April 2006 Birdletter, Part I April 29, 2006
Part I of the April 2006 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about Southeastern Brazil, Scotland in 2007, Big Bend Summer, Ecuador, our Attu Cruise, New Zealand, and Polar Bears of Churchill. (Part II includes articles about our Kenya Bird Safari, Fall Hawaii, Amazonian Peru, Grand Australia, Fall in Panama, Autumn Grand Manan, and our Amazon River Cruise.)
In this issue:
BY KEVIN ZIMMER
Once again, Southeast Brazil served up its usual share of exciting birding, producing nearly 500 species and a whopping 151 regional and/or Brazilian endemics.
We started in Iguaçu, where, besides the spectacle of the world's greatest waterfalls, we were treated to point-blank views of Variable Screech-Owl; Robust and Blond-crested woodpeckers, and Plush-crested Jays; spectacular Toco Toucans; multiple Creamy-bellied Gnatcatchers, including a pair dancing circles around an annoyed looking Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl; and such specialties as Ochre-collared Piculet, Rufous Gnateater, Southern Antpipit, Southern Bristle-Tyrant, São Paulo Tyrannulet, Eastern Slaty-Thrush, and Green-headed Tanager. For all of that, my personal favorite highlight was the Pavonine Cuckoo, rarely seen anywhere in its range, and a first for this particular tour. After hearing it sing in the distance, I tried using tape, seemingly to no avail. Several minutes later it materialized almost on top of us, and proceeded to put on a most amazing show, including dropping to the ground and running around like a ground-cuckoo.
On to São Francisco de Paula, where we were hampered by strong winds the first morning, and a fast-moving fog-bank on the second day that largely obscured the normally breathtaking Itaimbezinho Canyon from view. Despite these frustrations, the weather largely cooperated. A litany of birding highlights would have to begin with the utterly fearless Plumbeous Rail that made a beeline for us, and then stopped to sing within inches of me as I sat playing tape. Other highlights included great studies of perched Vinaceous-breasted Parrot, an 11th-hour pair of Green-chinned Euphonias, the beautiful male Chestnut-headed Tanager that was almost too close to focus on, the spectacular male Large-tailed Antshrike that even allowed scope views, and the most cooperative pair of Long-tufted Screech-Owls (he with yellow eyes, she with brown!). The open-country birds were particularly cooperative this year, with Saffron-cowled Blackbirds, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, and Long-tailed Cinclodes offering some of the best views ever.
The southern part of Rio Grande do Sul treated us to a very different avifauna. The sheer spectacle of seeing many hundreds of Black-necked and Coscoroba swans, thousands of Southern Screamers, and flocks of White-faced and Bare-faced ibis too numerous to count is always awe-inspiring. Among the throngs of waterfowl and three species of coots, we were able to scratch out a single pair of Ringed Teal (surely one of the most elegant members of the family) after our record-breaking 18 in 2004. Shorebirds were almost completely missing in action this year, but we compensated with several lingering austral migrants seldom or never before recorded on this tour, including Bar-winged Cinclodes (at least six of them!), White-bellied Tyrannulet, and White-banded Mockingbird. Common Miners and Freckle-breasted Thornbirds were additional treats not usually encountered on this trip, and a dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger in the sand dunes at Molhas was yet another unexpected tour first. Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, White Monjitas, Giant Wood-Rails, Long-winged Harriers, Spectacled Tyrants, and others also gave us plenty to look at whenever we felt ourselves headed for waterfowl overload.
Then it was on to Itatiaia National Park, a perpetual favorite. Highlights here were almost too numerous to mention, but ranged from a singing male Black-and-gold Cotinga filling the scope, to a stunningly gorgeous male Plovercrest on a song perch, to good looks at such specialties as Black-capped Piprites, Rufous-backed Antvireo, Itatiaia Thistletail, Brown Tanager, and many more. My personal favorite was obtaining crippling views of both subspecies of Red-eyed Thornbird (soon to be split as separate species) in the same marsh in the lowlands below the park. Once again, we scored the magnificent and very rare White-bearded Antshrike (making this 12 straight years for seeing this species on this tour), seeing not one, but two different males. The grounds at our hotel were sensational, with Saffron Toucanets, several species of tanagers and euphonias, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, and a nonstop swarm of hummingbirds making it difficult to ever leave the deck or the driveway!
Espírito Santo was, as always, excellent. We rebounded from last year's dip on the Cherry-throated Tanager (the first time in six attempts that we had failed to find this "mega bird") to score an amazing nine birds in one day, with stunning scope studies to boot. Given that the entire known population of this species consists of fewer than 20 birds, finding it is never a given, and to have upped our success rate to six out of seven tries is truly remarkable. While searching for the tanager, we encountered lots of other birds, among them some of the most sought-after Atlantic Forest endemics. Topping the list was the elegant and rarely seen Shrike-like Cotinga (or Elegant Mourner), followed by the bizarrely beautiful Swallow-tailed Cotinga, Spotted Bamboowren, a surprising Rusty-breasted Nunlet, displaying male Bare-faced Bellbird, Hooded Berryeater, Pale-browed Treehunter, Tufted Antshrike, and Pin-tailed Manakin. The Santa Teresa area brought us a hummingbird feeder extravaganza, wherein one had to decide whether to ogle the whopping-big Swallow-tailed Hummingbird or the bee-sized, but impressively coiffed Frilled Coquette. An impressive Spot-backed Antshrike; a rare, but cooperative Russet-winged Spadebill; tail-wagging Oustalet's Tyrannulets; Wied's Tyrant-Manakin; and Rufous-brown Solitaire were among the many highlights. Then it was on to Linhares, where we concluded our tour with a bang. Linhares and Sooretama Reserves combined to feature exceptional views of the ultra-rare Red-billed Curassow and Plumbeous Antvireos; fine studies of flashy Red-browed Parrots, Ochre-marked Parakeets, and White-eared Parakeets; Minute Hermits on a lek; a Black-headed Berryeater; and a male Scalloped Antbird almost at our feet.
In between, we enjoyed numerous wonderful meals, including a visit to an excellent churrascaria, sinfully good icy caipirinhas, and loads of famously friendly Brazilian hospitality. All in all, a most congenial group of birders saw a bunch of really special birds, and had great fun in the process!
Iguacu, Coastal Parana/Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul & Itatiaia
September 16-October 2, 2006
With Kevin Zimmer and Andrew Whittaker
$4395 from Iguacu Falls (ends in Rio de Janeiro)
Espirito Santo & The Cherry-throated Tanager
September 30-October 10, 2006
With Andrew Whittaker and Kevin Zimmer
$2595 from Vitoria
SCOTLAND IN 2007
On Land and at Sea!
BY PETER ROBERTS
Join us for a unique Scotland experience in early summer 2007: a week-long birds and history trip to the Highlands of Scotland, followed by a magical voyage through the enchanting Scottish Islands. Birds, history, and spectacular scenery?don't miss this combination!
We have designed a very special tour offering a week of varied birding and historical visits in the heart of the Highlands of Scotland, based in a beautifully furnished period Scottish country home in idyllic surroundings, for our exclusive use.
The base for our daily explorations will be Glenlivet House, a splendid, large Scottish Country House within Cairngorms National Park, with spectacular views over the Banffshire countryside. Built in the late Victorian period as a grand shooting lodge, it is perfectly placed in the extremely scenic Strath Spey, central to much of our daily ventures. The house is a magnificent stone-built property in its own extensive and secluded grounds close to the famous Glenlivet Whisky Distillery. We can accommodate just over 20 people and, of course, have sole, private, and full use of the entire house. Grand period decorations and furnishings are reminiscent of bygone times, but the house has all modern comforts and features. Open log fires are supplemented by central heating, and all bedrooms (some with four-poster beds!) have private bathrooms. The public rooms are spacious and relaxing. Our tour should be fully catered, dining privately each evening in the large and elegant dining room of the house, rather than having to go out to restaurants.
The Highlands scenery is the most dramatic in the British Isles: the highest peaks; extensive moorlands; ancient Caledonian pine forest; a stunning coastline of cliffs, inlets, and offshore islands; vast prehistoric peat bogs; and fast-flowing rivers. We will target localized and rare specialties such as Eurasian Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Rock and Willow ptarmigan (the British subspecies known as Red Grouse), the endemic Scottish Crossbill, Ring Ouzel, Crested Tit, Horned Grebe, Arctic Loon, and raptors such as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle, Osprey, Red Kite, and White-tailed Eagle. Most of these breed only within the British Isles exclusively in this wild region of Scotland, and we have good chances of seeing them all. There will, of course, be many more widespread species of interest to birders new to European birding: Great Spotted Woodpecker; Tawny Owl; Great, Blue, Coal, and Long-tailed tits; Goldcrest; Eurasian Treecreeper; White-throated Dipper; Eurasian Jackdaw; Hooded Crow; Rook; Eurasian Siskin; Eurasian Greenfinch; Chaffinch; Eurasian Bullfinch; Red Crossbill; Tufted Duck; and Common Pochard. Further opportunities exist for watching exciting coastal sites for migrants, shorebirds, and seabirds.
We will be central to many fine castles and sites of historical significance such as hugely ornate Dunrobin Castle, one of Scotland's finest stately homes; Cawdor Castle—started in the 13th century, mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth, and still lived in now; gaunt, ruined, medieval Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness; Culloden Battlefield, site of the defeat of the Jacobite Scottish Highlanders against the English monarchy in 1645; and Fort George, a huge military complex built in the 18th century to defend against further Jacobite invasions.
VENT has chartered a small (50-passenger) ship for a unique voyage through the Scottish Islands. We have designed our own route to take you in one journey through the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetlands via the best birding and historical sites of these magical islands.
From the charming west coast port of Oban, we sail to the pretty island of Mull. Here are breeding White-tailed Eagles and, on Staffa, huge colonies of Atlantic Puffins, Common Murres, and Razorbills. Fingal's Cave, made of extraordinary columnar basalt (a continuation of the Giant's Causeway across the sea in Northern Ireland) was inspiration for Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. We'll visit the holy island of Iona, where Corn Crakes rasp their loud songs in rich flower meadows that have remained the same since the island became an early site of Christian settlement and pilgrimage by St. Columba over 1,400 years ago.
We sail west to the low-lying sandy islands of the South Uists on the Outer Hebrides—the most far-flung outposts of the British Isles—for some great birding with many breeding shorebirds, loons, wildfowl, and further chances for Corn Crakes and Twite. North to the Outer Hebridean islands of Harris and Lewis we find more rugged scenery and remarkable ancient historical sites such as the mysterious Standing Stones of Callanish and the circular stone tower of Carloway Broch. We can discover what life was like for native Gaelic people up to the 19th century in the rebuilt traditional low dwellings called Black Houses.
North to the Orkneys we'll sail past 1,000-foot cliffs and pinnacles of Hoy where breeding seabirds including Great Skuas darken the skies. Some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe are found here: Maes Howe, the finest complete Neolithic tomb in existence; the Ring of Brodgar, largest Stone Circle in Scotland; and Skara Brae, a finely excavated Neolithic village. More "recent" delights include the fine city of Kirkwall with its Norse-influenced cathedral and the World War II Churchill Barriers. North to Shetland we'll discover the eerie nocturnal world of European Storm-Petrels at their colony, nesting in a fine Pictish Broch on Mousa. Discover the strong Viking influence in these northerly outposts with a stroll over the large complex of Jarlshof, occupied since the Bronze Age until this whole western region of Scotland was a Viking domain.
Throughout our voyage we'll have seabirds around us constantly (the British Isles is home to globally important numbers of all the North Atlantic species including Manx Shearwater). On land there will be many species to delight us, from good raptor populations to perhaps a great rarity or two on the remote Fair Isle, famous for its knitting and as a magnet for vagrant birds. Our tour will conclude on the other side of Scotland in the "Granite City" of Aberdeen.
May 18-26, 2007
With Peter Roberts and a local guide
$2550 from Inverness
May 25-June 2, 2007
With Peter Roberts and TBA
Cabins begin at $3295 per person in double occupancy from Aberdeen (returns from Glasgow)
BY BARRY ZIMMER
The virtually indescribable male Montezuma Quail strutted past within 15 feet of our group. The late afternoon light at our backs accentuated the incredible pattern of swirls, spots, loops, and bars, and highlighted the amazing array of colors on the bird's body: chestnut, maroon, buff, black, white, and tan. Certainly this is one of the premier birds of the world and one of the most difficult to see in North America, and yet, here it was making three passes in front of us and providing us with the most breathtaking views imaginable. When the bird finally disappeared up the rocky hillside from where it came, a raucous cheer and applause rose up from our group. No one could believe our luck. This was a birding moment that all of us will remember forever.
This was, however, but one of many memorable moments on our recent Summer Big Bend tour. Starting and ending in El Paso, we spent a week birding the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas. In the El Paso area, we enjoyed wonderful views of Mississippi Kites (both perched and in flight), several family groups of Gambel's Quail, nice comparative studies of Western and Clark's grebes, an impressive 16 Burrowing Owls, and a great hummingbird display that included the tiny Calliope, brilliant Rufous, noisy Broad-taileds, and Black-chinneds. We spent one night at the spectacular Cibolo Creek Guest Ranch en route to Big Bend. The accommodations are incredible here, and the birds are a good match. Nesting Zone-tailed Hawks put on a nice show the afternoon of our arrival, and were followed by a successful night walk which yielded great views of Elf Owl and Common Poorwill. The next morning we scoured the foothills of the Chinati Mountains and located the highly localized Gray Vireo, numerous families of Scaled Quail, a regal Golden Eagle, and Canyon and Rock wrens. Common birds right around the lodge included flashy Vermilion Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Summer Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Say's and Black phoebes, and Cassin's Kingbirds.
Of course, the centerpiece of this tour is Big Bend National Park. With its spectacular scenery, Big Bend would be worth a visit if no birds were found in the park. Obviously, this is not the case. On our first day in the park, the Window Trail with its rocky slopes and brushy canyons produced stunning plum-colored Varied Buntings, more Gray Vireos, male and female Lucifer Hummingbirds, and a pair of Black-capped Vireos (unexpected this far west), along with such regular fare as Blue Grosbeak, Scott's Oriole, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. That afternoon we hit Cottonwood Campground in the southwest corner of the park and found Tropical Kingbird, Gray Hawk, Painted Bunting, and Hooded Oriole. Another evening of owling gave us superb looks at Western Screech and Elf owls. The all-day hike to Boot Springs the following day was similarly successful. We tallied an impressive 13 (!) Colima Warblers with several fantastic views. Other goodies this day included Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hepatic and Western tanagers, Black-chinned Sparrow, and a family group of Painted Redstarts. Our final morning in Big Bend was spent at the always birdy Rio Grande Village. Here we saw Common Black-Hawk, another Gray Hawk, Yellow-breasted Chat, numerous Painted Buntings, Bell's Vireo, and family groups of Javelina!
Our final destination was the Davis Mountains to the north. It was in this range that we encountered the fabulous Montezuma Quail. Other highlights here included another Common Black-Hawk, Buff-breasted and Gray flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireo, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, and Grace's Warbler. Summer birding in West Texas is, as you can see, almost always a very rewarding experience!
July 10-17, 2006
With Barry Zimmer and Marshall Iliff
$2340 from El Paso
A small country about the size of Colorado, Ecuador boasts an amazing 1,600 species of birds that can be found in a tremendous variety of habitats. Spectacular scenery, a good infrastructure of roads and airports, a number of excellent lodges, and very friendly people make Ecuador a must-visit destination. Paul Greenfield illustrated The Birds of Ecuador, which he co-authored with Robert Ridgely, and has been showing visitors the birds of this fascinating country for over two decades. We hope you can join him on one or both of these back-to-back late summer tours.
BY PAUL GREENFIELD
A trip to the Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) is a total experience?floating down blackwater streams, walking forest trails through dense and lush undergrowth, bearing down under a tropical rainstorm, surveying the forest canopy from a treetop platform built over 100 feet above the ground?and trying to make sense out of the most complex faunal community on earth becomes a most exhilarating challenge. Our August trip had many memorable moments and species to remember, right from the "get-go." Just a few minutes after beginning our expedition, floating along Añanguyacu that first afternoon, we came upon an Oilbird on its day roost, rocking gently from side to side right in front of us. We were all mesmerized! That and the 92 other species we recorded during this initial entrance into the world of NWC was just a sample of more wonderful things to come.
Even the more "common" species of this wonderfully rich Amazonian forest are memorable: crazy-looking Hoatzins, hissing and clambering clumsily about; adorable White-eared Jacamars; the animated Black-capped Donacobius with its insistent scolding and spirited duets; and "gangs" of Greater Anis with their green and blue glossy sheen and glaring pale eyes. But it was the tremendous variety of experiences and wonderful bird species that we came upon at almost every turn that seemed to be the most exciting. Finally getting scope views of a calling Great Jacamar perching stealthily in the subcanopy, or our fine views of Brown Nunlet and White-chested Puffbird along the same trail, must be favorite memories for all in our group. Peering patiently through a dense mesh of understory vegetation at an army ant swarm was most exciting, as we quietly witnessed Bicolored, Sooty, Scale-backed, Lunulated, and spectacular White-plumed antbirds slipping in and out of our various viewpoints—even getting scope views of most of them! To top that off, a juvenile (?) Buckley's Forest-Falcon swooped in twice in an attempt to snatch up one of these unsuspecting ant followers. Our "up-close and personal" look at a Zigzag Heron was a thrill for all of us, too.
Our encounter with the rarely seen Gray-bellied Hawk on its perch along the Añanguyacu, and scoped views of two rare hummingbirds?Festive Coquette and Rufous-throated Sapphire?below us in the flowers of a canopy tree seen from the forest canopy tower, along with the rather uncommon Black-bellied Thorntail, were among our most unusual records. Floating up upon a Salvin's Curassow resting on the bank of the Añanguyacu, and drifting by a sleeping three-and-a-half-meter-long Black Caiman were moments that will not be forgotten. Each day and each different area brought new species and experiences. All in all, it was a great trip, and it would not have been so if not for Jiovanny Rivadeneira, whose intimate knowledge of this spectacular area is absolutely unsurpassed! It is always a pleasure and an honor to share this wonderful area with him.
It is reasonable to ask "Why just Southern Ecuador for a birding trip, when there are so many other areas in Ecuador?" The simple answer is that there are almost unlimited opportunities for seeking the birds of the Andes Mountains in this region, in spectacular surroundings. The full answer to that question is quite complex, just as the region itself is, but some of the reasons include:
(1) Endemism, meaning that there are birds here that are not found anywhere else in the world. The extreme example, of course, is the Jocotoco Antpitta, not discovered to science until 1997 and still known from only one small area! Other examples include the Bearded Guan, White-necked Parakeet, and Violet-throated and Neblina metaltails.
(2) There are a surprising number of "range-restricted" species that are best found in this region and whose fate may ultimately be decided by the preservation of the forests here, including Coppery-chested Jacamar, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Equatorial Graytail, and Orange-banded Flycatcher.
(3) Many rarely-seen birds seem to be more "findable" here than elsewhere, including Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, Lanceolated Monklet, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Barred Fruiteater, Red-hooded Tanager, Giant Conebill, Tit-like Dacnis, and Plush-capped Finch, to pick a few examples.
(4) Trail access at several key sites makes this a great area to actually see some of the supreme skulkers of the mountain forests, particularly antpittas and tapaculos. Past trips have sometimes seen five or more species in these groups.
(5) The region is relatively little-known and there are significant discoveries still to be made. Witness the new species of flycatcher found here in the 1990s, now officially described and named the Foothill Elaenia.
(6) The complex geography supports many different habitats in a small area. Here the Andes are twisted and folded into a jumbled mass of ridge and valley systems, some drier and some wetter, and by covering a wide range of elevations we will have the opportunity to see a fantastic assortment of the birds of the Andes.
(7) Major protected areas that we will bird include the Tapichalaca Reserve, Podocarpus National Park, and Cajas National Recreation Area. Unfortunately, the mountain forests are fast disappearing in many places where they are not protected.
(8) Tanagers and hummingbirds, two of the most beautiful and appealing families of tropical birds, are especially prominent and diverse here. That in itself makes this region alluring to many of us!
(9) The scenery is outstanding and the climate refreshing.
(10) This is a more traditional part of Ecuador than the north, with an interesting culture and a lot of history.
August 6-13, 2006
With Paul Greenfield and TBA
$2295 from Quito
August 12-23, 2006
With Paul Greenfield and TBA
$3395 from Quito
Sign up for both tours and receive a discount of $100.
ATTU ? LAST CHANCE
September 7-24, 2006
VENT has chartered the Spirit of Oceanus for a cruise from Anchorage to Attu, and then on to Kamchatka. Since flights are no longer permitted to land on Attu, and since VENT will not offer this trip again, this will probably be the last opportunity to bird this famous island. We will cruise the entire Aleutian chain en route to Attu. We hope to see Short-tailed Albatross, Mottled Petrel, and Whiskered Auklet—all difficult birds to see in the United States. Then we will spend a week birding Attu in search of Asian vagrants.
We have assembled a superb group of leaders including such Attu veterans as Larry Balch and Thede Tobish.
Only a few spaces remain available on this marvelous trip. Cabins begin at $9995 from Anchorage. Contact the VENT office for more information.
magnificent landscapes, lush vegetation, amazing wildlife
TWO SPECIAL DEPARTURES NOVEMBER 2006 With Dion Hobcroft
With Dion Hobcroft
Have you ever wished to see the mythical Kiwi in the wild, exploring mossy forests in a fairytale setting? Perhaps you'd like to see the Wrybill, the only bird in the world with a bill that curves sideways, or the Kea, a playful parrot?and the only bird in the world that is not covered by car insurance. Or would you care to get up close and personal with giant albatross and unusual penguins? If so, this tour is for you.
I have redesigned our New Zealand itinerary to make this a shorter tour (15 days) that covers all of the great scenery and outstanding birdlife this special island group has to offer, just as spring is warming the air, and the flowers and birds are in full swing.
We commence in Auckland, gateway to the North Island. We will explore the special island sanctuary of Tiri Tiri where we can observe and photograph a variety of New Zealand's special birds, from the Saddleback, Whitehead, and Red-crowned Kakariki to the amazing Tui, and endangered Stitchbird and Kokako. From the bubbling mud and geysers of geothermal Rotorua, we will travel south to the outstanding island of Kapiti. Here, in pleasant home-stay surroundings, we will have a special experience with the Little Spotted Kiwi. Also here is the giant parrot known as the Kaka (landing at arm's length), and stunning New Zealand Pigeons are abundant. Little Penguin, Southern Boobook, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, and Long-tailed Cuckoo are amongst many other possibilities.
Crossing Cook Strait we will touch down on the South Island, famous for its incredible scenery (this is where they filmed Lord of the Rings), and much less populated than the North Island. A world-famous pelagic excursion to the Kaikoura sea canyon only three miles offshore will offer an incredible array of albatrosses and petrels feeding within a few yards. This is truly one of the great bird experiences in the world. We will have excellent chances for rarities such as Buller's Albatross and Westland Petrel.
Into the Southern Alps we will search for specialties such as the Black Stilt and that peculiar plover, the Wrybill. We will try to fend the overly playful Kea away from our bus! A day will be spent exploring the Milford Sound and, with luck, we may encounter the special Fiordland Penguin. Our final birding will take in the famous Royal Albatross nesting colony at Dunedin with a nearby visit to see the striking Yellow-eyed Penguin. We can expect to see at least 75% of "mainland" New Zealand's endemic birds, including representatives of the three families found nowhere else. This will be a comfortable tour, and not too strenuous.
The people of New Zealand are wonderfully friendly, the food is great, and the accommodations and roads are good to excellent. New Zealand is an ideal holiday-birding destination. We will keep a relaxed pace, and ensure that you have a wonderful natural experience.
I am tremendously excited to have the opportunity to lead natural history enthusiasts to one of the remotest and wildest regions in the world, New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands. Each of the seven islands offers its own remarkable fauna and insular specialties, and can only be accessed by ship and Zodiac. The birdlife is outstanding?so spectacular as to be almost surreal. Very few visitors are permitted access, and this is the only voyage to visit all of the islands this year, a rare offering in itself. We will be sailing aboard the comfortable Spirit of Enderby, recently refitted to take us to these inaccessible islands. This voyage dovetails perfectly with our New Zealand Highlights tour.
November 2-16, 2006
with Dion Hobcroft
$4380 from Auckland
(ends in Dunedin)
November 14-December 4, 2006
with Dion Hobcroft
Cabins begin at $7125 per person in double occupancy from Invercargill (returns from Dunedin)
BY BOB SUNDSTROM
When our group first arrived in Churchill, Manitoba on Halloween morning of 2005, we were surprised to see the ground free of snow. Snow had been predicted for days here at the southwest corner of Hudson Bay, but little had fallen. That afternoon we got to know the town area a bit, and the group walked a trail near Cape Merry, not far from the town. We nearly walked right up to a huge Arctic hare, conspicuous in its all white winter fur, as it sat among a field of ancient boulders rubbed smooth by glaciers and now covered in orange lichens. The hare seemed to be waiting for snow, waiting for its winter camouflage to arrive.
A few snowflakes began to fall as we went to dinner that night. After dinner, we walked out to two inches of snow on the ground. By morning, a full five inches of fresh snow had dressed the world in white, a color scheme that would apply to a whole range of wildlife we would see in ensuing days. We saw more stately Arctic hares, as well as some smaller snowshoe hares, both all white except for the tips of their ears. We watched an all white Arctic fox hunting in the mounded seaweed of the high tide line of Hudson Bay. The fox leaped into the air several times, coming down sharply on its front paws, hoping to dislodge a rodent from the layers of seaweed. Sights of Willow Ptarmigan were a daily pleasure, all white in their winter feathers, until they flared the black edges of their tails. Snow Buntings were also in their striking winter plumage, with rusty highlights on mostly white bodies. A couple of Snowy Owls perched nearly invisible against the white landscape. And on the last day, as we stopped in the Tundra Buggy to watch a couple of ptarmigan just in front of the vehicle, a new white bird suddenly appeared on the scene, flying at the ptarmigan. The white bird almost stopped in midair with the ptarmigan and a dense row of shrubby willows at its feet, then lifted on long, pointed wings, showing a white breast and dark dappling on a white back: a beautiful adult white-morph Gyrfalcon, perhaps the most magnificent bird of the Arctic.
Of course, the white wildlife celebrities we had come primarily to see were the wondrous polar bears, which concentrate here at this time of year awaiting the freeze-up of Hudson Bay. We didn't even have to go out on the tundra to see our first bear; late the first afternoon, as we were headed back toward the town of Churchill in a van, we had a front row seat for what almost seemed a polar bear rodeo. A big bear had walked in a bit too close to town for the conservation authorities' guidelines and, as we watched from a short distance, two helicopters tried to urge the bear away from town. The polar bear was ultimately sedated via a tranquilizer gun, and packed onto the bed of a truck to be moved away and later released on the sea ice. Our timing was impeccable, as we were able to walk right up to the truck and marvel at the enormous bear, which filled the truck bed to overflowing.
During our days on the Tundra Buggy (special vehicles which traverse the tundra on enormous tires), we had amazing luck and watched sparring, or play-fighting polar bears each day. Two bears, usually young males of at least 500 pounds, would carefully approach one another, sniffing and mouthing one another lightly, then stand and face each other, bear-hugging and wrestling upright, soon to fall to the ground and wrestle like young cubs. After about ten minutes of wrestling, both bears would collapse on the snow or ice to cool down and take a snooze before the next bout of sparring. Camera shutters clicked and clicked during this wonderful study of animals at play, often very close to the Tundra Buggy. A couple of curious bears came right up to the Tundra Buggy, standing up with their dinner-plate-sized paws against the vehicle's side, offering a truly memorable face-to-face view of the world's largest terrestrial carnivore.
Not all the wildlife was white in color, as we also saw Northern Goshawk, King and Common eiders, both Hoary and Common redpolls, bright red male Pine Grosbeaks in contrast with the dark green spruces and white snow, and a very tardy Rusty Blackbird. Adding color one evening was a brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis, sending plumes of green light across the sky. And with surprisingly good amenities for a frontier town, Churchill made a comfortable base for one of the world's foremost wildlife viewing experiences.
October 29-November 4, 2006
With Bob Sundstrom
$3495 from Winnipeg