VENTflash #212: Alaska Tours 2017, the Sea Cloud & More! January 10, 2017

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,

VENT closed out 2016 in ritual year-end fashion with our annual Christmas and New Year tours to Panama in addition to our first-ever holiday tour in Europe, New Year in Portugal. We begin the new year with a terrific suite of January trips including birding and natural history cruises to Antarctica, the Amazon River, and the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand, and traditional land-based trips to Arizona, California, Ecuador, India, Japan, New Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, El Valle's Canopy Lodge

Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, El Valle’s Canopy Lodge — Photo: Tamara Holmer

I always enjoy receiving exciting reports of unusual birds seen on our tours. Early last week, I heard about a Crimson-bellied Woodpecker seen by a VENT group on our Christmas tour to El Valle’s Canopy Lodge in Panama. This large, mainly South American species reaches its northern range limit in Panama. I have observed it only a few times and consider it the most striking and beautiful woodpecker I have ever seen. Tamara Holmer, a participant on the tour, sent us a photo of the woodpecker and wrote, “My trip to Panama was one of the best trips of my life. I am already planning my next trip with VENT.”

My colleague Barry Lyon and I welcomed the new year with a few days of birding in the Falcon Dam area in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. I have visited the RGV almost every year since I was 16 and have many wonderful memories from the trips I’ve made there. From Laredo to the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico, a number of superb natural areas have been set aside to protect and promote the biological heritage of southernmost Texas. On this trip, we spent a morning on the Santa Margarita Ranch atop a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande where we saw many of the special “Valley” birds, most notably Red-billed Pigeon, a species found here in the winter in very low numbers.

Unlike the urbanized “Lower” Valley around McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville, the “Upper” Valley is far less developed and therefore evinces a wilder side of South Texas. It is for this reason that I love the Santa Margarita Bluff. From a lofty 50-foot perch above the Rio Grande, one has commanding views of the river for half of a mile upstream and downstream. Here it’s just you and nature. In any direction, no houses or other structures are in view. I love standing on the bluff and gazing at the river and surrounding riparian forest, waiting to see which bird appears next. The whole setting is magical and offers a glimpse at what the river might have looked like when the first settlers arrived.

VENT has been taking people to the bluff for over 30 years, and in fact a visit here is a staple of our Spring in South Texas tour, led by Barry Zimmer. Although the land is private, access is granted by Jorge Gonzales, to whom we pay an entry fee. I have always taken an interest in family history, and Jorge Gonzales has an interesting one. I have known Jorge for many years, and during our visit to the ranch he retold the story of how the thousand-plus-acre property has been in his family for over 400 years, and that came down as a Spanish land grant.

A view from scenic Santa Margarita Bluff.

A view from scenic Santa Margarita Bluff — Photo: Barry Zimmer

On another morning we went to the riverside community of Salineño where a retired couple from Iowa maintains bird feeders through the winter. A morning trip to the feeding station produced a marvelous array of colorful birds including Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, and Audubon’s and Altamira orioles. On one afternoon, we went upriver to the small town of San Ygnacio to look for White-collared Seedeaters and other birds. Thanks to the enlightened efforts of local citizen Joel Ruiz, a small “seedeater sanctuary” has been created along the river. From an impressive viewing platform we saw a pair of seedeaters, a magnificent Gray Hawk, and a group of thirty Plain Chachalacas.

It was getting dark when we left, and our route out of town took us past the town square. I have been to San Ygnacio a number of times through the years, but this was the first time that I really noticed the square. All of the trees were beautifully decorated with holiday lights. Prominently displayed in front were war memorials to men from San Ygnacio who had been awarded the Purple Heart and to a Navy man who had perished in WWII when the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk between Guam and the Leyte Gulf. It was a lovely and moving experience. On the way back to Austin, we visited a site on the Rio Grande in Laredo where we had terrific studies of a female Amazon Kingfisher. This species, widespread in the Neotropics, is a rare vagrant to South Texas. This bird represented the third official record for the United States. For good measure, a male Green Kingfisher was perched nearby, affording a superb comparison of these two tropical kingfishers.

Victor Emanuel with Jorge Gonzales

Victor Emanuel with Jorge Gonzales, Santa Margarita Ranch — Photo: Barry Lyon

In the coming months, we have an outstanding slate of tours scheduled to areas in Central and South America, the Caribbean, the United States, Asia, and Africa. I am especially excited about our Botswana: From Desert to Delta tour, April 11-22, 2017, led by Geoff Lockwood. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Geoff has led our Namibia, Botswana & Zambia tour for many years. He has received outstanding reviews from everyone who has traveled with him. Not only a birder, Geoff is a complete naturalist who possesses encyclopedic information on the natural history of southern Africa. This tour will visit the famed Kalahari Desert and the delta of the Okavango River, the greatest wetland in the world. In Botswana, all of the sites where the group stays are superb, small camps, and different from those we use on our Namibia, Botswana & Zambia tour. An optional extension to the Cape region of South Africa promises endemic birds, other wildlife, and beautiful scenery. This tour is limited to eight participants. Only four spaces remain available.

Botswana: From Desert to Delta, April 11-22, 2017 with Geoff Lockwood; $9,995 in double occupancy from Maun. Register by February 15 and receive a $1,000 discount.

South Africa: Western Cape Extension, April 21-27, 2017 with Geoff Lockwood; $3,695 in double occupancy from Cape Town.




In this issue:



Last year in June I attended a wedding in Seward, Alaska. I don’t get to Alaska very often, but that trip reminded me once again of why Alaska is such a wonderful destination. Alaska holds some of the finest visual scenery in the world, a mammal spectacle that ranks among the finest anywhere, and, of course, marvelous birding. Being up there again amid the confines of snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and spruce forest in the company of bears, moose, and eagles brought renewed appreciation for VENT’s annual program of tours to this marvelous state.

Trail River Lake, Alaska

Trail River Lake, near Seward, Alaska — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to have been all over the world and to have experienced its greatest wildlife spectacles. When I think about Alaska, there is not a doubt in my mind that the great northern land ranks among the world’s finest destinations for birding and nature. 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 most grandiose scenery on the planet, with places like Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali (Mt. McKinley) taking center stage.

VENT has been operating tours to Alaska for over 35 years, a point of which I am especially proud. Our Alaska tour leaders—Kevin Zimmer, Barry Zimmer, Rafael Galvez, and Brian Gibbons—are an exceptionally talented group. Together they possess decades of experience in Alaska, and they all are adept at finding the special birds and mammals that people want to see and sharing their knowledge with others.

In June 2017, VENT will again offer five Alaska tours. These trips cover the full spectrum of Alaska’s best birding and wildlife areas. If you have ever wanted to visit Alaska, this summer presents an excellent opportunity.

To whet your appetite, I thought I would share with you some extracts from the tour report that Kevin Zimmer produced following last year’s tour to Gambell and Nome, our special “outposts” trip that kicks off our Alaska tour season:

Least Auklets

Least Auklets, Gambell, Alaska — Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

“Indeed, the daily Gambell alcid spectacle, as witnessed from a position along the base of the mountain, is usually overwhelming for first-timers, and only marginally less thrilling for me, after 27 years of visits. The skies overhead are blackened by thousands of swirling auklets (Crested, Least, and Parakeet), lending the appearance of angry swarms of bees, while the slopes below are literally covered with more of the same (including a sprinkling of Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots). Individual rock slabs are festooned with auklets: comical Cresteds, with their goofy, perpetual grins; diminutive Leasts crowded cheek-to-jowl; and larger Parakeets, looking more formal and stoic, with their black-and-white “tuxedoed” appearance and more erect carriage. Throughout, the voices of the masses of birds above combine to assault the senses with a cacophony of sound—the yelping of the Crested Auklets; the harsh, buzzy chatter of the Leasts; and the musical trilling rattles of the Parakeets.

“A trip to Gambell is always memorable, as much for its glimpse into Bering Sea culture and the adventure of birding one of America’s few remaining frontiers as for any birds seen. Just knowing that the snow-capped peaks glimmering some 40-odd miles in the distance (seen particularly well this year) are part of the Russian Far East and mainland Asia lends an exotic quality to being here. It will also be hard to forget Gray Whales surfacing just offshore and strips of blackened seal and walrus drying on traditional drying racks.

“A trip to northwestern Alaska’s outposts highlights the ephemeral, transient nature of birding in the arctic and subarctic regions. Rare birds arrive without warning and leave without notice; conditions are optimal one moment and inhospitable the next. One has to admire the feathered wanderers that return again and again from more hospitable climes to fulfill their reproductive destinies in lands that can be so capriciously unpredictable and unforgiving. Seemingly fragile, always restless, they strike out each spring for this land at the edge of the Bering Sea. And each spring, we wait, anticipating their arrivals, and reveling in our unexpected discoveries. It is a drama that I look forward to repeating, year after year, with undiminished anticipation.”

Red-necked Stint

Red-necked Stint, Gambell, Alaska — Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

I hope you will consider joining us in Alaska this summer. Any of the following trips will provide you with memories to last a lifetime.

Grand Alaska: Gambell/Nome, June 2-10, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $4,995 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Combine this tour with Grand Alaska Part I for a discount of $500 in double occupancy or $750 in single occupancy.

Any trip to the Gambell/Nome area is exciting. Early June, however, is the best time to visit these remote northern outposts. Highlights include cliffs stacked with nesting seabirds, and lakes, ponds, and Arctic tundra hosting breeding loons, raptors, shorebirds, jaegers, buntings, and longspurs. 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 a wonderful example, our 2016 tour produced sightings of Emperor Goose, Arctic Loon, Common Ringed Plover, Common Greenshank, Red-necked Stint, Slaty-backed Gull, White Wagtail, Eye-browed Thrush, and “Siberian” Chiffchaff.

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs, June 9-19, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $6,795 in double occupancy from Anchorage. Combine this tour with Grand Alaska: 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. In some years we even turn up an unexpected Siberian vagrant or two.

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

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula, June 19-27, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $3,895 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 4 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 in North America.

Alaska Highlights, June 15-27, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and a second leader to be announced; $7,095 in double occupancy from Anchorage.

This tour showcases three very different, but equally wonderful areas of Alaska: 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, North America’s highest peak.

Alaska: Barrow Extension, June 27-29, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Barry Zimmer; $2,495 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 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 and itineraries for our 2017 tours, and the field lists and tour reports from last year’s tours.

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Sea Cloud

Sea Cloud — Photo: Courtesy Sea Cloud

The departure date of our next trip aboard the famous Sea Cloud, Sicily & Malta: History, Culture & Nature, May 2-11, 2017, is fast approaching, and I want you to know that a few cabins are still available.

This voyage is a multidimensional trip in which we’ll explore the rich history of Sicily and Malta while enjoying excellent spring birding and other natural history in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Our cruise will begin and end in Malta and will visit many wonderful historical sites in Sicily including Segesta, Erice, Salinunte, Agrigento, and Syracuse. Early May is a pleasant time of the year to be in southern Europe. The wildflowers are in bloom, and landbird and waterbird migrations are at their peak. Against this backdrop, you will learn about the history of Sicily and Malta, including the siege of Malta by the Ottomans in 1563, and visit remarkable cultural sites, including Greek temples that are more magnificent than any in Greece. On the natural history front, we will visit some of Sicily’s most important areas for birding, places that attract wonderful collections of waterbirds, including Common Shelduck, Greater Flamingo, and flocks of shorebirds, along with a fine variety of landbirds.

Traveling aboard the lovely Sea Cloud is the best way to visit these islands. Unlike traditional land-based tours that require accommodations changes, once aboard Sea Cloud, your cabin will be your home for a week. Meanwhile, the Sea Cloud is widely recognized as the world’s most beautiful sailing vessel. Featuring beautiful accommodations and excellent cuisine, this four-masted barque is unmatched in her beauty and style. With her sails up, Sea Cloud is a majestic site. In fact, some people even take our Sea Cloud trips not so much for the program but for the opportunity to be aboard the ship!

Joining me in leading this departure are Barry Lyon, Peter Zika, and Dr. Larry Wolff.  Dr. Wolff is the Silver Professor of European History at New York University and will present lectures on the history of Sicily and Malta; Peter is a botanist with the herbarium at the University of Washington and will lead interpretive discussions and lectures on botany.

We have wanted to return to Sicily ever since our first cruise there in May 2008. I would be delighted to be with you on this marvelous voyage.

Temple of Segesta, Sicily

Temple of Segesta, Sicily — Photo: luigi nifosi/shutterstock

Sicily & Malta: History, Culture & Nature aboard the Sea Cloud, May 2-11, 2017 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, Peter Zika, and Dr. Larry Wolff; cabins start at $8,995 per person in double occupancy from Valletta, Malta.

Malta Pre-trip, April 29-May 3, 2017 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, and Peter Zika; $2,295 in double occupancy from Valletta.

Sicily Extension, May 11-18, 2017 with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon; $4,995 in double occupancy from Catania.

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Our winter tour season is now in full swing, with the first trips of the new year presently operating in Antarctica, Panama, New Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, and many other tours set to depart later in January and February. Looking ahead a couple of months, the late winter and early spring period is no less exciting, for that is when our domestic tour season ramps up, complementing our rich program of international tours. If you have not yet made your end-of-winter or spring travel plans, I thought you might like to know that a few spaces are still available on a fine selection of March and April tours. Whether your preference is enjoying the onset of spring right here in the U.S.A., or perhaps getting out of the country for some foreign travel, I am confident that you will enjoy any of these fine trips:

Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito, March 4-11, 2017 with Brian Gibbons and a local leader; $3,495 in double occupancy from San Pedro Sula. 5 spaces available.

Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals, March 4-12, 2017 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $3,795 in double occupancy from San José. 4 spaces available.

Audubon's Oriole

Audubon’s Oriole, South Texas — Photo: Greg Lasley

Nebraska: Platte River, Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse, March 11-18, 2017 with Rick Wright; $2,495 in double occupancy from Omaha. 4 spaces available.

Cuba, March 14-25, 2017 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,358 in double occupancy from Miami. 5 spaces available.

Northern Ecuador Hummingbird Extravaganza, March 16-25, 2017 with Paul Greenfield; $3,095 in double occupancy from Quito. 6 spaces available.

Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago, March 24-April 2, 2017 with Jeri Langham; $4,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. 2 spaces available.

Brazil: Amazonia on the Rio Roosevelt, March 25-April 4, 2017 with Andrew Whittaker; $8,795 in double occupancy from Porto Velho. 3 spaces available.

Spring in South Texas, April 1-10, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $3,295 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi (ends in Laredo). 4 spaces available.

Bhutan, April 8-30, 2017 with Machiel Valkenburg and Ansar Khan; $10,595 in double occupancy from New Delhi. 4 spaces available.

Bolivar Beach House: Migration on the Upper Texas Coast, April 16-23, 2017 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,495 in double occupancy from Houston. 4 spaces available.

Montana Owl Workshop, April 20-25, 2017 with Denver Holt and Matt Larson; $1,950 in double occupancy from Missoula. 5 spaces available.

Keel-billed Motmot, Rio Santiago Reserve, Honduras, February 2013

Keel-billed Motmot, Honduras — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country, April 24-May 4, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer; $3,295 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso). 3 spaces available.

California Specialties, April 28-May 7, 2017 with Jeri Langham; $3,595 in double occupancy from San Diego (ends in Santa Barbara). 3 spaces available.

Finally, beyond April, I thought you should know that spaces are still available on our inaugural Italy: Birds & Art in Tuscany tour, May 12-23, 2017 with Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani; $3,995 in double occupancy from Florence (ends in Rome).

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On December 18, I participated in the 60th annual Freeport Christmas Bird Count. I founded this count in 1956 when I was 16. In 1971, the Freeport CBC set the all-time record for the most birds ever seen on a U.S. Christmas count with 226 species. That record was since eclipsed by the Mad Island Marsh CBC further down the Texas Coast. In contrast to last year, we had challenging weather on the count with north winds that gusted to 25 miles per hour and temperatures in the forties. I realize counts in some other parts of the country had much more difficult conditions. As one bone-chilling example, VENT tour leader Denver Holt experienced temperatures as low as 22 below zero on the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge CBC! Due to the weather, the Freeport count totaled “only” 189 species this year; nevertheless, it was great to continue a long tradition and to see old friends.

I hope your holidays were enjoyable and that the new year is off to a good start for you.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel