VENTflash #228 September 27, 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,

One of the many wonderful things about being in nature is that you never know what you will see. If you have the right attitude, you will never return empty-handed from spending time outdoors. Last week I had the great pleasure of spending a morning at my favorite local birding area, Hornsby Bend, with my friend and author Scott Weidensaul. Scott had come to Austin to give a presentation for the Travis Audubon Society (TAS).

Western Diamondback, September 21, 2017

Western Diamondback, September 21, 2017— Photo: Victor Emanuel

We enjoyed a wonderful morning in the field. Hornsby is an excellent place to see Cave Swallows in late summer and early fall, and Scott was delighted to see more of them than he had ever seen in his life. He was also thrilled to have lengthy studies of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, one of the great birds of Texas. He told me that his interest in nature started with herpetology. Apropos to the conversation, Scott spotted a young Western Diamondback rattlesnake as we walked along a path. Needless to say, Scott was as thrilled with that observation as he was with the birds. Capping off the morning, we ran into TAS executive director, Joan Marshall, and Jordan Price, director of administration and membership.

Victor Emanuel, Joan Marshall & Scott Weidensaul

Victor Emanuel, Joan Marshall & Scott Weidensaul — Photo: Jordan Price

That evening, speaking to an audience of around 100 people, Scott delivered a superb presentation on bird migration and his award-winning book, Living on the Wind (1999). It was an honor to have Scott here in Austin, both for me and for Travis Audubon and its membership.

I was back at Hornsby Bend a few days later, this time with other friends. After looking at shorebirds and a smattering of waterfowl, we were walking a path through a hackberry woodland when we encountered a big flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Every time we saw movement in a tree, it was another gnatcatcher. Gnatcatchers are wonderful birds, but I kept hoping we would encounter a warbler. That hope proved in vain. However, about 30 feet away I saw an all-red bird fly to a perch a little above eye level. Immediately, I noted that it seemed a different shade of red than a Northern Cardinal. When I got the bird in my binoculars I was delighted to see that it was a gorgeous adult male Summer Tanager. Prior to that moment I had not seen a Summer Tanager in a couple of months, yet here was this beautiful bird—a bird I had not expected to see again until next spring—on its way south to spend the winter in the tropical forest of southern Mexico or Central America.

In this issue:



Zafiro on the Amazon River

Zafiro on the Amazon River — Photo: International Expeditions

Recently, I wrote of my long-held belief that the Amazon River is one of the world’s three essential “must-see places” for birding and wildlife viewing, along with Antarctica and East or Southern Africa. Of the three, the Amazon River is the most accessible in that it is the closest to the United States and is the most affordable to visit.

VENT has been operating tours on the Amazon River for 30 years. I personally have led over half-a-dozen tours there, and no matter how many times I’ve made the trip, I’ve come away certain that experiences in nature do not get any better than those on the Amazon River. While the birding is fantastic to be sure, a trip on the Amazon is about more than birds—it’s about partaking in an all-around natural history odyssey into the greatest wilderness ecosystem in South America. It’s about the mighty river itself and its dark-water tributaries and back channels. It’s about river dolphins and caimans, monkeys and macaws. It’s about blazing sunrises and glowing sunsets, and about starry nights, arcing rainbows, and the most biologically rich rainforest in the world.

It is for these reasons that I consider our Amazon River Cruises some of the most delightful tours we offer. And unlike the old days, when our trips to Amazonia included lodges rustic or basic in quality, our Amazon River Cruises are set on beautiful river boats, where you can enjoy nature in close proximity in tandem with excellent quality accommodations and food.

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. With this level of comfort, along with the remarkable wildlife of Amazonia, now is as good a time as ever to experience the Amazon River. Only 5 cabins are still available: 3 doubles and 2 singles.

Blue-and-yellow Macaws

Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Amazonia — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

On occasion I hear from our travelers who tell me that they are very interested in traveling to the Amazon, but have resisted because they think it will be hot and “buggy.” These are two common myths 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. The rest of the time we are cruising on the river within the comfortable confines of our riverboat. Whether relaxing in the privacy of your cabin, or outside under the shaded viewing deck, staying cool is not difficult!

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.

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 an optional extension to Machu Picchu.

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. 2 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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Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese

Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese

Last month I announced our next cruise to the eastern Mediterranean: Greece: A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese, May 16-25, 2018. At that time, I also let you know that we are offering a special early registration discount of $1,000 per person for all registrations received by October 1, 2017. The response to this offer has been strong. Only 6 cabins are still available.

This trip is a multi-themed voyage that explores the history of ancient Greece while presenting exposure to the marvelous landscapes, birds, and natural history of modern Greece. 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 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.


Epidaurus — Photo: Barry Lyon

VENT has operated cruises to Greece since 2005, but this program, in my opinion, is the finest Greece trip we offer. As we have not been to the Peloponnese since 2010, I am very much looking forward to sharing it with you.

I encourage you to reserve your space soon!

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 the city.

Athens Pre-trip, May 12-17, 2018 with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon; $2,995 in double occupancy from Athens. Limit 30.

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Thanks to a remarkable woman named Asa Wright, the island of Trinidad became the first place in the American Tropics with a facility that welcomed birders and conservationists. The “facility” to which I refer was Asa’s private home and plantation estate, Spring Hill.

Our final day was spent back at Asa Wright enjoying the fabulous birding on the grounds and here from the veranda.

The view from the veranda, Asa Wright Nature Centre — Photo: Barry Zimmer

One of the early champions of the property was the great bird artist Don Eckelberry. Because of his efforts, and the efforts of others, Spring Hill was eventually purchased from Asa and placed in a non-profit trust that would administer the property as a center for study of tropical biology, as well as preserve the habitat and wildlife of the Arima Valley. The facility was renamed in Asa’s honor and became what we know today as the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

A trip I made to Asa Wright in 1977 represented my first time in the Tropics outside of Mexico. Because Trinidad is separated from mainland South America by only about twenty miles, its avifauna is mostly South American in nature. In 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Trinidad and the Asa Wright Nature Centre on a post-tour extension I co-led following a cruise to the Lesser Antilles aboard the Sea Cloud. I found it to be even better than I remembered.

On the first morning we gathered early on the Centre’s famous veranda, right next to the dining room.  Numerous fruit feeders attracted a remarkable array of colorful tropical birds including stunning Purple Honeycreepers, Violaceous Euphonias, Crested Oropendolas, and Turquoise and Bay-headed tanagers to name a few, while hummingbird feeders were alive with jewels such as Blue-chinned Sapphire, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, and the lovely Tufted Coquette.

On any given morning, a suite of “regulars” visits the feeders time and again, affording ample opportunities for study and photography. A variety of other wonderful birds are regularly seen from the veranda and in the forest below, a sampling of which includes Channel-billed Toucan, Long-billed Starthroat, Guianan Trogon, Trinidad Motmot, Bearded Bellbird, Orange-winged Parrot, White-bearded Manakin, and many others.

Bearded Bellbird, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

Bearded Bellbird, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad — Photo: Barry Zimmer

I regard the veranda bird show at the Asa Wright Nature Centre as the best that occurs at any set of feeders in the world. The “problem” this creates is that it is hard to pull oneself away to bird other areas. And this truly is a challenge because Asa Wright provides a perfect headquarters for exploring other parts of Trinidad. On that 2014 trip we also visited the Blanchisseuse Road in the Northern Range, Arima Livestock Station, Aripo Savanna, and Yerette Hummingbird House.

The grand finale of any trip to Trinidad is an afternoon boat trip in the Caroni Swamp. After birding by boat in mangrove channels that crisscross the “swamp,” we assemble in a large lagoon opposite a grove of mangrove islands where thousands of Scarlet Ibis converge to roost. By late afternoon, the first flocks of ibis appear. Some come from the left, others from the right. Those that arrive early perch briefly outside the mangroves before going inside to roost. The later arrivals stay on the outside. Flock after flock arrives. Soon the mangroves are covered with ibis. Since the Scarlet Ibis is one of the most striking and beautiful birds in the world, I rank this sight as one of the top ten bird spectacles in the world. It is an experience every birder should have.

Our next tour to Trinidad will operate in February 2018 and will be led by Barry Zimmer and Rafael Galvez. I hope you will consider joining this outstanding trip.

Trinidad, February 15-22, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $3,695 in double occupancy from Port of Spain.

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With the fall season upon us, I’m reminding you that it’s still not too late for planning year-end travel. Although many people are finished traveling for the year by the time September rolls around, the idea of autumn travel carries a certain appeal. The days seem more relaxed, airports are not as busy, and the energy of the new year is still months away. Looking a little farther down the road, January marks the start of our winter travel season at VENT, a time when we will operate many tours to destinations at home and abroad.

Napo Wildlife Center, Ecuador

Napo Wildlife Center at sunset, Ecuador (Best of Amazonia) — Photo: Peter English

If you have not yet made your autumn travel plans, or have begun thinking about getting away from home to break the doldrums of winter, I thought you would like to know that VENT will operate a number of superb tours in the October–January period, each of which offers marvelous birding and natural history, and each of which still has a few spaces available.

Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard the M/V Evolution, October 27-November 5, 2017 with Paul Greenfield. 1 single male share space available. NOTE: This space has recently become available owing to a cancellation. The fee for this space is $8,495; however, we are able to offer it at a $3,000 discount, meaning that you pay $5,495.

Wild Patagonia & Central Chile: Pumas, Penguins, Condors & More!, November 2-17, 2017 with Andrew Whittaker and Fernando Diaz; $8,995 in double occupancy from Santiago. 5 spaces still available.

Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes, November 11-19, 2017 with Paul Greenfield and David Wolf; $3,095 in double occupancy from Quito. 2 spaces available.

Panama’s Canal Zone: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, November 12-18, 2017 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $2,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. 2 spaces available.

Rockport, Texas: A Bonanza of Wintering Birds, November 13-17, 2017 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $1,495 in double occupancy from Corpus Christi. 4 spaces available. NOTE: Despite the damage caused to the Rockport area because of Hurricane Harvey, this tour will operate as planned. Instead of staying in Rockport, we will stay in Portland, adjacent to Corpus Christi, and will visit most of the same birding areas and see the same birds. 

Great Jacamar, Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2013

Great Jacamar, Panama — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Panama’s Canopy Tower & El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, January 4-16, 2018 with Jeri Langham and a local leader; $5,395 in double occupancy from Panama City. 3 spaces available.

Sri Lanka, January 9-25, 2018 with Machiel Valkenburg and a local leader; $4,995 in double occupancy from Colombo. 2 spaces available.

Panama’s Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, January 13-21, 2018 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $3,695 in double occupancy from Panama City. 4 spaces available.

Ecuador: The Best of Amazonia, January 22-31, 2018 with Paul Greenfield; $4,195 in double occupancy from Quito. 2 spaces available.

Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes, January 29-February 8, 2018 with Paul Greenfield; $2,995 in double occupancy from Quito. 4 spaces available.

India: Tigers, Taj & Birds Galore!, January 30-February 17, 2018 with Machiel Valkenburg and a local leader; $8,595 in double occupancy from New Delhi. 2 spaces available.

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After a hotter than normal summer and the worst hurricane to hit Texas in years, fall has started with somewhat cooler temperatures. Migration is in full swing, with an array of land birds reported from a number of locations around Austin, along with southbound hawks and the season’s first waterfowl.

The changes start slowly, in September, and accelerate in October and November. The Chimney Swifts gather in roosts, just as the Purple Martins did in July; the evening bat flights get more spectacular as the young of the year join their mothers on the wing; and the leaves of the Cedar Elms turn yellow and start to fall.

The events that occur right around us are wonderful, but there are so many of them that we only notice a few. We savor the last Scissor-tailed Flycatchers knowing that they will soon leave for Central America, and at the same time look forward to the arrival of ducks, hawks, kinglets, sparrows, and other winter resident birds that will soon grace our woodlands, wetlands, and fields.

I hope your autumn is off to a good start as well.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel