VENTFLASH #278: The Passing of Bob Sundstrom; Tour Leader News; Panama Tours
August 18, 2021
Throughout the spring and summer, I have dedicated VENTFLASH to keeping our travelers informed of VENT’s status as the pandemic persists. I’ve let you know how we’re doing, and I’ve shared our outlook for the operation of our tours in the near- and mid-term future. I’ve also emphasized our upcoming tour schedule as a way of letting you know that we intend to operate as many of our scheduled tours as we can, and that we are increasingly confident that a brighter future for travel is in store.
In this edition of VENTFLASH, I write less about future tour opportunities and more about news concerning several of our tour leaders. Most significantly, my colleague Barry Lyon and I provide remembrances of longtime tour leader Bob Sundstrom, who passed away in May. News of Bob’s passing has been available on the home page of our website since early June, and also on social media, but we write about it here because not all of our travelers are aware of this sad happening. I also share an update on David Ascanio, whose life has been more affected by the pandemic than perhaps anyone I know. Finally, I am pleased to introduce our travelers to Willy Hutcheson, our newest tour leader, who will be the subject of VENT's next webinar on August 19th.
Of course, VENTFLASH wouldn’t be complete without mention of one of my favorite places or favorite tours, and I close with a discussion about Panama, my preferred country in which to lead tours.
IN THIS ISSUE:
BOB SUNDSTROM (1951–2021)
The VENT community suffered a heavy blow this spring with the passing of longtime tour leader Bob Sundstrom. Bob’s departure occurred in May at his home outside Tenino, Washington following a multiyear battle with Leukemia. He was 69.
I encourage you to visit the featured leader page of our website to read a memoriam to Bob that we posted soon after his death, which captures the life of this remarkable man—as a tour leader, educator, intellectual, and husband.
Following are remembrances of Bob by Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon:
By Victor Emanuel, President and CEO:
While leading a VENT tour to Alaska in 1987, Kevin Zimmer met Bob Sundstrom in the Pribilof Islands where Bob was leading birding trips for the native corporation. After the tour, Kevin called me and suggested we make an offer to Bob to join VENT as a tour leader. Soon thereafter, I was in Seattle staying at the home of my friends Penny and Bill Mulligan, who happened to live near Bob. I asked Bob to come over to the Mulligan’s house so I could meet him. From the start, I realized Bob would be a great addition to the VENT staff. I offered him a position as a full-time tour leader, and he accepted.
Offering Bob employment at VENT was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Over his near 30-year career, time and again Bob showed himself to be an excellent tour leader—always prepared, always engaged, always reliable. For years, if not decades in some cases, he anchored tours to many important destinations including Hawaii, Trinidad, Texas, Japan, and the Pacific Northwest. The comments we received from tour participants about Bob were always favorable. In addition to his superb organizational skills, Bob was an easygoing man who got along well with everyone. These qualities and others enabled Bob to develop a solid following.
Over the years, Bob developed a special affection for our High Island Migration tour on the Upper Texas Coast. I had the great pleasure of co-leading a High Island Migration tour with him, as well as a couple of tours in Washington State and a Hawaii tour. Besides being a terrific birder and naturalist, Bob loved reading books, especially the classics. I enjoyed talking with him about his favorite books. He especially loved Don Quixote and was reading that famous book during his final months. Bob's years of service, friendship, and support meant a lot to me. All of us at VENT will miss him greatly.
By Barry Lyon, Chief Operating Officer:
I was 23 years old when I joined VENT in the spring of 1995. At the time, I was 10 months out of college and working a variety of jobs, uncertain of my career path, when Victor Emanuel offered me a job as a tour leader. As a young man starting out in this business, I was willing to lead tours at any time and to any place, if it meant I would be assured of having work. In those early years of my career, I led tours with many VENT tour leaders to destinations throughout North America and northern Central America, but it worked out that I co-led more tours with Bob Sundstrom than almost any other tour leader. And it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
I wasn’t just 23 when I started; I was a young 23—immature and “rough around the edges,” as one tour participant remarked with startling honesty. Working with Bob taught me the meaning of professionalism. He possessed superior organizational skills and comported himself at all times with class. Those qualities were on display every time we led a group into the field. Always prepared, generous with his knowledge, and endowed with a good sense of humor, Bob demonstrated time and again how a first-rate tour leader conducts oneself.
To those who traveled with him, Bob was both educator and wise man. Passionate in his love of birds, students and tour participants alike benefitted greatly from his knowledge of bird identification, behavior, and life cycles. Sophisticated in his tastes for science, politics, history, literature, and good Scotch, Bob was a well-rounded soul. In sum, he was a gentleman.
While no one has been unaffected by the events of the past 18 months, I do not know of anyone whose life has been more upended in that time than that of VENT tour leader David Ascanio. From early March last year, when the pandemic hit the United States with full force, right up to the present, the last year and a half has been one of trials and tribulations for David.
Thanks to news about David that we’ve published in VENTFLASH, and through our travelers’ direct communication with him, many of you have been aware of the radical twists and turns his life has taken during the pandemic. Others of you are probably not as aware. To convey what life has been like for him in the pandemic era, I provide a rundown of events, followed by an update of his current status.
The pandemic emerged as a crisis in the USA at exactly the time we were operating our Sea Cloud cruise to the Lesser Antilles. David was in Miami immediately thereafter, preparing for another tour, when chaos ensued. Flights were being cancelled all over the place, and travel restrictions were going into effect on short notice. David is a resident of Venezuela, and he wanted to get home to his family. Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated rapidly and he got stranded. With family in Texas, David’s first move was flying to Houston, where he would spend the next six weeks. As you may know, I keep a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston, Texas. At the start of May, David relocated to my house, the place that would become his home for the next two-and-a-half months. Anguishing over the separation from his family and his homeland, and unable to lead tours, David struggled. At that time, the saving graces in his life were that my house kept him in close proximity to birds and nature; he had wonderful support from VENT clients, and friends who lived nearby; and he had privacy.
Through the strain of those months, David continuously explored all means for getting home. Flight options at that time were nearly non-existent, yet he pursued lead after lead about possible flights to Caracas through either Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, or Panama. But with the pandemic raging, each of those leads by turn either dried up or resulted in delay. And with the storm season building in the Gulf of Mexico, he felt it was time to move. In mid-July, fellow tour leader and close friend Steve Hilty offered to bring David to his home near Kansas City to spend time. David accepted the offer and stayed first at Steve’s farm and then at his house for the rest of the month. While there, David decided to go to the Dominican Republic. He knew that a large diaspora of Venezuelans was living in the D.R., and for that reason he figured his chances of getting home were better by traveling through that country. He hoped that he could return to Venezuela by commercial flight (following yet another lead), or even by accompanying a humanitarian mission. So, David flew back to Florida and departed for the Dominican Republic on August 1.
Through contacts he already had in the D.R., he found a place to stay and began familiarizing himself with the governmental bureaucracy he would need to navigate to have any chance of getting home. Ultimately, no flights of any kind became available, and he found himself stranded yet again. It was during this time that a major breakthrough occurred for him personally when Desiree, his significant other, who had gotten out of Venezuela in the interim and had landed in Europe, reunited with him in the D.R.
With Venezuela in a perpetual state of dysfunction, and David unable to get home, he would spend the next five-and-a-half months in the D.R. His next break did not occur until winter, when he learned that he could apply for Spanish citizenship. This step, in turn, required that he travel to Spain, where he would spend most of February in Madrid, filling out applications and taking tests. Through their extended stay in the D.R., David and Desiree realized that they liked it there, and with the political situation in Venezuela being so bad, they saw the D.R. as a place where they could set up long-term residency (one of David’s sons was already in Europe, and his other son was still in Venezuela). However, establishing residency in the D.R. required that David initiate the process from Venezuela, which meant he needed to get back there, one way or another. The pandemic aside, few airlines are servicing Caracas anymore due to the breakdown of services and security in Venezuela, but one airline that has continued to fly there is Turkish Airlines. Therefore, once his obligations in Spain were met, David traveled to Istanbul, where he would spend a week before finally taking a flight to Caracas. It was March by the time David finally made it back to Venezuela, a full year after his stranding in the States. From March into July this year, David spent his time in Venezuela waiting for the bureaucracy to authorize his legal exit from the country. This big event finally occurred in early July, and we can report that David has successfully returned to the Dominican Republic, where he is back with Desiree and on track to establish his long-term residency there. The processing of his Spanish citizenship application is expected to take from two to three years.
It is difficult to adequately describe what David has been through since March 2020. We have tried to support him as best as we can through his ordeal. It is not possible to exaggerate the emotional struggles he endured as he literally bounced around the world trying to reunite with his loved ones and gain stability. David is a beloved figure among many of our travelers. As his saga played out, we have received an outpouring of support and well wishes for him and his future. We cannot express enough our admiration for the courage and character displayed by this remarkable man.
We spoke to David this week. At this point, more than anything, he just wants to get back to leading VENT tours.
Amazingly, David spent much of the slower times during the pandemic translating his field guide, Birds of Venezuela (Helm, 2017), into Spanish as “a gift for the people of Venezuela,” as he described his effort. Venezuela is not presently a part of the nature tourism landscape, but David’s work continues with the hope that, down the road, things there will improve, and there will be better days to come. David is translating the entire book single-handedly, without financial backing from any major publishing house. In fact, his work constitutes a new edition. To that end, he is personally financing new illustrations and distribution maps. Once again, he is a remarkable man doing remarkable things.
Please read on to learn how you can travel with David later this year or next.
After all he’s been through, perhaps more than anything right now, David simply wants to resume his tour leading career. With VENT operating some international tours again, David is scheduled to guide trips to a variety of destinations in the last months of 2021 and in 2022. The majority of the tours he leads are to destinations in the American Tropics. David is as fine a tour leader as exists in our industry. He loves nothing more than sharing the wonders of birds and nature with our travelers. I know he would love to see you on one of these fine upcoming departures. His schedule is listed below, after which I conclude with some important information about his availability for hire in the Dominican Republic.
David Ascanio’s 2021–2022 Tour Schedule:
Costa Rica: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, October 2–10, 2021 with David; $4,295 in double occupancy from San José. Limit 8; 2 spaces available.
Cuba, November 1–13, 2021 with David and a local leader; $7,995 in double occupancy from Havana. Limit 12; 4 spaces available.
Colombia: Hummingbirds & Tanagers of the Western Andes: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, November 27–December 4, 2021 with David and a local leader; $4,495 in double occupancy from Cali. Limit 10; 4 spaces available.
Colombia: Hummingbirds & Tanagers of the Western Andes: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, December 5–12, 2021 with David and a local leader; $4,495 in double occupancy from Cali. Limit 10; 4 spaces available.
A Birding Adventure in the Llanos of Colombia: Hato La Aurora, January 2–9, 2022 with David; $3,595 in double occupancy from Bogotá; Limit 8. Sold out! Join the waitlist.
Undiscovered Eastern Colombia: Birding Secrets of the White Sands of Inirida, January 9–16, 2022 with David and a local leader; $4,295 in double occupancy from Bogotá. Limit 8. Sold out! Join the waitlist.
Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey aboard the Zafiro, January 27–February 5, 2022 with David, Andrew Whittaker, and Doris Valencia; $9,655 per person in double occupancy from Lima. Limit 31; 10 spaces available.
The Best of Costa Rica, February 12–24, 2022 with David and a local leader; $5,395 in double occupancy from San José. Limit 14; 8 spaces available.
Cuba, March 28–April 9, 2022 with David and a local leader; $7,995 in double occupancy from Havana. Limit 12; 7 spaces available.
Ireland’s West Coast aboard the Greg Mortimer, May 12–26, 2022 with David; cabins start at $12,395 per person in double occupancy from Dublin. Early booking discount: 25% off the quoted rate, while supply lasts. Limit 15; 7 spaces available.
Colombia: Magdalena River Valley & Western Andes: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, July 9–17, 2022 with David and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Medellin ($4,495 in 2021). Limit 10.
Brazil: Iguaçu Falls Pre-trip, September 3–7, 2022 with David and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Iguaçu Falls ($2,995 in 2021). Limit 12; 4 spaces available.
Brazil: Pantanal Safari: Birds & Jaguars, September 6–19, 2022 with David and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Cuiabá ($8,095 in 2021). Limit 12; 6 spaces available.
Brazil: Harpy Eagle & Southern Amazon Extension, September 18–25, 2022 with David and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Cuiabá ($3,995 in 2021). Limit 10: 4 spaces available.
Guyana: Iwokrama Rainforest Pre-trip, October 17–25, 2022 with David, Mike Braun, and Ron Allicock; price to be announced in double occupancy from Georgetown ($2,000 in 2021). Limit 10.
Guyana: A Special Tour Supporting the Red Siskin Initiative, October 23–31, 2022 with David, Mike Braun, and Ron Allicock; price to be announced in double occupancy from Georgetown ($7,495 in 2021). Limit 10: 8 spaces available.
Colombia: Hummingbirds & Tanagers of the Western Andes: A Relaxed & Easy Tour, December 4–11, 2022 with David and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Cali ($4,495 in 2021). Limit 10; 5 spaces available.
David available for hire in the D.R.:
With David establishing long-term residency in the Dominican Republic, it is only a matter of time before we announce a brand-new VENT tour there. We are hoping to establish a tour or two to the D.R. as soon as next year, but certainly will do so by 2023. In the meantime, we are letting you know, effective immediately, that David is available for private guiding in the D.R.
The Dominican Republic is home to approximately 30 endemic bird species in addition to a host of other birds not found outside the Greater Antilles region. VENT has operated many tours to the D.R. over the years, although it has been a while since our last tour there. David Ascanio led many of those tours and knows the birds and their whereabouts as well as anyone. He is perfectly situated to serve as your private guide.
If you would like to arrange a birding vacation to the Dominican Republic with David Ascanio, please contact him directly by email: email@example.com.
Finally, David wants everyone to know that he has received the two-shot sequence of the Pfizer vaccine. Moreover, vaccination of the population in the Dominican Republic is proceeding apace. After an early vaccination drive that resulted in the inoculation of 50% of its population with the Chinese vaccines, the country is now administering Pfizer shots.
In May this year, while waiting for approval to leave Venezuela, VENT tour leader David Ascanio led a successful expedition to re-find a poorly known forest bird not seen in 16 years. The bird, Urich’s Tyrannulet, was considered “lost” to science because it had not been recorded in over 10 years.
David, with support provided by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), guided a five-person crew to a remote cloud forest in northeastern Venezuela to conduct their search. Using satellite imagery and information provided by local residents, the team found the bird at the end of the first day in an intact pocket of cloud forest.
Urich’s Tyrannulet is an enigmatic species that had been seen only a handful of times since its initial discovery in 1899. The bird is a small olive-green forest flycatcher with a long tail, double wing bars, and a pale line over the eye. David was probably the last person to see the bird, in 2005. The species was feared extinct because much of its former habitat has been lost to deforestation.
The effort to rediscover Urich’s Tyrannulet was a result of fortuitous timing. Back in February, John Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at ABC, held a webinar presentation about the Lost Bird Initiative, a partnership among ABC, Re:wild, eBird, and BirdLife International to identify lost bird species around the world in order to protect them and their habitats before they disappear. Urich’s Tyrannulet was one of 16 species of birds in South America that had not been reported in eBird in the past 10 years, and was one of the birds featured in the program. David attended the webinar and afterward wrote to ABC about the tyrannulet, which he knew to be an exceedingly rare bird. Within days, ABC responded to David, and discussions about an expedition got underway.
In June, following the rediscovery, ABC posted a news brief to its website that detailed the expedition team’s marvelous feat. Please visit the website of ABC to read the full account.
In addition to the news brief, ABC posted a video production entitled Expedition Debrief: Finding Urich’s Tyrannulet, that features an interview with David, conducted by John Mittermeier. I strongly encourage you to watch this interview. At once heartwarming and inspiring, this video is a welcome source of joy in these still-difficult times. It is simply wonderful to listen to David describe the expedition and to feel the exuberance he felt at finding this lost bird. The video may be viewed on YouTube.
We are very proud of all of our tour leaders. Many of them have led tours for VENT for decades, while others have been with us for only a few years. Most of our participants know only the tour leaders with whom they have traveled. To introduce you to more of our tour leaders, we are considering a series of webinars designed to provide more exposure to our guides. These presentations will feature live interviews with VENT tour leaders, with opportunities for the audience to ask questions. These webinars will enable viewers to learn more about our tour leaders than is available through a traditional bio sketch.
Our pilot tour leader webinar will be held August 19, when you can meet Willy Hutcheson, VENT’s newest tour leader. I met Willy in 1988 when he attended our summer youth camp, Camp Chiricahua. Willy was 13 and I was 47. After a decade-long teaching career, Willy joined the VENT team as a full-time tour leader. Unfortunately, the pandemic situation delayed the start of his new career, but we are pleased to let you know that Willy has now led or co-led three VENT tours since our return to tour operations in April.
We are delighted to welcome Willy as a member of our staff. I urge you to join our webinar on August 19 to meet Willy and learn more about him.
Register for the webinar here.
My first trip to Panama was a scouting trip I made in 1977. I had heard a lot about Panama from my friend Bob Ridgely, who had recently completed the superb, first-ever field guide to the birds of Panama. In January 1978, I co-led VENT's first Panama tour with John Rowlett. On the first morning of the tour, we saw a Spotted Rail, accompanied by a small chick. This sighting was the first confirmed record for Panama. That was an auspicious beginning to VENT's Panama tour program! For the past 43 years VENT has conducted tours in Panama almost every year. Some of these tours have produced new additions to the country’s cumulative list of bird species. Many people aren’t aware, but relative to its geographical size, more birds have been seen in Panama than any other country. It was on that first trip that I fell in love with Panama and its birds, wildlife, people, and history. Over the length of my career, I have co-led over 30 VENT tours to Panama. These trips have been among the most wonderful tours I have ever led.
In 1997, Raúl and Denise Arias received permission from the government of Panama to convert a former radar and communications tower into an ecotourism lodge. VENT was honored to be the first company to bring a tour group to that facility, which had been named the “Canopy Tower.” There is no other lodge in the world like the Canopy Tower. It is an amazing place. It is situated on top of a hill (Semaphore Hill) on the edge of sprawling Soberania National Park. From every room, including the dining room (always bring your binoculars to meals), you can look out the window and see birds, mammals (including sloths and monkeys), and butterflies. From the top of the tower, the view in all directions is fantastic. Looking out at tropical forest, you can observe sunrises, sunsets, and clouds. In the distance you can see ships transiting the famous Panama Canal. You can often see birds in trees from only a few yards away. Parrots, hawks, and other birds frequently fly by. Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris perch in bare trees at close range. With luck you may see a Blue Cotinga, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. After a great breakfast you will walk slowly down the entrance road, where you will encounter birds of the forest. Midway down the road, the staff will come down the road with a mid-morning snack and coffee or tea. If you need a bathroom break, they will drive you back up to the lodge and bring you back down. After a few hours of delightful birding, the staff will come get you and drive you back up to the lodge for lunch and a break.
Near the lodge is the fabulous Pipeline Road, which was built during WWII to service a planned oil pipeline. The forest along Pipeline Road is protected by the national park. You will spend time birding this road, in addition to visiting the Rainforest Discovery Center and walking up an observation tower. With luck you may encounter a swarm of Army Ants accompanied by a variety of birds catching prey items flushed by the ants. In these flocks you may see the Ocellated Antbird, a gorgeous bird. The birds you may encounter along the five miles of this road are amazing.
With the success of the Canopy Tower, Raúl and Denise built two more lodges: the Canopy Lodge and the Canopy Camp. The lovely Canopy Lodge is located at middle elevation about two and a half hours west of the Canopy Tower, near the town of El Valle. The Canopy Camp is in the lowlands of Darien, the easternmost province of Panama. Each of these lodges offers fantastic birding and nature experiences. They are described in detail on our website.
Panama is vaccinating its citizens with shots produced by Pfizer or AstraZeneca. All the active staff members, including guides and drivers, have been vaccinated. Panama is one of the safest places to visit. It is served by excellent air service from a number of major U.S. airports.
Between October 2021 and March 2022, VENT will offer six Panama tours. Three are already sold out. A few spaces remain on the others.
Panama’s Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, October 2–10, 2021 with Erik Bruhnke and a loca leader; $3,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. Limit 12; 2 spaces available.
Panama: Fall at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, October 9–16, 2021 with Erik Bruhnke and a local leader; $2,995 in double occupancy from Panama City. Limit 14; 1 space available.
Fall at Panama’s Canopy Tower, October 16–23, 2021 with Willy Hutcheson and a local leader; $2,795 in double occupancy from Panama City. Limit 12; 4 spaces available. $500 price reduction! Published fee was $3,295.
Panama’s Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, January 8–16, 2022 with Erik Bruhnke and a local leader; $4,395 in double occupancy from Panama City. Limit 12; 4 spaces available.
Panama: El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, January 15–22, 2022 with Erik Bruhnke and a local leader; $3,795 in double occupancy from Panama City. Limit 12; 1 space available.
With extreme weather events apparently the norm these days, it is noteworthy that Texas is having one of its mildest summers in years. Typically, July and August are times of excessive heat and dryness here, but not this year. To my knowledge, we’ve only hit the 100-degree mark a time or two all year here in Austin, where I live, and rain has fallen fairly regularly since the spring. While I am very sorry about the heat, fire, and flooding events that have afflicted much of our country this year, I am relieved that this summer in Austin has so far been much more endurable than is now typical.
Shorebird migration is in full swing across the country. Every week since the middle of July, I have made at least two visits a week to Hornsby Bend, my favorite local birding area. Last Wednesday was delightful as I counted a flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes containing 134 individuals. Also on site were Stilt Sandpipers, many Pectoral Sandpipers, an American Avocet, and many other birds.
I hope signs of fall migration are around you wherever you live.
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours | 2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003 | Austin, TX 78746
Follow us on
© 2021 Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. All rights reserved.