Saturday, September 2

The cageless wonders of the Baras Bird Sanctuary

It was my first time ever to anywhere in Region XII, that Mindanao region with a tongue twister for a name: SOCCSKSARGEN (for South Cotabato, Cotabato City, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Saranggani and General Santos City). Glad to have the 3rd Tacurong Bird Festival fall on days with no classes, I was excited to join Adri on his trip. I was also excited to touch base with Felix, who had been based in Gen San for the past several months.

As soon as we touched down in Gen San early Friday morning, we were immediately whisked off by Felix's right-hand man Ronald to the opening ceremonies for the bird festival - a conservation forum held at the City of Tacurong in neighboring Sultan Kudarat, a couple of hours away.  I wrote about the conservation forum for the WBCP monthly newsletter here.

After a productive morning at the forum, we proceeded to the Baras Bird Sanctuary. Formerly a peppercorn farm owned privately by the family of Rey Oliver Malana, the sanctuary came to be when a few egrets began regularly roosting in the area.  The roosting population grew larger and larger, and eventually the farm became a regular breeding site for thousands of egrets and herons. It was then converted to a sanctuary for the birds who found it a welcome and safe home.  The sanctuary became a top tourist destination for Sultan Kudarat and the Tacurong Bird Festival was started in 2015.

When we got to the sanctuary, a large banner for the bird festival welcomed us.  Booths and buntings and a trade fair in full swing greeted us.  Music was playing (of course, what's a Philippine fiesta without the loud music?!?) and different activities were ongoing.  

We started with a brief stop at the information center, where there was a map of the property and also a photographic list of birds which could be found in the sanctuary. Adri exchanged pleasantries with the owner and the guides he had met on a previous training workshop. Everyone was in a good mood.

I was excited to get started on the path and look at the birds, already I could see (and smell!) the fringes of the roosting and nesting area.  Felix and I had to wait a while as Adri was ambush-interviewed for the local news.

Wide-brimmed kudong (native woven hats after which Tacurong City was named) were piled at the start of the path, an invitation to everyone to please wear the head gear or risk (high risk!) getting splattered with bird droppings in your hair and shoulders! 

There was also very informative signage about how not to disturb or touch the birds and about the regular health surveillance at the sanctuary.

The herons and egrets seemed to be everywhere!  Flying above, walking around in the trees and on the ground, sitting on nests, feeding, being fed, preening - it was an overwhelming display of roosting and nesting behaviour.

There were several Black-crowned night herons, looking handsome in their breeding plumage, with scarlet red eyes.  

There were several immature herons walking around too.

Little Egrets were also plentiful, again with billowy breeding plumes running down their necks and backs.

The most in number were Cattle Egrets, with their distinct orange heads and breasts, a contrast to the all-white non-breeding plumage they take on the rest of the year.

Felix even spotted an Intermediate Egret at the nest with a very young nestling.  It was the first photographic evidence for breeding of this species in the Philippines!

Sadly, the 2 species I was looking most forward to seeing: breeding Great Egrets and the Glossy Ibis, were no where to be seen. (I guess this warrants a return trip!)

But there was a lot to see and observe, so the entire walk through the sanctuary was engrossing to a birder like me.

The density of the nests was amazing.  it seemed that every available branch was occupied by a careful pile of sticks and twigs (looking very flimsy to me). Look left, right and up... nests were everywhere.

The ground was littered with broken eggshell, and I'm sure I spotted a few intact eggs as well, probably jostled out of the nest accidentally, or even on purpose.

I even saw this dead frog.  Probably food brought back to the nest but dropped in the feeding frenzy.

Competition here must be fierce.  The frantic scrambling at the nest inevitably leads to some young birds falling out.  Several times we saw young birds walking on the ground, like this young cattle egret.

They can come quite close to the human visitors, here's Mindanao-based WBCP-er Forest taking a photo of the young bird that fell right on the path.

There is actually a wire fence around the main roosting and nesting area (you can see Felix in the photo above right beside it).  The fence is to keep humans out rather than the birds in.  The sanctuary is also bordered by a river, and unfortunately, some people still come in at night to poach eggs.

The young Little Egret wandered around, blocked by the fence, it turned the opposite way towards the bank of the river lined with bamboo.

The chances it would survive would probably be very low.  Though the signs of new life on nests were everywhere, a careful look around also showed a few young victims of the balance between life and death.

WBCP-er and wildlife biologist Lala E. had a student with her who was studying the stomach contents of these unfortunate casualties, to determine prey and prey density.  I imagine the biomass required to support these thousands of young birds must be astounding!

Benches were placed every few meters on the trail (sit at your own risk!), and I often stopped to enjoy the view of a contemplative young bird bathed in sunlight...

... or the almost comical actions of adults as they groomed, scratching left and right...

... and the frenzied madness of feeding when a parent arrives at a nest with food!

 Of course there were other smaller birds at the sanctuary.  We spotted the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Yellow-vented Bulbuls had Philippine Pied Fantails, Asian Glossy Starlings, Zebra Doves and Collared Kingfishers.  A Philippine Magpie Robin sang melodiously, partially hidden in the bamboo.

Brahminy Kites flew overhead and in the surrounding rice paddies we also spotted Javan Pond Herons and Rufous night herons.

There were several visitors to the sanctuary that day, probably because of the festival. Emelie Jamorabon, municipal tourism officer, mentioned that the sanctuary was one of the top local destinations for tourists.  I hope that the opportunity and the potential of the sanctuary for connecting the general public with nature and for education is maximised. At least, I'd like to think that these "common" birds, placed in great density and an intimate setting, at an interesting  point of their life cycle, can be engaging even to the generally nature-averse person.

The organizers set up a tall crane at the edge of the roosting and nesting site for a (literal) birds' eye view. With the sun set as a back drop to the flocks coming in to roost, the view was worth the "oohs" and "aaahs".

My favorite birds for that afternoon were the Cattle Egrets.  A familiar bird on any pastoral landscape - perched on carabaos and following farmers in the rice fields; at the sanctuary they seemed to take on an almost regal bearing in their breeding ensemble .

Snow-white plumage highlighted in orange,  piercing eyes, beaks and facial skin now almost magenta, feathery plumes running down their bodies.  Sometimes, you just have to take a second glance at a fortuitous time and see that the common can be uncommonly beautiful.

The 3rd Tacurong Bird Festival was held last May 12-13, 2017.  Learn more about the Baras Bird Sanctuary by visiting their facebook page.  Thanks to the organizers of the festival and the owners and staff of the Baras Bird Sanctuary!

Tuesday, August 22

Subic in the A's: August

Rainy day birding in August...

It is always a good idea to start a long weekend with a quick birding day trip and Subic was calling again.  The last time we had been was in hot, hot April and it was now humid, humid August!

The morning was overcast with the cloudy white skies giving off quite a glare.  Large-billed Crows cawed at almost every corner, echoing the somber weather.  It was the woodpeckers which were again among the first to greet us, a White-bellied Woodpecker calling and drumming up a huge tree several meters from the road.

Sooty Woodpeckers were also very active, allowing good views but not good photos.

In truth, any bird perched against the white sky was no good for photography even as they tolerated our presence.  This included this Green Racket-tail, who took his time calling loudly to his mates, preening every feather in his body and even just staring off into the forest. (The photo was digiscoped with my ipad as i gave up trying to take a good photo with my camera)

After just a few minutes of walking, our shirts already clung to our backs and I could feel sweat dripping down my nape, my chest, my forehead... even if the rain only threatened to fall, we were soaked in our own juices.

We did run into several pairs of Luzon Hornbills as we drove or walked.  

They were all paired up, male and female together.

Insect-wise - there were quite a few young grasshoppers hopping about.

This shield bug was protecting its eggs, which it laid in a pretty conspicuous leaf.

There were a few butterflies around, mostly skippers.

Most other butterflies had their wings quite tattered and worn.

Although a few, like this tiger, looked quite fresh.

While it was much birdier that it was in April, the birds still only allowed us brief views. Groups of Luzon Flamebacks, Bar-bellied Cuckoo Shrikes, Guaiaberos, Coletos and Philippine Bulbuls were very active. Figs and other fruiting trees seemed to have a lot to offer in terms of food (including insects attracted to the fruit also).

We passed by the now abandoned Bee-eater nests, the holes barely visible through the overgrown grass.

White-browed Shamas sang melodiously and Trilling Tailorbirds called loudly from the dark vegetation. Green Imperial Pigeons growled softly from the canopy above and a lone Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove hooted from somewhere behind the thick greenery of the trees.

After a quick lunch, we did another drive through, stopping briefly at a clump of eucalyptus trees where the bulbuls and the Coletos seemed to be having feeding frenzy.

Coleto song tinkled musically around us, such a dainty sound for a strange looking bird (I still think of it as "spam"-bird!).

Skulking in the leaves was a handsome Red-crested Malkoha. Its dark body and red features made it easy to pinpoint in the silver green of the eucalyptus leaves. Even its green beak seemed to stand out.

A dark shadow turned out to be a White-eared Brown Dove.  It turned out that there were at least four of them with the Coletos and Bulbuls.

The honking of Luzon Hornbills gave them away.  A male perched in full view, scratching and calling a bit before it joined the others behind the trees.

Just as it turned to fly away, rain drops began to fall.  As with our last visit, we decided to call it a day.  The overcast skies and the thick humid air were whispering to us: it was time to go home.  We'd save afternoon birding and owling for another day in Subic.

Subic in the A's: April

Subic has always been one of our favorite places for birding. A couple of hours drive from our home (and not having to travel all the way across Metro Manila since we already live in the northern end: no getting caught in EDSA traffic!), it's always a good place for the night-before decision to go birding the next day.

We haven't been going as often though, and the past two visits were way back in April, and this last weekend, in August.  Both were very short half day visits, just to get the birding itch scratched.

Summer heat in April...

We were greeted by a pair of Whiskered Tree Swifts perched on branches just above where we parked our car. It was cool to watch them fly off from their perches and do their little calisthenic stretch of wings when they landed back on the same branch.

Bar-bellied and Blackish Cuckoo-Shrikes chased each other around us, calling noisily to each other.   In the distance, some Philippine Green Pigeons were resting up in the trees.

Luzon Flamebacks circled around us,  and left as quickly as they came.  But a pair of Sooty Woodpeckers arrived and drummed loudly on a tree trunk.  They kept out of sight though, ducking on the hidden side of the trunk when they saw us, peeking around the girth of the tree to check if we were still there.

It was a HOT summer morning, with the sky a blinding blue and hardly a cloud in the sky. We drove around, glimpsing the usual suspects as we did: green parrots calling loudly as the flew over head (Blue-naped, Green Racket-tails, Guiaberos and Colasisis); pigeons flushed from their perches (Green Imperial Pigeons, White-eared Brown Doves, Philippine Cuckoo Doves and Common Emerald Doves); coucals, cuckoos and malkohas moving quietly (well, except for a riotous troupe of Rufous Coucals) in the tangles. Many of our views were brief, but the heat of the morning had made us impatient as well.

We were happily surprised to come across a Spotted Wood Kingfisher as we rounded a corner.  It had given off its distinctive barking call and we (Adri, of course) finally spotted it (a female) sitting still deep in the undergrowth.

It was strangely silent, even the soaring Brahminy Kites and Philippine Serpent Eagles hardly making a sound.  The stillness was broken by the loud, ever-cheerful singing of an Elegant Tit.

When it finally flew off, only the loud, monotonous sound of cicadas surrounded us and birding became a sluggish affair.

And to confirm the lack of birds, the butterflies began to catch my attention.
Mycalesis (bush browns) flashed their owl eyes at me as the fluttered at my feet.

I couldn't resist eye contact with a friendly Hypolimnas (eggfly).

The Leeas were starting to bloom, attracting insects to their ruby red inflorescence. Yellow pierids were drinking greedily.

And of course there was no shortage of my favorites: the gossamer winged Lycaenids.

The other lycaenid regular, Cheritra (hairstreak) was also about, but as usual, perched on some leaves (I've never seen it feeding at the leea blooms).

I spotted something new too, one I've never photographed, and this was later identified at the Philippine Lepidoptera facebook page as Hypolycaena thecloides philippina Staudinger 1889.  Happy to have had my photo included in the PhiLep website galleries.

Noon was approaching and we had a quick lunch near the Blue-throated Bee-eater nesting colony. After lunch we parked under the shade of the rain tree across the bee-eaters and enjoyed watching them as they caught insects on the fly.

The nests could not be located at a more picturesque site dressed in the colors of summer to match the bee-eater plumage.  The bougainvilleas exploded in bright magenta in front of the nests and above them a banaba tree was heavy with purple bloom

Most of the catch went to the hungry nestlings in their burrows.  Neighboring birds guarded their nest holes fiercely, and while the holes look all the same to me, I guess the birds knew which was theirs as easily as I knew my own house from my neighbor's.

I got obsessed with trying to get a shot of the parents leaving and entering the nests but these mid-air flight photos are all I got:

After hanging our for an hour, we decided to head back home.  The heat was making us sleepy and lazy - just as summer's day should.

Up next... Subic in August