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 (ebonph.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/ask-the-experts-the-arctic-warbler-splits) 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 Riyukyu 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 munumanok will we see then?

Friday, April 4

The exposed nest

The Exposed Nest
by Robert Frost, 1916

You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
I the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But 'twas no make-believe with you today,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clovers.
'Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasking flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once--could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might out meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven't any memory--have you?--
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings. 

Monday, March 24

Frozen - the case of the posed kingfisher

"Look, it's a dead kingfisher!"

Manny pointed out a Collared Kingfisher at the base of the swimming pool.  We were walking on a short boardwalk through some mangroves and towards the end an edge-less swimming pool peeked through the mangroves on our left.

It was a strange sight.  No more than a couple of meters away from us, the kingfisher was all wet and bedraggled, in a standing position and its wings spread out.

Why was the lifeless body of a collared kingfisher in a bizarre pose?

"Are you sure it's dead?" Anna and I asked.  "That's a freaky sight."

"Why is it standing like that? Was it posed?"  Ok, maybe I have been watching too much forensic TV drama, but the position was really, really strange.

We all leaned over the boardwalk railings, trying to get a closer view.  Its eyes looked bright and alive!  "It must have just recently died, otherwise the ants would have gotten to his eyes!"

Anthony joined us in a couple of minutes.  "Are you sure its dead?!? Why does it look like that? Are you sure it isn't moving?"

And so we clicked away at the strange, dead kingfisher.  Its lifeless body stood at the catchment for the overflow of pool water.  The terraced design of the stone wall behind him looked looked like some ancient South American civilization ruins plus his bright cobalt blue feathers looked like royal regalia, so we dubbed him King(fisher) of Machu Picchu. Later this became a play of words on the Filipino Macho Pecho ("muscular breast" - referring to a choice chicken cut).

We spent a maybe 5 minutes (at least!)  staring at him, leaning over the fence to get closer views and trying to come up with a COD.  (It turns out that I wasn't the only one watching too many forensic TV dramas)

Did he drown in the pool? Was he fished out and posed by the pool boys as a prank?  Why put him there at the base of the pool?  It was all so bizarre.

When we walked back to the beginning of the boardwalk, Maia and Lanie were stalking a noisy clamorous reed warbler and we told them of the mysterious kingfisher.  As we continued our morning walk across the extensive private estate, documenting plants and birds, our conversation would always go back to the kingfisher.

Later that afternoon, we discovered that our lunch was to be served at the pavilion by the pool!  We were excited to show Maia and Lanie our mystery kingfisher, and to check it out from the poolside.

And guess what?  It was gone!

When Anthony asked the food servers about it, they merely shrugged their shoulders.

"That blue bird?  It goes swimming everyday in the pool. It probably flew off."

It turns out that the kingfisher had gone for its regular morning swim, and was sunning himself and drying out its feathers when Manny spotted him!

Freezing is a known defensive behaviour in birds.  Apparently when confronted the choice is either to fight, flee or freeze.  Obviously, one bird versus 4 humans is not a fair contest so I suppose fight was out.  Flee?  It was so bedraggled and its feathers looked so waterlogged - I guess flee was not an option either.  That left freeze.  Many prey animals freeze to avoid detection (Remember Jurassic Park?  "If you don't move he won't see you?" A move that has worked well when avoiding people too!). Or maybe, to make them look dead and un-appetizing (like how chickens would keel over when a kite is flying overhead). It certainly worked on us!

We all had a very good laugh over the whole incident while eating our lunch. We couldn't get over how we didn't even consider it was alive and just "frozen"! We were had by a kingfisher! Poor thing, it was probably a hair's breadth away from a heart attack with all of us struggling to get closer and staring at it while talking loudly and animatedly!

As we ate our lunch, the collared kingfisher was flying around us, perching around the pool area and calling loudly.  Well, it had certainly gotten over its morning fright, even if we hadn't gotten over how we were all fooled by a frozen kingfisher!

Monday, March 10

The Waiting Game

After an unremarkable morning up the forest trail (hornbills, yellow-bellied whistler, several white-eared brown doves, malkohas, rhabdornises, minivets, monarchs, black-chinned fruit doves, serpent eagle, a few flowerpeckers, flameback, etc. plus LOTS of people!) and spotting 4 tourist buses and 3 jeepneys parked at the botanical garden entrance, Adri and I decided to stake out the dirt roads at the dairy for some quail action.

It was still early in the afternoon and the sun was quite high in the sky when we parked our car and ourselves by one of the dirt roads.  Summer was beginning to creep in and everything was dry, even the slight breeze that blew every now and again. 

Buttonquail Crossing

Hardly had we brought down our gear from the car when Adri exclaimed: mayro'n ng tumatawid! (there're birds crossing already!)

Sure enough, several meters up the road in the direction we had come from, a pair of Barred Buttonquails were in the middle of the path, scratching at the dry dirt.

A pair of barred buttonquails crossing the dirt road.

We struggled to get our optics in place, but the duo was too far away from us, and the heat shimmering from the ground did not make for very good views or photos.  After a minute or so, the 2 birds split up, one disappearing into the right side of the road and the other walking into the grass on the left.

Wow, barely 5 minutes from parking we already had a sighting! We quickly settled down to wait again.



Wait, wait, wait.

"Maybe that was it for the afternoon," joked Adri.  "Yes, that's their quota for crossing the road today, you think?" I reply.

A slight movement up the road caught our attention.  Another Barred Buttonquail.  After a few minutes, it disappeared again into the grass.



Wait some more.

My uber-patient partner.

Another unsatisfying appearance by an individual of the same species.  Far away from us.



Finally, some movement again in the grass bordering the road!  Another Barred Buttonquail! It was again some distance from us, but this time it was making its way towards us.  It would walk across the road and back, and then cross again.  Sometimes it would disappear from view for a while at the edge of the road, only to reappear again, just a bit closer.  And closer, and closer!

A buttonquail in the shadows.

It was very active, and so it was difficult to get a good shot.  Adri and I were hardly moving.  A few meters away from us, and something on the ground caught its interest.  

Pecking at some fallen fruit

It picked at what looked like a ripe, red fruit on the ground. It became quite preoccupied with it, and stayed out in the open for a looooong time.  Sometimes it moved away a bit, but then it came back to peck at the fruit.  It even sat down for a while beside the fruit! After several minutes, it seemed to have its fill and waddled away. 

Totally engrossed in the fruit for several minutes.

It was such a great close (well, close enough!) encounter with a usually shy ground bird!  And Adri and I had that mysterious fruit to thank.

The aftermath: after the fruit was pecked at, it looked like this.

I quickly looked up and spotted the vine where the fruit came from.  It was a familiar vine with conspicuous red-orange fruit, and though I have seen it many times before in various places, I did not pay it much mind before now. 

This is what the ripe and unripe fruit looked like:
is this from the cucumber family?

While watching the vine and waiting for more quails, a yellow vented bulbul flew in and perched on the vine right where the fruit was, and immediately began eating it! It is always interesting to know what the birds are eating. 

Even the yellow-vented bulbul had a go at the fruit still on the vine.

A quick internet search led me to a vine native to the Philippines, Coccinia grandis, which is part of the cucumber family.  Is this the mysterious vine which gives fruit that the quail (and the bulbul!) seemed to like so much?  The description seems to fit perfectly. I'll be on closer lookout now for this plant and fruit.

Adri and I wanted to wait for more quails crossing, but as the afternoon got cooler, foot and bicycle/motorcycle traffic on the path increased.  After several minutes, we glimpsed another pair of quails far away from us, way back where we had the first sighting for the afternoon.  Soon a group of kids decided to film a class project right behind us.  What were they role-playing? Scenes from Ibong Adarna!  The mythical bird who lured in princes with its song and finally transformed them into stone with a touch of its poop. We were amused at the apt-ness of their storyline, but decided that it was probably time to go.  

Ibong Adarna by the neighborhood kids.

We doubted any quail crossing would beat our earlier encounter.  Having achieved success, we no longer felt like waiting.