Sunday, February 7

Too dark, too fast, too far, too hidden, or ... not birds

Makiling has always been one of my favorite birding sites, near enough for a day trip from Metro Manila.  But somehow, my last couple of trips have been quite unexciting, with few sightings on the first part of the trail and even the usual suspects keeping out of sight.

So, eager to improve on our luck and hoping for Maria Makiling's blessings, Adri and I headed out on a school holiday.  I must admit that the birding did improve greatly, with wonderful sightings of Striped Flowerpecker, Yellow-bellied Whistler, White-eared Brown Dove, Rufous Paradise Flycatcher and Scale-feathered Malkoha, among many others.

Bird photography-wise however, I was far from satisfied.

One of the first sightings we had was a White-browed Shama, a bird I have not seen clearly in quite a while.  I was happy to have a clear view of it singing in the undergrowth.

Too bad it was too dark for a decent photo:

We were also happy to come across a mixed flock.  It started with a lone Elegant Tit, accompanied by a Rufous Paradise Flycatcher, Handsome Sunbirds, Yellow-bellied Whistlers and Yellow-wattled Bulbuls.  They were moving through the canopy so fast we could hardly keep up with them. 

Whilst we were trying to catch the bird wave, a pair of Luzon Flamebacks, suddenly landed on a nearby tree!  I was so surprised and before I could adjust my camera settings to take a decent photo, the woodpeckers had moved on as well.  

Too fast for slow me.

We had taken our time up the trail, that we were nowhere near the nursery at mid-morning and it was already getting quiet.  We decided to move to the Botanical Garden, not sure if there would be any worth while sightings nearing noon.

After a quick walk around, we were curious about a couple of birds calling out loudly from the tops of the high trees. The calls were unfamiliar and attempts to sight the birds gave us quite a kink in the neck from looking up.  The best we could see was movement in the thick foliage, and once in a while a pair of black silhouettes moving back and forth.

Finally, the noisy birds moved to a more open tree (no less high though) and through our binoculars we could clearly see their distinctive features: glossy purple plumage, a barred belly and a bright orange beak and eyering.  Mystery solved: 2 Violet Cuckoos.

And yes they remained up high and far away: waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay up in the trees.

We were getting hungry (and had given up on the Cuckoos coming any closer), so we decided it was time for lunch.  We were sidetracked though by a pair of Red-Crested Malkohas which were very, very near to us on the side of the path.

I had never seen such an obliging pair of Malkohas.  They remained virtually motionless for almost an hour (yes, lunch was delayed by an hour).  Unfortunately, they remained motionless behind a trunk or some leaves or tangles.  

Hidden behind the leaves and branches, sooooo close and yet so far away!


In contrast, the butterflies were quite cooperative to having their photographs taken.  

(Clockwise from top left: Cyrestis maenalis , Zethera pimplea, Mycalesis ita, Neptis sp., Notocrypta paralysos, Phitecops corvus, Tanaecia calliphorus - corrections to ID very welcome)

And so was this sun skink (birds and reptiles are dinosaurs... so this photo counts right?)

All decent photographs of ... not birds.

On the brighter side,  I'm happy that our birding up the lower forest trail has vastly improved since the last two outings.  And, there's always the next visit to look forward to right?

Saturday, February 6

Balcony birding

Most days were cold and grey,
Work-related trips out of the country are a dilemma for me birding-wise.  I always hope that, despite a packed schedule, I would have a chance for even just a bit of birding. My latest trip to Nara in Japan was no different.

I spent 8 full days on campus, but my schedule offered little time to go birding, having lab rotations scheduled the entire day.  I did have the weekend free, but since it was my first time in Japan, I opted to see the sights and experience the culture, rather than do a birding trip.  I also had a hard time dealing with the temperature, it was my first winter and the region just happened to experience a cold snap a couple of days after I arrived!

But, I did get a bit of birding done, and a few lifers: from my balcony!  I could have taken short morning walks around campus, but with my official workday beginning at 930am, and with temperatures too cold (-3 degrees Celsius was too cold for me to even think of leaving my warm room) for my tropical temperament, the best I could do was watch birds from the small terrace outside my room. It spanned the view from east to west across campus, and I was on the 4th floor, high enough to espy even birds perched on top of the buildings.

The dorm buildings to the east.

School buildings in directly in front.

And the sunset and more buildings (plus a tennis court) on the west,

Thanks to my Japanese birder friend from the Wild Bird Society of Japan, Asuka-san for giving  me a small Japan field guide last year.  It was very useful, and beautifully illustrated by Taniguchi-san (whom I met during the Philippine Birdfest last December in Balanga), I was able to identify all the birds I saw, even if the field guide was in Japanese! (At least I hope I did!)
My handy pocket field guide from the WBSJ!

Easily the most common and most visible birds were the Brown-eared Bulbuls. They pretty much owned the entire frontage of the guesthouse, chasing away most other birds. They kept careful watch over a tree laden with blue fruit, enjoying their feast every morning.  Their loud calls could be heard on campus all day.

Brown-eared Bulbul

The second most common would be the Jungle Crow.  I would hear them cawing as crows would, but it was only later that I was able to identify which species was common in Japan.

Jungle Crow

The first bird I actually noticed on campus was not a lifer for me.  White Wagtails were quite common, walking on the grassy fields and on the roads and paths. There were often two or even three of them together bouncing their behinds actively.  I tried hard to remember Richard's lessons of subspecies from the Laoag wagtails, but failed to identify them on the spot.

White wagtails

Another familiar bird was a male Blue Rock Thrush I would see everyday. It was quite handsome and not shy at all.  It was one of the birds the Brown-eared Bulbuls would tolerate having around for long periods of time.

Blue Rock Thrush

Also around every morning, but often quite a distance away were a few Dusky Thrushes. They were very handsome birds, not as noisy or active as the bulbuls, and often perched on the branches for long periods of time or foraging on the ground.

Dusky Thrush

Very common were several big, fat Rock Doves, on the ground or perched on top of the buildings or outside windows.

Feral Rock Doves

I was pleasantly surprised to spot a juvenile Japanese Grosbeak twice during my stay.  Again it was perched quite a distance away, but it showed itself well the first time, staying out in the open on bare branches.

Japanese Grosbeak

Japanese White-eyes would twitter a familiar sound as they moved about in the foliage and transferred from tree to tree.

Japanese White-eye

I had also spotted  a Japanese Tit one afternoon, but I wasn't able to take a photo of it.

And of course the Eurasian Tree Sparrows were  also daily visitors, not as common as back home though. And quite fluffed up all the time so they appeared much more... rotund... than usual.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Every now and then, a small flock of White-cheeked Starlings would attempt to intrude on bulbul territory, but they would quickly be chased away.

White-cheeked Starling

So those were my regular visitors I could enjoy every morning on my balcony.  I did see other birds on campus, my favorite being a female Daurian Redstart just outside our building.  Too bad I didn't have my camera with me!  It was sooo cute!  I knew right off it was some kind of flycatcher and the white wing patch helped me with the ID.

ID'ing the Daurian Redstart

Another lifer was a Meadow Bunting, which I saw while walking behind the dorm buildings to a nearby convenience store.  I would have never been able to identify it if i didn't have my pocket point-and-shoot with me.  Not a great photo, but it served its purpose.

Meadow Bunting

The 10 days passed quite quickly, of course the days began to warm to a comfortable 6 -7 degrees towards the end of my stay.  I'm quite sure there were other birds I caught a glimpse of which I was unable to identify or even observe closely, and I wish I had more chances to go birding. Glad to have gotten a few lifers though on this work trip, even if it was just from my balcony!

My balcony's the top floor middle one.

(I do hope I got all the IDs correctly!  I would welcome corrections from more experienced birders!)

Wednesday, February 3

The new neighbors

IMPORTANT NOTE:  All photos here were taken through a spotting scope from a distance to avoid disturbing the nesting barbets.  NEVER harass nesting birds, expose the nest or stay within the nest area for extended periods of time. It may seem like common sense to keep away from nests, but sometimes curiosity can get the better of us.  For other common sense bird photography reminders, check out:

For several weeks now, Adri and I have noticed high barbet activity. Barbets would be calling their distinct pok-pok-pok-pok call most of the day, even in the evening and the wee hours of the morning!

These 2 barbets have been pok-pok-pok-pok-ing all day (and sometimes even at night!

They've been quite easy to spot especially on the trees with hardly leaf cover!

A couple of weeks ago, we discovered a possible nest hole across the street, and we were very excited!  It would be a new nest record in our "backyard" (strictly speaking it wasn't in OUR yard, or even in the back). We've observed Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Pied Trillers, Pied Fantails, Eurasian Tree Sparrows and even Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers nesting, but no barbets yet.

Last weekend, we were outside when we heard the familiar barbet call again.  We glanced at the nesting tree, and to our delight, a barbet seemed to be inspecting the nest hole and cleaning it out!

Inspecting the hole: it's amazing how they fit exactly in the perfectly round entrance.

We set up the scope in our yard, searching for a clear view between the trees (and fences, and electric wires, and street signs!).

It's confirmed, we have new neighbors!  

Several consecutive holes: alternate entrances? decoys?

I hope the nesting is successful! We'll be sure to check out the nest hole every now and then for updates.

Each of the pair entered a different hole for the night. Very interesting!

Yay to a bird-friendly neighborhood!

Saturday, January 30

Twitching the Candaba teals

As I mentioned in my previous post on Candaba, a couple of days after Adri and I did our ocular, Rob and Irene and Mel spotted a new country record: a Baikal Teal.  After a few days, a duck which was spotted earlier by Kevin Artiaga (one of Lala's students), was identified as a Falcated Duck (also known as Falcated Teal), another country record!

Exciting times again for Candaba, after last year's Baer's Pochard.

With Adri out on tour, I was happy to tag along with Tere, Alex and Drew to twitch the country rarity.  Meeting us there were Tina and Neon ready with their bazooka lenses. Mads and Jude were also following.  A daily stream of visitors kept us up to date on the sightings, it was obviously a big deal to the local birding community to have two new country records at a very accessible location.

When we arrived, the plains and ponds were just being lit up by the golden morning light.  In front of us was the remaining pond, filled with thousands of ducks: mostly the endemic Philippine Ducks, some resident Wandering Whistling Ducks, and the migrants of course: Garganey, Northern Shovellers, Northern Pintails, Eurasian Wigeons, Green-winged Teal, Tufted Ducks.  The challenge was on to find a single Baikal Teal and a single Falcated Duck.

This pond is where we had to find the ducks.

As we surveyed the ponds, every now and then a flock of Black-winged Stilts would take to the air, elegant and graceful as ever.

Black-winged stilts in flight.

The skittish Philippine Ducks would also suddenly lift off noisily from the water's surface, joined by a few migrants.  They would circle the ponds and land again, with just as much splash as they made taking off.

A frenzy of Philippine ducks.

A Eurasian Coot swam quietly near us.

This coot was quite close.

We were all quietly concentrating on looking at each and every duck (something we really should do, even without specific target in mind: that's how unusual sightings are made!).

And then, in a sea of fl0ating kangkong leaves and blossoms, a brilliant emerald green suddenly popped out.  It was the Baikal Teal!

Can you spot the Baikal Teal in this photo? (See the close-up below)

A beautifully plumaged duck: the Baikal Teal in the floating vegetation.

It was quite a distance away, thankfully it was in the vicinity of a small bahay kubo in the middle of the pond, which made it easier to point out to the others.

The teal was somewhere here.


Watch this short video in HD (click play then the gear on the bottom to change quality to HD).  Thanks to Alex for sharing this i-phone-scoped video!

It was busy preening itself, so every now and then its head would disappear into the kangkong.  Later it would even go to sleep, its head tucked under its wings.

It became even harder to spot when it tucked its head in to sleep.

It's a good thing it had a very distinct head pattern and color, which made it easier to spot once you knew its general location.

Here it is!

Later it would move around, never flying up but paddling across the pond or flying low short distances. As long as we kept our eye on it from time to time, it was easy to keep track of it or even to find it again.

It moved about in the kangkong, mostly half hidden with only its head sticking out (thanks to Drew for the enhanced i-phone-scoped photo on the corner!)

High fives and thumbs up all around!

Birders and photographers enjoying the Teal, even if it was quite a distance away.

As we were observing the Teal, suddenly an Eastern Marsh Harrier showed up, spooking most of the ducks into the air (but thankfully not the teal).  

A majestic aerial display by an Eastern Marsh Harrier.

While we were watching the aerial display, Mads suddenly exclaimed: "Nakita ko na sya!" ("I've spotted it!") referring to the Falcated Duck.

Scopes, cameras and bins suddenly zoomed in on to the general location Mads was pointing to, which was even further than the location of the Teal!

The Falcated Duck is somewhere here, with some Philippine Ducks and Northern Pintail.

Sure enough, swimming with several Philippine Ducks was the target. It was a handsome duck, with a deep chocolate, head which glossed a bright green under the sun. It had a white throat and spot at the base of its beak.

The Falcated Duck was busy preening, it's green glossy head shimmering in the sunlight.

Like the Teal, it was busy preening itself, and every know and then we could see the curved feathers on its side and back after which it was named.

Yay again!

A short video of the Falcated Duck, thanks to Tere for sharing this i-phone scoped video! (Remember to watch it in HD)

It's great to have had the chance to observe these new country records.  We couldn't use our normal Kennedy field guide as it didn't have these species' descriptions, so we had to refer to other field guides.

No Kennedy guides were used that morning!

These sightings once again highlighted the need to preserve the remaining wetlands of Candaba which have all but been converted to great swathes of rice fields to feed the burgeoning population. The earth that feeds and shelters us needs to feed and shelter those we share it with too.

Mads writes about the latest Candaba sightings and a new initiative to save its remaining wetlands here: