VENTflash #231 January 09, 2018

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:

It has been a while since you last heard from me. December was something of a whirlwind at VENT, as the month was dominated by the planning and execution of our bi-annual Company Meeting. Every two years, we gather our staff at our home base here in Austin, Texas to renew acquaintances, touch base with colleagues who don’t see one another very often, and discuss important issues that affect our business. These events are always a lot of work, but they benefit VENT in some very important ways. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since our last meeting (December 2015)!

I was determined that this year’s gathering would be our most successful to date. And it was. In addition to our entire Austin-based office staff, our meeting included two of our longtime business advisors and nineteen tour leaders representing six continents and seven countries. To the latter point, we hosted tour leaders from Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela. Our meeting was marked by presentations and “round-table” discussions, all of which centered on our lasting goal of making VENT a better and stronger company.

VENT Company Meeting, December 13, 2017

VENT Company Meeting, December 13, 2017 — Photo: Sam Naifeh

On the first morning of the meeting, I delivered a presentation entitled VENT: Past, Present and Future that carried a two-fold objective: first, a chronicle of the company’s history from its inception to present, in which I discussed how my personal values—my attitudes toward people and the natural world—formed the ethos by which VENT would operate as a business; and second, how VENT, in an ever-increasingly complex and competitive world, will continue to uphold the value system that underpins its reputation as one of the world’s finest nature tour companies. Following, Barry Lyon, VENT’s Chief Operating Officer, previewed our new website (which we expect to debut within the next month). The second day was devoted to operational issues. That evening VENT hosted a holiday party that was attended by almost one hundred Austin-area friends and supporters of VENT.

The meeting made abundantly clear what a terrific company we have, thanks to an intelligent, dedicated, and hard-working tour leader corps and office staff. Through the years, VENT has evolved into a community, and it’s not an accident. Rather, this evolution occurred as a result of a covenant that exists between VENT’s management and its staff, in which the company does all it can to make it possible for our employees and their families to have good lives, and they in turn do all they can to make VENT successful. Most of our tour leaders see one another or our office staff very seldom. The meeting provided an opportunity for camaraderie. I felt a great sense of pride for the company for which we have all worked so hard for so many years to create. As VENT embarks on its 42nd year, the future of our company is bright, thanks to our wonderful employees and to you, the people who honor us by taking our tours.

Victor and the Gang at the Freeport CBC, December 17, 2017

Victor and the Gang at the Freeport CBC, December 17, 2017

Immediately after our Company Meeting, I participated in the 61st annual Freeport Christmas Bird Count, along with several good friends and seven VENT leaders who extended their stays in Texas in order to be a part of this historic event. It was a wonderful day to be outdoors, with cool temperatures prevailing and lots of birds around. This year’s count tallied 204 species, a very respectable total. There was a time when the Freeport CBC was the top count in the country. Although it has long since been surpassed by other counts in terms of birds seen and the number of people who participate, the Freeport CBC is still a wonderful tradition.

In this issue:



As much as I enjoy winter birding, and I do enjoy it immensely, it is an inescapable fact that spring is my favorite time of the year. Longtime readers of VENTflash can probably recall the frequency with which I write about the joys of spring migration: when the days are warm, migrating songbirds enliven the trees with flashes of color, and fresh wildflowers blanket the fields and line the roadways.

Although the calendar tells us winter will be with us for another two months, now is the time to be thinking about your spring travel plans. I enjoy extolling the virtues of being in Texas in the spring, but really, there are many wonderful places in North America to enjoy the season, including the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, Florida, the Desert Southwest, Washington State, and Cape May, New Jersey among other places.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler, Texas Hill Country — Photo: Greg Lasley

Spring is the busiest time of the year for our domestic tour program. From March to early June, VENT will operate 20 tours in the Lower 48 from one side of the country to the other. Some of these trips are full, but spaces remain available on a number of others. If you have not yet made your spring travel plans, I thought you might be enticed by the following travel opportunities, each promising outstanding birding and natural history:

Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse, March 10-17, 2018 with Rick Wright; $2,495 in double occupancy from Omaha. 2 spaces available.

Yellowstone in Late Winter: Bears, Wolves & Winter Birds, March 25-31, 2018 with Denver Holt and Robert Ridgely; $2,695 in double occupancy from Bozeman. Note that the esteemed ornithologist and conservationist Robert Ridgely has joined this tour as the second leader. Ridgely is a household name for much of the birding community, having co-authored two monumentally important field guides: Birds of Panama (1976, 1992) and Birds of Ecuador (2001).

Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension, April 11-15, 2018 with Barry Zimmer; $1,595 in double occupancy from Laredo (ends in San Antonio).

High Island Migration, April 19-25, 2018 with Erik Bruhnke; $2,195 in double occupancy from Houston. 2 spaces available.

South Florida and The Keys, April 19-25, 2018 with Rafael Galvez and a second leader to be announced; $2,495 in double occupancy from Key West.

Dry Tortugas, April 25-28, 2018 with Rafael Galvez; $1,895 in double occupancy from Key West. 1 space available.

Montana Owl Workshop, April 20-25, 2018 with Denver Holt and Matt Larson; $2,095 in double occupancy from Missoula.

Bolivar Beach House: Migration on the Upper Texas Coast, April 22-29, 2018 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,695 in double occupancy from Houston. 

Another shot of a Colima Warbler. This species breeds nowhere else in the United States except in the high portions of Big Bend National Park.

Colima Warbler, Big Bend National Park — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country, April 23-May 3, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer; $3,395 in double occupancy from San Antonio (ends in El Paso).

California Specialties, April 27-May 6, 2018 with Jeri Langham; $3,595 in double occupancy from San Diego (ends in Santa Barbara). 4 spaces available.

Spring Grand Arizona, May 12-22, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and a second leader to be announced; $3,195 in double occupancy from Tucson.

Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, May 13-19, 2018 with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien; $2,095 in double occupancy from Philadelphia.

Birding Across America by Train, May 28-June 10, 2018 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $7,695 in double occupancy from Albany, NY (ends in Seattle). 2 spaces available.

Minnesota & North Dakota, June 1-10, 2018 with Erik Bruhnke and a second leader to be announced; $3,295 in double occupancy from Duluth.

Montana June, June 1-10, 2018 with Denver Holt; $3,495 in double occupancy from Missoula.

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For decades VENT has operated birding and natural history cruises to Antarctica. Our itineraries always include the full “Southern Ocean sweep,” in which we also visit the wildlife havens of South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands. However, each time we operate our annual cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, I always come away thinking how wonderful it would be if we had more time to enjoy the Falklands, rather than the usual one or two days (at most) that we spend there.

M/V Ortelius

M/V OrteliusPhoto: Rolf Stange/Oceanwide Expeditions

Now, my dream of offering a Falklands-only program is a reality! This fall, we will operate our first-ever Circumnavigation of the Falkland Islands, October 27-November 8. This trip will be unlike any previous VENT tour to this amazing destination. Teaming with Oceanwide Expeditions, we will spend five full days in the Falklands, performing a full circumnavigation of the archipelago from west to east and back again. Our itinerary includes seven islands, with visits to some of the most wildlife-rich locations in the entire island complex.

During this cruise you will see colonies of four species of penguins including Magellanic, Gentoo, Southern Rockhopper, and King penguins, and colonies of Black-browed Albatross and Imperial Cormorant, as well as South American Sea Lion and Southern Elephant Seal. Additionally, while on land we’ll seek alluring, range-restricted species such as Falkland Steamer-Duck, Ruddy-headed Goose, Rufous-chested Dotterel, Striated Caracara, Cobb’s Wren, Blackish Cinclodes, and White-bridled Finch among many others. Adding to the excitement, we will spend two days at sea at the beginning of the trip, cruising to the Falklands from the Argentine mainland, and an additional day at sea while en route to Ushuaia at the end of the voyage. These waters are some of the richest in the world for pelagic birding, and we could see up to six species of albatross and a marvelous array of other seabirds, and several species of whales and dolphins.

Leading this trip is an all-star cast of VENT leaders including Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and Barry Zimmer. Joining the Oceanwide staff as presenters are seabird expert Brian Patteson and geologist and naturalist extraordinaire, Kitty Coley. I cannot think of a stronger or more charismatic team of tour leaders with whom to travel.

Black-browed Albatross Colony, Steeple Jason Island, Falklands

Black-browed Albatross Colony, Steeple Jason Island, Falklands— Photo: Martin van Lokven/Oceanwide Expeditions

I also point out that the cost of most trips to Antarctica and South Georgia has risen to $20,000 per person, a prohibitively expensive price tag for many people. Our first-ever Circumnavigation of the Falkland Islands cruise offers an opportunity to see most of the wildlife of the Southern Ocean at a fraction of the cost! Cabin prices start at $7,995 in double occupancy.

Finally, for those who would like to extend their time in South America with opportunities for birding on the mainland, we offer pre- and post-trip options to Buenos Aires & Northern Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, respectively.

Circumnavigation of the Falkland Islands Aboard M/V Ortelius, October 27-November 8, 2018 with Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and Barry Zimmer; cabin prices start at $7,995 per person in double occupancy from Puerto Madryn (ends in Ushuaia).

Buenos Aires & Northern Patagonia Pre-trip, October 23-28, 2018 with Héctor Slongo and Michael O’Brien; $3,195 in double occupancy from Buenos Aires.

Tierra del Fuego Extension, November 7-10, 2018 with Marcelo de Cruz and Michael O’Brien; $1,495 in double occupancy from Ushuaia.

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Speaking of Antarctica, our annual cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands departed last week. And while this voyage has only recently begun, it is time to look ahead to our next offering to this ultimate destination.

Ice, Antarctic Sound

Cruising through ice, Antarctic Sound — Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our next Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands cruise will operate December 30, 2018-January 20, 2019. For this voyage, we are partnered with expert polar exploration company, Polar Latitudes, for the complete “Southern Ocean sweep.” The timing of this trip is perfect, occurring at the start of summer when penguin colonies and seal rookeries will be at peak activity. Recently, we received word from Polar Latitudes that a $1,500 discount is available for all registrations received by January 15. Clearly, time to take advantage of this opportunity is limited!

I have made around ten voyages to Antarctica, and I consider this trip one of the single greatest travel experiences that a person could have. The wildlife spectacles alone are truly incredible, featuring colonies of penguins numbering into the tens of thousands, six species of albatross and an array of other marvelous seabirds, several species of whales and dolphins, and beaches teeming with Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals. The landscapes of South Georgia and Antarctica are grandiose and unforgettable. Giant glaciers, ice-clogged waterways, snow-veiled mountains, and wave-sculpted icebergs present scenes of overpowering beauty. It may be a cliché, but this trip truly is the trip of a lifetime.

Travel will be aboard the Hebridean Sky, a beautiful all-suite vessel with excellent accommodations and food. This departure will be led by VENT leader Andrew Whittaker, who has led several previous trip to Antarctica. Andrew will join an experienced and talented Polar Latitudes staff to deliver a first-rate cruise.

Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands, December 30, 2018-January 20, 2019 with Andrew Whittaker; cabins start at $22,995 in double occupancy from Ushuaisa. Register by January 15 and receive a $1,500 discount per person.

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In looking ahead to the spring, I want you to know that our upcoming April tour to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan still has space available.

Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft

I have long considered our Bhutan tour one of the greatest adventures of all VENT tours. Over a period of almost three weeks, participants on this tour receive an in-depth look at one of the world’s least known but most extraordinary cultures. Situated in the mountains between India and Nepal, Bhutan is a Buddhist enclave nestled among the magical forests and valleys of the mighty Himalayas. Our tours annually record over 400 species of Indian and Himalayan birds and a dazzling assortment of mammals.  Our Bhutan tour will be led by Dion Hobcroft, an exceptional birder and all-around naturalist. Dion brings a world of experience to this tour, having led previous tours to Bhutan and many other tours throughout Asia.

If you are intrigued by the thought of visiting a unique and exotic destination of which comparatively few are aware, and where even fewer have been, I strongly urge you to consider a trip to Bhutan.

Bhutan, April 8-27, 2018 with Dion Hobcroft; $9,795 in double occupancy from New Delhi.

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In addition to our line-up of spring tours in the U.S., we will also operate a number of fine tours to the American Tropics and to Europe in the coming months. February and March are a prime time to visit places such as Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, as this period falls within the dry season, and when opportunities for good birding abound. Looking ahead to the spring, our Birds & Art tour to Provence, France, and our Spring Birding in Spain tour are down to their final spaces. Perhaps one of these outstanding departures will spur your itch to travel abroad:

Short Costa Rica: Toucans to Quetzals, February 24-March 4, 2018 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $3,895 in double occupancy from San José. 2 spaces available. 

Cuban Tody

Cuban Tody — Photo: David Ascanio

Belize’s Hidden Treasures: Pook’s Hill and Black Rock Lodge, March 4-10, 2018 with Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis; $2,895 in double occupancy from Belize City. 5 spaces available. 

Mexico: El Triunfo, March 8-18, 2018 with Brian Gibbons and a local leader; $3,195 in double occupancy from Tuxtla Gutierrez (ends in Tapachula). 3 spaces available.

Colombia: The Central & Western Andes: Hummingbirds, Antpittas, Tanagers & Andean Endemics, March 13-28, 2018 with Steve Hilty and a local leader; $6,595 in double occupancy from Cali (ends in Bogotá). 1 space available.

Cuba, March 13-24, 2018 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,717 in double occupancy from Miami.

The Best of Costa Rica, March 20-April 1, 2018 with David Wolf and Mimi Wolf; $5,495 in double occupancy from San José. 5 spaces available.

Jamaica, March 21-28, 2018 with Ann Haynes-Sutton and Brandon Hay; $3,145 in double occupancy from Kingston.

Cuba: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, April 3-13, 2018 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,174 in double occupancy from Miami.

France: Birds & Art in Provence, April 22-30, 2018 with Rick Wright and Alison Beringer; $3,695 in double occupancy from Arles. 2 spaces available.

Spring Birding in Spain, April 26-May 13, 2018 with Santiago Villa and Brian Gibbons; $6,195 in double occupancy from Sevilla (ends in Madrid). 1 space available.

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After a mild autumn, winter has left its mark on Austin. The last week of December and the first several days of the new year were characterized by often freezing conditions and even a bit of sleet and snow (although these conditions pale in comparison to some of the winter weather extremes seen recently in the Midwest and Northeast). Most of the deciduous trees, except the sycamores, have finally lost their leaves. The birds that spend the winter here are present now in high numbers including lots of waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows.

Mountain Plover, Carrizo Plains, California, December 2013

Mountain Plover — Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

On December 30th I joined my longtime friend Fred Collins to participate in the Granger Christmas Bird Count, about an hour north of Austin. It was a splendid day afield in which we saw a number of area specialty birds including Mountain Plover, a beautiful White-tailed Hawk, and a flock of McCown’s Longspur. The highlight was seeing seven Short-eared Owls, one of my favorite owls. On New Year’s Day I went on a walk along Platt Lane, near the international airport in Austin. Winter birds were everywhere including a gorgeous Fox Sparrow. The Frost Weed (Verbesina virginica) stalks had burst during the night and were covered with ice.

Each season should be savored for its special moments, yet it’s also human nature to look forward to the season to follow. By late February the Eastern Redbuds will be blooming and soon thereafter the first wildflowers and the first northbound migrants of the spring will appear.

This Thursday night, January 11, I will be in Houston as the guest speaker of Houston Audubon Society in which I will speak about my memoir, One More Warbler: A Life With Birds. The event is free to the public. If you are in the area, I’d love to see you there! Please click here for event time and location.

I hope that the holidays were good to you and your families, that the New Year is off to a good start, and that 2018 holds plenty of time for you in nature.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel