July 2006 Birdletter, Part I August 23, 2006
Part I of the July 2006 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about our Amazon River Cruise aboard La Turquesa, our Jungle Rivers Cruise (the Orinoco, Essequibo, and Suriname rivers) aboard the Clipper Adventurer, VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration in McAllen, Texas (with 103 participants, 14 leaders, and 6 office staff members), our Attu Cruise aboard the Spirit of Oceanus, our always popular Polar Bears of Churchill tour, and our New Zealand Highlights tour.
BY STEVE HILTY
The Amazon region conjures many images, but it is, above all, a realm of superlatives. The centerpiece of this vast region is the Amazon River itself, the largest river in the world. In fact, many of its tributaries rival or exceed the size of other great rivers of the world. The Amazonian region also boasts the highest diversity of both birds and plants anywhere in the world.
In this issue:
AMAZON RIVER CRUISE (continued)
The very word "Amazon" brings to mind images of broad, sinuous rivers, tree-lined banks, strange animals, bright butterflies, torrential rains, and glorious sunsets. Along the rivers one may see macaws, parrots, and oropendolas flying overhead, ponderous Horned Screamers rising from stream banks, and exotic wildlife that includes Hoatzins, Umbrellabirds, sloths, fresh-water dolphins, and monkeys coexisting in this untamed area.
Sunset on the Amazon — Photo: Steve Hilty
We offer this relatively short excursion to the Amazon for those who want a full Amazonian rainforest and river experience without sacrificing comfort. We believe, in fact, that the classically-styled, triple-deck riverboat we're using offers visitors the utmost in comfort, security, and safety while still permitting us to visit remote and relatively unspoiled regions in Amazonia. The ship's spacious cabins are individually climate-controlled, air-conditioned, and include private tiled bathrooms, hot-water showers, free laundry service, and bottled water available at all times. The ship features excellent food and an open-air upper deck for great wildlife viewing by day and stargazing by night.
The mobility of our ship and its excursion boats will allow us to explore different habitats and streams each morning and afternoon, and provide exceptional opportunities to see birds and wildlife.
A brilliant blue Plum-throated Cotinga perched in a treetop, a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws winging overhead, a swirling group of Canary-winged Parakeets along the river, or a White-eared Jacamar in the morning sun?it is hard to predict which of these or many other experiences will delight you the most. We'll also fill some spare shipboard time with discussions and explanations of Amazonian natural history, as well as recaps of daily excursions in the evenings. We are confident that at the end of this extraordinary cruise you will have a greater appreciation and understanding of the Amazon region and the myriad creatures that make it the most complex ecosystem anywhere on earth.
This tour will be co-led by Steve Hilty, David Ascanio, Paul Greenfield, and Andrew Whittaker?four experts on the birds and natural history of the Amazon. It will be a rich, multifaceted experience.
Aboard the La Turquesa
January 20-28, 2007
With Steve Hilty, David Ascanio, Paul Greenfield, and Andrew Whittaker
Cabins begin at $4995 per person in double occupancy from Lima
January 28-February 4, 2007
With Steve Hilty and a local guide
$3150 from Lima
October 12-24, 2006
The vast, watery deltas of the Orinoco, Essequibo, and Suriname Rivers protect some of the finest remaining wilderness areas of South America. Join Victor Emanuel and a host of VENT leaders aboard the Clipper Adventurer for an unforgettable river cruise of a lifetime. You'll encounter more than 350 species of birds and experience some of the finest wildlife spectacles in South America. We have chartered this ship just for birders and expect to sell out. Only six spaces remain available.
Clipper Adventurer — Photo: Courtesy of INTRAV
Aboard the Clipper Adventurer
October 12-24, 2006
With David Ascanio, Michael Braun, Victor Emanuel, Peter English, Andrew Farnsworth, Paul Greenfield, Steve Hilty, Robert Ridgely, Andrew Whittaker, and Kevin Zimmer
$6495 per person in double occupancy from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
VENT'S 30th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
April 26-May 1, 2006
BY BARRY LYON
Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen, Texas, April 30, 2006. When Victor Emanuel stepped away from the microphone, his closing remarks completed, people rose from their chairs and began filing out of the courtyard, and the 30th Anniversary Celebration of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours came to a close. As participants meandered back to the hotel, with some pausing to talk and others seeking a last stroll through the gallery, it was finally time to step back and reflect on the happiness and excitement that surrounded the largest event ever held by VENT.
And what a party it was! In attendance were 14 full and part-time tour leaders, four guest leaders, four outstanding guest speakers, and six staff members from the home office, along with 103 participants. The beautiful facility of Quinta Mazatlan highlighted a collection of innumerable world-class birding areas, and four days of field trips produced a final list of 246 species of birds.
Leaders and special guests at VENT's 30th Anniversary Celebration — Photo: Laura Jones
The celebration was an auspicious, multifaceted event in which daily field trips to all the major regions of the Lower Rio Grande Valley were the centerpiece. Each afternoon leaders and participants returned from the field glowing with reports of exciting birds seen, life birds found, and rare birds discovered. Springtime is the best time of year to be in South Texas, and our extraordinary birdlist was proof of that. Aside from ALL of the specialty birds of the Valley, our field trips recorded impressive flights of migrating hawks?especially Mississippi Kites, a surprising diversity of eastern songbirds in the lower valley and on the coast, and a handful of genuinely rare birds.
The King Ranch produced solidly over and over again. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Tropical Parulas, Botteri's Sparrows, and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets were seen by every participant. Ranch escort, Brian Williams, provided outstanding interpretation of the rich wildlife and human history of the famous ranch. On one day, Laguna Atascosa yielded a tantalizing assortment of eastern songbirds, including Scarlet Tanager and a variety of warblers.
The Sabal Palm Sanctuary and South Padre Island were stellar in productivity day after day. A very rare Gray-crowned Yellowthroat performed on territory for group after group, while the highly sought-after Tamaulipas Crow proved reliable every morning in residential Brownsville. This species has occurred irregularly, at best, in recent years, and was found on a scouting trip just days before the start of the celebration. What great fortune!
The numbers and variety of Neotropical migrants were as fascinating as any other aspect of the birding. Localized deposits of birds throughout the coast and the lower and middle valleys produced such uncommon spring migrants as Black-billed Cuckoo; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; Gray-cheeked Thrush; and Mourning, MacGillivray's, Golden-winged, Canada, Bay-breasted, Cerulean, and Kentucky warblers, as well as impressive numbers of grosbeaks, buntings, and orioles. Even a rare Bobolink was spotted the final afternoon on South Padre.
The upper valley was literally chock-full of birds. The Santa Margarita Ranch, with access tightly controlled, but which VENT was granted, was the setting each morning for portions of our group. Sitting atop the dramatic bluffs that overlook a broad sweep of the Rio Grande River, we peered up and down the river, spotting and calling out the wonderful birds of South Texas as they appeared one after another. From all groups came reports of exciting encounters with some of the most localized and hardest-to-find South Texas birds. Muscovies, Red-billed Pigeons, Clay-colored Robins, and Hook-billed Kites were found daily by our sharp-eyed leaders. Nearby Chapeño hosted what may be the last remaining Brown Jays in North America, while the public library in nearby Zapata was unusually productive for the unreliable and difficult-to-find White-collared Seedeater.
Throw in such other wonderful resident birds as Chachalacas, Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, Olive Sparrows, and Audubon's and Altamira orioles, and one can see how truly memorable the birding was.
The keynote presentations after dinner each evening featured some of the most prominent personalities from the world of birding and nature. Victor Emanuel's address to a packed house was a reflection on being a pioneer in the bird tour industry, his outlook on life, birds, and the many friends, employees, and tour participants that have influenced his career for the past 30 years. His reception: two standing ovations.
Peter Matthiessen reminisced on the early years of VENT and delighted the crowd with an account of a trip to China he and Victor had made some years ago. Especially entertaining was Peter's story of how the two had met years before in New York.
Pete Dunne was as smooth and poised as ever in delivering his evening presentation. "Thirty Important Changes: Recent developments that greatly affected birding," was an appropriate topic, as VENT has certainly been a major influence on the continued development of birding.
The event culminated in style, with an evening at the elegant Quinta Mazatlan. This property was recently purchased by the city of McAllen and added to the World Birding Center as a satellite location. Formerly a private residence, the restored mansion is now a beautiful facility boasting a gift shop, information center, and art gallery. The grounds are planted with native vegetation, and birding forays by event participants produced more exciting birds. For the 30th Anniversary Celebration, the gallery was decorated with the exquisite artwork of Lars Jonsson, Robert Bateman, and John P. O'Neill. As an added bonus, some of the beautiful works by master sculptor, Kent Ullberg, were on display in the gallery as well. These men are considered among the finest nature artists alive, and we were privileged to have them present at this event.
A silent auction was held, benefiting one of the most effective conservation organizations in South Texas, the Valley Land Fund. Peter Matthiessen, Lars Jonsson, and Robert and Birgit Bateman contributed a host of items, including original paintings, prints, photographs, and signed books. The proceeds from the silent auction were augmented by VENT's contribution of $50 per Celebration participant. In all, VENT helped raise more than $15,000 for the Valley Land Fund! Thanks to all for this important endeavor.
The luminous evening ended with Scott Weidensaul's inspirational talk, "Return to Wild America," which recounted his 2003 adventure around North America, retracing the footsteps of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher as they went in search of America's remaining wild places.
For 30 years VENT has lived by three guiding principles: take care of our employees, take care of the people who travel with us, and take care of the environment. There is nothing complicated about it. It is an honest, heartfelt approach to life that is the nature of our business. We are proud of what has been accomplished, and are especially thankful to those people who have trusted us to provide them with the world's highest quality experiences in nature. Onward we go, into the next 30 years!
September 7-24, 2006
Remote, wild, and ruggedly beautiful, Attu Island is North America's best spot for encountering rare seabirds and Asian vagrants. This fall, VENT has chartered the Spirit of Oceanus exclusively for birders for a journey from Anchorage to Attu, where we'll have seven days during fall migration. Expect Mottled Petrel, Whiskered Auklet, Laysan and possibly Short-tailed Albatross, among many other species. This trip will not be offered again, and is a one-time opportunity to bird this legendary destination in comfort, with some of the finest field observers in North America. Space is still available on our charter cruise to Attu.
Spirit of Oceanus — Photo: Courtesy of Cruise West
Aboard the Spirit of Oceanus
September 7-24, 2006
With Larry Balch, Victor Emanuel, Pete Dunne, Steve Heinl, Steve Hilty, Marshall Iliff, Jeri Langham, Thede Tobish, David Wolf, and Barry Zimmer
Cabins begin at $9995 per person in double occupancy from Anchorage
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.
Polar Bears — Photo: Barry Zimmer
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. 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.
Only a few spaces remain available on our 2006 Polar Bear trip.
October 29-November 4, 2006
With Bob Sundstrom
$3495 from Winnipeg
BY DION HOBCROFT
New Zealand has three entire families of birds found nowhere else: the kiwis, New Zealand wrens, and wattlebirds. On our New Zealand Highlights tour we should see a representative of each one. In addition, there are over 40 species of birds endemic to the country. The seabirds are outstanding?many of them nesting in the region?and there are few places in the world where such a variety of them can be seen with such ease. This tour includes a number of boat trips with pelagic birds as the focus, but it's not necessary to travel far offshore to see them.
Kea — Photo: Barry Zimmer
New Zealand has much more to offer than birds. Scenery is paramount, from the lush lowland forests to majestic Mt. Cook. Nowhere else but in this one small country will you find such a diverse and spectacular combination of natural features?the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, deep fiords carved by the glaciers, tranquil lakes and bubbling mud pots, towering forests, dense coastal scrub, and lovely near-deserted beaches. This is also an extremely pleasant and "civilized" country, with outstanding food, excellent accommodations and roads, friendly people, and remarkably tidy towns and countryside. All of these features combined result in an outstanding natural history tour?comfortable and relaxed in pace, yet outstanding in unique biological treasures not to be seen elsewhere.
November 2-16, 2006
With Dion Hobcroft
$4380 from Auckland
Note: Extend your New Zealand adventure on our Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand Cruise, November 14-December 4, which will also be led by Dion Hobcroft. Only one space remains available on this penguin and albatross spectacular. Cabins begin at $7125 per person in double occupancy from Invercargill.
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