Sunday, May 17

Grown up and ready to go

I've had a grand time this summer observing the Philippine Pied Fantails and Yellow-vented Bulbuls raising their chicks!  I've lost track of the bulbuls, but a few weeks ago I took one final family snap shot:

You can see that several weeks after leaving the nest, the young ones are still begging their parents for food.

In the meantime, one of the young fantails is still following its parent around the garden.  And even when I can't see it can still hear it perpetually haranguing for food.  One is constantly being followed by the other. In the late afternoons, parent and child even take a dip in the bird bath together.

We've also spotted several other indefatigable parents feeding their almost-adult offspring around the yard:  Olive-backed Sunbirds, Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers and of course the ever-present Eurasian Tree Sparrows.

With the young birds soon venturing off on their own, I hope they are just as successful at raising their own families next season.

Thursday, May 14

Feeding frenzy at a magic tree

It was the Labor Day weekend and Adri and I found ourselves birding at a favorite site: Subic!

Subic birding is always a great experience.  The patches of lowland forest are readily accessible by car and (most of the time) birds show themselves quite well.  This morning was no exception. Pigeons, hornbills, parrots, bulbuls, cuckoo-shrikes, malkohas, woodpeckers, shamas, tailorbirds, balicassiao, coletos... it seemed the birds were all out and about.

We had several great views through binoculars, but often the views were quick and left us, as we say in Tagalog, bitin (literally: hanging, because of unsatisfying glimpses).

As usual, the Rufous Coucals were calling loudly as they scrambled in the undergrowth playing a game of Simon Says.  Despite landing predictably on a perch where the previous coucal had just left, these birds move so quickly and skulk in the tangles so much it's hard to get a good look (or a good photo!)

Rufous Coucals hardly ever sit still!

I even had a lifer of sorts that morning.  A beautiful female Common Koel (I'd only ever seen the all black males) was calling loudly and we could see her beautifully-patterned plumage blending nicely with the branches and dried leaves.  It would have been a great view had a Large-billed Crow not suddenly chased her away into the closed canopy!

There goes the Common Koel!

Green Imperial Pigeons seemed to be perched on trees everywhere, their soft, growl-like calls heard almost all day.  Unfortunately, most trees in Subic are quite huge, so the GrImps were always quite a distance away.  

GrImps always strike me as huge birds.  This one was waaaay up high a Cupang tree.

We also came across a majestic Philippine (Luzon) Hawk-Eagle, soaring and calling loudly at high noon. Wonderful views but quite difficult to track the bird (thru both binoculars and a camera lens!) against the white-hot summer sky!

It's always exciting to see (and hear)  the adult Philippine (Luzon) Hawk-eagle!

While admiring a recently used Besra nest, a Luzon Hornbill appeared and hopped on a branch right above me!  An exciting close encounter, but (not) so nice a bottom-up view though!

Admiring a bottom-up view of a friendly Luzon Hornbill

Fortunately for Adri and me, we found something birders always wish they would encounter on any sortie: a magical fruiting tree!  This was a tree many birds loved to feed on! It's like a beacon attracting all sorts of birds to come and feast on its abundant fruit. All we had to do was wait quietly nearby and soon enough the birds would come!

There are so many of these trees in Subic, and we've always noticed them but we never took the time to find out what they were.  We always called them "the tree with the fruit which looks like little crabs," because of the prickly appearance of the capsule-like fruit.

Macaranga sp. leaves and fruit.  Is this Macaranga tanarius ?

My friend Cel of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Inc (PNPCSI) helped me later identify it as a Macaranga species.  With some internet searching, I'm leaning towards Macaranga tanarius (I could be wrong with the exact species though).  

The first birds we saw on a Macaranga that morning was a pair of White-eared Brown Doves. Normally very shy, this pair ignored us and continued to gorge themselves.

A not-so-shy White-eared Brown Dove.

Later in the afternoon, we found several birds feeding at this magical tree.

Can you spot the pigeon and the parrot feeding on this tree?

Blue-eyed Philippine Green Pigeons would fly back and forth from tree to tree.  They blended quite well with the foliage, but their noisy wing flaps and ungainly hopping from branch to branch gave them away.  They were joined by the smaller White-eared brwon doves as well as the larger Philippine Cuckoo-doves.

The blue eye of this Philippine Green Pigeon fades into the background as it is photo-bombed by the red forehead of a feeding Coppersmith Barbet!

Parrots also partook of the feast.  Blue-naped Parrots, Guaiaberos, Colasisis and Green Racket-tails flew from tree to tree.
A greying Blue-naped Parrot picks gently at the fruit.

Noisy little Guaiaberos join the party!

But the biggest surprise of all were the woodpeckers!  White-bellied woodpeckers, Sooty Woodpeckers and Luzon Flamebacks crept up and down the Macaranga branches, not pecking at the wood as expected, but delicately picking at the fruit!

Strange sight to see a Luzon Flameback picking fruit!

Even the White-bellied Woodpecker came to eat!

This  Sooty Woodpecker was part of a trio which flew to this neighboring tree after visiting the fruiting Macaranga.

It was a great and easy birding afternoon, we hardly moved from one spot and we saw so many birds! We had planned to check  out a different site for the sunset, but the trees we were observing never lacked for any bird company and before we knew it, the light was fading fast!

Staking out a magical fruiting tree.

Macaranga tanarius is a pioneer tree which can probably be used to start off the ecological succession in damaged forests.  Moreover, it is a native species which should benefit native wildlife as well.  Seeing all those birds in Subic flock to it in a feeding frenzy definitely indicates this!

P.S.  Of course we just had to try out the Chocolate Boobook before heading home.  I'm really getting to a point where my photo HAS to be improving!

Will I EVER get this photo right?!?!?

Friday, April 24

Stalking the neighbors

Having spent the weekend away from home in Ilocos to check on migrating raptors, I was anxious to check on the progress of the Philippine Pied Fantail and Yellow-vented Bulbul fledgelings in the backyard.

We arrived straight from Ilocos at 730am, and I was delighted to find the fantail chicks already out of the nest and jumping around the branches of the tamarind tree.  Their parents were busy as ever, searching for food and feeding the young ones.  It was a nice view from the second floor bedroom window, I tried to get a photo, but it turned out a bit blurry because of the screen.

Parent and child: an artistic filter care of a dusty screened window.

During the week, before leaving for work,  I would do a quick round of the garden to try and spy the bulbuls.  My mom said that she had seen them on Sunday on a bush a few meters away from the nest tree.  They stayed in the area and were quite easy to find, one just had to listen carefully for excited chirping and tweeting and look carefully for the parents coming back and again.

I had a chance to get home from work with the sun still up on Thursday, so I had more time to check on the birds.

The fantails had moved on to the neighboring mango tree.  They were pretty high up, but they were easy to spot as they were already moving about quite actively and even fanning out and flicking their tiny tails like the adults would.

Mini-Philippine Pied Fantails: behaving like adults already!

Their parents were amazingly adept at catching all sorts of critters for their 2 young.  They would comb through the mango trees and fly across the garden and be back in no time.  Always excited to greet them (and quite aggressively at that!) were 2 hungry mouths wide open.

Feed me!!!

A bit of good news though for the parents, it seems the babies are growing up fast, and at least one of the parents now has some "me" time.  We caught it taking time for a quick dip in the bird bath!

Dad (or mum) sneaking in a quick bath in between feedings!

Across the yard the young bulbul pair was making similar progress.  They were a bit older and flew around the area of three trees as they chased their own busy parents.

The young bulbuls in the rambutan tree right of the makopa nest tree.

It was more difficult to catch a photo of them with mum or dad since they would be off from their perches to meet their parents as soon as they spied them approaching with food. 

The young bulbuls in the rambutan tree left of the makopa nest tree!

But that afternoon Adri and I had another discovery: there was another bulbul family in the garden!  As we were setting up a new bird bath in the front yard, we heard a familiar twittering call above us.  It was another pair of Yellow-vented Bulbul young!  These looked a little older than the pair in the backyard.  We had earlier suspected a bulbul nest in the mango tree on the sidewalk outside our fence (we would see a pair of bulbuls regularly entering the canopy a few weeks before), but we never put effort into finding it.  It turns out our suspicions were correct!

Another bulbul family in the front yard!

This pairs chirps already sounded very bulbul-like, a soft luclac  gurgle.  As we watched them, here came one of their parents, ready to pass on some food.


Having 3 growing (bird) families in the garden is the coolest thing!  I'm looking forwards to seeing the young birds get stronger and start flying around after their parents.  I hope my stalker days following their progress will extend into the next few weeks.  Hopefully, they will continue to hang around the garden!

Monday, April 20

A River of Raptors

It was the tail end of the migration season and I hadn't participated in the spring raptorwatch yet!  Luckily I had a weekend when I didn't have any work and when Adri was also free.  So last Friday night we jumped on a pink public transport bus heading up north and arrived at Pannzian Resort in the town of Pagudpud to join master raptor-watchers Alex and Tere (plus Mang Boy!) who were doing an entire season's count of raptors leaving the country from Ilocos heading north to Taiwan and mainland Asia.  We had already established Pannzian as an excellent raptorwatch site during exploratory trips in 2013.

We arrived at Panziann at 730am, welcomed by a sun-kissed Tere and in time for a hearty longanisa breakfast prepared by Mang Boy.  After a quick update (they had been on the field for over a month!), we quickly joined Alex near the beach where they had set up the watch under a small grove.  The trees provided shade from the searing summer sun and had a nice view of 4 hills behind which kettles of raptor formed, riding on thermals created on the slopes of Mt. Pico de Loro behind the hills.

Now and again we were joined by Efren, an employee of the resort who had taken interest in the raptorwatch and was already in training to monitor local migration.  Curious guests at the resort also joined us that morning. We were eager to see raptors, the group down South at Tanay (Rizal) having reported over 4,000 Chinese Sparrowhawks (Chinese Goshawks) the previous day.  But our first morning was slow, and we only observed a few kettles of Grey-faced Buzzards and Chinese Sparrowhawks, totaling 321 and 870 individuals respectively.  We also counted 3 Oriental Honey Buzzards and 3 Osprey.  These were only the migrants, as Pansian is also home to several resident raptors which we also saw: Philippine Serpent Eagles, Philippine Hawk Eagles, While-bellied Sea Eagles and Brahminy Kites.

The next morning, we were up and about early and as Alex and I were having our coffee up near the cottage (which also provided a view of the hills, but at another angle), we spotted an early kettle of Grey-faced Buzzards forming over the first peak.  These were probably birds who had roosted on the hills and were preparing for an early morning ocean crossing. 

This year's spring migration headquarters

At half past 6 am, we spotted lone Chinese Sparrowhawk against the blue sky dotted with wispy cumulocirrus clouds.  As we followed it with our bins we spotted a huge kettle of goshawks forming over the hills!  To our amazement, raptors flying in from the west were joining the kettle making it even larger!

Can you count the Chinese Sparrowhawks?  (The blur is a jackfruit tree in the foreground)

A River of raptors!

Then as the raptors achieved height, as if on cue, one by one, the raptors began streaming off towards the north east.  After a certain distance, the kettle would reform and the two kettles of swirling raptors were connected by a river of soaring, gliding and flapping birds of prey.  It was a magnificent sight.

Wings flickering as the flap and glide, like shimmering water or starlight in the day.

Chinese Sparrowhawks are easily identified by their small size and flapping flight.  They have white underparts with black wingtips while their upperparts are brownish grey.  Because they tend to flap a lot, they look like twinkling water drops (stars even! in broad daylight!) catching the sunlight.  And so the river of sparrowhawks was alive with flickering, shimmering wings.

An iron eagle behind a kettle of goshawks.

Many of the resort employees joined us, awestruck by the spectacle.  Later in the morning we were also joined by Laoag-based birders Doc Pete and his guests. We ended the day with a record 12,283 Chinese Sparrowhawks, with peak migration at 630 to 8 o'clock in the morning.  Despite the fact that it was past the peak of Grey-faced Buzzard migration (they leave earlier and, in autumn, arrive later), we still counted 322 of them.  Plus 3 Oriental Honey Buzzards.  It was an outstanding migratory raptor count.

As you can see, raptorwatching is a sedentary affair!

It was a good day for raptorwatch, Alex's and Tere's (and Mang Boy's!) 39th day on the spring count, and a fitting tribute to these raptorwatchers who are quickly filling the black hole of information for raptor migration in the country. 

P.S.  A huge thanks also to Bing and Ken of Pannzian for their huge support of this year's spring raptor migration count!  We definitely (heart) Pannzian!

Sunday, April 12

Bird Parenting 101

Remember the Philippine Pied Fantail pair attacking the fur-kid in the backyard?  I did find the nest high up in the sampaloc (tamarind) tree. It was a neat, cup-shaped nest built at the intersection of very thin branches.  It was clearly seen from the second floor bedroom window (unfortunately a screened window) and I could see the pair taking turns sitting on the nest a few days after I wrote about them.  I could only check on them before leaving for work in the morning, as an important project had me coming home at night the entire week.

This morning, I was happy to see that the couple was busy feeding a pair of  pin-feathered chicks who would automatically beg for food with open mouths the moment one of the parents landed on the nest branch.
Each parent takes its turn visiting the nest to pass on some food.

The nest was well hidden from the ground but Adri found a nice angle which was relatively clear, although it was a bottom-up view.

It's funny how the head of one of the chicks is hanging out of the nest.

It was amazing to watch the parents tirelessly take turns coming back to the nest the entire day, bringing with them food caught from around the garden and from the next door empty lot.

The parents are so busy looking for food they hardly mind anything else.

Here's a short video from Adri taken with his digiscoping set-up (watch in HD):

While Adri and I were watching the fantails busy catching insects with their graceful acrobatic moves from the terrace, a pair of Yellow-vented Bulbuls on the other side of the garden caught my attention. 
One of a pair of Yellow-vented Bulbuls also busy looking for food.

I followed their regular return to the makopa  (wax apple) tree and quickly spotted a very well hidden nest in the thick foliage above!  The nest looked untidy compared to the fantail nest, but I knew from other bulbul nests we had previously that it was very sturdy.

The bulbul nest with an out-of-focus parent's  eye barely visible on the right side.

Like the fantails, the bulbuls dutifully returned bringing with them a mouthful of food.  I couldn't see the nest clearly but a loud twittering and slight fluttering welcomed each of the parents' arrival.  It looked like these chicks were much older than the fantails. The pair regarded me curiously on each return.

Food delivery for hungry chicks.
While watching this energetic couple from the terrace, I was distracted by a third bulbul who was bold enough to take a dip in the bird bath beside the nest tree, when suddenly there was a commotion from the parent pair.

My guess was right, these chicks (I thought there were at least 2) were probably a couple of weeks old already, and one of them had fallen into the  bird's nest fern growing on the main trunk of the tree!

This young bird decided that today would be a good day to leave the nest.

It looked very young with its yellow gape but its feathers had already fully emerged.  Was this the first outing for this fledgling?  I was confident that the bird was safe in the fern, now living up to its name as a bird's nest.  The poor parents now took turns feeding the chick(s?) in the original nest and this brave young one who had ventured out.  They now had a "first floor" and "second floor" nest!

I thought the young bird would stay in place, but apparently it had a taste for adventure as it followed its parents up and down the nearby branches!

Venturing out of the safety of the nest into the open!
The parents would check on it and feed it every know and then.  Soon it jumped back into the foliage, making its way to the higher branches where the original nest was, until we lost sight of it.


Parents keeping tabs on their young one.

Here's another video clip from Adri (watch in HD!), see how cute the young bulbul is with its little crest:

I love finding these little displays of natural history in our garden! The amount of energy invested by the parent birds in bringing up their brood is inspiring. Last year we had followed a nest from egg to fledge and it was both amazing and worrisome.  We were so stressed over little things like a summer rainstorm, to curious eyes (and hands!) from the other side of the fence, to stray cats! The emotional investment of watching the parents incubate the eggs and care for the young birds and finally wondering when they fledged whether they would survive was so taxing!

I do hope that both the fantails and the bulbuls survive the dangerous days after the fledge and start their own families next year!