VENTflash #227 September 12, 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,

In late August I traveled to Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park where Brian Gibbons and I co-led VENT’s first-ever Solar Eclipse tour. I am pleased to report that the trip was a great success. We toured with a wonderful group of people, enjoyed good birding and wildlife viewing amid one of the great landscapes of the Lower 48, and were treated to superb views of the total eclipse from atop a ridge in the Teton National Forest.

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow — Photo: Greg Lasley

On the morning after the tour ended, I arrived at Jackson Hole Airport at 6:15 a.m. in advance of my 7:45 a.m. flight to Dallas. Upon check-in I learned that my flight departure would be delayed by almost two hours. After breakfast I thought about going through Security and sitting at the gate to pass the time. Then, I remembered the line of small conifers and poplars that bordered the airport parking lot. Perhaps a short walk around the trees might produce a bird or two, so I thought. I found a place to store my carry-on luggage, exited the airport, and walked across the parking lot into the surrounding sage flats. There among the sage were gorgeous blue lupines and pink thistles. To the west I gazed at the magnificent Tetons. Then I walked toward the line of trees. Right away I began flushing sparrows. Most were Brewer’s Sparrows, a western species I seldom see. Several had perched in the low branches of the trees at a distance of only 30 feet, affording a lengthy study and the best looks of my life at this bird. Among them was one Vesper Sparrow. As I walked further along the tree line, I saw two Black-billed Magpies, a Least Chipmunk, and three Yellow-rumped Warblers. Barn Swallows flew overhead. Next, I saw a larger bird moving on the ground under the conifers. It hopped up to a low branch and sat there preening. It turned out to be one of my favorite western birds, a Green-tailed Towhee!

Not every airport offers birding opportunities, but I have seen warblers outside the international airport in Miami, Upland Sandpipers along the runways in Austin and Houston, and hummingbirds outside the airport in Panama City. One of the many wonderful things about being attuned to nature is that almost anywhere you look you can find and enjoy a few birds, flowers, butterflies, or other creatures to help brighten your day.

In this issue:



No matter where in the country one lives, the end-of-summer of 2018 will long be remembered for the devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

As has been well-documented, Harvey’s worst effects were felt from the central Texas coast northward along the entire upper Texas coast into Louisiana. In particular, damage to the towns of Rockport, Fulton, and Port Aransas, north of Corpus Christi, was severe, but some of the storm’s worst effects were realized in the tremendous flooding events that inundated parts of Houston, as well as Beaumont and Port Arthur farther east.

At the point of highest concern, hurricane watches were in effect as far west as Austin, where VENT is based. In the days following the passage of the storm, we received phone calls from some of our travelers expressing concern for our safety. I greatly appreciate those calls and the care that you have shown for VENT. Although Austin received over seven inches of rain, the city emerged with little to no damage from the storm, unlike Houston and other parts of southeast Texas where the scale of destruction and suffering is being measured not by degrees, but by orders of magnitude.

As I am originally from Houston, I hold a special feeling for the city and its citizens. I have close friends and some family in the Houston area, and I know that many VENT travelers live there as well. When Hurricane Ike struck the upper Texas coast in 2008, there was a period of time when I thought my house on the Bolivar Peninsula northeast of Galveston had been destroyed. As it turned out, my house survived the storm, and a couple of weeks later I drove to the coast to survey the damage to the house and the surrounding community. Although it’s been nine years since Ike, I still remember well the feeling of helplessness when I was unsure whether my house had been damaged, or if it was still even in existence. I remember the scenes of catastrophic damage that hit me upon my arrival on the peninsula and the sadness and bewilderment of it all. Thankfully, my house dodged this bullet and was not damaged, but it is those memories that come to mind when I think about the people who lost their homes and belongings because of Harvey, those whose lives have been forever changed.

Our concern for our fellow citizens is paramount, yet Harvey also raised concern about the plight of the wildlife that relies on Texas coastal preserves, sanctuaries, and refuges for survival. In a storm that produced so much heartache and suffering, I am glad to report that the critically important High Island sanctuaries on the Bolivar Peninsula were not severely damaged. Farther south, on the central coast, it is fortunate that the early date of the storm did not affect the population of Whooping Cranes that will winter here, as they have not yet arrived from their summer breeding grounds. As it affects VENT, storm damage to the city of Rockport has caused us to relocate our upcoming tour, Rockport, Texas: A Bonanza of Wintering Birds, a short distance south to Portland, a community near Corpus Christi.

While it is still too early to know the full extent of the damage resulting from Hurricane Irma, what is known at this point is that flooding in Jacksonville and Miami (and other parts of the Southeast) has been unprecedented, while damage to the lower Florida Keys is terrible. As with Texas, I have good friends and family who live in Florida, and I know that many VENT travelers reside there as well.

On behalf of all of us at VENT, we express our deepest sympathies to those affected by these two weather disasters. And to any VENT travelers who might have been affected, if you are reading this, please know that our thoughts are with you.

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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, Bosque del Apache NWRPhoto: Barry Zimmer

As we reach the mid-point of September, this is the time of the year when I encourage people to consider winter travel plans. Looking ahead to the new year, January is an excellent month for birding right here in the United States. In particular, the southwestern U.S. from Southern California to New Mexico typically offers some of the continent’s best wintertime birding and weather. In many years, when the Northeast and Midwest are blitzed by cold and snow, it is the southern tier of the country that stays comparatively mild and temperate.

VENT operates several January tours to the Southwest that will brighten the outlook of any winter-weary birder. Our Winter New Mexico, Winter Southern California, and Winter Southern Arizona tours present superb options for a short birding vacation. Each of these trips promises an abundance of wintertime resident and local specialty birds; each has a long history of producing rare and out of range species; and each is likely to see extended periods of sunshine and generally good weather. Our wintertime southwestern trips are led by veteran tour leaders Barry Zimmer, Brennan Mulrooney, and Erik Bruhnke.

Winter New Mexico, January 3-9, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $1,995 in double occupancy from El Paso (ends in Albuquerque).

This delightful weeklong trip offers a scenic and bird-filled journey from the high desert of the El Paso, Texas region to the mountain-ringed basin of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Enjoy a wonderful cross section of Chihuahuan Desert specialty birds; loads of wintering waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows; and birds of the Rocky Mountains. Among the species we’ll seek are Ross’s Goose, Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Crissal Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, and many others. Highlights include a visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to witness thousands of Sandhill Cranes and vast flocks of waterfowl, and a visit to the Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque for three species of rosy-finches.

The next day we went to Fort Huachuca. Here a Painted Redstart bringing food to its nest put on a show.

Painted Redstart, Arizona — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Traveling with Barry Zimmer promises lots of great birds and lots of fun! Barry is a resident of El Paso. While he loves leading tours in many locations, he retains a special affection for his home territory. Barry will co-lead this trip with Erik Bruhnke, an enthusiastic and charming leader who has co-led a number of our southwestern tours in recent years.

Winter Southern Arizona, January 15-21, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $2,145 in double occupancy from Tucson.

Join Barry and Brennan for a wonderful wintertime birding getaway in Southeast Arizona. In addition to seeking such resident specialty birds as Whiskered Screech-Owl, Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, and Painted Redstart, our activities emphasize viewing special winter resident species including Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, Baird’s Sparrow, and stray vagrant species from Mexico. Mild weather and beautiful conditions are norms for this trip.

Winter Southern California, January 21-27, 2018 with Brennan Mulrooney and Erik Bruhnke; $2,095 in double occupancy from San Diego.

Mild weather and an abundance of birds make Southern California an obvious choice for a wintertime birding vacation. With Brennan and Erik leading the way, you’ll travel from San Diego to the Salton Sea, amassing birds of the coast, chaparral, mountains, and desert. Wintering species alongside resident specialty birds promise a compelling mix of birds that include Yellow-footed Gull, California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, Oak Titmouse, and many hundreds of shorebirds, gulls, terns, warblers, sparrows, and more.

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Red-crowned Cranes, Kushiro, Japan

Red-crowned Cranes, Kushiro, Japan— Photo: JNTO

Since its inception five years ago, our Japan in Winter tour has proven one of our most popular wintertime departures. Although our upcoming 2018 tour is almost sold out, I thought you might like to know that two spaces are still available on this fine trip.

I have always had an affinity for places where wildlife can be seen in spectacular concentrations, and one such place is Japan in the wintertime, where large gatherings of cranes, sea-eagles, and waterfowl are nothing short of marvelous.

This exciting tour will visit Hokkaido as well as two other islands. Aside from the beautiful Red-crowned Crane, we’ll see the world’s largest eagle, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, and the world’s largest owl, the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. The tour also includes a visit to the Arasaki Crane Reserve on the island of Kyushu where over 10,000 Hooded and White-naped cranes winter. Common, Demoiselle, and Siberian cranes are also possible here. Additionally, we expect encounters with many other exciting year-round resident and winter birds including Whooper Swan, Smew, White-tailed Eagle, Azure-winged Magpie, Japanese Woodpecker, Japanese Grosbeak, and a wonderful collection of other waterbirds and woodland birds.

This trip will be led by Kaz Shinoda and Bob Sundstrom. Kaz is a native of Japan. In addition to his strong birding and natural history skills, Kaz is a wonderful guide to Japanese culture, a not-to-be-overlooked aspect of this trip. Bob, a veteran VENT leader, worked with Kaz on the design of this trip and has amassed many years of experience leading trips in and around the North Pacific Ocean.

I encourage you to read Bob’s tour report from our 2017 departure.

Japan in Winter: A Crane & Sea-Eagle Spectacle!, January 13-25, 2018 with Kaz Shinoda and Bob Sundstrom; $7,295 in double occupancy from Tokyo. Limit 9. 2 spaces available.

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Zafiro on the Amazon River

Zafiro on the Amazon River — Photo: International Expeditions

Having traveled around the world for over 40 years, I strongly feel that the three areas that should rank the highest on anyone’s list of “must-see places” are the Amazon River, Antarctica, and East or Southern Africa. All three areas offer amazing birding and wildlife spectacles.

Of the three, the Amazon River is the most accessible in that it is the closest and the most affordable to visit. VENT has been operating tours to the greater Amazon region (“Amazonia”) for 40 years. In the early days, we used only lodges for our accommodations. We still operate great lodge-based tours, such as our wonderful tour to the Manu Biosphere in Peru, but, starting about 30 years ago, we further diversified our offerings in Amazonia with riverboat trips on the mighty Amazon River itself.

Our Amazon River Cruises are some of the most delightful and relaxing tours we offer. Once you board the ship in Iquitos, Peru, you settle into a lovely, air-conditioned room that will be your home for a week. Every morning you disembark in a comfortable and stable flat-bottom skiff and embark on an exploratory excursion up a side stream or tributary. Even before you reach the side stream you will be seeing birds, and perhaps even a Pink River Dolphin will surface nearby. You never know what wonderful creatures will appear, but at any given moment you may be looking at parrots, woodpeckers, cotingas, trogons, monkeys, iguanas, or other wildlife. Because these streams are narrow, you will almost certainly enjoy close looks at whatever we happen to see. The experiences in these side streams will differ from one morning to the next. After a morning in the field, you will enjoy a delicious lunch back onboard the ship as you look out on the river and the passing forest. Then, following an afternoon break, there will be a presentation on some aspect of Amazonian natural history, followed by a late afternoon boat trip up another side steam.

Viewing Victoria Amazonica water lilies.

Viewing Victoria Amazonica water lilies — Photo: Steve Hilty

Our next Amazon River Cruise will operate February 8-18, 2018. We will be using a new riverboat for this trip that is the best and most comfortable vessel we have ever used for an Amazon River Cruise. In addition to our time on the river, our trip includes a day-long excursion from Lima to the Pacific coast where you will see a host of birds not found in Amazonia. Near the village of Pucusana you will see lots of Inca Terns (perhaps the world’s most beautiful tern species) and the striking Red-legged Cormorant. You might even get to see the Humboldt Penguin, one of the rarest penguins in the world. Our tour also includes two nights in one of the finest hotels in Lima, round-trip airfare from Lima to Iquitos and return, and a day-room in Lima upon your return from Iquitos. For those who desire to experience more of Peru, our cruise can be paired with an optional pre-trip to the Cloud Forests of Northern Peru or optional extension to Machu Picchu.

There are two common myths about the Amazon region that I have spent years trying to dispel:

Myth #1: The Amazon is HOT! Contrary to popular belief, Amazonia is NOT excessively hot. All of our excursions will take place in the first half of the day and in the late afternoon when temperatures will be in the 70s to mid-80s.

Myth #2: There are lots of biting insects! Biting insects (mosquitoes) are seldom a problem on the Amazon River. In fact, I have been many places where the prevalence of mosquitoes is far worse. By wearing Insect Shield clothing and taking other standard precautionary measures, you should easily be able to avoid bites.

Dramatic skies are more the rule than the exception in the Amazon.

Dramatic skies are more the rule than the exception in the Amazon.— Photo: Steve Hilty

In summation, the Amazon is a must-visit destination. You will love the birds and wildlife, the sunrises and sunsets, and the starry nights that characterize the end of each Amazonian day. You will be delighted with the expertise of your VENT tour leaders, and you will return home with great memories.

Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey Aboard Zafiro, February 8-18, 2018 with David Ascanio and Andrew Whittaker; cabin prices start at $7,495 in double occupancy from Lima.

Cloud Forests of Northern Peru Pre-Trip, February 2-9, 2018 with Andrew Whittaker; $3,595 in double occupancy from Lima. Limit 8. 5 spaces available.

Machu Picchu Extension, February 17-24, 2018 with Doris Valencia and a local leader; $4,295 in double occupancy from Lima.

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It is with great anticipation that I announce our next cruise to the eastern Mediterranean: Greece: A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese, May 16-25, 2018. For this special trip, we present a multi-themed voyage steeped in the history of ancient Greece while delivering exposure to the marvelous landscapes, birds, and natural history of modern Greece. Cabin prices start at $7,195 in double occupancy from Athens; however, register by October 1, 2017 and receive a $1,000 discount per person.

Temple of Athena Pronaia, Delphi

Temple of Athena Pronaia, Delphi— Photo: Media Bakery

Starting in Athens, we will travel west to the Peloponnesian Peninsula (or “the Peloponnese” for short) where we will perform a full circumnavigation of this immensely historic region of Greece. Among the highlights are visits to the ancient archaeological sites of Epidaurus, Mycenae, Olympia, and Delphi; an evening stop at the island of Monemvasia, an ancient Byzantine outpost; a day on the island of Kythira; and a transit of the remarkable Canal of Corinth. For those with an interest in birds and natural history, spring is a wonderful time to be in Greece. Temperatures will be cool to moderate, wildflowers will be in bloom, and birds will be breeding and in full song. Among the many avian possibilities are Levantine Shearwater, Short-toed Eagle, Eleonora’s Falcon, Rueppell’s Warbler, Black-headed and Cretzschmar’s buntings, and other special regional birds.

I will co-lead this trip with my colleague Barry Lyon. I am especially thrilled to announce that my friend Dr. Paul Woodruff will join our staff as a lecturer and interpretive expert. Paul teaches philosophy and classics at the University of Texas, Austin and is an authority on ancient Greece. Paul has co-led all of our past cruises to Greece, and I am delighted that he and his wife, Lucia, will be with us again on this voyage. Our transportation is the Harmony V, a lovely 50-passenger motor yacht offering spacious cabins with large windows and en suite bathrooms.

We operated this trip for the first time in 2010. It was such a success that I have been looking forward to repeating it ever since. In fact, VENT has been operating cruises to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean since 2005, but this trip, in my opinion, is the finest Greece trip we offer. Through word of mouth, this trip is already half full, and we expect that it will sell out. I encourage you to reserve your space soon! 

M/Y Harmony V

M/Y Harmony V — Photo: Variety Cruises

Greece: A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese – A History & Nature Cruise Aboard the Harmony V, May 16-25, 2018 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon and Paul Woodruff; cabin prices begin at $7,195 in double occupancy from Athens. Register by October 1 and receive a $1,000 discount per person.

As a further enticement, Barry and I will co-lead our optional Athens Pre-trip, May 12-17, 2018, that provides an excellent complement to our ship-based exploration of the Peloponnese. Our itinerary combines visits to the Acropolis, ancient Agora, Marathon, and other archaeological sites with birding field trips to destinations outside of the city.

Athens Pre-trip, May 12-17, 2018 with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon; $2,995 in double occupancy from Athens.

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The “fall” shorebird migration peaked a few weeks ago in mid-August. Now, land bird migration is in full swing, and it won’t be long before the first of our winter residents begin to arrive. This week central Texas received its first “cold” front of the season, with the resulting crisp mornings a welcome change from the heavy heat of summer. Recently I was in the Big Bend and Davis Mountain regions of West Texas where, happily, those areas are the greenest they have been in years. Meanwhile, Houston and other parts of the Texas coast have started the long recovery process from the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey.

As we look forward to the coming months, we are excited about our strong program of fall and winter tours. In particular, I am very pleased that our new departures to Israel, Sri Lanka, and Baja California have been so well received.

I hope a VENT tour is in your plans for the coming fall or winter seasons!

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel