VENTflash #233 February 14, 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:

I first considered going to Cuba in 1958, just after I graduated from high school. A birding friend and I planned to drive to Key West, Florida and put our car on the ferry to Havana. However, early in 1959 the finale of the Cuban Revolution put an end to that plan. In the late seventies, some birders started going to Cuba, including Dr. James Clements. In 1981, Ted Parker and John Rowlett co-led VENT’s first Cuba tour as a pre-trip to the American Birding Association’s national convention in Florida. I was scheduled to co-lead the post-convention trip there, but it didn’t happen because in the middle of the event President Reagan banned travel by Americans to Cuba. My hopes of birding Cuba were dashed once again.

A dream realized: V.E. on his way to Cuba

A dream realized: V.E. on his way to Cuba — Photo: David Ascanio

In 2014 VENT began operating tours to Cuba in collaboration with International Expeditions and its federally sanctioned People-to-People program. As the program evolved, my desire to visit Cuba was rekindled. However, other obligations and commitments always seemed to prevent my going. Toward the end of last year I realized that VENT’s first Cuba tour of 2018 would occur at a time when I didn’t have any other commitments. I decided to join the trip, which I would co-lead with my colleague David Ascanio in late January and early February.

When our flight from Miami landed in Cuba on January 23, 2018, I said to David, “Cuba, at last.” As it turned out, we had a marvelous trip, and Cuba was all I hoped it would be. We saw 26 bird species that are found nowhere else in the world, including the tiny Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world; Cuban Trogon; Blue-headed Quail-Dove; Cuban Tody; Zapata Wren and many others. Beyond birding, one of the many highlights of the tour was our contact with people. We stayed mostly in private homes where we were delighted with the hospitality, and in every location local experts helped us find birds.

The tour enjoyed a terrific ending when Orlando Garrido, Cuba’s premier ornithologist, joined us for dinner. Orlando assisted Ted and John on that trip in ‘81. He is 87 now and still active in conservation. He told wonderful stories about his amazing life. Besides being a naturalist, he was one of Cuba’s top tennis players, having played at Wimbledon eight times. He also was one of the last people to see Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Bachman’s Warbler, two species that are now extinct.

Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird — Photo: David Ascanio

I highly recommend VENT’s tours to Cuba. The birding is terrific, the accommodations are fine, the history is fascinating, and the interactions with Cuban people are unforgettable.

VENT will operate two more trips to Cuba in 2018 and two in 2019:

Cuba, March 13-24, 2018 with David Ascanio and a local leader; $6,717 in double occupancy from Miami. 3 spaces available.

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

Cuba, February 5-16, 2019 with David Ascanio and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Miami.

Cuba, March 5-16, 2019 with David Ascanio and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Miami.

In this issue:



Mid-February marks the height of our winter tour season, yet looking ahead, many people are in the process of firming up summer travel plans. If you have not already settled on your summer getaway, I urge you to consider a VENT trip to Alaska. For the birder and naturalist, Alaska provides boundless opportunity for discovery. Alaska holds some of the finest visual scenery in the world, a mammal spectacle that ranks among the finest anywhere, and, of course, marvelous birding.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider; Barrow, Alaska — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Alaska is home to a broad range of birds and mammals that either do not occur in the Lower 48 or are very difficult to find here, and that serve as centerpieces of our tours. Highly-sought species such as Spectacled Eider, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, and many other great birds are complemented by the presence of Moose, Dall Sheep, Caribou, Musk Ox, Grizzly Bear, Orca, and Humpback Whale. As a backdrop to this pageant of wildlife is some of the grandest scenery on the planet, with places like Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali (Mt. McKinley) taking center stage.

VENT has been operating tours to Alaska for over 35 years, a point of which I am especially proud. Our Alaska tour leaders—Kevin Zimmer, Barry Zimmer, Brian Gibbons, and Erik Bruhnke—are an exceptionally talented group. Together they possess decades of experience in Alaska, and they are all adept at finding the special birds and mammals that people want to see and sharing their knowledge with others.

This June, VENT will again offer an array of Alaska tours. These trips cover the full spectrum of Alaska’s best birding and wildlife areas. If you have ever wanted to visit Alaska, this summer presents an excellent opportunity. Each of the following trips still has a few spaces available. I hope you will consider joining one or more of these fine tours.

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & Barrow

This tour focuses on two of the most exciting birding areas in Alaska: Nome and Barrow. We will emphasize finding Alaskan specialty birds and mammals in Nome, such as Bluethroat, Bristle-thighed Curlew, and Musk Ox, while Barrow, on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, offers a taste of the true High Arctic. Traveling beyond the ranges of any of our other Alaskan tours, you’ll experience the thrill of seeing four species of eiders on their breeding grounds—including the rare Steller’s and Spectacled eiders, Red Phalarope, and Snowy Owl. Polar Bears are seen on some trips. 

Another shot of the Bluethroat in full song.

Male Bluethroat in full song; Nome, Alaska — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Grand Alaska Part I: Nome & Barrow, June 7-16, 2018 with Kevin Zimmer and Brian Gibbons; $5,895 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 4 spaces available.

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula

We will seek the many special breeding birds of south coastal and interior Alaska, with excellent opportunities for seeing many of Alaska’s iconic mammals, as well as some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.

Grand Alaska Part II: Anchorage, Denali Highway & Kenai Peninsula, June 16-25, 2018 with Brian Gibbons and a second leader to be announced; $4,195 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 4 spaces available.

Alaska Highlights

This tour offers a classic “Best of” type experience, showcasing three very different, but equally wonderful areas of Alaska: the rugged hills, tundra, and seacoast around the old gold-rush boomtown of Nome; breathtaking Kenai Fjords National Park and the adjacent Kenai Peninsula; and the sprawling wilderness in the shadow of majestic Denali, North America’s highest peak. This tour has it all: birds, mammals, and unforgettable scenery.

Alaska Highlights, June 13-25, 2018 with Barry Zimmer and Erik Bruhnke; $7,395 in double occupancy from Anchorage.

Alaska: Barrow Extension

This stand-alone trip to the shores of the Beaufort Sea replicates our Grand Alaska Part I tour minus the trip to Nome. Participants should expect to see most of the same birds. This trip may be combined with either our Grand Alaska Part II or Alaska Highlights tours.

Alaska: Barrow Extension, June 25-27, 2018 with Brian Gibbons and Erik Bruhnke; $2,495 in double occupancy from Anchorage. 4 spaces available.

Please visit our website and view the descriptions and itineraries for our 2018 tours, and the field lists and tour reports from last year’s tours.

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Denver Holt

Denver Holt

About 20 years ago my friend Robert Ridgely, one of America’s outstanding ornithologists, told me he had been on a field trip at a meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union with a guy named Denver Holt. He urged me to contact Denver and ask him to offer an “Owl Workshop” tour for VENT. He told me Denver had founded an organization in Montana called the Owl Research Institute.

I followed through on Bob’s recommendation, and in the following spring, Denver led VENT’s first Montana Owl Workshop. That trip soon became one of our most popular tours, and one of the few tours we offer that some people have taken twice. One of our travelers, who has taken many VENT tours, told me it was the best trip she has ever been on. None of this should be a surprise. Owls are among the most charismatic of birds. Most birders love owls and can’t get enough of them. Even among non-birders owls evoke fascination.  

The Montana Owl Workshop is a six-day program emphasizing identification, biology, and habits of owls. Denver’s enthusiasm and knowledge about owls is fantastic. Participants on this trip may see as many as seven species of owls including Northern Pygmy-Owl; Great Horned, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Northern Saw-whet owls; and also the rarely seen Boreal Owl and the magnificent Great Gray Owl. The workshop is based in the spectacular Mission Valley, located about an hour’s drive north of Missoula, where Denver leads the group in search of owls amid the natural splendor of the Mission Mountains, the National Bison Range, and Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. Besides owls, other birds such as Barrow’s Goldeneye, Golden Eagle, and Mountain Bluebird are often encountered.

Our Montana Owl Workshop combines observation of wild owls, both in the field and in the hand. This gorgeous Long-eared Owl was captured by tour leaders Denver Holt and Matt Larson for a remarkable close-study opportunity.

Long-eared Owl in the hand; Montana Owl Workshop — Photo: David Hines

I co-led the Montana Owl Workshop with Denver Holt about four years ago. It was an exceptional experience. No other trip in VENT’s large repertoire of tours is like this one.

If you are looking for a unique way to experience one of the world’s most captivating groups of birds amid some of the country’s most scenic landscapes, I encourage you to join this signature tour.

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

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Spring comes early to Central and South Texas. After a colder than normal January, the early signs of spring have already appeared. The first Purple Martins have returned from South America, Bluebonnets are growing, and soon the Eastern Redbuds will be blooming.

Part-time VENT tour leader Denver Holt was in Austin for a few days this week following his successful Ornithology 101 tour in South Texas. With some friends, we took him to a large field north of Austin where six Short-eared Owls were seen on the Granger Christmas Bird Count on January 1. On what was a cold and blustery day, we enjoyed the remarkable sight of twelve Short-eared Owls and one Burrowing Owl flying around before us! As a top owl researcher, Denver enjoyed seeing those birds, but as it turned out, he was even more excited by the long study we had of a LeConte’s Sparrow perched in a tree at close range!

Looking ahead, in early April I will co-lead the first few days of the Spring in South Texas tour with Barry Zimmer before Carlos Sanchez takes over for me. That marvelous tour sees more birds than any U.S. tour we offer. A few spaces remain available. In the meantime, I will close out the winter season with a late February/early March trip to the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean, a private trip arranged specially for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

I hope you are able to detect the first signs of spring where you live, and that you are able to join us on a VENT tour in the next few months as we watch spring unfold.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel