VENTflash #199 March 17, 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,

The last month has seen me on the road a lot, with a trip to the Eastern Caribbean being the centerpiece of my recent travels.

From L-R: Barry, John, Greg, Peter, Victor, and David

VENT Staff: Barry, John, Greg, Peter, Victor, and David — Photo: Cruise Participant Mike Babcock

In the middle of February VENT operated a birding and natural history cruise to the Lesser Antilles aboard the Sea Cloud. This trip has become a staple of our cruise offerings, operating on an every-other-year basis. Once again, we had a marvelous adventure. Joining me were fellow VENT leaders David Ascanio and Barry Lyon; Tour Operations Manager Greg Lopez; botanist extraordinaire Peter Zika; renowned traveler-historian John Harrison; and 53 enthusiastic participants. Together we enjoyed a thematically diverse voyage while hitting a home run with our birding endeavors.

The islands of the Lesser Antilles are relatively small, and while bird diversity on each island is limited, the number of birds endemic to the region overall is remarkably high. In visiting Barbados, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent, we located all 30 species of birds endemic to this group of islands. As always, the parrots and hummingbirds are of high interest, but our travels also brought wonderful encounters with a collection of doves, woodpeckers, thrushes, thrashers, tremblers, warblers, orioles, and more. Beyond birds, the scenery was terrific. Our travels brought exposure to many varied and lovely landscapes from coralline Barbados to forested Dominica, and from volcano-dominated Guadeloupe to the inviting coastline of Martinique.

Blue-headed Hummingbird, Dominica

Blue-headed Hummingbird, Dominica— Photo: David Ascanio

As always, traveling with a wonderful group of people is what makes these trips so enjoyable. In fact, this group of participants was among the most congenial and delightful I’ve been with. Among the many longtime friends and VENT travelers joining this voyage were Pete and Linda Dunne. I have known the Dunnes for over 30 years and have co-led VENT youth birding camps with them and spent time with them in their home state of New Jersey. Pete is one of the great men of modern natural history, having done as much or more for the advancement of birding—as a hobby, a passion, and a vehicle for conservation—than anyone in the last 50 years. A gentle and humble man, Pete, through his writings, public speaking, and leadership of the Cape May Bird Observatory, has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people. I will never forget walking with him and Linda and a part of our tour group through the Syndicate Estate rainforest on Dominica, an incredibly beautiful place where huge Gomier trees towered 150 feet overhead. The sunlight that came through the canopy dappled the trees and forest floor around us. At one point Pete remarked, “It is a privilege to be here.” Indeed it was.

Our next Lesser Antilles cruise aboard the Sea Cloud will operate in February 2018; dates to be announced in May 2016.

In this issue:



Galapagos Penguin at Sunset

Galapagos Penguin at Sunset — Photo: Michael O’Brien

This week we received a cancellation by a couple registered on our summer Galapagos Islands Cruise, July 8-17, 2016. Because cancellation penalties were incurred, we can offer the newly available cabin (Category C) at a discount of $1,000 per person in double occupancy. Our published price for the cabin is $7,995 per person in double occupancy. With the discount, the fee is $6,995 per person in double occupancy. For a couple this offer represents a total savings of $2,000! This cabin will be sold on a first-come basis. Note that this fee includes the cost of roundtrip internal airfare from Quito to the Galapagos, which most other companies include as a separate fee.

For this departure we have chartered the 32-passenger M/V Evolution, one of the best ships for cruising the Galapagos. Not too large and not too small, this vessel offers comfort and stability while preserving the intimacy of a small-group experience. Our itinerary enables participants to visit most of the major islands while offering the chance to see most of the special birds including Waved Albatross, Galapagos Penguin, Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos finches, Galapagos mockingbirds, and much more, in addition to the islands’ other signature wildlife such as Marine Iguana, Galapagos Tortoise, and Galapagos Fur Seal.

Leading this cruise is VENT leader David Wolf, a veteran tour leader with plenty of experience leading tours in South America. Traveling with David, you will be impressed by his wide-ranging knowledge of the islands and their wildlife. I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity.

Galapagos Islands Cruise, July 8-17, 2016 with David Wolf; cabins start at $7,995 per person in double occupancy from Quito. One Category C cabin available for $6,995 per person in double occupancy.

Blue-footed Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies — Photo: Greg Greer

Those looking to extend their time in South America will be interested in our pre- and post-cruise options. Our Tandayapa Pre-trip visits the northwestern slopes of the Andes in the Mindo area below Quito where you will see almost 20 species of hummingbirds in addition to a host of colorful tanagers and other tropical birds. Our Machu Picchu Extension visits the incomparable ancient capital of the Inca while seeking many of the special birds of the Peruvian Andes in the regions of Cuzco and the Urubamba River Valley.

Galapagos Islands Cruise: Tandayapa Pre-trip, July 5-8, 2016, with David Wolf and Paul Greenfield; $1,195 in double occupancy from Quito.

Galapagos Islands Cruise: Machu Picchu Extension, July 16-22, 2016 with Doris Valencia; $3,695 in double occupancy from Lima.

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With the departure date of our next Colombia tour, Colombia: The Central & Western Andes, less than three months away, I want to focus your attention on this outstanding destination, especially if you are someone who can travel on shorter notice.

Yellow-eared Parrots

Yellow-eared Parrots — Photo: ProAves Colombia/

Our Central & Western Andes tour, June 5-21, 2016, visits a number of exciting and bird-rich destinations in the central and western cordilleras—a perfect complement to our flagship Colombia tour, Colombia: Bogotá, Eastern Andes & the Magdalena Valley.

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 high number of Colombia’s endemics, among them the Yellow-eared 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.

Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty

Steve recently returned from Colombia where he co-led our annual Bogota, Eastern Andes & the Magdalena Valley tour. After the trip he was one of the principal speakers at the Colombia Bird Fair in Cali and was interviewed by radio and television reporters. He visited Finca Alejandrina where he saw more tanagers and hummingbirds than he had ever seen at one location. He reports it was a truly remarkable experience and that this site will be visited on our Central & Western Andes tour.

Colombia: The Central & Western Andes, June 5-21, 2016 with Steve Hilty and a local leader; $6,895 in double occupancy from Cali (ends in Medellin). 4 spaces available.

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For professional and personal reasons, an aspect of my life of which I’m especially proud is VENT’s relationship with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “The Lab,” as it is generally known, is the country’s premier institution for bird research and bird study. Through its various data-gathering programs, research endeavors, and citizen science projects, the Lab is also an important driver of bird conservation. Many of the values that the Lab demonstrates in its attitudes towards birds and bird conservation are shared by VENT.

Chan Chich Lodge

Chan Chich Lodge — Photo: Courtesy Chan Chich Lodge

For over 20 years VENT has organized and conducted an annual trip for the members of the Chairman’s Council, representing the Lab’s strongest supporters. This year’s trip, in early March, was to the Chan Chich Lodge in Belize, and I co-led with the Lab’s Executive Director, Dr. John Fitzpatrick (“Fitz”); Scott Sutcliffe, Director of Annual Fund and Stewardship; and Barry Lyon.

Over 25 years ago, VENT was one of the first bird tour companies to take birders to the jungle lodge of Chan Chich. Since its opening in 1988 we have offered at least one Chan Chich tour every year; however, I had not been there since 2008 when I visited with a group of friends. I had forgotten how marvelous Chan Chich is. Among its many attributes is its location amid many square miles of undisturbed tropical forest, totally unique among Central American lodges. As a result, every day we enjoyed sightings of “mega-birds” such as Crested Guans, Great Curassows, and Ocellated Turkeys, prime indicator species that have disappeared from most parts of their ranges. For me one of the trip highlights was watching Fitz imitate perfectly the single whistled call note of the tiny Tody Motmot, and, in a tour-de-force, subsequently show the bird to 30 people. Other memorable events included the sighting of an Ocelot on a night drive and the opportunity to study swarms of hummingbirds around the feeders at the lodge, including as many as eight dazzling White-necked Jacobins at a time. Every so often a Long-tailed Hermit would enter the scene and hover a few inches in front of our faces!

Upon arrival in the early afternoon at Chan Chich Lodge, we were immediately greeted by four species of hummingbirds at the lodge feeders. Vying for prettiest of the bunch was this amazing White-necked Jacobin.

White-neckeed Jacobin, Chan Chich Lodge, Belize — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Against the backdrop of our special surroundings, we also learned about the latest developments at the Lab, especially the continued evolution of eBird, perhaps the ultimate citizen science project. On the last evening, Fitz displayed eBird data from northern Central America that starkly revealed the critical importance of Belize and the surrounding area to wintering Neotropical songbirds. As the data accumulates, the Lab will deploy its findings, in concert with various partners, to produce sound scientific bases for bird conservation.

If you are not yet a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I encourage you to join this fine organization soon.

VENT will next visit the Chan Chich Lodge on our Best of Belize tour, March 8-15, 2017, with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; price to be announced in double occupancy from Belize City ($4,795 in 2015).

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I take pleasure in letting our travelers know about special recognition our tour leaders receive outside of their careers at VENT. For example, I recently learned that longtime VENT leader Denver Holt was featured in a story that appeared in the London-based Financial Times in its December 13, 2015 issue.

Denver Holt

Denver Holt

In the article, “Montana’s Talon Show,” journalist Gary Walther traveled to the Mission Valley of western Montana for a story on the area’s acclaim as a haven for raptors (hawks and owls). Of course, no story concerning Montana’s owls would be complete without a profile of the man who brought the valley its prestige as a raptor haven in the first place. That man is Denver Holt, one of the world’s foremost experts on owls and founder and president of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana. In researching the piece, Walther spent time in the field with Holt and chronicles his rise from middle-level wildlife manager in his native Massachusetts to successful independent researcher and scientist based in Montana. Also included is a discussion of the qualities that make the Mission Valley so attractive to raptors, and the physical features that make the valley one of the most beautiful places in North America.

To read the article, please visit the website of the Financial Times. Note that the article is not accessible free of charge; however, an eight-week trial digital subscription is available for $1.00.

For many years Denver has led our perennially popular Montana Owl Workshop, a tour unlike any other in our repertoire. On this short trip participants may see up to eight kinds of owls including such highly sought species as Boreal and Great Gray owls. Making this tour especially engaging is the chance to study wild owls in the hand, observe breeding and nesting behavior, and learn about owl physiology and ecology.

Our next Montana Owl Workshops will be led by Denver Holt and Matt Larson and will operate:

April 26-May 1, 2016; $1,895 in double occupancy from Missoula. 1 space available.

April 20-25, 2017; price to be announced in double occupancy from Missoula.

Additionally, Denver will lead our upcoming general bird study tour, Ornithology 101 in South Texas: A Learn About Birds Workshop, October 28-November 2, 2016; $1,895 in double occupancy from McAllen.

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In the eyes of many, Borneo is among the world’s premier birding and wildlife destinations. The birds are plentiful, exotic, rare, and colorful, and the spectacular megafauna includes Bornean Orangutans, Bornean Pygmy Elephants, Proboscis Monkeys, Bornean Clouded Leopards, and a profusion of “flying” animals—flying squirrels, gliding frogs, geckoes, lizards, and even an airborne snake.

Bornean Orangutan, female and infant

Bornean Orangutan, Female and Infant — Photo: Dion Hobcroft

This year, VENT’s Borneo tour, August 12-30, 2016, will be led by Machiel Valkenburg and will visit the most important birding and wildlife viewing sites on the island: Mount Kinabalu, Sepilok Reserve, the Kinabatangan River, and Danum Valley.

The cool montane forests that drape the slopes of Mount Kinabalu and the surrounding Crocker Ranges are home to most of Borneo’s endemic species. By contrast, the meandering Kinabatangan River feeds the low-lying swamp forests that harbor troops of Proboscis Monkeys, herds of gentle Borneo Pygmy Elephants, and a vast array of wonderful birds including eight species of hornbills and the strange Bornean Bristlehead. Meanwhile, the lowland forests containing the Sepilok Reserve are home to some of the world’s greatest biodiversity outside of the Amazon Basin. To round out the experience, we’ll travel to the remote Danum Valley to visit one of the largest remaining stands of primary forest in Borneo where exists a dazzling cast of pittas, babblers, trogons, barbets, and broadbills.

In addition to the island’s amazing birdlife, mammals, and strange reptiles, Borneo is famous as a haven for butterflies and for hosting the world’s largest collection of carnivorous pitcher plants.

I can’t recommend this trip highly enough. Visit our website to view the tour report and field list from our 2015 tour.

Borneo, August 12-30, 2016 with Machiel Valkenburg; $7,695 in double occupancy from Kota Kinabalu (internal flights included). Limit 8. 4 spaces available.

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March is something of a transition time in VENT’s tour calendar, when we move beyond the winter travel season and turn our focus to the domestic front. Looking ahead to the next four months, VENT will operate many tours throughout the U.S. and a lesser number to the American Tropics. If you’ve not yet made your spring or summer travel plans, I thought you might like to know about upcoming travel opportunities on trips ranging from the great north of Alaska to the equatorial climes of Peru. All of these tours have a few spaces available and all promise great experiences in nature:

A hike down the Window Trail in Big Bend National Park produced a good variety of birds, including this amazing, plum-colored male Varied Bunting.

Varied Bunting, Big Bend National Park — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country, April 28-May 7, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $2,995 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso). 3 spaces available.

Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, May 15-20, 2016 with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien; $1,795 in double occupancy from Philadelphia.

Minnesota & North Dakota, June 3-12, 2016 with Erik Bruhnke and a second leader to be announced; $3,195 in double occupancy from Duluth.

Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, June 5-11, 2016 with Bob Sundstrom and Rafael Galvez; $2,295 in double occupancy from Seattle. 4 spaces available.

Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome, June 2-10, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $5,295 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 3 spaces available. Discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy if combined with Grand Alaska Part I.

Horned Puffins, St. Paul Island, Alaska, June 16, 2012

Horned Puffins, St. Paul Island, Alaska – Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs, June 9-18, 2016 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $6,995 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 4 spaces available. Discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy if combined with Grand Alaska Part I.
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. 3 spaces available.

Alaska Highlights, June 15-26, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $6,895 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 5 spaces available.

Northern Peru’s Tumbes & Marañon Endemics, June 2-10, 2016 with Andrew Whittaker and a local leader; $4,495 in double occupancy from Lima. 2 spaces available.

Avian Jewels of Arizona: Hummingbirds, Trogons, Warblers & More, July 18-26, 2016 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $2,495 in double occupancy from Tucson. 5 spaces available.

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Spring in Washington

Spring in Washington

In the last month my trips to the Caribbean and Belize bookended a trip I made with two longtime birding friends to my beach house on the Upper Texas Coast. There are few things in life that bring me as much pleasure as going there. My house is located on the Bolivar Peninsula northeast of Galveston and sits on the edge of an expansive salt marsh where thousands of waterbirds of many varieties can be found at any time of the year. It is a special place made more special by the opportunity to share it with others. On this visit we were treated to thousands of American Avocets feeding in front of my house amid a profusion of other wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, and terns.

Now in the third week of March, spring has arrived in many parts of the country. Trees are budding out; short-distance migrants that wintered

a few hundred miles to the south are returning; and soon the first Neotropical migrants will return from the forests of Mexico and Central America. In a few more weeks the rush will be on, with shorebirds, warblers, orioles, tanagers, and many other birds surging north with the new season.

To celebrate the return of spring, I have been reading Spring in Washington, by Louis Halle, for the third time. With an eye for detail and a penchant for lyrical writing, Halle states, “The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe.” This sentence is but one example of Halle’s attitude toward the natural world. I feel the same way. First published in 1947, Spring in Washington is an overlooked jewel of nature writing on the level of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It is among my favorite books and one that I highly recommend.

We are delighted that our 40th Anniversary Celebration in Beaumont, Texas, April 17-22, 2016 has sold out with a waiting list. Other VENT tours throughout the country will partake of this magical time of the year. We hope you enjoy a great spring.