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.

Thursday, February 5

AWC in Balanga

I was so happy to have had a work meeting scheduled on a Saturday  moved a day earlier!  It meant I could take part in the AWC (Asian Waterbird Census) at one of my favorite sites: the City of Balanga in Bataan.

Balanga has always been supportive of the AWC and of preserving the wetlands of Manila Bay. It is always a joy to take part in their activities.

This year, I wasn't assigned to my usual site at the Balanga City Wetland and Nature Park but to the private fishponds behind the cemetery at Barangay Puerto Rivas Lote.  When our team arrived at the site, it was cool and cloudy. The first few ponds had water in them and we could see several Little Grebes even in the distance.

The next couple of ponds were drained and held hundreds of egrets!  Little Egrets, Great Egrets and Intermediate Egrets!

And of course there were also large flocks of Balanga's unofficial mascot: the always elegant Black-winged Stilts.

I was surprised that there weren't too many waders to be counted.  Only a few Marsh Sandpipers and Plovers.  It was a challenge counting them so far away!

Because of the low count, we were done quite early and so we had time to admire the Whiskered Terns flying around us.

While having our thoughtfully packed breakfast, a flock of Black-winged Stilts flew gracefully into (and later out of) the pond right beside us.

When all the teams assembled at the City Hall, it turned out that the lower count (compared to previous years) was a trend for everyone.  The total count was at 12,599 waterbirds for all 4 sites.  

Tallying up the counts

It's hard to pinpoint what could have contributed to the lower count.  Was it the timing? The tides and fishpond water levels?  Was it the weather? Environmental changes? A combination of all of the above?  It certainly is difficult to tell.

Still, Balanga always holds impressive numbers and a few surprises for birders who persevere.  I am looking forward to many more birding trips to this city by the bay.

Tuesday, January 27

Migrant spotting at Laoag

While we were already up north, we had planned to visit Laoag-based birder Richard R. who always had nice surprises at his local birding patches.  Laoag in Ilocos Norte is a bustling city but its northern location, coupled with Richard's constant surveillance, makes it an ideal place to twitch migrants not easily seen elsewhere in Luzon.  Thankfully, the weather improved south of rainy Pagudpud and it was dry but still cool.

So early Sunday, Richard picked us up at our hotel for a full morning of birding. Our destination was nearby: privately owned fishponds which were no longer in use and were now home to hundreds of ducks.  Adri and I had been there before, and we were looking forward to a few good sightings.

As we entered the property, Richard immediately pointed out a team of ducks on the first pond. Among the more conspicuous Philippine Ducks were several Gadwalls!  They were out in the open, on the water where we could see clearly their white speculums! We had seen Gadwalls before (at Bani and more recently at Candaba), but these near and unobstructed views made it feel like we were getting it as a lifer for the first time!  Unfortunately, there was a noisy procession right behind us for the feast of the Sto. Nino, and the brass band music quickly disturbed the birds into flight. 

No matter, we were sure we would spot them again at one of the inner ponds away from the road.  And of course we did.

The main pond was full of Philippine Ducks!  It was a very zen experience, watching the ducks floating on the still, green waters. 

Ducks, ducks and ducks!

We quickly tried to find our main target.  Alex and company had spotted a pair of Spot-billed ducks here the day before.  They were not as bold as the other ducks and kept hidden behind the vegetation at the far end of the pond.  A quick survey revealed two of them, right where they had been spotted the previous day.  They were quite larger than the Philippine Ducks and of course the distinctive yellow spot at the end of their bills confirmed their identity. The species was a lifer for both Adri and myself.  Richard looked happy as usual to have contributed again (for the 3rd time in my case!) to our life lists.  

Do you see the pair of Spot-billed Ducks?

The ducks probably felt our inquisitive eyes focused on them and quickly retreated into the vegetation.  Every now and then they would come out, but never venturing out in the open water like the other ducks.

Of course among the ducks were our earlier targets, the Gadwalls. At first glance, both the male and female were rather drab-colored compared to the other ducks, however, long and clear views through our binoculars and scope revealed that the males had a beautifully intricate scalloping pattern on their breast.  Richard pointed out a great identification clue: a black patch on the undertail.  The female had the two toned bill of dark grey and orange. And for both, the white wing patch was evident.

A male Gadwall ...

... and a female Gadwall.
Quack! Quack!

As we admired the serenity of the duck pond, Adri suddenly spotted something different in the flock. "Is that a...? Cormorant! Cormorant!" 

Sure enough, a bird mixed in with the ducks  flies from the water straight up and above us.  A Great Cormorant!  We had just seen this bird for the first time a week before at the Bani Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), and here it was again!

A Great Cormorant in flight!

Our sighting excited even Richard, who had not seen this species at this site the past few years. Circling above the pond several times, it finally dropped out of sight into the neighboring pond behind the vegetation.  What a thrill!

Richard suggested we walk to the far side of the pond towards the coast, to check out the prickly aroma bushes (Kandaroma in Ilokano according to Richard or Acacia farnesiana (Linn.) Willd.).

Richard and Adri staking out the prickly Kandaroma bushes.

As we walked alongside the ponds' edge, the ducks surprisingly did not fly away ("They already know me," said Richard. "They know I am not here to harm them so they aren't afraid."). They did however, swim slowly away from us, ending up at the side of the pond where we had previously stood.  This slow movement allowed us to observe other ducks: a few Eurasian Wigeon (their light foreheads giving them an eternal-spotlight-on-their-head-look) and a single female Tufted Duck and a couple of Northern Shovellers.

One of these things is not like the other... find the Eurasian Wigeon.

I took a careful look at the Tufted Duck, which was in eclipse plumage - just to make sure it wasn't the mega Greater Scaup (wishful thinking!).

A female Tufted Duck in eclipse plumage - just making sure it isn't a Scaup!

A Wigeon and a Tufted Duck swimming with the locals.

As we reached the end of the pond, Richard pointed out the aroma bushes - perfect perches for the Yellow Buntings.  And of course, sure enough, not 5 minutes after he mentioned the buntings, in came 1... 2... 3... 4! Four yellow Bunting perched in the distance. Funny how a bird described as "uncommon to rare" by the field guide can be a regular visitor here!

Four Yellow Buntings!

We waited patiently for the buntings to perch closer for better photos.  As we waited, a Lesser Coucal flew across our path, its short wings giving it an awkward, ungainly flight.

Lesser Coucal in flight... check out that belly.

We could see the buntings in the distant bushes, being bullied by the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows.  To our delight, there were't just 4 of them but 6!  I got a lucky shot with the scope-ipad combination and caught one in flight, wings open.

Yellow Bunting - in flight also!

The Cormorant surprised us again by suddenly appearing above us, circling the pond several times, only to disappear as before.

 The Great Cormorant still circling above us.

Sure enough, in time, a few of the buntings flew in and perched on the bushes nearest to us, giving me an opportunity for an improved photo.

Even if the wind was cool and the weather pleasant, we decided to go on our way and head back.  As we passed the pond, I caught a quick glimpse of bright orange legs of a duck sleeping in the shadows.  

Whose that sleeping under the bush?

Ever alert, it quickly woke up when I stopped walking and lifted its head.  It was one of the Spot-billed Ducks allowing me a final good look.  I hope it  decides to fly further south to Pampanga in the next few migration seasons, so I can see it more often!

It's the Spot-billed Duck again!
Our walk on the eucalyptus lined path interrupted a few Java Sparrows, pretty looking birds who are unfortunately very popular in the pet trade.  

A pretty pair of Java Sparrows.

Easy birding in pleasant weather with the Ilocos master.

The Cormorant flew above us one last time - maybe to say goodbye.

The Great Cormorant. Again.

A graceful Grey Heron stood as a sentinel to one of the smaller ponds. 

The silent sentinel.

 A Philippine Duck flew nearby, its speculum changing from green to blue to purple in the morning sunlight.

May Philippine Ducks always fly free here.

Here was a little sanctuary where a few hundred ducks found refuge.  Hopefully they will always find safety and protection here.

The magic ponds at Laoag.