Naturalist Journeys Announces New Travel Photography Tour in Big Bend National Park

TODO TX Hill Black capped Vireo

Rare Black-capped Vireo, Photo by Tom Dove

Naturalist Journeys is proud to announce a new nature and birding tour – this one with a strong focus on Travel Photography. Accomplished photographer and nature and birding tour guide Greg Smith designed and will instruct the company’s new Big Bend Travel Photography tour.  Smith explains the new program, saying,  “Travel Photography augments Naturalist Journey’s already fine-tuned top nature and birding tours, adding a rich dimension for those that like to see birds and more through the lens. It’s designed to be fun, to take those interested in photography to the next level, perfect for beginning and intermediate photographers wanting help to learn to keep up with their camera’s potential”.

Smith approached Naturalist Journeys owner Peg Abbott, who in the past did logistics for photography workshops taught by professionals when she worked with the National Audubon Society.  Abbott welcomed Smith’s approach, recognizing there was a niche between nature and birding tours, and intensive photo workshops often beyond the reach of those with less sophisticated equipment.  She felt the concept fit Smith’s style of guiding, which is relaxed, fun, and always ready to capture the moment spontaneously. Abbott says, “As a nature and birding tour guide, Greg Smith sees life as images. With his wildlife expertise, he can find birds, mammals, blooming cacti, and all the magic natural history subjects Big Bend National Park has to offer.  It’s on finding them, that he becomes an artist, and it’s this focus on the creative aspect of seeing wildlife that makes him a natural to teach this new Big Bend Travel Photography tour for us.  Just driving a road, Greg will pull over to show you the perfect curve that makes an image pop.  I can only imagine, given free-rein to focus on photography more, what he will find!”

Because of its dramatic scenery, Big Bend National Park is a perfect spot to launch Naturalist Journey’s new guided Big Bend Travel Photography tour.  Smith knows the park well, but over the years has seen too many visitors frustrated trying to cope with strong sunlight, vast landscapes, and challenging subjects such as the park’s myriad swift-moving migratory birds.  He found tour participants on his nature and birding tours lighting up as they learned how to get better lighting, sharper focus, and interesting background effects on photos of what they were seeing.

Abbott has seen Smith in action.  She smiles, saying, “Standing on the porch of Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Mountain Lodge, sunset watching is a nightly ritual.  Everyone is absorbed in beauty, and there is Greg, on a mission.  He is walking around, taking people’s cameras and showing them how to angle them to get better exposures, enhance the lighting, and get that perfect sunset image. Finding success, strangers are hugging him and he is happy.”  She says Smith is a natural teacher in the field setting.  During this inaugural Big Bend Travel Photography tour, Naturalist Journeys hopes to help people appreciate nature all the more by knowing how to use tools they have in hand, cameras.  It’s all a part of the company’s strong ecotourism and responsible travel mission.

Today’s digital cameras, even models without interchangable lenses, can be overwhelming. So can be the software, so readily available to fix and enhance images taken.  Join Greg Smith, May 4-11, 2013,  in one of the Desert Southwest’s finest national parks and take the next step in mastering your camera.  Everyone starts somewhere!

One of the best challenges in photography is capturing rare species. The fine image above is by Texas-based photographer Tom Dove. It captures the essence of a singing male Black-capped Vireo, a species once nesting in good number in Big Bend National Park that is slowly coming back in number after several decades of decline. While it would be difficult to improve on this image, which was shot at Fort Hood in Texas, Dove might just find a chance to do this spring as he returns to Big Bend, on the prowl for Colima Warbler.  Travel Photography is that quest to match landscape, species and skill.  It is the interface of understanding species, where they occur, how they behave, and how then to best capture them on film.

We urge you to take the challenge, join guide Greg and try you skills out today!  May 4-11, 2013 Big Bend Travel Photography tour ITINERARY

A $300 deposit holds your space.  Download a registration form online, or call us at 866 900-1146.

This species may also be observed in the Texas Hill Country, a stronghold for the species.  Naturalist Journeys Hill Country Nature and Birding Tour runs April 14-19, 2013.


Montana Prairie Birding and Nature Tour — a High-Value Choice for a Montana Wildlife Eco Tour

MT WWF 12 B Burrowing Owl adult w chick cropMost people think of Yellowstone National Park when selecting a wildlife tour in Montana.  Covering the eastern half of the state, the Montana prairies are replete with fascinating wildlife species but few venture here to explore.  Naturalist Journeys offers one of the few guided birding and nature tours to the prairie, a wildlife ecotour that clients find rewarding.  Naturalist Journeys owner and veteran guide Peg Abbott says, “Our Montana Prairie Spring Birding Tour, a top birding and nature tour among our itineraries, is a high-value choice for the birder or adventure traveler in tune with nature.  Animals are here – it just takes a careful eye to find them. On the prairies, the terrain is vast, the species are elusive, and it takes time to see subtle differences of habitat in the open landscape.”

After a week with expert guides, Montana prairie birding and nature tour participants hone their identification skills, and learn to use vegetation as signals for what species to expect.  Prairie Dog towns are home to Mountain Plovers, Horned Larks and Burrowing Owls.  Areas with higher grass provide cover for Upland Sandpiper and Sage Grouse.  Wetlands encourage a host of species to breed including Black Terns, American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Black-necked Stilts.

MTPS 12 Bairds Sparrow flight crop T_edited-1Sorting out the intricate plumage patterns of grassland birds such as Sprague’s Pipits, McCown’s Longspurs, Bairds and Grasshopper Sparrows – all signature species of the Northern Great Plains—takes a practiced eye, a thorough knowledge of behavior and recognition of song. Many prairie birds hurl themselves skyward to sing, having evolved in a place with few perches.  Naturalist Journeys guides can filter the sounds with fine-tuned ears but say that clients vote Western Meadowlarks as the most memorable and melodic of the tour; their dawn calls an auditory signature of the prairie. Naturalist Journeys nature groups are out early, taking in the dawn symphony of bird sound, and looking for mammals such as Pronghorn with their young, elusive Swift Fox, predatory Badgers, and Bison, returning in number to their historic range on places like the American Prairie Reserve.

Once found, prairie wildlife species often provide birding tour participants with good viewing and photo opportunities. The life habits of various species are fascinating to observe. Marbled Godwits are large and vocal species often aggressive when disturbed. Our guided birding tour groups have even had them seemingly attack the car!  Long-billed Curlews emit loud, evocative calls. They are strong flyers that migrate at times in a single flight, all the way from Montana to wintering grounds of Mexico.  Mountain Plovers, a prize species to find due to their secretive habits and declining numbers, have unusual mating strategies.

MT WWF 12 069 MT WWF 12 Marbled Godwit grass MT WWF 12 Mountain PloverA host of predatory birds keep all smaller species on the alert. Prairie Falcons attack like bullets and seem to come out of nowhere. Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers swoop low with great agility, while Golden Eagles simply overpower their prey. Ferruginous Hawks sometimes lumber on the ground in search of grass-fed rodents. All have hungry young to feed, as do Red Foxes and clever Coyotes.

Naturalist Journeys’ top-rated birding and nature tour begins and ends in Billings, Montana. Guided groups travel a circle route north to Fort Peck, Glascow, Malta, the Little Rockies, and the American Prairie Reserve before returning to Billings. Tour highlights include visits to Bowdoin and Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuges.

MT WWF 12 P Dog showing black tail crop T_edited-1Conservation is an important theme on this tour. The World Wildlife Fund (Northern Great Plains) and the Nature Conservancy (Northern Montana Prairies) have extensive conservation projects in the region, some in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management which manages much of the land. Tourism is still rare in Montana’s small agricultural communities and ecotourism may help communities diversify in a declining economy.  This year’s Montana Prairie Spring, a top birding and nature tour for this travel company, is scheduled for June 8 – 15.  Join us for a grand travel adventure in what has been called America’s Serengeti!

South Texas Birding and Nature Tour: a Perfect Winter Getaway in “Tropical” Ecotourism Style

Roseate Spoonbills by South Texas Birding Tour participant Betty Andres

SOTX group in blind Bob Behrstock

Naturalist Journeys, a top birding and nature tour company, recognizes South Texas as one of the most exotic destination for a winter birding tour in North America. Get off that plane and feel warm, tropical air!  Here, comfortably in the USA, the range of many subtropical species extends just north of the Mexican border, provinding a rainbow of colorful species.  Add finding a good selection of bird species that breed much further north overwintering in the varied parks, wildlife refuges and wildlife habitats visited of this nine-day South Texas birding and nature tour and you have the recipe for a successful birdwatching tour.  Unique habitats such as Tamaulipan Thorn Scrub and lush Sabal Palm groves are home to some 40 south Texas avian specialties, including Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Hook-billed Kites, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Red-crowned Parrots, Couch’s Kingbirds and Plain Chachalacas.

On the February 26-March 6 South Texas birding and nature tour, we  visit a number of sites, including the Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges, wetland habitats on South Padre Island that often attract wintering rails, and Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande, and Falcon State Parks. Many of these areas of the Rio Grande Valley are legendary among birders for consistently attracting unique wildlife, and the added value of visiting King Ranch and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the latter a stronghold of endangered Whooping Cranes,  adds great value to this ecotour.

Naturalists flock to the region, as this is a great nature tour adventure on which to view both birds and butterflies. Over 300 species of butterflies—more than are likely to be found in the entire Eastern United States—have been recorded in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Many of the sites we’ll visit have plantings to attract butterflies. If the winter has remained mild, we may see a diversity of these delightful creatures, as well as some of the Valley’s nearly 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies.

Whooping Crane group Bob Behrstock copy

Field guide artist and PhD ornithologist Doug Pratt leads our upcoming guided South Texas birding and nature tour.  Read our past South Texas birding tour trip reports for more details. Last year the group saw 41 endangered Whooping Cranes, quite a chunk of the entire world population!  Roseate Spoonbills were another South Texas birding tour favorite species, evidenced by this stunning photo by participant Betty Andres.  Whooping Crane and South Texas birding tour group photos by Bob Behrstock.

There is still space available – call us at 866 900-1146 or email today!

Naturalist Journeys Offers New Winter Birding Tour in Washington

Naturalist Journeys has chosen an unlikely place for a new guided group tour this February – a site where, each winter, tens of thousands of swans, geese, and ducks, along with predatory raptors and owls converge.  Far north of the Neotropical haunts Naturalist Journeys schedules for most of its winter birding tours, Washington’s Puget Sound and British Columbia’s Fraser Delta provide birds (and their viewers) with safe haven from extreme winter conditions.

Seattle-based guide Woody Wheeler leads the week-long adventure February 16-22, with lodgings in Port Townsend and LaConner.  He paints a vivid picture of the excitement, saying, “Our area is literally flooded with birds that come here to escape harsh conditions. Birds leave behind snow and ice-covered mountains and frozen lakes of the north and the interior, to take refuge in places that have open water and snow-free terrain. Puget Sound and the Fraser Delta are two of the first places where these birds provisions.”

Fascinated by the phenomena he regularly observes, Wheeler proposed the tour to Naturalist Journeys, and owner Peg Abbott conferred it was a great idea, particularly as clients return to lodgings in two historic towns that have delightful inns, restaurants and charm – elements that combine well with great birding for a sense of getting away.

Last year, Woody was on assignment with a tour group of Naturalist Journeys in Costa Rica, finding a rainbow of tropical species and the mythical Resplendent Quetzal. This year, he proposed staying closer to home in Washington, as concentrations of wintering birds make for spectacular birding.  Wheeler is excited about the opportunity scheduled for February 16-22, saying “I have taken many trips to the areas featured on the Washington in Winter: A Little-known Birding Wonderland tour, but have never before linked them together in a multi-day journey.”  In mid-February, there is more light, temperatures moderate, and the region’s typical winter rains abate somewhat.

A portion of the proceeds from this winter birding tour will go to The Trumpeter Swan Society, an organization that works regularly with the Washington dairy industry, in recognition of the value for birds of open agricultural lands in an area plagued by urban growth.  Having the tour benefit an organization that has worked at length to secure winter feeding areas for the birds, safe from toxic lead, makes designing and guiding the tour more important to Wheeler. His past work for the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society and the Seattle Parks Foundation make him uniquely qualified to guide travelers through the natural history of the area. Connecting people with nature is his passion, and he does so through trips, classes, presentation, and by writing positive nature blogs, his professional endeavors grouped under the theme, the “Conservation Catalyst.”

Wheeler has led more than 50 trips and tours in 4 countries. He believes that learning about nature should be active, engaging, and joyful. Naturalist Journeys is pleased to partner with Wheeler to offer the week-long, Feb. 16-22, birding adventure.

Participants fly into Seattle, and enjoy lodgings in Port Townsend and LaConner.  Find more Washington Winter Birding Tour details on their website. Or, browse the full calendar of tours for 2013.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC Support Recognized by the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FOCCC)

Naturalist Journeys, LLC supports the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FOCCC) as a founding member, and this support was honored by FOCCC today with publication of a founding member’s poster.

The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon is a non-profit organization based in Portal, Arizona, with a mission to:

To inspire appreciation and understanding of the beauty, biodiversity and legacy of Cave Creek Canyon.

Cave Creek is the stunning canyon right outside the door of the offices of Naturalist Journeys, LLC.  Company owner and lead guide Peg Abbott is on the Board of Directors of FOCCC and is happy to help with educational projects, work projects in cooperation with the US Forest Service, Coronado National Forest and more.  Current FOCCC projects include: development of a native plant and butterfly garden at the Visitor Center, assisting the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Lab with songbird monitoring post-fires in the Chiricahuas, developing a brochure for the canyon, staffing the Visitor Center with volunteers to expand its hours, trail work and placement of benches and a meeting area for groups at the South Fork Campground, and educational programs for the public on topics ranging from living with bears to the artistic side of rattlesnakes.

Friends of Cave Creek Canyon has a very active Facebook page where the group posts photos of the canyon, announcements of events, and natural history highlights for the region.  They have a website under development, with material being added each month.  This same beautiful logo that appears on this poster is also on T-shirts for FOCCC, available in black and in turquoise for $20.00 + shipping, from the Chiricahua Desert Museum.  Contact them at: 575 557-5757 or / 575 545 5307 or email your request t:

Signature Species of Glacier Bay: Naturalist Journeys Group Appreciates Kittlitz’s Murrelets

Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Glacier Bay

Kittlitz’s Murrelets, when compared to Humpback Whales and calving glaciers, command little attention from visitors to Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. But when visitors share the tour boat with Naturalist Journey’s guides Peg Abbott and Greg Smith, these veteran’s enthusiasm spreads and many heed the call as they grab cameras and exclaim,  “Up on deck, Kittlitz’s…”   This year, on both our Alaska trips, June, to Seward and July, to Icy Straits and Glacier Bay our groups tallied good numbers.

Despite their small size, Kittlitz’s command our attention for their toughness. Seeing them in the wild seems like a prize given for effort put in. We see Kittlitz’s only when entering their glacier-influenced realm.  Seen up close they are beautiful with speckled plumage, white faces and tail tips. On a moving boat, most sightings are brief, and a camera comes in handy to capture their fine points for later inspection. Knowing their habits helps one pay attention.

Glacier Bay National Park is a vital stronghold for this rapidly-declining species. The species is restricted to Alaska and the Russian Far East, Alaska by far hosting the bulk of the population, and Glacier Bay hosting nearly half of that.  Despite vistas of glorious tidewater glaciers all around, something is amiss here, as estimates for Glacier Bay are a loss of 85% between 1991 and 2008.  It is suspected that wide scale glacial retreat has drastically changed available coastal habitats, where productive feed occurs alongside productive nesting habitats.

Native Americans knew of the mountainside nest habits of this species long before the modern research community recorded it. While most seabirds are colonial, Kittlitz’s for the most part go it alone, a single pair of male and female share incubating the single egg, and feeding a single chick. Widely spaced, their cryptic coloration helps to secure nest success.  One research team found local Peregrine Falcon numbers are on the rise, and noted that young murrelets can make a tasty morsel.  But inclement weather and unpredictable food supply take more of a toll, and many die before fledging. One researcher found nine nests, from which only one chick surviving to reach the sea.

Each Kittlitz’s Murrelet that we see on the water lived through some 54 perilous days of incubation to fledging in a realm of rock, ice, wind, and often snow. Successful adults often chose south-facing slopes where snow retreats sooner, or wind-razed areas that stay open. A few nests have been found on bedrock. Kittlitz’s eggs blend with rock colors of mountain talus slopes and scree and gravels associated with glacial outwash. The main parental contribution is that of incubating eggs and feeding chicks; many young die of exposure or starvation – even seeing one seems a bit of a miracle.  Adults do not feed or tend fledged chicks, and it is thought that these lone and vulnerable fledglings use the water and gravity of fast flowing streams, associated with glaciers, to reach the sea. Weak flyers at first, Kittlitz’s chicks can swim well.

In the turbid, waters where currents cause shallow upwellings, Kittlitz’s Murrelets feed on Pacific Sand Lance, Capelin, herring and other small fishes; at times they also feed on euphasids.  They prefer turbid waters of the middle and upper bay, associated with glacial streams. They seem to prosper in areas near stable glaciers.

Researchers across their Bering Sea-centered range are concerned. Kittlitz’s Murrelets are in the spotlight as global climate change occurs. We were heartened to see park-sponsored research teams braving the elements on the cloudy, cold day we visited. From boats and from small islands we watched them counting, sorting, and collecting data to better understand what the limiting factors might be.  Outside the bay, in adjacent Icy Straits, another research team (Kissling, M. et al), from 2005 to 2009 banded 340 birds, radio tracked over 100 adults and four juveniles and found eight nests. The Southeast Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network (SEAN) reports annually on research for this species.

Worldwide, both Birdlife International and the International World Conservation Union list Kittlitz’s Murrelets as critically endangered. The US lists them as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, a listing that issues a strong call to management agencies, local fisheries, tour operators and others to come up with plans to stabilize the population ahead of actual listing.  The Center for Biodiversity listing petitioned their in 2009, and their summary is excellent for further reading.

Under these odds we were thrilled to spend time watching this tenacious little species, at home in its glacial realm.

Read more: Piatt, J.F. et al. 2011 Status and trend of the Kittlitz’s Murrelets.

Brachyramphus brevirostris in GLACIER BAY, Alaska

Naturalist Journeys Group in Southeast Alaska Reports on Wildlife Sightings: Steller’s Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions are declining in many parts of their range, but they seem to be thriving in Southeast Alaska, especially in Glacier Bay and Icy Straits.  A group of ten of Naturalist Journeys, LLC travelers recently observed them on a recent nature tour to the region.

The tour was promoted as a land-based  “Un-cruise Option to Southeast Alaska”, wanting a more intimate experience with wildlife than a 1400 passenger or larger cruise ship could provide.  Based out of a lovely Inn at the edge of Icy Straits, the group spent a lot of time in small boats, allowing for close encounters with wildlife as they zipped (carefully!) around the vast and stunning waters of Icy Straits. Humpback Whales were close companions each day.

Here is a report first hand:

On the day we chartered small fishing boats to take us over to Chichagof Island and Elfin Cove, we passed by one of several haulout areas used by Steller’s Sea Lions. These impressive marine mammals are pinnipeds, the name given to a diverse group of fin-footed mammals that includes walruses, eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and earless or true seals, this last subgroup the category for Harbor Seals. Two pinnipeds regularly occur together in Southeast Alaska, Steller’s Sea Lions and Harbor Seals. Steller’s populations are on the rise (about 3.2% population increase per year according to Glacier Bay National Park biologists) while Harbor Seals have seen a dramatic decline (a 75% population loss since the 1990’s, continuing at about 5% a year). 

Several of our group had been to other parts of Alaska before, and remembered large numbers of Harbor Seals that rested on ice chunks and bergie bits (small icebergs) below calving glaciers near Seward.  This headwater habitat seemed to be a safe place for them, as Orca rarely ramble up long, narrow fjords to this realm of ice.  In the last few years, scientists are keeping a watch on something thought to be uncommon – predation by Steller’s Sea Lions on juvenile Harbor Seals, an event witnessed by Glacier Bay National Park staff in 2010, and reported in the journal Aquatic Mammals, Volume 36, No. 2, pp. 129-132.  Part of our not seeing them may be explained by timing, their numbers peak in June to pup, and August to molt, whereas we were there mid-July. But it also may have something to do with increased predation.  Steller’s Sea Lions are known to be primarily piscivorous (a nice twist of words to say fish-eating…), but they share that feeding niche with whales, and seabirds.  Glacier Bay and Icy Straits have witnessed dramatic landscapes in the last 225 years, due to the dramatic retreat of tidewater glaciers. Might a change in diet for Steller’s Sea Lions signal something is changing in the sea and its resources, once again?

Naturalist Journey’s guide Peg Abbott caught this shot of one of Icy Bay’s “bad boys” while on tour in July. Next year’s journey will depart in early August – find details at

Read more about Steller’s Sea Lions and Harbor Seal Predation

Read more about Naturalist Journey’s recent trip to Icy Straits and Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska (link to Trip Report coming soon!)

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