VENTflash #230 November 03, 2017

Posted by Victor Emanuel

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Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 69 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:

It is a busy time at VENT. We have begun assembling our 2019 tour schedule, and plans are underway for our biennial company meeting, to be held here in Austin in mid-December. In addition, I am leaving tomorrow morning for Israel where I will co-lead, with Barry Lyon and Jonathan Meyrav, our inaugural Israel tour, Israel: Birds, History & Culture in the Holy Land.

Ruins of Nimrod fortress on the north Galilee, Israel

Ruins of Nimrod Fortress on the north Galilee, Israel — Photo: Kobby Dagan/shutterstock

The name of the tour says it all. It is a multi-themed program in which birding endeavors are infused with visits to sites of great historical and cultural importance. While VENT operated a tour to Israel back in the ’80s, that tour did not attract more than a few people and subsequently was not repeated. In returning to Israel, we offer a completely new program that we worked out in collaboration with Jonathan Meyrav, an expert from the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. This tour has been sold out for many months. I have been to Israel once before. I am very much looking forward to returning there with a wonderful group of tour participants.

Before I leave, I want to share with you a few reports I’ve received from VENT tours that operated in the last few months. As always, I am proud of our tours and the experiences in nature that we are able to provide to our travelers. Please take a few minutes to read these reports from recent VENT tours to the Pantanal region of Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope and Kruger area of South Africa, and Hungary and the Czech Republic, where we recently completed our third annual Birds & Music tour.

In this issue:

WELCOME TO JAGUARLAND: BRAZIL’S PANTANAL
CAPE OF GOOD HOPE & KRUGER: THE BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA
HUNGARY & THE CZECH REPUBLIC: BIRDS & MUSIC
CLOSING THOUGHTS

WELCOME TO JAGUARLAND: BRAZIL’S PANTANAL

In the last half-dozen years, the Pantanal region of southern Brazil has gained acclaim as one of the world’s premier wildlife viewing destinations. The reason for this is straightforward: Jaguars.

Jaguar (Patricia)

Jaguar along the Cuiaba River, Pantanal — Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

Until fairly recently, the likelihood of seeing a Jaguar on a trip to the Neotropics was small. Yes, through the years, VENT tours to places like Belize, Peru, and Venezuela would occasionally strike gold in the form of a Jaguar sighting, but the notion that one could go on a tour to the Tropics and have a reasonable expectation of seeing a Jaguar would have been unrealistic.

That has changed. Thanks to the preservation of vast tracts of land in southern Brazil and the termination of illegal hunting in most areas, the Jaguars of southern Brazil (specifically in the state of Mato Grosso) have become habituated to the point that one can now go there with a very realistic expectation of seeing this exceptional animal, the ultimate predator of the Neotropics. It is not an exaggeration to say that you stand a 95% chance of seeing a Jaguar, and seeing it well, on a VENT tour to the Pantanal.

Specifically, the area we are talking about stretches from the Cuiabá River, near the Bolivian border, due north about 50 miles. In particular, a stretch of the river has become known as “Jaguarland,” where Jaguars are seen daily engaging in all types of behavior including Jaguars hunting, swimming, sleeping, and even mating. It is not hyperbole when I say that what is going on in the Pantanal right now with Jaguar viewing has forever changed the parameters of expectations of seeing Jaguars in the wild. It is truly incredible.

Despite the apparent closeness of this cat, we keep a safe enough distance so as not to disrupt its normal behavior. This Jaguar was photographed just before entering the river. The sunlight on the spotted coat is magnificent.

Jaguar on the Cuiaba River, Pantanal — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

This summer VENT offered two tours to the Pantanal. Both were sold out. Following the second tour, led by Kevin Zimmer in mid-August, Kevin sent the following email report to our office:

“I just got back into Cuiabá after an exceptionally successful Pantanal tour. Pass the word to Victor that we had 10 Jaguar sightings involving a minimum of 7 different cats (maximum of 8), topped off with a mating pair that I found on the Rio Pixaím out of Santa Teresa (SouthWild) Lodge on our final boat trip two days ago. We also had Tapir, mating Giant Otters, and, this morning, Giant and Lesser anteaters in view at the same time.”

It just doesn’t get any better than this. In 2018, VENT will operate two tours to the Pantanal; one is already full and the other is down to the final spaces available. As I mentioned, we are currently at work constructing our 2019 tour schedule. At this time, I am strongly considering adding a third tour to our lineup of Pantanal tours, in order to accommodate the high interest in this magnificent area.

I encourage you to visit our website and read the itineraries, tour reports, and field lists from our most recent Pantanal tours.

Jaguar, male, Rio Tres Irmaos, Mato Grosso, Brazil, July 8, 2011

Jaguar, Rio Tres Irmanos, Pantanal — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

 

 

And there’s more: For those who do not know the name Charles Munn, he is a renowned conservationist who has worked in a lot of places in the American Tropics. “Charlie” as we know him, is a longtime friend of VENT and for years has managed the ground operations for our tours to the Pantanal region. This September, Charlie appeared as a guest on the radio program Here’s the Thing produced by WNYC in New York City and hosted by Alec Baldwin. In the interview, Charlie offers an informed point of view on matters ranging from conservation of tropical forests, to ecotourism, to the extraordinary Jaguar viewing phenomenon of “Jaguarland” in the Pantanal. The interview is about 45-minutes in duration and is well worth the time. Listen to it here.

Brazil: Pantanal Safari, Birds & Jaguars, July 8-20, 2018 with Jeri Langham and a local leader; $7,095 in double occupancy from Cuiabá. Limit 12. Sold out!

Brazil: Pantanal Safari, Birds & Jaguars, August 19-September 2, 2018 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $6,995 in double occupancy (regular accommodations) from Cuiabá; $7,495 in double occupancy for superior accommodations. Register by February 1, 2018 and receive a $500 discount and pay $6,495 for regular accommodations, or $6,995 for superior. Limit 12. 4 spaces available.

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CAPE OF GOOD HOPE & KRUGER: THE BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA

After a number of years of not offering tours to South Africa, VENT returned there in 2016 with a brand new itinerary designed for maximum birding and wildlife viewing potential. Our new program proved a hit, and we’ve now operated three tours to South Africa in the last two years.

African Penguin Colony, Boulders Beach, Cape Town, South Africa

African Penguin Colony, Boulders Beach, Cape Town, South Africa — Photo: Pocholo Calapre/shutterstock

I have long felt that Southern Africa, along with East Africa, offers some of the greatest combined birding and mammal viewing experiences available anywhere. In South Africa, our tour itinerary is built around exploration of the Cape of Good Hope and Kruger regions, areas rich in birds and other wildlife and marvelous scenic highlights. Additionally, an optional extension to the highlands of Wakkerstroom provides an opportunity to see a range of other birds, including the majestic Blue Crane.

Following our late summer tour this year, we received a note from one of our tour leaders, Patrick Cardwell, who served up this exciting summary:

“The purpose of this note is really to highlight the fact that the (VENT tour) itinerary in our opinion is far superior to anything offered by other companies when it comes to touring South Africa. Expressed simply, the chronological highlights patterned out as follows:
 

African Elephants, Kruger, South Africa

African Elephants, Kruger, South Africa — Photo: Avian Leisure

 

 

 

 

 

* Albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters in abundance off the Cape of Good Hope
* Wildflowers in springtime profusion on the West Coast
* Karoo vistas and crystal-clear night skies
* Southern Right Whales and Cape Fur Seals in close proximity
* Kruger’s “Big Five” mammals along with a diverse mix of other wildlife
* Dwarf and Flap-necked chameleons for hand-held viewing
* An interpretive bush walk with a local nature guide
* Spot-necked Otters, mongooses, and meerkats in Highveld surroundings
* Birdlife across the full spectrum with over 300 species in total for the trip
* A mammal list of close to 40 species
* All this at a comfortable pace with winery stops, a mix of interactive cultural highlights, and a bush BBQ to add to the pleasure of the safari experience"

I cannot recommend our South Africa tour highly enough. Our next departure will again operate in the late summer of 2018 and will be led by Brian Gibbons. Only a few spaces are still available.

South Africa: The Southwestern Cape & Kruger Park, August 17-September 1, 2018 with Brian Gibbons and Patrick Cardwell; fee to be announced in double occupancy from Cape Town (ends in Johannesburg), ($9,495 in 2017). Limit 12. 3 spaces available.

Wakkerstroom Extension, August 31-September 4, 2018 with Brian Gibbons and Patrick Cardwell; fee to be announced in double occupancy from Johannesburg ($1,695 in 2017).

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HUNGARY & THE CZECH REPUBLIC: BIRDS & MUSIC

Three years ago, my colleague Barry Lyon and I co-led VENT’s first-ever tour that combined the themes of birds and music. Working with native Hungarian Balázs Szigeti and his company, Ecotours Wildlife Holidays, we designed a Birds & Music program to the marvelous Eastern European countries of Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Prague

Prague — Photo: Ecotours Wildlife Holidays

That tour was one of the most unique trips that I’ve ever been a part of. I absolutely loved it. The birding was superb, and the opportunity to spend time in the great cities of Budapest and Prague offered fascinating cultural highlights. Of course, the addition of the live music component really underscored the diversity of the trip, with a private chamber orchestra in Budapest and a variety of classical performances in Prague.

Now, three years later, this trip has continued to improve and makes for a wonderful addition to our European program of tours.

This year’s trip met with difficulty prior to departure as the VENT tour leader, Rafael Galvez, was unable to travel to Europe owing to the effects of Hurricane Irma. Nevertheless, the show must go on, and the trip was led by Balázs and several of his colleagues. Upon conclusion of the tour, we received the following note from Balázs:

“This is just a quick email to let you know the Hungary–Czech Republic Birds & Music tour finished today, and I feel that similarly to previous years, it was a great success.
 
We had many good birds, and even a very rare bird, a Ruddy Shelduck, in the Czech Republic. We had very good views of Black, Green, Gray-headed, Syrian, Lesser Spotted, Middle Spotted, and Great Spotted woodpeckers; many shorebirds and waterfowl; Short-toed, White tailed, and Imperial eagles;  several close views of Great Bustards, both in flight and while feeding; Eurasian Stone-Curlews; and Saker and Red-footed falcons.

White-tailed Eagles

White-tailed Eagles, Hungary — Photo: Ecotours Wildlife Holidays

The weather was very good almost throughout the trip. We had rain only on the transfer days and a little bit on the last day in Prague, but nothing very serious.

Some of the new elements to the program included a private Gypsy band playing for us in Nomad one evening (I have seen many gypsy bands, and I can confirm this one gave a top quality performance, a true Eastern European musical tradition) and an entertaining hurdy gurdy performance. I also offered an opportunity to observe a bat-catching program only five minutes away from the hotel in Nomad. Everybody except one joined this opportunity and enjoyed it enormously, having seen at least 6 species of bats in the hand of an expert, and to learn about their unique ecology.

Another new aspect of the tour was that we have upgraded the dinner in the wine cellar to a dégustation type of dinner with several courses presented in a very stylish way, obviously offering culinary delights to all. In between courses we even managed to lure in a Tawny Owl that was seen by everyone.
 
We visited the Hungarian Meadow Viper farm again this year—a great surprise for the tour participants—and yet another special aspect of the local fauna seen well, and with a short lecture by a conservation specialist."

For anyone who possesses a dual interest in birds and music, or anyone who wants the most of their travel in Europe, a Birds & Music tour is the best option. We will offer our Birds & Music tour to Hungary and the Czech Republic again in 2018, to be led by Rafael Galvez and Balázs Szigeti.

Hungary & the Czech Republic: Birds & Music from Budapest to Prague, September 9-24, 2018 with Rafael Galvez and Balázs Szigeti; fee to be announced in double occupancy from Budapest (ends in Prague), ($6,395 in 2017). Limit 14.

I am also thrilled to announce a brand new tour in our Birds & Music program: Slovenia & Austria: Birds & Music from Ljubljana to Vienna.

Heiligenblut Village and Grossglockner Peak, Austria

Heiligenblut Village and Grossglockner Peak, Austria — Photo: Ioan Panaite-shutterstock

Slovenia is not a well-known or obvious destination to many world travelers, but it happens to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in Europe. Home to the Julian Alps and other remarkable landforms, Slovenia is a wonderland of forests, dazzling lakes, caves, and high country scenery, all of which support a marvelous assortment of birds. In particular, we will target a variety of species which are not found on most of our other European tours, species like Eurasian Nutcracker, Alpine Chough, Ring Ouzel, Alpine Accentor, and Snowfinch. On top of this, the capital city of Ljubljana offers a pageant of medieval and Baroque architecture.

The center of the old Hapsburg Dynasty, Austria is a popular destination to people far and wide. Departing Slovenia, our route will take us across the Alps to the world-class cities of Salzburg and Vienna.

Birding, history, and culture all come together on this most beautiful of trips. I hope you will consider joining us.

Slovenia & Austria: Birds & Music from Ljubljana to Vienna, June 16-July 1, 2018 with Milan Vogrin and Rafael Galvez; $7,495 in double occupancy from Ljubljana (ends in Vienna). Register by December 15 and receive a $500 discount and pay $6,995.

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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Le Conte's Sparrow

LeConte’s Sparrow, Texas — Photo: Greg Lasley

Earlier this week, I awoke one morning feeling a bit low following a call I received right before going to bed on the previous night from a relative with a medical problem. On the way to work I stopped at the Bouldin Creek Greenbelt, one of my favorite local birding areas, only a mile west of my house, where I planned to stay only a short while.
Entry to the area is reached by crossing a small creek, which leads to a trail above the opposite bank. No sooner had I reached the trail when all of a sudden, a small sparrow flew up from the trailside and perched near the bottom of a small sapling about twenty feet away. Upon fixing the bird in my binoculars, I was stunned to see that it was a LeConte’s Sparrow! Transfixed, I watched the bird for twenty minutes, savoring every detail: the rich golden breast and eyebrows, the pink hind collar, and the small black triangular spot behind the eye.

Remarkable. Here was my favorite sparrow, only a mile from my house and in a most unlikely place: a small patch of grass in a woodland in the city. My views of this gorgeous sparrow were the best of my life. Eventually, it dropped down to the ground and disappeared into the surrounding vegetation. The bird then moved around like a mouse, quietly and barely detectable save for instances when it would poke its head out of the small plants around it. The record of this bird’s occurrence turned out to be a first for this small park and the 180th bird species on the park checklist. You just never know when a bird will brighten your life.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel