VENTflash #216 March 21, 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:

For over 20 years, VENT has operated an annual trip for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Chairman’s Council, an organization composed of the Lab’s strongest supporters. The Chairman’s Council likes to visit a new place every year, and this year’s departure was to Panama, a trip I co-led last month with my colleague Barry Lyon.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Chairman's Council 2017

Chairman’s Council 2017 — Photo: Raul Arias de Para

Of all the Chairman’s Council trips we’ve operated, this one was the best ever. I say this not out of hyperbole, but rather upon reflection on a program that was our most diverse to date, featuring a history and culture-oriented pre-trip in Panama City, a main trip headquartered at the famous Canopy Tower, and an extension to the beautiful Canopy Lodge. Throughout the trip we enjoyed unforgettable birding and natural history. On top of that, it was a huge pleasure to join in the camaraderie of a group of people who share common cause in support of the Lab, quite possibly the world’s foremost institution for bird research and conservation.

On a trip filled with marvelous birding experiences, there is one series of events that stands out above all others, and this was on the last day of the main trip when we took the entire group to the renowned Pipeline Road. There, a remarkable series of events unfolded. We had split the group in half with me and Dr. John “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, the Lab’s Executive Director, leading half the group, and Barry and Scott Sutcliffe, Director of Annual Fund and Stewardship, leading the other half. At the start of the trip, Fitz told us that the bird he most hoped to see was the Ocellated Antbird, a large and spectacular antbird richly colored rufous-chestnut below with a black throat and a large area of bright blue skin around its eyes. This species is found from Honduras to northwest Ecuador. It is an “obligate” ant-swarm follower, meaning it is rarely seen away from army ant-swarms. Our only hope of seeing this bird was to encounter a large swarm of army ants, no sure thing considering that this phenomenon is encountered on only about a quarter of our Panama tours.

Ocellated Antbird, Pipeline Road, January 2014

Ocellated Antbird, Pipeline Road — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Fitz and I started out on Pipeline Road with our half of the group in a bus, soon reaching a point where the road became too deeply rutted for the vehicle to proceed. As soon as we stepped out of the bus, we heard the vocalizations of Bicolored Antbirds. We were at attention immediately because this antbird is also an obligate army ant-swarm follower. In locating the bird we found, to our great delight, an ant-swarm in the forest right next to the road! Surveying the scene, we noted a lovely collection of birds including four Bicolored Antbirds, two Spotted Antbirds, several Song Wrens, and a Northern Barred-Woodcreeper. The birds were so intent on catching the insects stirred up by the ants that they were oblivious to our presence. As we enjoyed great views of these birds, I explained to the group that birds come and go from the swarm, and that hopefully other birds would appear during the day.

Great Jacamar, Pipeline Road, Panama

Great Jacamar, Pipeline Road — Photo: Carlos Bethancourt







We then contacted Barry and Scott and suggested that they bring their group over to see “our” ant-swarm.  Barry reported that they had just heard the penetrating loud whistle of a Great Jacamar, a marvelous bird that they were preparing to locate for the group. Our reply was to forget about the jacamar for now and come see the antbird show before the swarm moved deeper into the forest. As their group was only fifty yards away, they were soon on the road nearby. Our group departed the ant-swarm to make room for the others at the viewing spot. We in turn walked to the spot where they had heard the jacamar. With little difficulty we soon located the bird in a tree right above the road. We were savoring this uncommon deep-forest species when Barry contacted us to tell us that two Ocellated Antbirds had suddenly appeared at the swarm! With alacrity, we hurried back to the site just as Barry and Scott’s group was vacating in order to make room for us. Talk about the best of both worlds; their group went back to the jacamar spot and enjoyed great views of that bird while our group watched the Ocellated Antbirds at length. Each time the ants flushed a large insect, the Ocellateds would chase the smaller birds away so they could grab it. As we watched, more birds appeared including a group of Song Wrens, a Plain-brown Woodcreeper, a Whooping Motmot, a Black-faced Antthrush, and others. Amazingly, the ants remained in that area almost all day. We ended up seeing 15 species of birds attending the swarm.

This event provided a fantastic ending to a great trip. Part of the group went home the next day while the rest continued with us on a post-trip extension to the enchanting Canopy Lodge near El Valle where we had more wonderful encounters with tropical birds. Experiences such as these are why so many people love birding the Tropics, and why I love Panama.

In this issue:



Harpy Eagle; Darien, Panama; October 2016

Harpy Eagle; Darien, Panama; October 2016 — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Although the year is still young, a great many of our tours scheduled to depart in the remainder of the year are either full or nearly full. While I am delighted that VENT is having another successful year, this news also means that many of our tours are now unavailable to other travelers until next year.

If you have not yet made your 2017 plans to get away, I thought you might like to know about a range of travel opportunities between early April and late November for which spaces are still available. Some of these departures focus exclusively on birds and wildlife while others include elements of history and culture. I encourage you check out this line-up of Spring, Summer, and Fall offerings to see if any of these fine tours capture your fancy. While ample space is still available on some trips, many are down to their final one or two open slots:


Spring in South Texas, April 1-10, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $3,295 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in Laredo). 4 spaces available.

A wide-ranging trip across southern Texas seeks Whooping Cranes, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and a slew of other regional specialty birds. A premier spring getaway.

Panama’s Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, April 8-16, 2017 with Tony Nunnery and a local leader; $3,695 in double occupancy from Panama City. 2 spaces available.

This recently added departure to the Darien region promises amazing birding in a lightly visited area, a stay at the wonderful Canopy Camp, and a chance to see nesting Harpy and Crested eagles.

Bolivar Beach House: Migration on the Upper Texas Coast, April 16-23, 2017 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,495 in double occupancy from Houston. 3 spaces available.

Enjoy spring migration on the Upper Texas Coast in fine fashion, from the cozy confines of a beautiful beach house only minutes from High Island and the Bolivar Flats. 

California Thrasher

California Thrasher — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Montana Owl Workshop, April 20-25, 2017 with Denver Holt and Matt Larson; $1,950 in double occupancy from Missoula. 2 spaces available.

Join owl expert and scientist Denver Holt on a marvelous owl spree in beautiful western Montana, with chances for Great Gray, Boreal, Long-eared, and Short-eared owls, and more!

California Specialties, April 28-May 7, 2017 with Jeri Langham; $3,595 in double occupancy from San Diego (ends in Santa Barbara). 2 spaces available.

Southern California is chock-full of regionally endemic birds, and this trip goes for ‘em all!

Missouri & Arkansas: The Ozarks & Tallgrass Prairies, May 5-14, 2017 with Steve Hilty and Rafael Galvez; $2,750 in double occupancy from Springfield, Missouri. 4 spaces available.

With native son Steve Hilty leading the way, you’ll experience the beauty of the Ozarks and prairies through its birds, wildflowers, and scenery. A complete natural history experience.

Italy: Birds & Art in Tuscany, May 12-23, 2017 with Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani; $3,995 in double occupancy from Florence (ends in Rome). 4 spaces available.

A relaxed exploration of some of the greatest historical and artistic treasures of Europe, combined with excursions in search of an array of breeding birds and migrants.

Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, May 14-20, 2017 with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien; $2,095 in double occupancy from Philadelphia. 4 spaces available.

A springtime tour to one of the continent’s premier birding areas seeks migrating landbirds and shorebirds in relaxed and easy fashion.

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Northern Hawk Owl, Glenn Highway, Alaska, June 19, 2012

Northern Hawk Owl, Alaska - Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & the Pribilofs, June 9-19, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $6,795 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 6 spaces available.

Two Alaskan outposts in a single trip promise thousands of nesting seabirds, Alaskan specialty birds, and Asiatic vagrants. It doesn’t get much better than this!

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula, June 19-27, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Rafael Galvez; $3,895 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 2 spaces available.

This classic trip offers a “best of Alaska” experience, with excellent birding and mammal viewing and unforgettable scenery.

Alaska: Barrow Extension, June 27-29, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and Barry Zimmer; $2,495 in double occupancy. 1 space available.

Breeding Snowy Owls, Spectacled and Steller’s eiders, Yellow-billed Loons, Red Phalaropes, Sabine’s Gulls, and more are highlights of this exceptional trip to farthest north Alaska.

Brazil, Pantanal Safari: Birds & Jaguars, July 9-21, 2017 with Jeri Langham and a local leader; $6,895 in double occupancy from Cuiaba. 3 spaces available.

An Africa-caliber wildlife experience features Jaguars, Giant Otters, primates, tapirs, and Hyacinth Macaws…and that’s just for starters.

Papua New Guinea Highlights, July 9-22, 2017 with Dion Hobcroft; $13,395 in double occupancy from Brisbane. 1 space available.

A legion of specialty birds including birds-of-paradise, pigeons, kingfishers, bowerbirds, and more are highlights of this enticing trip to mysterious Papua New Guinea. 

Yellow-eared Parrots

Yellow-eared Parrots, Colombia — Photo: ProAves Colombia/

Borneo, July 11-29, 2017 with Machiel Valkenburg and a local leader; $8,595 in double occupancy from Kota Kinabalu. 1 space available.

Mount Kinabalu, wild Orangutans, the Danum Valley, and scores of specialty birds and mammals headline the attractions of our annual tour to Borneo.

Colombia: The Central & Western Andes, July 13-28, 2017 with Steve Hilty and a local leader; $6,595 in double occupancy from Cali (ends in Bogota). 1 space available.

An exciting tour to Colombia focuses on endemic birds, such as the rare Yellow-eared Parrot, and species of the cooler middle-elevation belt, including dozens of beautiful tanagers.

Avian Jewels of Arizona, July 17-25, 2017 with Barry Zimmer and Brennan Mulrooney; $2,695 in double occupancy from Tucson. 8 spaces available.

Hummingbirds, warblers, trogons, and more are chief attractions of this mid-summer tour.

South Africa: The Southwestern Cape & Kruger Park, August 18-September 2, 2017 with Patrick Cardwell and David Wolf; $9,495 in double occupancy from Cape Town (ends in Johannesburg). 4 spaces available.

Featuring the best of South Africa, you’ll be treated to big game viewing, endemic birds, and lovely scenic highlights.

Brazil: Pantanal Safari: Birds & Jaguars, August 20-September 2, 2017 with Kevin Zimmer and a local leader; $6,795 in double occupancy from Cuiaba. 1 space available.

An Africa-caliber wildlife experience features Jaguars, Giant Otters, primates, tapirs, and Hyacinth Macaws…and that’s just for starters.

Parliament Building, Budapest, Hungary

Parliament Building, Budapest, Hungary — Photo: Brian Gibbons

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Hungary & the Czech Republic: Birds & Music from Budapest to Prague, September 10-25, 2017 with Rafael Galvez and Balazs Szigeti; $6,395 in double occupancy from Budapest (ends in Prague). 6 spaces available.

An exquisite trip to Eastern Europe features two marvelous capital cities and high quality birding to match. Birds, history, and culture all receive plenty of emphasis. One of Victor Emanuel’s favorite all-time trips.

Fall Hawaii, October 11-20, 2017 with Bob Sundstrom and Brennan Mulrooney; $4,795 in double occupancy from Hilo (ends in Honolulu). 5 spaces available.

This ever-popular three island tour focuses on endemic birds and exposure to Hawaii’s alluring tropical landscapes.

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. Register by June 15 and receive a discount of $500.

The majesty of the Andes and Patagonia are on full display on this trip to one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Close encounters with wild Pumas, Andean Condors, and a visit to a King Penguin colony are highlights.

Yet another shot of a Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Golden-cheeked Warbler — Photo: Barry Zimmer

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Monday was a special day this week as it marked the first day of spring, my favorite time of the year. Regardless of where you live, the spring season is special, for each passing day offers wonderful events including the leafing out of our deciduous trees and the first sightings of migrant songbirds, wildflowers, and butterflies.

For central Texas birders, the premier event is their first sighting of a Golden-cheeked Warbler, a species that breeds nowhere else in the world save for central Texas. This past Sunday I went to Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin. I went with my friend, Andy Gerhart, who attended two of our summer camps decades ago when he was a teenager and whose father served on VENT’s board of directors for many years. After walking a trail through a forest of mainly Spanish Oak and Ashe Juniper, Andy heard a Golden-cheek. We tracked it down and enjoyed great looks at this beautiful warbler. That sighting provided an auspicious start to spring.

I hope you are enjoying the unfolding of spring as well.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel