2, 2016 with Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani; $3,195 in double occupancy from Arles, France. 5 spaces available.

Dry Tortugas, April 27-30, 2016 with Rafael Galvez; $1,695 in double occupancy from Key West. 3 spaces available.

South Florida & The Keys, April 30-May 6, 2016 with Rafael Galvez and a second leader to be announced; $2,495 in double occupancy from Key West. 3 spaces available.

Big Bend National Park & The Texas Hill Country, April 28-May 7, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer; $2,995 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso). 6 spaces available.

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A feeding frenzy along the Intracoastal Canal contained about 35 brilliant Roseate Spoonbills.

Roseate Spoonbill, Texas Coast — Photo: Barry Zimmer

The new year is off to a great start for VENT. Once again many of our winter and spring tours are full or nearly full. We continue to be very excited about our upcoming 40th Anniversary Celebration, which also is filling up nicely. It will be such a treat to see so many people who have taken VENT tours over the years, to welcome new travelers to VENT, and to be with other VENT leaders. We are especially delighted that some of America’s most outstanding birders, ornithologists, and nature writers will be with us and giving presentations. Because I grew up in Houston and have birded East Texas and the Upper Texas Coast since I was a teenager, it will be very gratifying to share this region with everyone who attends this historic event.

Almost all of Texas is receiving above normal rainfall as a result of this winter’s strong El Niño weather pattern. On the heels of the worst drought in Texas history, it is wonderful to see the fields green and the lakes full. This El Niño cycle is predicted to continue through May. As a result, we should see another great wildflower show this spring and, hopefully, some good migration fallouts on the coast.

I hope your 2016 is happy and healthy and filled with great experiences in nature.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel