Read the VENTFLASH and catch up on the latest news from VENT!


July 31, 2019

Dear friends:

After an unusually mild and wet start of the summer, the heat has finally arrived in central Texas. For the last couple of weeks, we have been stuck in a pattern of very hot days under clear skies with no rain. Listening to a weather report a couple of nights ago, I learned that this July will end tied for the driest July on record in the Austin area. It appears that the current weather pattern will hold for the next couple of weeks, at least. Indeed, these are the dog days of summer.

Fortunately, I have been able to avoid the worst of the heat so far as I have been traveling in the Northeast, visiting a number of old friends and colleagues in Massachusetts and Maine. Although this part of the country has also seen its share of high summer temperatures, the weather patterns here change often enough to provide breaks from the heat.

Purple Martin Roost, Austin, TX © Cullen Hanks

I will be back home this week. Despite the heat, early August is a surprisingly good time for birding in Austin. Hornsby Bend, my favorite local birding area, should be teeming with southbound shorebirds while the annual gathering of Purple Martins in the north part of the city will still be in full swing. The martin event is one of the great urban wildlife experiences that Austin has to offer. Every year, starting in early July, Purple Martins gather at a select site each evening in an enormous post-breeding flock. During the day, the birds fan out across the city where they spend their time hawking insects. Then, in the late afternoon, they return to a communal roost site, with more and more birds gathering as the afternoon fades to evening. Ultimately, a blizzard of birds forms that contains tens of thousands of individuals—hundreds of thousands in some years. It is an awesome spectacle. The flock reaches its peak size at the end of July, after which time it quickly diminishes as the birds embark on their southbound migration.

Yes, the summer can be an uncomfortable time weather-wise, but as I often write, every season has its opportunities to find joy in nature.

In this issue:



Max Breckenridge

As many of our travelers know, one of the hallmarks of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours is the strength of our tour leader corps. Reflecting on 43 years in business, I point to a number of factors that have been critical to our success, but among the most important is our team of tour leaders who, in my opinion, are the best in the business. Being a tour leader for VENT requires that he or she possess a unique skillset across several important (and not necessarily related) categories, including “people” skills, organizational skills, and field skills.

In the last decade, our program of tours to the Australasia region has burgeoned. We now offer many tours to Asia and have been looking to expand our Australia program. For many years, this part of the world has been anchored by longtime tour leader and Australia resident, Dion Hobcroft. Several years ago, Machiel Valkenburg joined our team, and he now leads tours for us in different parts of Asia. However, for some time I had been looking to add a third member to our Australasia team of leaders. Last year I spoke to Dion about the matter and asked him for a recommendation. He immediately responded with the name of a fellow countryman: Max Breckenridge. As Dion explained, Max, who at the time was still in college, was a sharp and personable young man who had already developed a reputation as an ace field person. Dion let me know that Max would soon be graduating and was interested in pursuing a career as a professional tour leader. Any recommendation from Dion counts for a lot with me, and I took his suggestion to heart.

I soon contacted Max, and, over a series of communications, found him amiable, engaging, and mature. I sensed then that he had the “right stuff” to be a VENT tour leader, and, reinforced by Dion’s recommendation, I made him an offer to start guiding in the fall of 2019. Prior to his “official” start with us, I asked him to join our India train tour, India: Birds & Culture on the Maharajas’ Express, that operated this past February. As I hoped would happen, Max performed superbly. In the field he demonstrated confidence, maturity, and knowledge, while among the trip participants he was affable and at ease. I came away from the tour most impressed with him.

With that I am excited to introduce Max Breckenridge as the newest member of the VENT community. A native of Sydney, Australia, Max has been interested in birds and nature from a young age. With an urge to travel to match his passion for birds and nature, he has been to all parts of Australia and several areas in Asia and Africa. Beyond a love of birding, Max is also a committed conservationist. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biodiversity & Conservation from Macquarie University. I encourage you to learn more about Max by reading his full bio here.

Please read on to get to know him better and to discover the destinations where he will lead tours in the year ahead.

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The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds

In supplement to my introduction of Max, I thought you would also enjoy the opportunity to hear directly from him. While a bio provides a nice overview of a person, it lacks the intimacy that is conveyed through one’s own words. This week my colleague Barry Lyon hosted a question-and-answer session with Max. Enjoy!

Barry: How did you get interested in birding and how old were you?

Max: I remember always being happiest surrounded by nature and whatever creatures I could find, but my passion for birding really started when I was 12. My parents took my younger brother and me out of school for a term in order to drive around Australia. It was the trip of a lifetime. Prior to leaving, my grandmother gave me a copy of The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds. I became obsessed with matching the amazing birds I was seeing in the wild with their images in the book.

Barry: Did you have a mentor or someone who helped nurture your interest?

Max: I had no individual mentor during my formative birding years; however, I was supported greatly by my parents. Neither are naturalists, but their patience and encouragement, including driving me to countless birding destinations, allowed me to pursue my passion. I met several great birders during my outings with the local bird club (Cumberland Bird Observers Club), and still consider such groups invaluable for encouraging people to become birders.

Barry: What is your favorite part of the world to experience birds and nature?

Max: I have been very privileged to visit many wonderful and eye-opening places already in my life. While some of my best birding memories come from the rainforests of Borneo, deserts of Namibia, and mountains of New Zealand, the temperate woodlands of eastern Australia will always call me home. To me, there is nothing better than a warm spring morning, wandering through box woodland in flower and enjoying the buzz and variety of small birds doing what they have done for many thousands of years.

Barry: Do you have a favorite bird or group of birds, and why?

Max: The incomparable variety and beauty of the avian world always makes this a tough question! Quail-thrush are a unique Australasian family that I am particularly fond of. We have several species, each perfectly suited to markedly different habitat types. Their habit of walking on the ground, almost indiscernible high-pitched calls, and intricate and beautiful plumage mean they are never easy to find. Any day you see a quail-thrush is a memorable one.

Barry: You have a degree in Biodiversity & Conservation. Tell us about your passion for conservation.

Crimson Rosella with Max Breckenridge

Max: Conservation of our environment is the greatest challenge the world faces. I believe guiding offers a valuable opportunity to show people—clients and locals—the beauty that still exists in this world. People will not conserve what they don't know. When I'm not guiding, I try to do what I can with local conservation projects, especially in regards to conserving the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater. A nomadic and stunning species once common, now teetering on the brink of extinction, in the last few years researchers have devised an effective method for monitoring them in the wild. My work has primarily involved countless hours of surveys, monitoring of nesting individuals, and a lot of data entry! Everyone has an opportunity to contribute to our understanding of conservation.

Barry: What do you like to do when you are not birding (other interests)?

Max: Planning my next birding adventure probably takes up most of my time! Spending time with my partner, Layla, and family are both incredibly important to me. Living in Sydney, we are blessed with an abundance of natural spaces, and so bushwalking, camping, or spending time at the beach are regular pastimes. I also enjoy drawing, gardening, and working on cars.

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Max Breckenridge’s career with VENT will kick off this fall with a full tour schedule. Due to the success of our Grand Australia program of tours, we will operate a second set of tours in the fall of 2019 and 2020, to be co-led by Max and a combination of veteran tour leaders Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer. In 2020, Max’s year will start with an epic cruise to the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand followed by tours to a diversity of Asia destinations including Southern India, Taiwan, and China, the latter two not visited by VENT in years. In the second half of the year, Max will take over the leadership of our ever-popular New Guinea Highlights tour before heading to Mongolia to guide our unique Snow Leopards of Mongolia tour.

I hope you will consider joining Max on any of these superlative tours:

Swinhoe's Pheasant, Taiwan © Simon Tang/shutterstock

Grand Australia Part I: New South Wales & the Northern Territory, September 20–October 6, 2019 with Max Breckenridge and Barry Zimmer; $8,495 in double occupancy from Sydney (ends in Ayers Rock); Limit 10. 1 space available.

Grand Australia Part II: Queensland, Victoria & Plains-wanderer, October 4–21, 2019 with Max Breckenridge and Kevin Zimmer; $7,895 in double occupancy from Brisbane (ends in Melbourne). 4 spaces available.

Grand Australia: Tasmania Extension, October 21–28, 2019 with Max Breckenridge; $4,395 in double occupancy from Launceston (ends in Hobart).

Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand, Aboard the Caledonian Sky, January 16–February 2, 2020 with Max Breckenridge; cabins start at $15,980 in double occupancy from Dunedin (ends in Queenstown).

Southern India, February 16–March 7, 2020 with Max Breckenridge; $9,995 in double occupancy from Bengaluru (ends in Kochi). Sold out! Join the waitlist.

Southern Sclater's Crowned Pigeon, Kiunga, Papua New Guinea © Dion Hobcroft

Taiwan: The Beautiful Isle, April 21–May 5, 2020 with Max Breckenridge; $5,995 in double occupancy from Taipei.

Classic China: Sichuan Province, May 17–June 2, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and a local leader; $6,295 in double occupancy from Beijing. 5 spaces available.

Classic China: Beijing Extension, June 1–6, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and a local leader; $2,595 in double occupancy from Beijing. 5 spaces available.

Papua New Guinea Highlights, July 24–August 6, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Brisbane ($13,495 in 2019).

Papua New Guinea: West New Britain, August 6–11, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Port Moresby ($4,245 in 2019).

Snow Leopards of Mongolia: Birds & Rare Mammals of the Mongolian Wilderness, September 1–15, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and a local leader; price to be announced in double occupancy from Ulaanbaatar ($8,995 in 2019).

Grand Australia Part I: New South Wales & the Northern Territory, September 20–October 6, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and Kevin Zimmer; price to be announced in double occupancy from Sydney (ends in Ayers Rock) ($8,495 in 2019). 4 spaces available.

Grand Australia Part II: Queensland, Victoria & Plains-wanderer, October 4–21, 2020 with Max Breckenridge and Barry Zimmer; price to be announced in double occupancy from Brisbane (ends in Melbourne) ($7,895 in 2019). Sold out! Join the waitlist.

Grand Australia: Tasmania Extension, October 21–28, 2020 with Max Breckenridge; price to be announced in double occupancy from Launceston (ends in Hobart) ($4,395 in 2019). 2 spaces available.

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In the year ahead, all tours led by Max Breckenridge, except one, will be traditional land-based trips. The exception is a birding and natural history cruise that Max will lead to the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand in January 2020. This trip is one that VENT does not offer more than once every three or four years and is one in a series of departures on which VENT will collaborate with esteemed travel partner Zegrahm Expeditions.

Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand

For many people, the phrase “Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand” is a mouthful! While most people can readily point to the location of New Zealand on a world map, the notion of its “Sub-Antarctic” islands can be a bit mystifying, as in “Where exactly are these islands located?” If you are not aware of the destination, the span of ocean south of New Zealand’s South Island is an interface zone where the Pacific Ocean grades into the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica to the south. Spread widely across these cold waters are a series of small isolated archipelagos with names like Campbell, Snares, Aucklands, and Macquarie. They are called “Sub-Antarctic” because they are positioned at lower latitudes than at which the true Antarctic region lies.

Each of these archipelagos is a wonderland of natural history. Together they form a distinct region of biodiversity where evolution is demonstrated through a spectacular diversity of albatrosses and penguins that live here, and a botanical community found nowhere else. This area is occasionally referred to as the “Galapagos of the Antarctic.” I have made two voyages to the “Subs” and can tell you that these trips have made for some of the greatest travel experiences of my life.

For this expedition, we offer an itinerary that visits four of the Sub-Antarctic island-groups, including the Snares Islands, Auckland Islands, Campbell Islands, and Macquarie Island. Complementing our time in the islands, we’ll explore the dramatic fjord country of the South Island where towering waterfalls, lush forests, and the dramatic Southern Alps provide an abundance of scenic splendor. We’ll cruise to protected Stewart Island where we’ll search for endangered landbirds, among which are Saddleback and Bellbird.

Royal & King Penguins, Macquarie Island

















We will experience a bounty of highlights including the prospect of seeing eight species of penguins: King, Gentoo, Eastern Rockhopper, Snares, Fjordland, Royal, Yellow-eyed, and Little penguins; a variety of native landbirds, some of which rank among the rarest birds in the world; four species of seals and sea lions; six endemic cormorants; a brilliant botanical diversity, complete with blooming megaherbs; and magnificent wilderness seascapes. At sea, the pelagic birding is the best in the world, and we could see more than a dozen species and subspecies of albatrosses, including the huge Wandering and Royal albatrosses, as well as dozens of “tubenoses,” and a fine variety of dolphins and whales.

This departure represents a rare opportunity to experience one of the most remote, wild, and beautiful places on earth. I hope you will consider joining Max on this remarkable voyage. 

Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand, Aboard the Caledonian Sky, January 16–February 2, 2020 with Max Breckenridge; cabins start at $15,980 in double occupancy from Dunedin (ends in Queenstown).

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Victor Emanuel: Birder, naturalist & connoisseur of Beethoven
Most people know me as a birder, naturalist, tour leader, and businessman. Indeed, I am all of these. However, in my personal life I carry a passion for the arts. To beat the heat this summer, I have spent time attending classical music performances and reading poetry and other literature. Soon after my return to Austin this weekend I will be attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” I write about these activities not because they are of great importance in and of themselves, but rather because they speak, in part, to my philosophy toward life and the importance of balance.

As much as I love being in nature, I strive for balance in my activities and interests. Living a balanced life—between work and pleasure, time with friends and time for oneself, and among one’s set of personal interests—is, in my opinion, the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. One of the most important reasons I feel so richly rewarded in my career at VENT has been the opportunity to spend time with our wonderful travelers. Over many decades, I have found that the people who take our tours are interesting and diverse in their interests. I love a successful day in the field in which talk of birds and nature mixes with occasional conversation of books, plays, music, and more.

I hope that you enjoy VENT tours for some of the same reasons that I do, and I hope you’ll join a VENT tour in the year ahead—perhaps one with Max Breckenridge!

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel

Copyright © 2019, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours
2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003
Austin, TX 78746
800-328-8368 / 512-328-5221