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!

Sunday, April 5

A Field Guide to the Birds of Anvaya Cove

A while back, Anna G. asked if Adri and I were interested in writing for a field guide for the birds of Anvaya cove.  Of course we were!  We had been to Anvaya several times to help out the Beach and Nature Club Staff in guided trips for guests, residents and members.  It's great that the Ayala Land Group are actively considering native flora and fauna in their projects, hopefully it will be a trend for all local land development companies.

Congratulations to the entire team which brought this project to life on a very tight timeline!  Thank you to Tina S. and Mike A. of the Philippine Bird Photography Forum and Manny I. of Ayala Land Premiere for their generous contribution of their beautiful bird photographs.  

I wrote about the project on the bird club's monthly e-newsletter ebon.  Read more about the project here:

Wednesday, April 1

Fantail versus Fur-kid

With the summer heat beating down on everyone and chasing off the backyard Brown Shrike to seek cooler climes, the Pied Fantails have taken over the garden.

Seasonal king of the backyard: the Pied Fantail

Unfortunately for the fur-kid, whose curious exploration of the backyard has come to mean being dive-bombed by one (or two) very aggressive bird(s)!  

The poor dog is at a loss as what to do with this angry bird going for his butt! 
(domesticated bantam chicken and wild colasisi sounds in the background)

The fur-kid seems to have forgotten his lesson from last year where he would carefully scope out the backyard from the side, taking a careful look at the gardenia bush which was a favorite perch, before making his appearance.

This time the attacks are pure surprise as the bombers come from above at the opposite end of the garden.  The base seems to be a huge tamarind tree.

The cause for such fury?  Well, it looks that love is in the air and the fantail pair are on their way to raising a new generation of little feathered hellions.

Unfortunately, they've already dropped two ivory colored eggs on the ground!  I haven't spotted the nest yet, but I am certain it is high up in the tree and certainly beyond reach to return the eggs. Hopefully the pair has more than 2 eggs in their basket!

Hoping there are more eggs in the nest.

Saturday, February 14

a lesson in conservation at Candaba

Bringing another small group (separate from those who went to Bohol) of my Conservation Biology students to take a look at a classic example of wetlands conversion at Candaba allowed me an opportunity to twitch one of the rarest ducks in the world: the critically endangered Baer's Pochard.

The classification of critically endangered is not a very good category to be in, it means that this species is considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. And with an estimated 150 - 700 mature individuals left in the wild, the Baer's Pochard sadly and definitely belongs in this category.

The key reasons for its rapid decline? Hunting and wetland destruction in both its breeding and wintering grounds.

When we arrived at the ponds, I quickly allowed a couple of hours for birding.  We were lucky to have a display of power by a pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers, who spooked the ducks into flying up into the air, to the delight of the group.

An Eastern Marsh Harrier preening in the morning light after flushing the ducks.
More than half of the main pond (the only remaining pond) had already been drained and converted to rice fields for the season, and so the ducks and other water birds were all crowded into a bit of water left on the side of the house and rundown DENR station.  It was ironic that, as the ponds were now being converted to rice fields, for the first time in several years we could see several species of ducks together in the pond.  I remember in the first couple of years that I started birding, the whole of the pond looked like that!  

There were the resident Philippine Ducks and Wandering Whistling Ducks. Joining them were the migrant Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Garganey, Northern Shovellers, Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon.  Then there were the not so common migrants: Gadwall, Common Pochard and of course the star: a lone Baer's Pochard.

Also included were several Purple Swamphens, Purple and Grey Herons, white egrets (Great, Intermediate and Little), White-breasted Waterhens, Common Moorhens, White-browed Crakes, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Little Grebes and even a Eurasian Coot!

I expected to run into a few birders and photographers on our trip, and sure enough we did.  While my students were doing their interviews of the locals and the recreational visitors (mostly bikers), Adri called me to tell me that they had spotted the Baer's Pochard.  I quickly walked over to where the birders and bird photographers were standing.

And there it was.  Well-hidden behind the floating kangkong was a dark head and a chestnut brown breast.  It was barely visible!  I was amazed they had even found it as it was quite far away towards the middle of the ponds.  What gave it away of course was the more distinctive Common Pochard beside it,  all previous reports the past week had these 2 ducks sighted together.

A well-hidden critically endangered Baer's Pochard
(had to use an arrow as it is almost impossible to find in the photo!)
On the right is the bright chestnut head and white back of a Common Pochard.
Hope as we did for it to come out for a better view, it remained concealed. No one wanted to take their eyes of it, in case it suddenly decided to expose itself.

Every now and then another duck would pass in front of it or behind it. We were hoping the jostling it got from a couple of Northern Shovellers and a Garganey would wake it up and force it to move out in the open, but we had no such luck.

We were hoping that the other ducks, like this pair of Northern Shovellers, 
bumping into the resting Baer's Pochard would jostle it into the open. No such luck though.

Once in a while a white eye would peek from behind the vegetation, causing a bit of excitement in the group.  But that was as good as it got that morning. 

A light-colored eye peeking from behind the kangkong.

Soon I had to go back to my students to process their interviews and their short morning experience. Later, we ran into Alex, Tere, Felix and Brian.  I urged my students to converse with the birders.  Alex gave a wonderful summary of the state of the Candaba wetlands which I am sure they enjoyed and appreciated.

Alex with my students

I am still not quite at ease having been assigned to co-teach the subject of Conservation Biology, having had no formal education or training of it.  Of course, my part had to do with genetics, which I was comfortable with.  But I am glad that I had the chance to share with my students whatever I had been learning vicariously about conservation from my passion for birding and my birding experiences.

(WBCPer Tonji writes about the sad state of the Candaba Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the Baer's Pochard on the club's monthly  newsletter here:

Monday, February 9

Back in Pamilacan with the dolphins

Non-birding trip!

I joined my co-teacher Jom and some of our students on a Conservation Biology class fieldtrip (I was part of the team teaching it - in charge of the genetics part!) to Bohol.

I had been to Pamilacan Island twice before.  The islanders were traditionally whale hunters, hunting whales, whale sharks, dolphins and manta rays via harpoon ("pilak"). When their main source of income was banned in favor of protecting these marine animals, they were offered dolphin watching as an alternative livelihood. 

A shot of Pamilacan island from our 2010 trip
To make a long story short, it has been a rough road for conservationists and the islanders, and scars from the experience still have not fully healed.  And even today, the Pamilacan locals, who were trained in the proper dolphin-watching techniques, experience a lot of competition from non-trained guides and boatmen who pick up tourists at the popular Alona Beach on Panglao Island. (Note:  If you do go dolphin-watching in Bohol, try to find guides who are based in Pamilacan).

My first visit to Pamilacan was during the time of SARS in 2003 with Vir, Kutch, Adri and JenneR.  It was my first time to see dolphins in the wild and it was an unforgettable experience!  Seeing dolphins all around the bangka, swimming under us, riding on the bow, somersaulting in the air - I had to stop myself from jumping in the water to join them.

Check out my shot from 2003 - digital cameras were not yet the norm!

The second time was fairly recently, in 2010, when Adri, Mel and I planned a birding + beach trip to Bohol.

Adri's cool shot of spinner dolphins from our sunny 2013 trip.

Between my first wild dolphin close-encounter and this last one, I had seen dolphins a few other times.  While swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, a dolphin jumped on the horizon and was shrugged off by our boatman ("Dolphin lang un" "It's just dolphins") and on our return ferry from the Camotes Islands we were lucky to have encountered a huge pod.  I don't think I will ever tire of seeing dolphins in the wild!

This time it was far from the ideal weather to go dolphin watching.  The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle.  The sea was a somber steel grey and white caps formed on the tops of waves.

Waiting for our pick-up at Alona Beach
(which has changed considerably since I was here in 2003!)
on an overcast morning.
But we were all optimistic. Our guide, Turning, and boat crew were all experienced locals and we knew that they could find the dolphins.

As we headed from our pick-up point at Alona Beach on Panglao to Pamilacan Island, a lone Great Crested Tern checked out our boat, looking to see if we had any fish it could steal. Photography challange: close subject (couldn't fit in the frame!), bird-in-flight, low light, moving boat rocked by waves!
A Great Crested Tern checking out our bangka.
Soon there was a slight commotion as our boatmen, Turning and Jom spotted splashes on the horizon.  The dolphins were here!

It was a pod of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris).  They came up to the bangka to check us out and were soon swimming alongside and in front of us.  Every now and then, one would jump out of the water.  There was even a mom with its calf!

To count dolphins you multiply by 5 every dolphin you see on the surface.

The monochromatic hues reflect the somber weather that day.

Chuffing:  when dolphins surface they exhale forcefully from their blowhole to clear the area.  
Bubbles from chuffing are a good way to spot dolphins in the distance.
These spinner dolphins approached our bangka and
spent a few minutes with us before moving on.
Our students were so excited!  For many of them, it was there first wild-dolphin encounter. Their comments about wanting to jump in the water to join the dolphins reminded me of my first experience.

Our students rushing to the bow for a closer view of the dolphins.

Flukes in the air! Dolphins seem like such joyful animals.
Eventually, the pod left us and we continued on our way to Pamilacan where we would spend the night. The non-ideal weather added a little challenge to docking the boat on the beach.

Docking at Pamilacan island
The weather didn't improve during our stay, it was cold, wet and windy.  But I didn't mind (What is it with me and cold beaches? I had the same experience 2 weeks before at Pannzian!).  Having dolphins greet us was a warm enough welcome!

Low tide on a gloomy, cold and wet morning.