Tuesday, August 21

After 100+ years

(No, I'm not referring to how long I've been away from this blog!)

It was our furthest twitch ever!

When news of a migrant last recorded to have been seen in the country in 1907 in Basilan (and only one previous record before that in Palawan in 1898, both records according to the Kennedy field guide), Adri and I began to consider flying all the way to Negros island to see this jewel of the forest.

I was still on a break from school and we had planned on a road trip.  Instead, we found ourselves booking an early morning flight to Dumaguete, one of our favorite provinces. We touched down at 630am and headed straight for Valencia.

Tatay Eti (Rene Vendiola) was there to meet us at his beloved Liptong Woodland.  He had actually first observed the bird in March.  Thinking it was the the usual Hooded Pitta in an unusual immature plumage, he kept an eye on it.  He was surprised that after several months, its plumage still had not changed!  He took a photo of it and shared it on Facebook where it resulted in a rare bird alert.  The news of course spread like wildfire among birders!

We were not the only hopeful visitors that morning.  Our friends from Cebu, Clemn and Mares, arrived a few minutes after us and we exchanged warm hugs and greetings!  Who would have thought that we would meet in Negros because of this hot bird of the moment!

"I first spotted it foraging here just by the house,"said Tatay Eti.  "Now it's moved across the road on that incline," he motioned with his arms where the bird was photographed a few days before.  He quickly accompanied us up a short path uphill and pointed to the base of a mango tree which was overgrown with low brambles, grass and fresh shoots of pungapong (Amorphophallus). 

Of course not two minutes after we arrive (in fact I think it was maybe less than one!), I spot some movement on the ground.  It was, predictably, none other than our target bird!  It hopped quickly behind the roots of the mango tree.  Wow, the speed of the spotting certainly made up for the length of the trip to get here!

Clemn, Mares, Adri and myself positioned ourselves strategically and waited for a better view.  All our optics were ready. We were not disappointed. With patience, our views of the pitta got better and better.

Our first quick glimpse: the pitta hopping in the grass.

Blue-winged Pitta:
a rare migrant last recorded to have been seen in the country in 1907!

It turns out this particular pitta, the Blue-winged Pitta, is not very shy. It went about its business a few meters from our feet, casting a wary glance at us every now and then. Amazingly, despite its colorful plumage, once it sits very still, it can actually disappear into the background!

The patience of birders and bird photographers:
quietly waiting can have outstanding rewards.

Even when a noisy group of school children on a field trip came to visit Tatay Eti, the pitta still continued to forage actively.  Even in a sudden short downpour which had us running to the shade of our vehicles, it continued to hop around the leaf litter.

School kids on an educational field trip to the Liptong Woodland seeking shelter from the rain.

Though the rain put an abrupt end to the school children's field trip, we stayed a bit longer. And we were rewarded with a wonderful close encounter.  

Probably attracted to the earth made soft by the rains and the easy access to earthworms, the pitta got very comfortable and began to forage just a few meters from where we were standing.

The pitta foraging in the leaf litter... showing of its beautiful plumage.

It could not resist scratching the muddy path for some earthworms.

And you know a bird is comfortable when it starts fluffing out its feathers and preening in front of you!

 That is one fluffy bird!

It is certainly a great country record.  Although the Blue-winged Pitta is common in Thailand, this would be just the third country record for the Philippines.  Had this Pitta lost its way during migration? Adri and I were discussing how it looked like a young bird, with still the tiniest bit of yellow on the gape. How fortuitous that it found it's way to Liptong Woodland and the observant eyes of Tatay Eti.  The Liptong Woodland is no stranger to birders, who visit it in hopes of seeing the very cute Negros Scops Owl, so Tatay Eti is no stranger to birders. Tatay Eti is one person who can truly say that he has planted a forest, having nurtured and reforested the Liptong Woodland with native trees.  He continuous to plant trees and share his knowledge in forest restoration with young children, college students, and various interested individuals from all over the Visayas who visit him to learn.  He is truly an environmental hero.

 A pair of draco lizards chasing each other on a coconut tree.

Lots of butterflies too at Liptong Woodland.  Here is a resting Wallacean (Zethera musides Semper 1878), posing for a photograph.

Thanks Tatay Eti, for many things! But that day we thanked him especially for  sharing this wonderful bird sighting, the first after 111 years!

All smiles and thumbs up for a great twitch! Mares, Clemn, Jac (from the Negros Oriental tourism office), Tatay Eti, Adri and myself,

The rare bird alert actually made it to the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer a week after our visit.  A great article by fellow birder Mads Bajarias with great photos by another fellow birder Forest Jarvis!  It's always a thrill when natural history and conservation stories make the front page. 
Read the article here: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1019373/rare-bird-sighted-after-111-years

Tuesday, July 31

Coming out of hibernation

Where've I been? Old places and new places.

And I think it's time to come out of my blogging hibernation.

I've got quite a lot to catch up on!  Almost a year's worth of adventures! Let's see if I can get you (and myself!) up to speed.

Thursday, November 2

A starling for an eagle

We went up Sibulan (I wasn't originally planning to do so!) with some of the delegates of the 10th ARRCN Symposium on the off chance to see an eagle.

We didn't see one.

But guess what I finally got a satisfying view of?

A migrant which can pass through the country in the hundreds.  I've missed the murmurations up north.

I've dipped on close views in familiar birding sites.

I've had a view through a scope of a pair perched on a tree high up a mountain.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw three of them flying across a field in the campus where I work.

Here, in a mountain I didn't plan to be...

Six Chestnut-cheeked Starlings perched among the African Tulip blooms.

At last I can count you as a lifer!

Michael C. pointed out this tree to me.  Philippine Oak! I had no idea we had could have acorns here.

In the ditance the peak of Mt. Apos peeked above the forest canopy through a veil of clouds.

No eagle today for us though.

Who would've thought I would consider a starling a reasonable trade?

Saturday, October 28

Where hornbills fly: The Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition

This post is a copy of an article I wrote for the WBCP monthly newsletter e-bon, I've added a few more photos (!!!) here.  The original write-up may be found at http://ebonph.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/where-hornbills-fly-the-royal-belum-international-hornbill-expedition/

Where hornbills fly: The Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition
with Photos from Michael Lu, Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij, Andrew Sebastian, Adri and Trinket C0nstantino

We were off to the "Hornbill Capital of the World"!

Royal Belum State Park in Perak, Malaysia is known to be the world's oldest rainforest, estimated to be over 130 million years old, according to Andrew Sebastian, long-time friend of the WBCP and co-founder of the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY). Andrew was expedition leader to the 2017 Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition (2017 RBIHE) which was held last August 25-28, 2017.  It was exciting to be part of an international team out to survey and document possibly all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills which could all be found at the Royal Belum!

At the welcome dinner, we were happy to be reunited with familiar faces and to meet new ones.  Team Philippines was represented by Adri and myself, Ixi and Mikeli Mapua and of course, fearless leader Mike Lu.  There were representatives from Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, India, Taiwan, China, the United States and of course the local guys from Malaysia. Everyone was tired from their respective flights, but the welcome speech by Andrew more than excited everyone for what was to come the following days.

The 2017 RBIHE at the Empress Hotel in Sepang.  We were delighted to see familiar faces in the group.  Photo by Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij

We started our journey to Perak early the next day, but the long-distance and the traffic (it was a long weekend holiday in Malaysia) had us arriving after lunch already!  We were assigned to two huge houseboats which would be our moveable base for the weekend.  

The very steep path down to the house boat at the jetty! 
From the Jeff Awam Jetty, it was a good two hour slow boat ride across Temengor Lake to the heart of Royal Belum.

Houseboat number 2 enjoying a late lunch together. Photo by Trinket Constantino
Our tasty and spicy lunch! Photo by Trinket Constantino

Houseboat number 1 on the way to base camp! Photo by Adri Constantino

Houseboat number 2: our houseboats had to tow all our speedboats as well! 
Photo by Mike Lu

The Royal Belum is a series of rivers and waterways dotted with forested islands.  The original forest had been flooded after a dam had been built upstream.  

The Royal Belum map on the house boat.
The eerie sight of dead tree trunks sticking out of shallow waters was a reminder of the past landscape. The park was way up to the north of Malaysia, where it shared a border with Thailand. Our houseboats chugged along slowly, allowing us to appreciate the misty forest around us and even spot our first few hornbills:  Oriental Pied Hornbills and Black Hornbills.  

Our first hornbill sightings were Oriental Pied Hornbills.
Photo by Trinket Constantino

Rain fell hard halfway to the Kenarong base camp we would dock at (it turned out to ba a very rainy weekend).  When the sun came out, several speedboats were also prepared: it was time for our first survey! 

Afternoon rains would turn out to be a regular event the entire weekend.
Photo by Mike Lu

After a quick briefing by Andrew, teams were assigned a guide and a boatman and handed a laminated guide to the 10 hornbills of Malaysia.  Team Philippines was lead by a familiar face: Jay (Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij) of Thailand!  All 3 Thai participants supplemented the Malaysian guides as they were the most familiar with the birds common to the region. We were all happy to have Jay on our team.

Selfie time: Team Philippines led by Jay!
Photo by Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij

We all boarded the speedboats while the houseboats continued on their way to the base camp. Germaine's Swiftlets were flying high, as if to warn us that there was more rain to come! 

Speedboats were the main means of the survey.  Each team was assigned a speedboat, a guide and a boatman.  Photo by Mike Lu.

As our speedboat lept over the still waters, we were quick to spot more Oriental Pied and Black Hornbills. A pleasant surprise was a number of raptor species. That afternoon we saw several White-bellied Sea Eagles and Lesser Fish Eagles. Against the gloomy sky was silhouetted a perched hawk eagle, expertly identified by Jay as  Wallace's Hawk Eagle.  What started out as a quick shower was quickly progressing into a heavier rain, and so the speedboats began to make their way back.  Too bad because we had just encountered a huge tree with several Large Green Pigeons perched on its branches like Christmas ornaments!

A Wallace's Hawk Eagle silhouetted against the sky. Photo by Adri Constantino

Just before it rained we spotted this tree with more than 20 Large Green Pigeons.
Photo by Trinket Constantino

Of course the rains let up again when we arrived at base camp. 

Scenes around the base camp where we docked our house boats (photo by Trinket Constantino) 
There we had a better view of the Large Green Pigeons perched on a huge strangler fig tree at camp. We watched the swiftlets glide gracefully across the sunset sky, joined by Grey-rumped Treeswifts and Silver-rumped Needletails.  A couple of Fiery Minivets were also chasing each other above us, while the loud call of a Great Slaty Woodpecker boomed from an island across the water.  It later flew to where we were, only to be spotted in the darkening forest by the most patient of us birders.

Much closer views of the Large Green Pigeons at camp. Photo by Adri Constantino

The sun sets on day 1 at Royal Belum. Photo by Adri Constantino

In the evening after dinner, there was a short program by Perak State Park Corporation. Souvenirs were handed out to all the participants who were now mingling with both old and new found friends.  Sunday would be a full day for us, with two boat surveys, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The houseboats docked at base camp at night. Photo by Trinket Constantino

How we ate: this is buffet dinner on the houseboats.  Photo by Mike Lu

An evening program which included giving all the participants souvenirs and tokens.  Photo c/o Mike Lu

Early the next morning (it was actually 7:00 am but still a bit dark out), it was a quick breakfast and a quiet flurry as everyone got assigned to their speedboats. It was looking to be an exciting morning!

Andrew gathers all the team leaders for a short briefing and to assign routes.
Photo by Mike Lu

The morning rush to get on the boats and start the survey! Photo by Mike Lu

The forest around us had an ethereal look.  The morning mist was rising from the trees and the silence of dawn seemed to muffle the sounds of the speedboats. Barely had we started when we spotted in the distance a flock of hornbills flying in the mist:  Plain-pouched Hornbills!

A beautiful sight: Plain-pouched Hornbills in flight in the early morning mist.
Photo by Adri Constantino

The Plain-pouched Hornbills were one of the main targets in the expedition.  Classified as vulnerable under the IUCN, they range from Myanmar, Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia with Royal Belum as one of best places to spot them.  The timing of the expedition coincides with the known migratory movements of this hornbill, and the high counts of Plain-pouched at Royal Belum during this time of the year contributes to Royal Belum's declaration as IBA.

A pair of Plain-pouched Hornbills - the male has a yellow pouch and the female a blue pouch. Photo by Trinket Constantino

Plain pouched Hornbills flying over our boat in a V-formation, always led by a male.  Photo by Trinket Constantino

After the first flock of Plain-pouched hornbills, everyone in our group, including our very game boatman Aziz, began pointing out flocks.  It is hard to imagine that these birds are difficult to spot elsewhere.  Jay was as professional as one can get for leader: he would quickly identify how many males and females there were and indicate the direction of flight for our survey records. With Aziz's help, we also noted down our location.

Team Philippines led by Jay hard at work! Photo by Mike Lu

We ooh-ed and aaah-ed (and counted!) as every Plain-pouched hornbill flock passed, whether nearby or in the distance.  We even had a small group perched on some trees!

"Barely had our team members finished counting the hornbills when team leader Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij would respond with the species name and count for both male and female !!!" - Mike, Photo by Mike Lu

Some perched Plain-pouched Hornbills in the distance. Photo by Trinket Constantino

And of course, we spotted more of the Pied Oriental and Black Hornbills we had been seeing the day before.

Black Hornbills preening:
a male (top, photo by Mike Lu) and a female (bottom, photo by Adri Constantino)

We had many other exciting finds as well: a trio of White-bellied Sea Eagles in a dog fight over territory surely caught our attention.  More Large-green Pigons, plus some Mountain Imperial Pigeons and belatedly identified Little Green Pigeons were perched on bare branches. A tiny Black-thighed Falconet looked diminutive beside the hornbills.

A trio of White-bellied Sea Eagles in aerial battle. Photo by Trinket Constantino

Soon, the sun rose higher and higher.  Aziz pulled up to a sloping muddy bank for a toilet break.  Wow, birding from a speedboat half the morning can give one quite a kink in the neck (not to mention sore backsides!).  

Mikeli stretches out (while still spotting hornbills!) on the speedboat
while the boys take a pee break and stretch their legs

Elephant tracks and poop studded the muddy bank!  The elephant tracks were just circular depressions, like someone had poked the mud with an upright pole!  There was dried up poop, all grassy and falling apart, and also fresh poop, just a few days old. While we didn't spot any elephants on the trip, it was as close as we got to a wild elephant encounter.

Adri's sandal inside an elephant footprint and fresh elephant droppings on the bank.Photo by Adri Constantino

The other speed boats converged also just as we were leaving the spot.  Our team decided to just go on with the survey, missing a chance for a group photo.  But it turned out that it was more than a fair exchange for one of the highlights of our entire trip!

Everyone else pulled up on the banks just as we were leaving. 
We missed the chance to be part of this group photo! Photo by Andrew Sebastian

On our way back, we saw several raptor species. We jokingly said that Royal Belum could be Raptor Capital as well! Sightings of Lesser Fish Eagles, Crested Honeybuzzards, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and even a distant Bat Hawk more than satisfied the raptor watcher in each of us.

Raptors galore at Royal Belum!  A Rufous-bellied Eagle (Photo by Adri Constantino), a Lesser Fish Eagle and Crested Serpent Eagle (photos by Trinket Constantino) and a several Oriental (crested) Honeybuzzards - in flight (photo by Trinket Constantino) and perched (Photo by Mike Lu) were only a few of several raptors we spotted.

In fact, the highlight I had mentioned earlier occurred while we were stalking a Changeable Hawk Eagle perched near the banks.  

A Changeable Hawk Eagle flying along the banks merited a closer view.  Little did we know that our time taking photos of it would lead us to the find of the trip!
Photo by Trinket Constantino

We were all concentrating on taking a photo of the regal bird when Aziz and Jay suddenly spotted a hornbill flying from behind the trees. It was a lone Helmeted Hornbill!  We had spectacular views of its bizzare head and casque and of its long tail.

The critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill made a surprise appearance! 
Photo by Adri Constantino

The Helmeted Hornbill is critically endanged due to hunting.  The very reason for its name and almost prehistoric appearance - its ivory-like casque, is the reason for its decline in the wild. It was also the logo for the 2017 Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition.

The Helmeted Hornbill is the expedition's logo! 

So it turns out that we were the only group to spot this species during the expedition, and modesty aside, we were very happy (and a bit smug) about our sighting!

During the lunch break, everyone went their own way.  Some took a rest from the humid heat. Some reviewed the photos from the morning. Some sat down to good conversation. Some continued to bird around the camp area. Some photographers looked for subjects. There was a Forest Wagtail hanging around and there were also some Stripe-throated Bulbuls to add to the list.

At camp: a pair of Forest Wagtails (photo by Trinket Constantino) and 
some Stripe-throated Bulbuls (photo by Adri Constantino) 
Mike and Adri and I explored around the base camp, but I refused to go into the trail after spotting a nice juicy leech at the trail entry!  When Victor Yu (of Taiwan) came out with Choy Wai Mun (of Malaysia) came out of the same trail later, Victor shook off more than 10 leeches attached to various body parts. In our shorts and sandals (speedboat attire), I was happy to have stayed out in the gazeebo just talking with the other participants!

Our fearless expedition leader Andrew :-) 
In a tree in the distance (we joked that it could've been in Thailand), eagle-eyed Andrew spotted a pair of Siamang playing in the trees.  The Siamang is the largest gibbon to be found in the area.

Can you spot the Siamang?
In the afternoon, we all set off again.  Ixi had passed on the afternoon survey because she was not feeling well, a decision she would also not regret later.

The afternoon survey started out at 4:00 in the afternoon and a nice light lit up the river forests. Photo by Mike Lu

As usual our most "common" sighting would be flocks of Plain-pouched Hornbills.  Halfway through the survey, as we were watching a Western Osprey fish over the waters, the skies darkened and angry looking clouds began rolling in.

Osprey with his catch! (photo by Trinket Constantino)
Mike asked that we raise the speedboat roof just in case.  It began to drizzle and we decided to head back.  But wait, there was a flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills playing nearby!  Despite the darkening skies we spent a few minutes watching the hornbills... and then it began to pour.

And it was REALLY POURING.  The visibility was pretty bad, it's amazing Aziz found his way to another camp nearby where we could take shelter (even if we were already soaking wet to the bone, especially poor Jay who was up front and center of the speedboat!).  It turned out that most everyone had gathered at the same camp to escape the sudden squall. We all laughed as we wrung out our wet clothes and checked our equipment.  And as gently as it began, the rain eased up and stopped completely.  We all headed back to our boats and sped through the waterways, enthralled by the beauty around us.  The golden rays of the afternoon sun seemed to make the water droplets on the trees sparkle, and an enchanting mist shrouded the low forests.

The mystical feel of the forest after the afternoon downpour. Photo by Mike Lu

When we got back, it was a quick rush by everyone to get to the showers!  After dinner, there was a short closing ceremony and sharing about our amazing Royal Belum experience. Guides, photographers, birders all gave their input.  While our group saw 4 hornbill species, the some of the other groups had also seen Rhinoceros Hornbill and Wreathed Hornbill, for a total of 6 hornbills species spotted. And then it was time for bed for everyone after a full and excitiing day in the Hornbill Capital of the World.

On our last evening we had a good exchange of experiences, ideas and suggestions.
Photo by Mike Lu

The next day, those of us not joining the post expedition tour to Fraser's Hill were sent on our way back to the jetty on speedboats (a much shorter half hour's ride back). Adri and I were assigned to a speedboat with the Thai and Singapore Teams while Mike was on a separate speedboat. On our way back, we passed a Peregrine Falcon perched on a dead tree trunk in the water. Not being able to resist, we  asked if it was possible to turn back the boat for better views.  It turns out that the Peregrine Falcon was feasting on what looked to be a Large Green Pigeon (as identified by Jay)!  Out came the packed cameras (at least the ones with shorter lenses) followed by a bit of jostling to get good views!

A Peregrine Falcon feasting on a Large Green Pigeon merited a slight delay in the boat ride back to the jetty! Photo by Adri Constantino

Out come the packed cameras!

But that wasn't the end of it.  A Grey-headed Fish Eagle way up close also merited the same request to turn back.  

A Grey-headed Fish Eagle entices the group to delay the trip back for just a little more! Photo by Adri Constantino

It seemed that no one wanted to end our expedition, not us and not the birds of Royal Belum. It was an experience to build memories, not only of great birds and birding, but of the friendships made and strengthened. It was a great farewell to the paradise of the Royal Belum State Park. 

 The Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition 2017: thanks for the great memories!  


The Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition was co-organised by Malaysia’s leading ecotourism NGO, ECOMY and the Perak State Park Corporation. The event was supported by the Northern Corridor Implementation Agency (NCIA), Tourism Malaysia and Ministry of Tourism & Culture Malaysia. An especially warm thanks to Expedition Leader extraordinaire Andrew Sebastian.