Monday, September 22

Remembering Imugan

Last week I sat in the audience as Ateneo de Manila University held its annual Special Academic Convocation to honour selected individuals who excel in their respective fields and who exemplify the values of the University.  This year there were 6 honourees: an educator and mentor who continues to inspire students, a cardinal who devotes his life to peace-building in Mindanao, a woman who fights for social justice, an artist who has defined the Philippine ballet and dance, a government employee who upholds justice and fights corruption and a pastor who changed the lives of an indigenous peoples.

The Special Academic Convocation honored selected individuals who exemplify the values of the University (banner from

While many of my co-faculty recognized those being celebrated, the last awardee was known to less, but I recognized his photo right off from one of my earliest club trips with the bird club. Pastor Rice and the Ikalahan community had welcomed a large group from the bird club several years ago, in June of 2006, for a short overnight birding outing.  As the info-video highlighting Pastor Rice's contribution to education, sustainable development and community building played in the darkened theater, images of Imugan in Sta. Fe were flashed and memories of a very memorable trip resurfaced.

Sta. Fe was a long drive from Manila, past the winding road of Dalton Pass. We were a large group, and I remember arriving at Imugan just as Peter and Leni S., Ate Lyds and her daughter, Rene and Beth B. were leaving.  They had arrived earlier and had already gone around birding, in fact they had even gotten quite lost in the wilderness for a few hours!  It was a larger group of birders who replaced them, 15 in all, and upon settling down at the community center, we all immediately headed out to check out the waterfalls.

The waterfalls at Imugan

I remember blue butterflies dancing in the canopy, a jade vine wrapped around a tree, its purple (not jade!) flowers dripping like chandeliers, the group stopping to glimpse a blue-headed fantail (a lifer for many, including myself!) hiding in the gully.

Birders having fun at the falls.

The waterfalls fell sharply from the rocks above, forming crystal clear pools. We happily splashed about the cool waters- there were fish in the pools, tiny crabs in the rock crevices and dragonflies everywhere!

Clear waters, butterflies, crabs and damselflies

As it was late afternoon already, we were all ready to settle in for the night.  There was no electricity in the community center, so we ate our dinner by candle light.  

Dinner and conversation by candlelight

The locals left us after dinner, with wishes of a good night's sleep and a reminder to please lock the doors and windows before we retired for the night. After dinner we stayed up for the usual exchange of stories and I remember that the night was so inky black that you could barely see your hand if you extended your arm away from your body. The darkness of course inspired all sorts of scary stories and otherworldly exchanges and we had a few good laughs before finally calling it a night.

The peace of the night was interrupted by loud popping sounds which roused us from our sleep, alert and alarmed.  It turned out it was just Ixi, attacking some cockroaches with her slippers while shouting at them in Spanish! (Anyone who has travelled with Ixi after this knows she always carries a small can of bug spray now)  Being up, many took advantage of braving the cold night wind and taking a bathroom break at the outhouse.  These midnight episodes all gave us something to talk about in the morning and for several years after.

When morning came, we fell into little groups and went about birding separately.  I remember seeing Chary (whom I had just met on that trip), demurely washing her face in one of the clear streams that bordered the community path. It was certainly an idyllic setting.

The idyllic community pathways bordering a stream,
behind me is a hanging bridge to the community center.

We: Alex, Ruben, Tere, Des, Felix, Adri and I  had decided to bird along the road, with Des's suggestion that hunting should be minimal out in the open, therefore the birds less shy.  With Mang Boy missing, I had volunteered to drive Alex's Terrano, but Alex, being the gentleman he was, volunteered to drive himself.  This was the only time in the past 9 years that I have known Alex that we had ever seen him drive.  It turns out that it was the only time he had driven after an indeterminate number of years!  When I think of the narrow, winding roads falling off to the mountain's slope on one side, navigating landslides and crossing an incoming "top-loaded" commuter jeep, parking on non-existent shoulders to bird... I'm still not sure if I was thankful Alex had volunteered to drive sparing me the stress of it all!

Adri and I had just come from a short trip to Sagada the weekend before, and so the birds we saw were no longer lifers, having just seen them in the Mountain Province, but it was great to have a review of what we would much later (after several other trips) would come to know as "common" montane birds:  elegant tits, sulphur-billed nuthatches, chestnut faced babblers, little pied flycatchers, mountain white-eyes.  This was a time when not one of us had a long lens camera and the thrill of having a nuthatch creeping up a pine tree trunk barely a meter away was just that - the thrill of having a bird so close (and not having to worry about getting or bungling the shot!).  I remember Des flushing a pair of Philippine nightjars, one of which landing on the grass by the roadside.  Des carefully approached it, trying to find it hidden in the (not-so-long!) grass.  And just as he was about to step on it: away it flies, surprising all of us again!

Roadside birding with Tere, Alex, Des and Ruben

As I check my birding notebook , I realise I did get a few lifers though: mountain leaf warbler, citrine canary flycatcher and yellowish white-eye.  But the most memorable lifer was: a mountain shrike!  It is one of my unforgettable birding moments, clear in my mind: a shrike perched on a branch just over the hill, very close in front of us. And just as I say "Is that a Mountain shrike?"  It is just Des (who was quick to confirm - thankfully!) and Felix who spot it, right before it flies off, leaving everyone else wondering how I could mistake a now-perched Philippine bulbul for a mountain shrike!

My lifer: the endemic Mountain Shrike.
I took this photo at Mt. Polis, five years after Imugan.

This was pre-blog, pre-SLR camera, pre-automated excel generated bird list. Only memories, a bird list in my birding notebook and a few point-and-shoot camera photos to remember it by.

The citation for Pastor Rice and my birding notebook from 2006.

Back in the University, sitting in the theater, I look back on all this.  

And as I listen to the citation read by the emcee, and listen to one of Pastor Rice's daughter's accept the award, posthumously awarded, I silently give my thanks to the Ikalahan community and to Pastor Rice.  (Read his daughter's touching response here.) I had never known of how deep his contribution was to nation building: an American missionary who arrived in the Philippines in 1956 and who, as his daughter said, was probably more Ikalahan and more Filipino than many of us.

This young Ikalahan boy is probably a teenager now.

(read our old trip report here

Sunday, September 14

the migrants are here!

While most Filipinos anticipate the coming of the -ber months (SeptemBER, OctoBER, NovemBER, DecemBER) to officially herald the beginning of Christmas season, birders have quite another thing in mind.

The cooling days and lengthening nights signal the beginning of autumn migration, and while shops begin to display Christmas ornaments and the radio begins to play Christmas carols, birders are on the lookout for their first migrants of the season, usually the ubiquitous brown shrike, its arrival alerted by sharp calls in the morning of newly arrived individuals jostling for territory.

I had my first taste of migrants in the most unexpected place. I usually enjoy a well-planned trip to the more conventional birding sites to welcome migrant waders: either the swamps of Candaba or the hidden city environs of the Coastal Lagoon.  But my first migrants were spotted a little bit closer to home. Literally. We were spending a weekend in our family house in Tarlac with some birder friends and to our delight, the rice fields just across our balcony were being plowed and flooded for the next round of planting.  Even from a distance we could make out the graceful pink legs of black-winged stilts walking on the mud.

Black-winged stilts are unmistakable with their long pink legs!

Terns flew around the water-logged fields, picking up food from the water, and they were joined by many oriental pratincoles. 

Terns flying over the fields

Oriental pratincoles have both a resident and migrant population:
it was my first time to see so many near our house!

A closer inspection with our binoculars and scopes revealed several little-ringed plovers, running across the drier mud.  Some of them still sported breeding plumage and their bright yellow eye rings stood out against the somber browns of the empty fields.

Little-ringed plovers could also be residents or migrants,
and seeing them in their bright plumage is always a delight.

A few Pacific golden plovers were also present, and it was great to catch them in their distinctive black plumage, a contrast to their non-breeding golden hues.

Not the usual look sported by golden plovers for the winter.

Blending into the background were several wood sandpipers, and a few common sandpipers (although I had already seen some common sands at the airport a few months back), busy walking back and forth.

A wood sandpiper and a common sandpiper: common migrants seen at rice fields

A quick scan of the surrounding grassy areas revealed my first brown shrike for the season.  It was spotted by Adri, who pointed it out to us and also noticed a second individual just beside the first one!  It was very unusual for them to be sharing a space without much hullaballoo, so they must have just arrived.

My first brown shrike for the season
(you can catch a glimpse of my second brown shrike hidden in the grass below it)

There was also a common kingfisher patrolling the pond, a regular visitor to the farm.  There are usually two or three of them, but it seems that only this one has arrived so far.

My favorite migrant on the farm: a common kingfisher perched on the mulberry bush.

 We also had good looks of the usual residents:  blue-tailed bee-eaters and pacific swallows flew gracefully over the waters.  White-breasted waterhens walked gingerly on the vegetation at the edge of the pond while collared kingfishers called loudly all around.  The white-throated kingfisher was also busy swooping down on the muddy fields for tasty snacks.  Zebra doves and red turtle doves perched on the kapok trees lining the pond.

A cool find was a male greater painted snipe, walking with the other waders with three young birds! Unlike most birds, the male painted snipe is the parent tasked with incubating the eggs and raising the young.  Its plumage is much more drab than the female.

Do you see the well-camouflaged male greater painted snipe and one of its chicks beside it?

A walk around the fields at sunset revealed a very interesting situation.  There were also several (human) children running around the fields, each clutching a soda PET bottle as a receptacle for something they were gathering from the muddy ground.  It turns out that the field in this condition were perfect for the breeding of camaro (mole crickets) which are a delicacy to Capampangans.  

Nearby, a yellow bittern picked up a mole cricket from the mud and quickly swallowed it.  It was unmindful of us as it continued to inspect the mud for more of the critters.

A yellow bittern on the hunt at sunset.

No wonder the waders were in such a frenzy!  I would've loved some adobong camaro myself!

Adobong camaro (mole cricket): yum!

Tuesday, April 22

Easter Triduum birding

The last 3 days of Holy Week is traditionally family, prayer and quiet time and even if summer classes started on Holy Monday, the long exodus to the provinces left a sizzling Metro Manila tranquil and traffic-free.  The break from work afforded Adri and I a few bird encounters.

On Holy Thursday, Adri and I took a peek at the UP campus Scops Owl.  My brother and sis-in-law were taking morning walk on campus and we were excited to show them this nocturnal creature.  When we got to the site, I was surprised to see how the summer heat had thinned out the lush vegetation which the owl took refuge in during the day.  It took us quite a while to find the owl, and to our delight, we found a pair of them.  They looked very sleepy and were unperturbed at our presence.

I didn't plan to bird on Good Friday, but I was delighted to get a new record for the backyard (well, front yard, strictly speaking).  A small bird perched on an almost leafless flamboyant tree caught my attention.  It flew off its perch only to circle back and land on the same branch.  A Grey-streaked Flycatcher!  Even if it was high up in the tree, I was able to take a photo of this tiny migrant.  It was probably on its way back north for spring.

For Black Saturday, we wanted to take advantage of the calm before the storm and took a short road trip up to Candaba before the city dwellers began returning to the city.  Together with Melanie, we decided to leave Quezon City way before sunrise, to take advantage of the short, cool hours of the morning.

When we arrived at the main ponds, we were greeted by views of the busy rookeries of the Black-crowned Night-herons and the Purple Herons.  A few Philippine Ducks and Wandering Whistling Ducks were swimming around the few remaining water surfaces still available.  A stately male Watercock stood proudly above the water hyacinths.

Having parked the car under the shade of a tree (big mistake!), we backtracked to take a picture of the Watercock (failure!), a small bird scuttled out to the middle of the dirt path.  It was a Siberian Rubythroat!  We positioned ourselves with the rising sun at our backs and facing the handsome bird.

Later we were joined by WBCPers Jude, Alex, Tere and Patty.  Adri pointed out the area where they could stalk the Rubythroat while we moved on to look for other targets.

As early as half past the hour of eight, the heat was already becoming unbearable.  We parked ourselves under the shade of some acacia trees.  In front of us the pond was choked with lotuses in full bloom.  The pale flowers were calming to look at, and several Barn swallows perched on the lotus peduncles.

Jude and Co. soon joined us, and we became firmly planted at the spot, the heat keeping us from venturing further.  We entertained ourselves looking at the swallows, spotting a Common Kingfisher, a family of Purple Swamphens and a lone female Northern Shoveller.

While we exchanged stories, a loud chirping interrupted us.  Above us was a tiny warbler.  The Arctic Warbler was recently split into 3 separate species: Arctic, Kamchatka and Japanese Leaf Warblers.  These 3 species are frustratingly similar to each other in terms of appearance and until recently, Adri and I would jokingly argue about the ID of what warbler we were seeing.  A recent article ( though in the WBCP online newsletter explains clearly how to differentiate these 3 species by their call. So I could finally say with confidence that I have the Japanese Leaf Warbler on my life list.

 A (half?) lifer, a backyard record and great views of familiar (though not-so-often-seen) birds.  Great birding for a non-birding long weekend.

Sunday, April 20

An Ivatan Dictionary of Birds


Adri and I had always planned on going but it seemed like a huge trip to plan. When Edna gifted us with return trip travel vouchers we were finally on our way!  Because of the limitation on the voucher to book the trip 3 days before actual travel, it turned out to be our least planned, most crammed trip ever! Dramatic seascapes, iconic stone house villages, rolling hills - here we come!

While it was primarily the typical tour type trip, Batanes was too important a birding area for us not to plan some birdwatching as well.  Nearer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, several bird species were unique to this set of islands comprising the northern-most islands of the Philippines. While none of them are endemic, many of the targets are difficult (if not impossible!) to find elsewhere in the country.  Surprise migrants are also always an opportunity, however, our trip was timed too late for most migrants as it was approaching the peak of summer.

We did our birding research, as it was probably the most difficult to plan for, as most tourist-y attractions were routine already.  Thanks to WBCP-er Christian Perez, we got in touch with a guide who knew where to find the birds and was familiar with many of them as well.  He had also guided several other birders before, so he was familiar with the typical birding schedule.  Rogers Amboy (+639998826833, +639178752430) turned out not only to be a great bird guide, but a wonderful tour guide as well, and our 4 days in Batanes was chock-full of local culture, history, folklore, and yes, birds.

It was so interesting to learn the Ivatan names for the birds, I am kicking myself for not taking more detailed notes.  Dachio, piyek, avuchivuchid, sayay, vadug... such pretty and unfamiliar sounding names!

We had four main targets for Batanes and I am over the moon to have seen all of them!

On the top of our list was the tiwayway or Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher. Summer is the perfect time to see these birds because they breed on the islands from March to August, and are rare migrant to Luzon, Palawan and Mindoro.  Our first sighting of these birds was on our first "official" birding day - during our tour of Sabtang island.  Kuya Roger took us to a dry creek bed and sure enough, a pair of them were quite vocal.

In the days to come, we found out that they were actually very common.  In Batan, we heard them by the highway anywhere there was substantial tree cover, we saw them crossing the highway, and we saw and heard several on the foothills of Mt. Iraya.  Most of the locals were familiar with the tiwayway, and also knew that it was the perfect time to see them as it was more difficult on other months.

Our second target was even more common.  Again, if you asked the locals where you could see the piyek (silent "e"), they would say: everywhere.  The Chestnut-eared Bulbul is the only bulbul in Batanes, and like most other bulbuls it is noisy and... bulbul -like. Kennedy says it is not common in open country, but we found it very common, even around Basco.

I was really happy to see the piyek because it's the last remaining bulbul species in the Philippine field guide that I hadn't seen (including all the Streak-breasted Bulbul splits!).

As with many smaller islands, there is an owl a birder has to find. Fortunately, Kuya Roger had a sure site for it, around the farm of one of his friends.  He said that they started appearing a 10pm... which would have been the latest owling hour I had ever gone. As luck would have it, we were walking up to the farm at 7pm, a bantulok conveniently called from a tree right beside us, and we saw it 3 hours ahead of schedule.

Getting a photo though proved to be a little more difficult.  It was confusing to be chasing several vocal Ryukyu Scops Owls which seemed too be all around us, but we finally got good photos.  Of course Adri had much better photos with his digiscoping set-up than I did with my hand held long lens.

On our last night we decided to go owling again, this time by ourselves as Kuya Roger had to go diving for lobsters.  We walked to and from the site, and when we got back to our inn, one of the locals asked us what had us out so late (730pm was considered late!).  We said we were looking for bantulok and he said that they were quite difficult to actually see.  He seemed puzzled at our agenda. I guess crazy birders are not yet the norm here.

Our fourth and final target was the most challenging of all.  The vuyit was named after is eerie, ghostlike call "vuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-yeeeeet!"  We were a little hopeful about finding it as a couple of weeks before WBCP-ers Paula and Charlie had photographed just by the side of the road.  But 3 days into our trip, there was still no glimpse of it, only a faint call from the distance when we were at Racuh a Payaman, a communal pastureland in Mahatao.  Desperate times called for desperate measures.  we actually had to "go birding" in the traditional sense, to get this bird.  So on the the morning of our fourth day, we hike up the foothills of Mt. Iraya, to the farm of Uncle "Jungle-boy" - farmer/hunter/pit viper catcher.  He led us uphill to some fruiting trees and we lay in wait.  We saw several vadug while waiting, the endemic Batanes subspecies of Philippine Cuckoo-dove, a very handsome bird, great to see... but not really our main target.

We covered four corners of the small hill: Adri, myself, Kuya Roger and our driver for the day Alex.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Alex going over to Kuya Roger. Adri soon joined them and I trudged uphill to see what was up. Had they spotted the vuyit?

In the distance was indeed a pair of Whistling-green Pigeons!  They were perched on the branches of a leafy tree, well camouflaged but visible.  Not the greatest of views but clear and long!  We all enjoyed looking at them fall asleep for several minutes until rain threatened to fall and we ran back to take shelter in Uncle Jungle-boy's house.

Tiwayway, piyek, bantulok and vuyit!  check, check, check, check!  Birding in Batanes was definitely a highlight of our trip!

Here are some of other birds we saw and their local names:

Dachio (Lowland White-eye) was a very common bird and the subspecies is endemic to Batanes.

The luluji (Blue Rock Thrush) was also seen everywhere! Not only on rocks, but on house roofs, on electric wires, on the highway barriers... everywhere.  They were also very vocal, and their singing was very pleasant to hear.  They weren't very popular with the locals though, who considered them "dirty" birds.

Most of the landscape of Batan island is pastureland: the iconic, rolling, grassy hills dotted by patches of trees and vuyavuy palms (used to make the traditional vakul headgear) and spikey pandan. Commonly seen foraging by these patches of vegetation are rails: ripdi (Buff-banded Rail) and more frequently the alan (Plain Bush-hen).

The alan were also considered pests as they would eat ripe bananas and papaya right from the tree.

White-breasted Waterhens were also seen in more watery environments.  This pair was seen near a small ricefield.

Common also to the grasslands were very vocal Zitting Cisticolas.  This was also an endemic Batanes subspecies.  Unfortunately, I took them for granted, and didn't get any photos.  Too bad because they had my most favorite local name: avuchivuchid. Another bird I took for granted were Chestnut Munias which occurred in large flocks.  They were called lalachiao.

Also running around the short grass, already yellow-brown under the summer sun, were several Paddyfield Pipts, tilin.

Pastures = bovines and Cattle Egrets obligingly illustrated why they were called so.  Kuya Roger just called them Cattle Egret, so I never found out what they were called in Ivatan.

The dramatic seascapes with waves breaking over rocks and cliff faces were a perfect back drop for dark phase Pacific Reef Egrets.

Swallows, both Pacific and Striated were all over, gliding gracefully over land and sea.  Their mud nests can be seen under the eves of the many lighthouses all over Batan island.  Swallows are collectively called hapnyit.

I was looking forward to seeing migrant starlings but the timing wasn't right.  We did see several Brown-headed Thrushes though, enjoying the ripe fruit of a tree Kuya Roger called malaapdo.  Kuya Roger described large flocks of migratory birds he called lagamitan avayat. "Avayat" means "habagat" (southwest monsoon) and the birds came when the winds change.  At first we thought he was referring to the starlings, but when we showed him the photo of the thrushes, he said that these were the birds too.  Maybe these birds - thrushes and starlings, which were of similar jiz, were all called lagamitan avayat?

The malaapdo was certainly a bird magnet and we were fortunate that one was fruiting early (the other trees we had seen still had mostly un-ripe fruit).  It attracted bulbuls and even Black-chinned Fruit-doves - another endemic subspecies.  The fruit dove, just like the Emerald Green Dove had the most familiar name of all: punay (emphasis on the second syllable though).

Another common migrant we encountered were wagtails.  They were in the canals, walking in what little water was left. They were called duwad.

One local name that escapes me is what the Brown Shrike is called.  We saw quite a lot of them. Strangely, they all looked quite bedraggled. Kuya Roger mentioned that they used to catch the Brown Shrikes as they came in large numbers during fall migration, and that their beaks could give a nasty nip if you happened to get your finger caught.

While we didn't see any migrant starlings, we did see the resident Asian Glossy Starlings.

We flushed a Philippine Coucal, talukuk, on our hike at Mt. Iraya.  It looked very different from the Luzon race, its wings were black rather than chestnut, so it was more similar to the Mindoro subspecies.  The Lesser Coucal had a similar onomatopoeic name - sijuk.

Also very common were the Collared Kingfishers - tagalit. We mostly saw them by near the beaches.

There a few migrants as well - Common Kingfishers, Common Sandpipers, Whimbrel and Grey-tailed Tattlers.

We saw several raptors also.  A white-bellied sea-eagle could be seen hunting from the balcony of our inn.  In the hills of Dipnalban, we saw a Peregrine falcon or sibnit hunting.  All small raptors (probably including kestrels and the hobbies) are referred to as sibnit.

At Sabtang, we were thrilled to see a sayay (Osprey) successfully catch a fish on a beach right beside the highway.

The drama of the catch was even made more powerful in combination with the landscape. The image summed up how I felt about our trip.  Batanes certainly lived up to its expectations - its impressive panoramas and gentle people and rich culture makes me want to go back.  Not to mention the birding! Migration season next time? What other manumanok will we see then?