February 2007 Birdletter, Part II March 12, 2007

Part II of the February 2007 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about our Spring Washington tour, the Texas Cibolo Creek Workshop, Kenya, Suriname, Australia, spring tours with space available, short summer tours, the Southwest Pacific Cruise, and our Great Southern India Train Odyssey. (See Part I for articles about our Attu Cruise, our 2007 Alaska program, Amazonian Brazil, Peru: Manu, Argentina, Japan in Summer, VENT Cruises, and Western Turkey.)


In this issue:












Our 2006 tour began with a day in the Puget Sound lowlands, an hour south of Seattle. That morning a diminutive Northern Pygmy-Owl perched nicely atop a tree, calling, as we watched it for a long time in the spotting scope. The same area gave us good views of a Red-breasted Sapsucker, an exquisitely patterned Black-throated Gray Warbler, a singing Hutton's Vireo, and Willow and Pacific Slope flycatchers. At Bob's country home nearby, we watched a scintillating male Rufous Hummingbird perched at eye level, and a multicolored show on the seed feeders that included Purple Finches, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and American Goldfinches, as Steller's Jays and Western Scrub-Jays hopped nearby. The same afternoon we crossed the Cascade Mountains at Snoqualmie Pass, into the east side of the state.

The next morning began with a flush of blue: Lazuli Buntings, Mountain Bluebirds, and Western Bluebirds?each a different shade of azure. We watched the wonderful singers of the sagebrush in full song: Brewer's and Vesper sparrows, and Sage Thrasher. Further out the road that morning, as we passed into the pines, we found a much-anticipated White-headed Woodpecker, and then our first Lewis's Woodpeckers of the tour. Townsend's Solitaires flitted by the roadside, and an adult Great Horned Owl perched near a very large, but still half downy owlet. A male Calliope Hummingbird sat atop an elderberry bush, flashing the long, purple streamers of its gorget toward the scope.

One morning found us working our way up a beautiful canyon in the Entiat Mountains, from its mouth at the Columbia River to its forested realms at over 3,000 feet. A Chukar warmed itself atop a rock pile in the morning sun, and Clark's Nutcrackers called gruffly and perched in the pines. The creek-side thickets rang with the songs of Yellow-breasted Chats and Bullock's Orioles, and we watched Cassin's Vireo and Townsend's Warbler sing from the conifers.

We would have two full days and another morning to explore the Okanogan region, one of the richest in overall bird diversity in the Northwest?and among the most scenically spectacular. Snow blocked the forest roads above 6,000 feet in the highlands, where we may have seen Spruce Grouse, but we still climbed high enough on the forest roads for excellent looks at American Three-toed Woodpecker and Boreal Chickadee. A male Blue Grouse displayed openly on the ground in an aspen grove, showing off its colorful neck markings. The lakes and ponds of the Okanogan were loaded with nesting species, such as dapper Black Terns, Wilson's Phalaropes, nest-building Red-necked Grebes, and showy Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Ducks included Barrow's Goldeneye; Hooded Merganser; Cinnamon, Blue-winged, and Green-winged teal; Redheads; Ring-necked and Wood ducks; Buffleheads; and both scaup species.

Our final day's drive took us across the North Cascades Highway through magnificent alpine scenery. Bird highlights included terrific views of a singing Varied Thrush and Winter Wren, a Red-naped Sapsucker at close range, "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow, and the much hoped for and sometimes elusive Black Swift.


May 29-June 6, 2007

With Bob Sundstrom

$2395 from Seattle

Limit 7

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Located at the base of the Chinati Mountains in the Big Bend Country of West Texas, Cibolo Creek Ranch is, simply put, a birder's paradise. This incredible lodge has wonderful rooms, a swimming pool, superb food, and great birding as soon as you step outside your room. We will spend four nights at the ranch and will scour the area looking for the numerous resident birds and enjoying the height of fall migration. A wide variety of western migrants as well as southwestern specialty birds are possible.

In addition we will have one full day in the Davis Mountains, where higher elevations and heavily wooded slopes yield a different variety of birds. We will spend some time learning the birds and the different habitats in which they occur. This should be a relaxing trip since we only use two hotels, but should also produce a very impressive list of birds.


September 11-17, 2007

With Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney

$2295 from El Paso

Limit 14

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We began our 2006 "safari" by driving north to the forested flanks of Mt. Kenya, arriving at Mountain Lodge in time for tea and birding from the rooftop, highlighted by colorful Black-throated Apalis at eye level and other specialties of the montane forest. A deep foghorn call proved to be a rare Buff-spotted Flufftail that responded to tape and was actually seen. The following morning produced unusual sightings of a perched African Cuckoo-Hawk, Kenrick's Starling, and a trio of Oriole Finches. From here we dropped down into the Great Rift Valley at Lake Nakuru. Though the lake was low and "only" about 100,000 Lesser Flamingos were present, a great variety of other waterbirds included a magnificent Saddle-billed Stork.

The Baringo area was the driest region we visited, but the lake is an oasis in the midst of the thornbush. On our morning boat trip here we saw a remarkable variety of waterbirds, including immense Goliath Herons, surprising numbers of Comb Ducks and several Spur-winged Geese, rare Senegal Thick-knees, a gorgeous female Greater Painted-Snipe in the open, and a pair of Hemprich's Hornbills on a rocky island. Back on land the "Baringo bird boys" found a pair of Three-banded Coursers with chicks that had just hatched, a Spotted Thick-knee, roosting Northern White-faced and Grayish eagle-owls, and a concentration of Slender-tailed Nightjars on the ground. Daytime studies of any of these nocturnal species are special.

Kakamega Forest is only a few hundred kilometers from Baringo, but so different it might as well be on another planet. Here the local topography creates a high rainfall region verdant with tall rainforest that harbors an avifauna more typical of Central Africa. We began enjoying this batch of new birds at the Rondo Retreat Center, where it wasn't long before our first Great Blue Turaco glided into a forest tree on the edge of the beautiful garden. We laughed at the noisy Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills, called up incredibly responsive White-spotted Flufftails, and stalked Gray-winged and Snowy-crowned robin-chats along a forested gully as they gave their delightful and complex songs. Other special finds in Kakamega included an adult Sooty Falcon that came down ahead of a storm and perched for us, a brilliant Bar-tailed Trogon, Blue-headed Bee-eaters hawking insects from the canopy, and all of the local barbets including the stunning and brilliant Double-toothed. With lake levels low, great numbers of waterbirds of a wide variety were concentrated on beautiful Lake Naivasha, and seen at remarkably close range on a morning boat trip. An afternoon visit to scenic Hell's Gate produced two pairs of Verreaux's Eagles and Rueppell's Griffons nesting on the immense cliffs, plus sightings of such rarely-seen antelope as klipspringer, mountain reedbuck, and steinbok.

The Masai Mara certainly lived up to its well-deserved reputation as the best big-game country in Kenya. Barely five minutes after leaving the airstrip we were looking at two magnificent full-maned lions guarding a buffalo kill, and it wasn't long before we found our first elephants as we neared the camp. Two days of game drives here brought one stunning sight after another, from a black rhino with a large calf to herds of wildebeest and zebra drifting southward towards the Serengeti, to a cheetah with three large cubs.


October 28-November 15, 2007

With David Wolf and TBA

$7500 from Nairobi

Limit 12


November 14-19, 2007

With David Wolf and TBA

$3220 from Nairobi

Limit 12


August 1-16, 2007

With Brad Schram and a local leader

$8155 from Nairobi

Limit 6

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Because there is more undisturbed rainforest left in Suriname than remains in all of Central America, birders and naturalists have lionized this tiny country as a birding Mecca?a place where adjectives like "big" and "spectacular" have become commonplace. Our bird list reflects this observation. Imagine Gray-winged Trumpeters parading in roads, Capuchinbirds growling, Guianan Red-Cotingas whistling, Guianan Cocks-of-the-rock and manakins displaying, and an assortment of toucans, parrots, macaws, puffbirds, colorful cotingas and woodpeckers, shy antbirds, and beautiful tanagers scattered through the forests.

We didn't find the fabled Crimson Fruitcrow at Palumeu, but it hardly seemed to matter. When 26 screaming

Red-and-green Macaws and some Scarlet Macaws erupted from the trees below us in a great screaming blaze of color, we knew it wouldn't get any better. Then it did?later, in the forests below us, an enormous herd of white-lipped peccaries?with grunting and teeth-popping?rummaged through the forest, making their way in our direction.

For a moment I held my breath, because it was one of those rare moments when we humans, shorn of fang and claw, seem to stand helpless before wild beasts with little but our wits to protect us, but my thoughts were all for naught. The peccaries did come breathtakingly close; then, sensing our presence, they turned, and we watched as a veritable river of these smelly beasts flowed away through the dark forest understory, leaving behind for a few moments a confused and frightened baby peccary which eventually made its way in the direction of the fleeing herd. For me it may have been the highlight of the trip because an encounter with these enigmatic beasts is one of the rarest of events.

Suriname is, in fact, something of a forgotten corner of the world. It is a blend of races and skin colors unlike any other. It is a country isolated by languages (whom might we encounter outside of Suriname that speaks "Suriname tongue," or even much Dutch for that matter), an ethnicity that looks inward, and a climate that slows the pace of life to a crawl.

Suriname is, in most respects, the quintessential, Third World, tropical rainforest experience?the smells, the sights, the sounds, and the people all blending into a kind of timelessness?yesterday, today, and tomorrow all become one. And all around them the forest, like a great aspirating engine, ebbs and flows with life. Spider monkeys call long melancholy cries to communicate with distant brethren. Dawns are filled with the lamenting calls of forest-falcons and a cacophony of bird song as individuals strive to communicate for mates. Above it all the great monoliths of Voltzberg and Potihill tower, weathered, smoothed, and silent. Suriname is primeval planet earth, the forests, the rivers, and the stars as they have always been. We are reassured and humbled. Somehow, for all our wealth and sophisticated technology, it is tiny forgotten Suriname that shows us who we really are.


October 15-30, 2007

With Steve Hilty and David Ascanio

$5495 from Paramaribo

Limit 14

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With over 350 endemic birds, a birding trip to Australia feels like all one's Christmases have come at once! The oldest and driest continent, Australia is truly an extraordinary place with a flora and fauna to match. A two or four-week trip to Australia will inevitably only scratch the surface?an appetizer that is sure to tempt one to seek more. I have lived here all my life and traveled all around the country, but my homeland never ceases to amaze and enthrall me.

Our tour was divided into two very contrasting sections; from the cool, green surrounds of Sydney, we were transported into the very hot and humid Top End?the name given to the northern half of the Northern Territory, Australia's most remote and least populated region. From the most populous part of this land of wide, open spaces we found ourselves in sleepy Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory where the population is only about 1% of that of the whole of Australia.

The transition from the lush, steamy tropical environment of the north to the semiarid mulga scrubs, mallee, and sand dunes of the Centre is quite remarkable. For many Australians, the Red Centre (Ayers Rock in particular), is the heart and soul of our national identity. Although in recent years there have been more and more visitors to this remarkable monolith, it remains a very moving experience; maybe it is because we know that we are standing in the exact center of the continent, or is it that we have spent hours and hours traveling through a flat, featureless landscape to find ourselves confronted with this awesome spectacle? Either way, it is an appropriate finale to a tour full of fabulous experiences.

One of the features of birding in Australia is that there is never a dull moment. Even if there is a lull in the birding, others will step up to the plate! We braved some rough weather on our pelagic trip, but just when we thought the day was over and we couldn't do any better than our close views of breathtaking Wandering Albatrosses in flight, we almost literally ran into a pair of humpback whales. An hour later we had to tear ourselves away, as they breached continually right before our eyes! All thoughts of seasickness were forgotten. In the Capertee Valley we found a pair of one of Australia's most endangered species, the Regent Honeyeater. What a bittersweet experience to see this once common and gorgeous bird in its natural environment, knowing that it may go extinct in our lifetimes.

Our day birding around Darwin was one of the most memorable of the tour?nonstop action all the way, especially at Howard Springs where we found Rainbow Pittas in pest proportions! Just when we were thinking it couldn't get much better, we found one of the world's largest owls in the botanic gardens, Beach Thick-knees came in close to investigate us, and a Gray Goshawk was found nesting in a backyard on a quiet street. Agile wallabies lazing in suburban parks merely added to the remarkable ambience of this rapidly changing town.

Kakadu is one of those places justifiably renowned worldwide for its amazing scenery and profusion of wildlife?wetlands literally teeming with thousands of whistling-ducks, pelicans, and cute pygmy-geese delighted us all. But the best of all was a huge croc devouring an equally huge Arafura Filesnake! Not as easy for the croc (or the snake for that matter) as you might think. The Yellow Water Billabong boat trip lived up to expectations, for sure.

It used to be an easy matter to visit the wonderful Alice Springs sewage works, but recent paranoia about litigation has seen it become a much more complex process. The effort was well worth it, however, with impressive congregations of Red-necked Avocets, Black-tailed Native-hens, and wildfowl?including the celebrated Pink-eared Duck (did anyone see a pink ear?). Being dive-bombed by aggressive nesting avocets was surely a new experience for me, too! A neat Australian Pratincole was a fitting end to our day out in the picturesque MacDonnell Ranges.


New South Wales & the Northern Territory

October 3-19, 2007

With Susan Myers

Price TBA from Sydney

(ends in Ayers Rock)

Limit 10


Queensland, Victoria & Plains-wanderer

October 17-November 3, 2007

With Dion Hobcroft

Price TBA from Brisbane

(ends in Melbourne)

Limit 10


November 3-9, 2007

With Dion Hobcroft

Price TBA from Hobart

(ends in Launceton)

Limit 10

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United States & Canada


April 2-13

With Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer

$3465 from Corpus Christi (ends in San Antonio)


April 13-17

With Brennan Mulrooney and David Wolf

$1095 from Houston


April 18-25

With Bob Sundstrom

$1915 from Houston


April 21-28

With Steve Hilty and Chris Merkord

$1625 from Knoxville


April 23-May 3

With Brennan Mulrooney

$2645 from Fort Lauderdale (ends in Key West)


April 26-May 1

With Denver Holt and a local leader

$1555 from Missoula


May 4-13

With Steve Hilty

$2195 from Springfield


May 12-20

With Kim Eckert and Brennan Mulrooney

$2035 from Detroit


May 16-24

With Kevin Zimmer and Dan Wetzel

$4395 from Anchorage


May 29-June 6

With Bob Sundstrom

$2395 from Seattle


May 31-June 9

With Denver Holt and TBA

$2750 from


Central America


May 5-13

With David Ascanio

$2595 from Santo Domingo



May 9-31

With Dion Hobcroft

$8285 from Hong Kong

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These short tours are perfect for teachers and others for whom summer may offer their most convenient travel opportunities.


June 11-17

With Brennan Mulrooney

$1795 from Denver

Limit 7


June 18-28

With David Ascanio

$2995 from Caracas

Limit 8


July 3-14

With Kim Eckert and Brennan Mulrooney

$3055 from Bangor

(ends in St. John?s)

Limit 14


July 16-23

With Barry Zimmer

$2035 from El Paso

Limit 7


July 21-25

With Bob Sundstrom and TBA

$1095 from Seattle

Limit 14


August 4-11

With Tony Nunnery and a local leader

$1695 from Panama City

Limit 14


August 11-16

With Tony Nunnery and a local leader

$1295 from Panama City

Limit 14

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The joy of expedition cruising is that it gives us the chance to visit seemingly inaccessible specks in the ocean, and to experience their unique birds and other wildlife, as well as the genuinely untouched cultures that survive on them. On this specially designed cruise, which has been in development for nearly two years, we will range from mainland New Guinea through the Vitiaz Straits to Fergusson Island, replete with two near-endemic birds-of-paradise?Goldie's Bird-of-paradise, and the weird Curl-crested Manucode.

We will then continue across rarely traversed waters, ever alert to such seabird rarities as Heinroth's Shearwater, before reaching the fabled Solomon Islands. On these islands, set in azure seas and bejeweled with some of the world's most unimaginably beautiful tropical coral reefs, we will seek out some of our planet's least-known and rarely seen island endemics. Our explorations in the Solomons will concentrate on three islands: Kolumbangara, Guadalcanal, and Rennell, each with a suite of species found nowhere else in the world, in addition to a host of slightly more wide-ranging species. Special birds that come to mind include the gigantic Sanford's Sea-Eagle; the recently described Roviana Rail; a fabulous plethora of gem-like fruit-doves, imperial-pigeons, cockatoos, parrots, and totally endearing lorikeets; and kingfishers such as the handsome endemic Ultramarine. As if this weren't enough, there is also a wonderful array of endemic fantails, monarchs, flycatchers, whistlers, and white-eyes. This is a veritable treasure trove of evolutionary design. Darwin, eat your heart out!

From Rennell we will head south towards Vanuatu, stopping for an entire day at Champagne Beach, arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here we will treat ourselves to a number of new and irresistible Vanuatu endemics, including more fruit-doves and imperial-pigeons, as well as the challenging but very handsome Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher, and the strikingly distinctive Buff-bellied Flycatcher.

Heading south again, we will visit tiny Lifou Island with its strange, endemic "white-eyes," and a host of other goodies. Then it's on to the main island of New Caledonia and the fabled Kagu! We have a reasonable chance of seeing this extraordinary creature, along with an almost overwhelming number of other wonderful endemics including the gorgeous Cloven-feathered Dove, gigantic Goliath Imperial-Pigeons, the globally rare Crested Parakeet, an elusive shrikebill, and the very fancy Crow Honeyeater.

Our last port of call before concluding in Auckland, New Zealand will be the very rarely visited and fascinating Norfolk Island with its tumultuous seabird colonies and endemic white-eye. All the while we travel seas rarely seen by birders and naturalists. This is one of those rare opportunities that comes our way only once in a blue moon.

We are also offering a pre-tour to the highlands of New Guinea at one of the world's loveliest lodges, surrounded by 16 species of birds-of-paradise!


Aboard the Clipper Odyssey

November 22-December 11, 2007

With David Bishop, Dion Hobcroft, Peter Roberts, and Susan Myers

Cabins begin at $9045 in double occupancy from Cairns

Limit 40

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We are proud to announce an exciting new offering in 2008. VENT has reserved the superb new train, the Deccan Odyssey, for a trip through South India that will visit a fascinating array of wildlife and cultural sites. This incomparable train is even more luxurious than the Palace on Wheels.

I have been working with Raj Singh to organize this trip, and I'm very excited about this opportunity to visit South India, which has a different mix of birds, outstanding wildlife viewing, and a distinctive culture. The first part of our trip will be land-based, using buses, and the second part will be aboard the Deccan Odyssey. Even though the train can accommodate 100 passengers, we have decided to limit this trip to 60 participants, which gives us greater flexibility and makes the trip less expensive. We have scheduled this trip earlier than our previous Palace on Wheels trips so as to avoid the heat and humidity of South India in late March.

An optional post-trip will take us to Bandavgarh and Kanha to look for tigers, birds, and other wildlife.

I hope you will join me on this new departure. Please contact us soon if you would like to receive more information. The cost will be $9995 per person in double occupancy, with a discount of $500 for those who signup prior to June 1, 2007.


February 21-March 6, 2008

With Robert Bateman, David Bishop, Pete Dunne, Victor Emanuel, Robert Fleming, Steve Hilty, Dion Hobcroft, Barry Lyon, and Peter Matthiessen

$9,995 from Mumbai, India

Limit 60

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