VENTflash #214 January 31, 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:

I make a point of appreciating each of the seasons. Although spring is my favorite time of the year, I always enjoy my time in nature regardless of what the calendar says.

Black Skimmers, Bolivar Flats, TX

Black Skimmers, Bolivar Flats, TX — Photo: Greg Lasley

Over the last two weekends, I was able to get out and enjoy some wonderful winter birding. Two weekends ago I visited my beach house on the Upper Texas Coast north of Galveston. As always, the mudflats and salt marsh that I can view from my back deck hosted glorious bird spectacles daily. With the tide out, waterbirds of a wide variety formed enormous feeding flocks while others rested in dense clusters. Among the many thousands of birds present were 1,000 American White Pelicans, 1,000 Laughing Gulls, and 600 Black Skimmers. As always, the American Avocet show is my favorite sight, where thousands of avocets fill the flats and shallow pans in feverish pursuit of prey items. I love watching these elegant shorebirds as they move with heads down, sweeping their bills from side to side, often in unison. Not far away, the jetty that stretches into Galveston Bay is another of my favorite local areas. A visit here on one morning produced scores of Nelson’s and Seaside sparrows and close encounters with Reddish Egrets, Dunlin, and a wonderful mix of gulls and terns. This marvelous wetland complex is a product of the unique geography of Galveston Bay and its nourishing waters. It is also one of the most important birding areas in Texas.

Ring-necked Duck, Hornsby Bend

Ring-necked Duck, Hornsby Bend — Photo: Greg Lasley

Last Saturday I paid a visit to Hornsby Bend, my favorite local birding haunt here in Austin. The morning was beautiful thanks to the passage of a dry front that had come through the previous day. The air was crisp, the sky as blue as can be, and the atmosphere crystal-clear. Although bird diversity was not especially high, I still took great pleasure in sighting a dozen Ring-necked Ducks, a beautiful male American Kestrel, and large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers. The day’s biggest surprise was the unexpected appearance of a Nashville Warbler among a group of Yellow-rumpeds. Nashville Warbler is a regular spring migrant in Austin, but a rare bird in the winter when the bulk of its population is in Mexico. What a thrill it was to see such an unusual and lovely bird when I least expected it.

Occasionally, I mention the satisfaction I take from knowing the joy VENT tours bring to the lives of our travelers. January is an important month for our domestic birding tours, and earlier this month we wrapped up our annual Winter New Mexico tour, led by Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke. Recently, I learned that Nancy Hodapp, a participant on the trip, upon its conclusion, sent the following note to her family and friends to describe her experiences:

“Hello All!
Alas, the birding trip came to an end last night with a last dinner as a group! Right now, I am at the airport to start for home. The experience was pretty amazing. There were 14 of us plus 2 guides who provided so much to our week. I was the only novice in the group and everyone was kind and helpful. Their enthusiasm was contagious! We had 10-hour days of birding, setting out at the crack of dawn and arriving at a hotel at 5:00 or so p.m. An hour of rest; a meeting to check off all birds identified that day; late dinner out; fall into bed exhausted. Repeat. The collective knowledge in this group was astounding. The guides worked miracles calling in birds, sighting them, and getting a scope on them. I improved using my binoculars. We saw 153 different species over 6 days. Many interesting people—some who started this hobby in retirement, others in childhood.

Our main guide, Barry Zimmer, went above and beyond for us daily. We visited his own backyard which was a haven for birds. One day, there was a fabulous picnic lunch in which Barry provided pies that he baked the night before. We were in desert areas, canyons, country clubs, state parks, mountaintops with snow, and nature centers. I was so glad I had the stamina to keep up!  Many laughs along the way. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  If you are ever inclined, look into VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours).

I will be seeing some of you soon!"

There are few things in life that bring me more pleasure than sharing nature with others, whether personally or through our tours, and at any time of the year.

In this issue:



Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler — Photo: Rafael Galvez

As much as I enjoy my winter birding, it is an inescapable fact that spring is my favorite time of the year. As someone who has lived almost his entire life in Texas, I grew up accustomed to experiencing the thrill of spring migration on the Upper Coast, at places like High Island, the Bolivar Flats, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. For me and countless other birders, we knew that the end of winter had finally arrived when the first swallows, warblers, and orioles of the year appeared like magic in woodlots and other oases of vegetation up and down the coast. These birds, that we refer to as trans-Gulf migrants, had spent the winter in the warmer climes of the Tropics, and, with the first signs of spring, launched across the Gulf of Mexico only to arrive on our shores many hours later.

Here in Texas, the first migrants appear early in March, but by April the proverbial floodgates have opened and millions of waterbirds, shorebirds, hawks, and songbirds are pouring up the Central Flyway. As spring progresses, the birds fan out as they make their way north, eventually reaching deep into the interior of the continent. Other flyways exist along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the Mississippi River Valley, all conveying millions of birds across North America. To me, spring migration is sublime, for it represents many of the qualities that I love about the natural world: the change of seasons, the energy and freshness of spring, the pulse of nature as embodied in birds flying thousands of miles to nest and reproduce and, of course, the chance to see warblers in profusion. Those who know me know that warblers are my favorite birds. In North America 50 species regularly occur, and in spring they look their best. Dressed in various shades of black, white, yellow, orange, green, and blue, these little birds never cease to captivate the observer. Along with an array of flycatchers, thrushes, tanagers, orioles, buntings, and other birds, these “Neotropical migrants” are among the most beautiful birds in the world.

Spring in Washington

Spring in Washington

One of my favorite books is Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle. Halle was a career employee of the United States State Department, but also a keen observer of nature. Published in 1947, Spring in Washington is Halle’s enduring tribute to the spring season in which he documents the arrival of spring in the Washington D.C. region through the prism of bird migration. It is a book told by a lover of nature with an eye for precision and a wonderful ability to wield a pen. In passage after passage, Halle is able to communicate the beauty and delicacy of the natural world at the most fleeting time of the year. Following are some of my favorite passages:

“Sunday, March 25, because it brought the first warbler, long before I had expected it, stands out in the list of days. In the sunrise a milky mist was steaming up from the river, like a smoke screen laid along the channel. The dew was still sparkling on the grass and visible as a soft radiance or ground mist over it. Today the singing of birds was everywhere and continuous…”

“I heard a song from the trees across the highway that transfixed me. I knew it well, and my subconscious being was immediately flooded with the recognition and the old associations that accompanied it, though my consciousness fumbled and for the moment I could not say what it was.”

“It is simply an instectlike notation in sound, a brief signature made up of two or three preliminary strokes and some modest flourishes, repeated at regular intervals without variation.”

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

“I found my bird quickly enough, through my binoculars, in the bare tops of the trees, flitting from twig to branch, from branch to trunk, from trunk to branch again, intent on its business, peering under and over and about, pausing only at the established intervals to throw back its head and make an announcement with vibrating bill. The low morning sun shone full upon it among the treetops, the bright yellow throat, like a piece of the sun itself, the blue-gray wings, the black-and-white head of the yellow-throated warbler. Now that it was here, the warbler season had begun.”

“These little birds are the principal glory of the North American spring, quick and dainty in their movements, incessantly active, as bright and varied in color as the butterflies. For a few weeks in spring, on their way north, they swarm through our woods, filling and transforming them with their variety and numbers.”

“The flowering of the Japanese cherry trees is not so wonderful as the wave of warblers that passes through the countryside in May, remaining sometimes only a day.”

As we enter February, the first signs of spring, for much of the country, are now on the horizon. Although we have another month of winter to get through here in Central Texas, I know that it won’t be long before I’m watching the skies for the first swallow of the year and the trees in my neighborhood for flashes of color that I have not seen in a long time.

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...and this equally stunning Summer Tanager.

Summer Tanager, Texas — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Spring is the busiest time of the year for our domestic tour program. From March to early June, VENT will operate 16 tours in the Lower 48 from one side of the country to the other— from the Pacific Northwest to the tip of South Florida; from Cape May, New Jersey to San Diego, California; and to many destinations in between. Some of these trips are full, but a few spaces remain available on a number of others. If you have not yet made your spring travel plans, I thought you might be enticed by the following travel opportunities, each promising outstanding birding and natural history:

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

Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension, April 10-14, 2017 with Barry Zimmer; $1,595 in double occupancy from Laredo (ends in San Antonio). 1 space available.

Bolivar Beach House, April 16-23, 2017 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,495 in double occupancy from Houston. 5 spaces available.

High Island Migration, April 16-22, 2017 with Steve Hilty; $2,095 in double occupancy from Houston. 1 space available.

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

Blue Springs, Blue Springs State Park, Missouri. Perhaps no spring anywhere in the world is so intensely blue as this lovely spring. Although ranked among the top 20 largest springs in the United States, it issues forth without the slightest trace of a ripple.

Blue Springs, Ozarks, Missouri — Photo: Steve Hilty

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.

Missouri & Arkansas: The Ozarks & Tallgrass Prairies, May 5-14, 2017 with Steve Hilty and Rafael Galvez; $2,750 in double occupancy from Springfield, Missouri. 5 spaces available.

Spring Grand Arizona, May 10-20, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $3,195 in double occupancy from Tucson. 1 space available.

Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, May 14-20, 2017 with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien; $2,095 in double occupancy from Philadelphia. 5 spaces available.

Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, June 4-10, 2017 with Bob Sundstrom and Erik Bruhnke; $2,295 in double occupancy from Seattle. 4 spaces available.

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Looking past spring to early summer, the attention we give to our domestic tour program shifts north to Alaska. Throughout the month of June, our robust Alaska tour program includes five unique departures. Recently, I described the joys of a natural history vacation to Alaska (VENTflash #212), but I want to remind you of the opportunities that exist in case you have not yet made your summer travel plans.

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

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

Our Alaska tours cover the full spectrum of the state’s best birding and wildlife areas. Any of the following trips will provide you with memories to last a lifetime. Please note that we will soon release any unsold spaces, which means the opportunity window to travel to Alaska with VENT this summer will soon close!

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.

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. In some years we even turn up an unexpected Siberian vagrant or two.

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. 2 spaces available.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider, Alaska — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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. 2 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 with either 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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As I’ve discussed, spring is an important time at VENT for our domestic travel program; however, our international program of tours at this season is no less important! The end of winter/early spring period is an excellent time to be in the American Tropics, while Europe and Asia are prime destinations later in the season. If you are someone who is able to travel on relatively short notice, or feel a desire to travel abroad in the next few months, I can’t recommend any of the following trips highly enough. Each of these departures offers marvelous birding and scenery, while a few also include fascinating cultural highlights:

Cuba, February 28-March 11, 2017 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,358 in double occupancy from Miami. 3 spaces available.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica — Photo: David Wolf

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. 4 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. 2 spaces available.

Cuba, March 14-25, 2017 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,358 in double occupancy from Miami. 4 spaces available.

Northern Ecuador Hummingbird Extravaganza, March 16-25, 2017 with Paul Greenfield; $3,095 in double occupancy from Quito. 4 spaces available.

Best of Costa Rica, March 21-April 2, 2017 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $5,295 in double occupancy from San José. 4 spaces available.

Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago, March 24-April 2, 2017; $4,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. 1 space available.

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

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

Panama’s Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, April 8-16, 2017 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $3,695 in double occupancy from Panama City. 9 spaces available. This is our most recently added Panama departure, offered to take advantage of a nesting Harpy Eagle, as well as a nesting Crested Eagle, in close proximity to the Canopy Camp!

Italy: Birds & Art in Tuscany, May 12-23, 2017 with Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani; $3,995 in double occupancy from Florence (ends in Rome). 4 spaces available.

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As we close out the first month of the year, I am very pleased that VENT has gotten off to a strong start in 2017. Many of our January tours operated at capacity, and I’ve received reports from tour leaders and tour participants alike about the wonderful birding and natural history experiences enjoyed on recent VENT tours.

Looking ahead, VENT will operate 17 tours in February, many of which are trips to the American Tropics. This again highlights for me the attraction of the Tropics to our travelers in the winter months, as this is when people are generally feeling a need to get away from home and enjoy superb birding and natural history in warm conditions.

Here on the home front, February represents the last of the colder months. By the end of the month the first leaves will begin to appear on bushes that had been dormant for months and, possibly, the earliest migrants will begin to show up in our favorite local birding areas.

I hope the last month of winter brings good weather and equally good birds wherever you live.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel