Wednesday, November 30

Squirrels in the City

A couple of Saturdays ago, I met up briefly with Adri and his group of Japanese birders at nearby La Mesa Eco Park (LMEP). One of the first creatures we spotted, right there at the parking lot, was a squirrel! It was high up in the narra trees, busy gnawing at something on the branches.

There are no squirrels native to Luzon island, but sightings have been more and more frequent in the past few years, especially in Metro Manila.

A Finlayson's squirrel (Callosciurus finalysonii) in La Mesa Eco Park

Finlayson's squirrels (Callosciurus finalysonii) are originally from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and are thought to have been introduced locally through the pet trade.

I first saw them as a new birdwatcher at the American War Cemetery in Taguig.  It was a common experience then to be distracted from birding by the sight of a furry creature with a long bushy tail scampering across the manicured lawns and rows of white crosses at the cemetery.  Since then, I've seen them at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife in Quezon City and at Avilon Zoo (outside the cages!) in Rodriguez.  My brother, who lives in Alabang, has often complained about them raiding bird's nests and chewing on electric and communications cables in their neighborhood.  Fellow birders have spotted them at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the residential areas of Dasmariñas and Forbes Park in Makati, and more recently at the Baclaran Church compound!

Having been born and raised in Metro Manila by parents who are also from Luzon, I was only familiar with squirrels from story books when I was very young (yes, Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin!) and picture books which showed mostly North American fauna. I was thrilled to learn (quite late I admit) that there were squirrels native to the Philippines.  I always love seeing the red, noisy tree squirrels on Palawan the locals call bising (and AT LEAST once I saw a squirrel in Mindanao).  

A Palawan Tree Squirrel (Sundasciurus juvencusin Puerto Princesa

A  Mindanao Squirrel (Sundasciurus mindanensisfrom Mt. Talomo in Davao. 
Photo c/o Adri

I find squirrels quite cute (note, they ARE rodents like the more often detested mice and rats, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds them cute). They scamper about the trees, moving up and down almost non stop, waving their bushy tails in the air. The Finlayson's is definitely no less cute in my book.

The problem is that the Finlayson's is not a native and it seems to be spreading quite quickly. It's already known to cause damage to man-made structures, especially electric wires, and is really becoming a pest. How else will it affect the environments (and the native species that live there) it is rapidly invading?  

The Finlayson's squirrel is already an entry in a wonderfully informative book which came out this year "The Mammals of Luzon Island: Biogeography and Natural History of a Philippine Fauna" by Heaney, Balete and Rickart.  It looks like this mammalian "foreigner" is here to stay in Luzon, much like the more familiar Long-tailed Macaques and Civet Cats which are also thought to have been introduced to Luzon long, long ago, and which have now been "naturalized". Here to stay, for better or (more likely) for worse.

So keep an eye out for these little mammals in your backyard Metro Manilans! Who would've thought, squirrels in the city.

Saturday, November 19

Brunch with the BBS

Last week, Alex and Tere were over at the house for brunch (Adri was out of town for work) and while we were at the dining table, I noticed that our little backyard butcher had brought down something long and squirmy.

Thinking it was either a huge earthworm or a tiny snake, I pointed her out to Alex and Tere. We could clearly see her struggling with her prey through the glass windows.

I quickly ran to my room to get my optics to confirm: sure enough it was a small snake, Calamaria gervaisii (Gervais' worm snake,  This prey was not new to the bbs (backyard brown shrike) menu, as I had seen it already before, but it was only recently, that I confirmed its identity, care of herping enthusiast friend Emerson.

BBS expertly impaled the snake on a large thorn of a potted kafir lime, and with a sharp poke of her beak, broke through the skin and slowly pulled out a long, white and bloody gut. (Glad our brunch wasn't spaghetti!)

We slowly moved out to the terrace to get a better look.  BBS momentarily stopped her exertions to take a wary look at us, and then, deciding that her food was of higher concern, continued to with her eating.

The three of us watched, mesmerized by the shrike's struggle with the longish creature. On every other pull, we would see its eyes cloud over as its translucent third eyelid covered its eyes.

After a few minutes, she flew off, leaving her fresh meal behind and giving us a chance for a closer inspection.

Yumyum. Warm and bloody.

Of course as soon as we stepped back, she returned to see if we had harmed her precious chow.  Taking another suspicious look at us (and obviously deciding we were up to no good)  she picked up her snake and flew it to the climbing rose at the back of the garden.

This was her favorite larder. Though its thorns were small, they were no less sharp. More importantly, they served their purpose well. Adri and I had documented a tiny gecko and a large furry yellow moth securely caught on the thorns during that same week.

We watched again, as she expertly laid out the snake by its long side, its skin shredded as it caught on the rose thorns.  Pretty soon it had clearly skinned the little snake, and could now easily tear it up into bite-sized pieces.

Wonderful backyard natural history in action.

We left it to enjoy its meal and went back to ours. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, November 2

Checking out Candaba

Last week, Adri and I went on a quick trip to check out the road conditions at Candaba and found ourselves walking under the hot morning sun!

Upon arriving, we stayed on the highway straight towards Brgy Paligui to check out the back way, which turned out to be under water!  The farmers were already preparing some of the fields and large flocks of Wood Sandpipers were moving around.  Egrets and Black-winged Stilts were also a-plenty. We were hoping to get a glimpse of a pair of recently sighted Glossy Ibis but no luck.

With the back way unavailable even by foot, we back tracked to Brgy Bahay Pare and tried our luck there.  The dirt road was looking good: rough but dry, and some farmers were out working.  Upon reaching a familiar bend (where there was a domesticated duck pen right before the irrigation pond), we were faced with an evil looking mud puddle.  Deciding not to risk getting stuck, we asked permission to park by the road.

"Good idea," the farmer said, "you're sure to get stuck before you reach the ponds!"

As we geared up to go, the sun was already shining bright.  A cool and pleasant wind blew though, signs of the changing seasons.

Pairs of Pied Bushchats greeted us along the path.

Olive-backed Sunbirds (not really something you would associate with Candaba) sang cheerfully from the thorny camachile trees.

We flushed Lesser Coucals along the way, they took curious looks at us before disappearing into the tall grass.

As we came up to the ponds, we were surprised to see that they were choked and overgrown with grass and greenery and that hardly any water could be seen!  Perhaps this season's rains have not been enough to flood the ponds which were surely drained last summer for planting and irrigation.

Larger birds were easy to sight: Grey Herons and Purple Herons and Black Crowned Night-herons stood in silent patrol.  Small but frequent flocks of Wandering Whistling Ducks and Philippine Ducks flew by, but were quickly swallowed up by the greenery as they landed on the covered waters.

We made our way west of the ponds in the direction of the highway.  Most of the fields were still under water.  Whiskered Terns, all sorts of egrets (Little, Intermediate, Great and Cattle) and Herons were perched on small islands of land. 

Strangely, we saw a few Garganey which had landed right beside a large congregation of domesticated ducks!  They seemed diminutive swimming beside their hybrid cousins!

I think it's the first time I've seen migrant ducks swimming with domesticated ducks.

In the distance, a few Philippine Ducks were swimming in the open, flooded waters.  A lone Tufted Duck seemed a little lost by itself.

Nearer to us, many Little Grebes were popping in and out of the water in the floating vegetation. They were quite vocal and I realised that I had never really paid attention to what they sounded like before.

We passed by a duck farmer who had collected some duck eggs and was leaving one of his dogs to watch over the ducks.  He mentioned how high up the dikes the water was during the previous 2 typhoons Karen and Lawin but how the weather was improving.  He was wondering from which direction we had come from as we were now nearer the back way which was flooded and inaccessible.  We pointed in the direction we had come from and he gave a little scratch of his head. (I could almost hear his thought bubble: Crazy birders!).  "Not many wild ducks yet," he said out loud, "Just the ones that are here all year round. Four more days of this sunny weather and the road will be dry and passable."

It was already nearing noon and so we made our way back to our car.  All the usual suspects were out: flocks and flocks of Red Turtle Doves and Zebra Doves, noisy grassbirds and warblers, Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns flying low across the ponds, Shrikes defending territories, Gerygones hopping about the rain tree canopy, swallows and bee-eaters gliding gracefully above  the fields, rails nervously crossing the paths.

As we left the pond area, a stately Purple Heron flew near us.

We had a very nice surprise on our walk back.  Several Eurema butterflies were puddling on the road!  They flew up in the air and surrounded us like yellow confetti as we passed them.

They quickly settled down and allowed us to get low shots of them delicately sipping minerals from the still damp ground.  I never thought this would be a sight I would see in Candaba!

Uneventful but all in all, it was a very pleasant walk and morning - hopefully a good sign of good birding days at Candaba ahead.

Sunday, October 30

Happy halloween!

Look who's here!

Shrikes are called tarat in the local dialect, but for today's ghoulish holiday, I think it is appropriate to borrow the local name of butcher cousin long-tailed shrike: mamumugot (head hunter).

BBS (backyard brown shrike) has settled well in the garden, hanging all sorts of hapless creatures on its rose bush larder.  Happy to have her back!

Her movements have become so predictable that it didn't take much effort for Adri to take this shot. He just asked me to do some fancy, quick lettering on a piece of plywood which he strung up on the favorite perch (clothesline across the backyard) and he had several shots to choose from in no time.

A happy halloween to all tonight!

Saturday, October 8

Sunny Saturday morning on campus

Sunny Saturdays are few and far between this rainy season, making it difficult to plan out-of-Metro-Manila birding trips.  Thankfully, the sprawling University of the Philippines grounds are just a stone throw's away.  So when the skies were looking clear last weekend, Adri and I went for a quick drive and walk to check out the birds.

We ran into birding couple Bob and Cynthia, and caught up on the latest news.  In typical birder and photographer fashion, our conversation remained uninterrupted while we stared up into the trees and pointed out birds in the canopy.  A few Golden-bellied Gerygones were hopping about, and we all happy to spot our very first Arctic (Kamchatkca/Japanese Leaf) Warbler for the season.

As we were about to go our separate ways, Adri spotted a lone migrant Ashy Minivet perched on a clump of bamboo in the distance.

When Bob and Cynthia left to check out other birding spots on campus, Adri and I continued our exploration of the College of Science Complex.  An unusually quiet Collared Kingfisher was sitting on a low branch in the dappled sunlight.

A few noisy Crested Mynas were flying around, perching from tree to tree.  At each tree they stopped for several minutes, inspecting the branches carefully.

A Long-tailed Shrike was busy following one of the gardeners who was trimming the grass, keeping a careful lookout for any insects disturbed by the noisy grass cutter.

The Black-naped Orioles were also very vocal, their piercing whistles heard from several blocks away.

But the definite bird-of-the-moment was the Brown Shrike. These newly arrived migrants seemed to be in the process of battling every resident bird in their annual territorial disputes!  They called loudly and harshly from every parking lot, quadrangle and unkempt green space.

There were also a lot of butterflies flying around, probably enjoying the sunny morning as much as we were.  The Leea plant in front of the Marine Science Institute was attracting several of them, which were perched and recharging under the bright sunshine.

While watching some Yellow-vented Bulbuls and a Coppersmith Barbet devouring the fruit of a Ficus beside the library, we ran into another familiar face: fellow WBCP-er Jon Villasper, and the conversation turned from the latest birds spotted to the latest Pokemon spotted on campus!

When Jon left us to battle it out in a nearby Pokemon Gym, our attention turned to a Red-keeled Flowerpecker hopping about on one of the trees. While its a bird often heard around campus, we seldom actually get a chance to track it down and spot it.

Time had flown by quickly and we had already been walking around for over a couple of hours!  Our spontaneous birding trip had given us the quick fix we were hoping for.

Good to have a great green space so near home.  I'm sure the Collared Kingfisher who saw us off agrees!