Friday, May 28

swimming with giants...

I glanced nervously at the deep green water.  I was never much of a swimmer and jumping into deep water (and I mean can't-see-the-bottom-or-anything-else-deep) is always pretty daunting.  I clutched at my bright -orange life vest and took a deep breath.  "How big will it be?" I wondered.  Elmer our BIO (that's Butanding Interaction Officer) was explaining how it was easier to be at the head of the animal rather than staring at a the tail swimming away.  Head? Hmmm, head = mouth.  Well, even if it was still technically a shark and I kept reminding myself that it ate microscopic animals.

"Ayun! Ayun! Meron na!" the boatmen shouted, themselves surprised.  We were only 15 minutes away from the beach!  I didn't expect a sighting so soon!  There was a mad scramble as Suzy, Bigi, Adri and I grabbed our fins and snorkels.  Elmer quickly grabbed the 2 closest people to him (Suzy and Bigi) and without warning, jumped off the side of the boat.

 I sat on the edge of the boat hesitatingly.  "Jump! Jump! Jump! Faster, faster!" screamed the boatmen at me.  And in my confusion... I jumped off the boat, praying I wouldn't hit the katig.

Salty water entered my snorkel and I blew hard to clear it.  I looked down... it was so murky!  This thick plankton soup must be what these fish are here for, but where was it?  

I looked down and blinked.  All I could see was gray... and... spots?

What the....?  It was right below me!  I was never good at estimating depth in the water but I glanced left and right... spots... spots... spots! Holy cow, how big was this animal?  And all of a sudden I saw a giant tail sweep... and it was gone.  Everything was murky green again.  Had I imagined it?

I lifted my head out of the water and saw that everyone else was smiling and talking excitedly.


Our bangka, the Giana Bless circled back and let down a ladder to help us get back on. "Nakita nyo ma'am?" asked the smiling spotter who, not 10 minutes earlier, had been screaming his head off at me to jump.

What an encounter.

For the next three hours we would repeat the routine 8 more times.  Sometimes not all of us would see it, the best sightings were when we were dragged along by Elmer so we could actually swim right beside or on top of the beast.

  The polka-dotted giant

Gone with a sweep of a tail

There was an encounter with one small one, probably 5 meters long, which sticks clearly in my mind.  Several boats had seen it so there were several snorkelers in the water.  I couldn't see where it was, when Adri pulled my arm and pointed to my left.  The was sunlight streaming in ribbons in the green water and it hit the "tiny" shark just as it turned and opened its huge mouth.  The sunlight on its back made the spots shine like diamonds.  Because it was "small" I could see it from head to tail. I stopped and watched it swim away unmindful of the small throng of snorkelers following it. Wonderful creature.  God must have had a good laugh when he decided this giant beast should have spots.

At the end of the morning, each of us had seen at least 6 whale sharks each.  After the fourth sighting or so... we just really enjoyed jumping in the cool water and looked forward to the sight of (part of) a butanding swimming gracefully beneath us.

This is one animal encounter that I'll never forget.  (And I didn't even have to climb a mountain or stay in the middle of the jungle!) Another reason to love the Philippines.

The Giana Bless

BIO Elmer

Elmer & the spotters

Butanding Interaction
Donsol, Sorsogon
May 2010

video clip:
more pictures:

Friday, May 14

attack of the hydras

2 days ago i noticed that my little aquarium cube had these things on the glass.
i realised they're hydras... tiny freshwater relatives of sea anemones and jellyfish.
now they're on the glass, on the substrate, hanging from the plants...
they're pretty cool, but i hope they don't get out of hand.

Monday, May 10

bumoto ka ba?

3 and a half hours and 170 voters before me...
that's how long it took me to cast my vote in the national elections today.

and although i filled in all the bilog na hugis itlog for my chosen candidates, the PCOS machine in our precinct cluster wasn't working!  we just dropped our ballots in what one neighbor described as a box that looked like a garbage can. so much for partial automation... i hope that at least the count is actually automated.

here's hoping for change... the kind that starts within each and every Filipino.

Sunday, May 9

B? Bohol! - Beach...

Early morning on Thursday, we still had to get up with the sun because we were going to be fetched at 6am for dolphin watching and a visit to Pamilacan Island. Over breakfast, we thanked the staff of Simply Butterflies for our very pleasant stay in Bilar and hurriedly boarded the car sent out to fetch us.  I had made arrangements with Jojo Baritua of Pamilacan Island Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours  ( with whom I had a very unforgettable dolphin encounter seven years back. The sun rose quickly and it was a little past 7am when we reached the Baclayon pier in front of the lovely Baclayon Church.  Jojo B. was there to greet us, and after quickly filling up the maritime forms, we were off! Nenel was a small, smiling woman who accompanied us as our local guide and the captain of our bangka was mang Teodoro.  Adri was struggling with the names of the crew we had several years earlier (I was sure I could not remember them), when he remembered one of them, Idot.  By wonderful consequence, mang Idot and mang Teodoro were the same person! It had been several years and he didn't remember us in particular, but he did remember how we had tied Vir's kite to the boat. It seemed like a good foreboding for our adventure.

Pamilacan Island - home of former whalers

It's time for some sun exposure!
We circled the rich waters around Pamilacan Island for a couple of hours.  And just when I was losing hope that we would see dolphins, there was a splash on the horizon.  There they were!  A small pod of spinner dolphins!  As we approached cautiously to join them, we saw that a young dolphin was the one most active with the acrobatics of spinning and jumping out of the water. The dolphins kept their distance from the boat, but they were near enough for us to enjoy their antics.  Sometimes, a couple of them would approach and ride the bow.  They moved so swiftly, there would be times when they would disappear completely and I would think they had left when they would suddenly appear on a different side of the boat. We all clapped and shouted with glee, Adri, Mel and I, trying to get photos and video, but not knowing where their sleek bodies would suddenly break from the waters' surface. It must be wonderful to be a dolphin and move with such agility and freedom in the water.  (

Wonderful spinner dolphins

Eventually, we decided to leave the dolphins to their frolic and feeding.
We headed for Pamilacan Island for lunch, and upon stepping onto the beach we were immediately greeted with the customary frangipani leis.

Welcome complete with calachuchi leis
It was still early for lunch and they asked us if we would like to snorkel in the marine sanctuary.  Adri and I immediately agreed, while Mel exchanged snorkelling for a relaxing massage.  The only boats allowed in the marine sanctuary were small paddle-driven bangkas and I immediately thought of how difficult it would be to get back on the bangka! Our guide, Reno, pointed out the giant clams that had been seeded recently and took us to the edge of the sanctuary where we enjoyed the thrilling sight of a school of more than a thousand jacks swimming at the edge of a steep drop, their bodies glinting in the sunlight ( .Each talakitok must have weighed 2 kilos or more said Reno, but the fine for fishing in the sanctuary was 1,500 pesos per catch.  It was good to hear that the locals protected their natural bounty.  Later, we snorkelled at the Coral Garden, where clownfish, butterfly fish, damselfish and other colorful reef fish danced through the soft and hard coral. 

Ready to snorkel!

Boatman in the water

a school of jacks

in the coral garden

When we got back on the beach, lunch was ready... grilled tuna steak, native chicken soup (was it tinola or binakol or a cross?), chicken adobo, sayote and upo tops, banana and fresh buko juice. The heat of the day reflected on the sand made us very sleepy after our lunch and we did our best beach bumming by just staring at the crisp blue waters in front of us.  We took a short walk to the ruins of the lookout tower (which, just like 7 years ago, still had chickens) and watched the local kids enjoy swimming at high noon. 

lunch on Pamilacan

Melanie making friends with a goat

pamilacan island scenery

Before we had a chance to drop off to sleep permanently, we decided it was time to move on.

with mang idot and nenel

We had checked out of Simply Butterflies that morning and all our things were loaded on the boat because they planned to bring us to the Bohol Bee Farm on Panglao by boat (rather than returning to Baclayon and bringing us by car).  It was a 45 minute boat ride which would have lulled us to sleep except for an occasional large splash of water since the afternoon had made the mornings' calm seas a bit rougher.  As we approached the Bohol Bee Farm, Adri, Mel and I were surprised to see that it did not have a beach front, but that good-sized wooden dock and lounging area was built on the side of the cliff.  The waters were turning rough and it was quite a challenge to jump form our large bangka to the wooden dock while the boat was roughly tossed about by the waves.  We thanked Nenel and Idot and the rest of the crew and waved at them as they left.

the dock at bohol bee farm

Wet and looking very bedraggled, Mel and I climbed the steps to look for the front desk where we informed the staff that we had arrived... the back way!  It was obviously not the normal route taken by their guests and they quickly dispatched bellboys to help Adri bring up our things.  We were assigned to the Radish room, a very neat and home-y room... with air conditioning and a television set. 

Again we didn't want to waste any time, and before we would get too comfortable, we returned to the dock where we spent the rest of the afternoon til sunset playing with the crashing surf that threatened to bash us into the nearby rocks. The place was the perfect photo-op location, and I think Mel was the most delighted at this.

For dinner, we had the most colorful meal... bread and 3 kinds of spread (honey, mango and pesto), spicy flower salad, squash soup, spare ribs and curry pasta (and I had tarragon iced tea).  I was hesitant to eat the flower salad (which we had ordered out of curiosity), when I saw the flowers in it: cosmos, bougainvillea, gumamela, ternate blue pea, katuray!  It was like my mother's garden on a plate!  Of course there was a bit of lettuce and mushroom and nuts.  But the dressing was good, and the flower salad tasted... like salad!  I didn't know what I was expecting. Everything else was yummy, and once again, we had stuffed our selves’ silly. We were happy that we had yet to have a bad meal during our entire trip. 


When we got back to the room, there was the gecko on the wall and after a good shower and bath I fell asleep almost immediately, happy to remember that there was no wake up call the next day.

After breakfast of omelette, waffle, chicken ham and papaya juice, we took our time preparing for our flight back to Manila.  Before Chito would come to pick us up, we took the tour of the Bee Farm, checked out their gardens and bees and handicraft center. 

how can we resist ice cream on a hot summer day?

us with chito... last minute pasalubong shopping
bye bye bohol!  thanks for a wonderful time!

Saturday, May 8

B? Bohol? - Birding!

Bohol! The only other time I visited Bohol was way back in 2003.  I remembered that it was at the height of the SARS scare and we pushed through with our trip after luch afterthought.  I was with Kutch (our host), Vir, Adri and JenneR.  Travel around the country wasn't so easy (or affordable) yet, so we took the Cebu Pacific flight to Cebu, the Supercat to Tagbilaran and the Super Ferry to get back to Manila. I wasn't a birder back then.  How your itinerary changes with birding on the schedule.

I was so looking forward to birding at the Raja Sikatuna National Park!  I already had a list of target birds in mind.  And because I was on summer leave, Adri and I could schedule our trip on the work week:  Monday to Friday.  Melanie was the only one who was free to join us on our trip.  When we landed after noon at Tagbilaran and Chito, our driver, picked us up and suggested lunch at... Chicken Ati-Atihan!  We convinced Mel it could count as "research".

A familiar menu

After a familiar and filling lunch, we went straight to the Tarsier Sanctuary at Corella ( The sanctuary had an open enclosure, which meant that the tarsiers were free to come and go, and the fence served as protection from predators (i.e. feral cats).  Around 10 tarsiers had taken up semi-permanent residence in the enclosure, a smaller territory I guess, in exchange for security.  The guides would make rounds early in the morning to look for the tarsiers, which, being nocturnal, would stay in that location for most of the day. The tarsiers were so cute!  How could big round eyes and slow head movement not be endearing?  I guess they were used to people staring and taking pictures of them. Later we sought our Victor, who was familiar with the birds in the small forest at the back of the sanctuary, and I got my first lifer for the trip.

A Philippine Tarsier at the open enclosure of the Corella Sanctuary

Birding at Corella with Victor  & seeing the Philippine frogmouths 
(do not comment on Mel's attire please! )

The trip to Bilar towards the center of Bohol was filled with conversation with Chito, who had loads of bird and birder stories to share. With the election nearing, politics was part of the dialogue as well.

We arrived in Bilar at nearly 6pm in the evening and Janice of Simply Butterflies was starting to wonder where we were.  We knew of Simply Butterflies (  and its charming owner/proprietress Cristy Burlace through Lydia and other birders.  It was a very pleasant place to stay in, and convenient being less that 10 minutes away from RSNP.  They also catered to the early morning habits and transportation requirements of birders. We checked in and were shown to our 3 night home, a double story hut with the second floor being the sleeping quarters and the bathroom on the first floor.  In spite of the heat of summer, it was very cool and airy and comfortable. We didn't even put up our mosquiteros.  Not 5 minutes after setting down our things, we headed back to the dining area, ordered our dinner, and got back into the van.  Chito had suggested we pay a visit to Ryan at RSNP, who was going to be our bird guide. It was quite dark when we drove into the park, and our headlights illuminated a Philippine Scops Owl perched on a small tree by the roadside, frightening it into flying to the forest on the other side of the road. Its eye shine glimmered as it passed the head lights.  We excitedly (and belatedly) got out fo the car, bird calls echoed form the forest.  Scops owl, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, great-eared nightjar, Philippine Frogmouth.  Ryan, a very young and fit looking man, had seen us coming and was walking down the road from the main office to greet us.  Adri introduced Mel and me, and we excitedly planned out the activities for the next day.  "Madali lang mga ibon ngayon", said Ryan and we were all looking forward to birding. We jumped back in the van and headed back to Simply Butterflies to enjoy our very delicious meal (all our meals at Simply Butterflies were very good) with Chito, who promised to come pick us up at Panglao on Friday.

There was no need for us to get up too early in the morning the next day, having checked the frogmouth and the scops-owl, we didn't plan on doing any owling. After a leisurely breakfast at 530am, Janice's husband Felix drove us to RSNP.  While waiting for Ryan in front of the main office, we spotted Spangled drongos flying over the forest and a very active purple throated sunbird flitting high up over the tree tops.

Roadside birding at RSNP
Walking back to the main road, our first sighting was... the Steere's pitta!  It perched quite near to us by the road side and was calling continuously so we could all get excellent views without much effort!  I was so surprised it looked so much bigger than the the red-bellied and hooded pittas!  It was still dark because of the tall trees blocking out the sunlight, but the brilliant azure breast stood out and it was no problem keeping our eyes on this beautiful bird.  My main target bird for the trip already in the bag and it wan't even 7 o'clock yet! 

Steere's Pitta (aka Azure-breasted Pitta)

High in the tree tops landed a male Samar tarictic hornbill, and this sighting gave us quite a neck strain, until Ryan whispered "tailorbird" and all our attention focused on the bushes behind us at eye level. We followed the movement in the foliage for several meters, until suddenly, out hopped a singing yellow and black bird with a white chin... Yellow-breasted tailorbird!  Wow.  It was as if we were in birding heaven. A very colorful Philippine trogon hummed quietly in the tall tree a few meters from us. Having seen our targets for the roadside, we began walking back to the amphitheatre to bird behind the offices.  On one of the tall trees, a pair of colugos (flying lemurs) stared at us sleepily. Now, these were not cute creatures, their "wings" made their bodies look ridiculously big for their small heads and Mel mentioned that their eyes were quite large as well.

"My, what big eyes you have!"

A we approached the open field, the calls of a rufous-lored kingfisher were driving us mad.  So near and yet nowhere to be seen!  Eventually, we spotted on of them... just above the ranger's office, in plain sight.  It was really too good for words.  Mel and I were getting giddy.

A noisy rufous-lored kingfisher

Almost as soon as we entered the Brahminy trail, a noisy blue fantail came to check us out.  A Philippine Hawk-cuckoo flew in while we were trying to get good views of a black-faced coucal clambering in a tree right above us.  Our walk through the limestone forest was punctuated with not only bird sightings, but an occasional sunning lizard which Ryan would point out every now and then.  For a while I was confused on whether I was supposed to be looking at a bird or a herp. 

Near the end of our trail, we spotted a small mixed flock of monarchs, whistlers and fantails.  I thought we were all looking at the same bird trying to figure out if it was a female black-naped monarch when Adri suddenly said "may babbler ba dito?"  "black-crowned babbler," answered Ryan, to which Mel and Adri started to literally twitch... I was disappointed I had missed the bird.  

We enjoyed herping as well as birding...

Easy trails at the RSNP

Back at the ranger's office by 1030 am, we had a lunch of lechon manok and rice and coke. We lazed about the grounds, watching tourist come to look at (of all things) the monkeys.  A group of tourists would come and one of the rangers would actually call to the forest "hoooooo, mang tikoy!" and a whole band of monkeys would come.  Eeek.  i don't like monkeys.

Yummy lechon manok lunch

Monkey, monkey...
We discovered posters of the mammals and herps to be found at the park, and I took a picture of the one showing the lizards to act as pocket guide for us.

Whiling away time in the heat of noon

Handy lizard guide now in my camera

Later at 2pm, Ryan rounded us up for a second pass through the forest.  Up Brahminy and Oriole Trails.  More trogons and fantails, a pair of rufous-tailed jungle flycatchers, and to my relief, a small mixed flock with at least three black-crowned babblers.  Never mind the crick in my neck from staring straight up. Another Steere's pitta, and several birds later... we still had no wattled broadbill, the only bird left unseen in our most deisred list.  Down Tarictic trail and it was beginning to get late in the afternoon.  

Suddenly Ryan got very excited... and we could hear why. The broadbill was calling!  We tried and tried for almost an hour... but they wouldn't show. It was getting dark and we decided that we would start from this end of the trail early the next morning. We walked down and exited at the Logarita Swimming pool, where a Silvery Kingfisher perched. While waiting for Felix to come pick us up, Melanie, Adri and Ryan scanned the rice fields for more birds. Felix picked us up after a few minutes.  We had dinner at Simply Butterflies with Ryan.  Over dinner we declared ourselves a lucky foursome in reference to our birding success for that day.

The Logarita Swimming pool
Ryan was waiting for us at exactly 6am the next morning at the junction to the swimming pool.  Felix drove all four of us to the start of the trail where the silvery kingfisher was still perched by the stream beside the pool.  We climbed up the trail quickly and quietly, ignoring the birds calling around us. When we arrived at the spot where we had heard the wattled broadbill yesterday, Ryan spotted a hornbill but quickly went to work with his playback cassette tape player. No more than a few minutes had passed, "Ayun! Ayun! Male!" Sure enough, there was a male wattled broadbill perched a few meters from us.  It flew off but we spotted another dark shadow flitting through the tangle of vines and branches. "Female!" There was a quiet flurry from all of us, trying to get the best position to see the birds with our bins, scoping and following the 2 birds as they quietly flew from perch to perch.  The male quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, but the female remained perched, its blue wattles standing out against its dark head, its bright white breaast making it easy to spot in the shadows. A trogon flew overhead, a common emerald dove landed right in front of us and a rufous-lored kingfisher kept calling from nearby, but we ignored all other birds except the 2 broadbills.  Mission accomplished!

Wattled Broadbill at last!

We spent a leisurely couple of hours walking the trails and roads, before 2 motorcycles came to pick us up to bring us back to Simply Butterflies. With heartfelt thanks to Ryan, we ended our birding day at 930am. 

Lucky foursome birders

Macmac, me and Adri: a tight fit on a  small scooter.

Upon reaching Simply Butterflies, we finally ran into Cristy who was heading for Cebu. We enjoyed the rest of the day at Simply Butterflies just lounging around.  Before lunch, while enjoying their homemade ice cream packaged like ice candy, we were guided by Macmac around the facility, complete with assorted trivia and facts about butterflies.  Aside from the enclosed butterfly garden, the grounds were actually a large open butterfly garden.  Cristy and her staff carefully studied the food and host plants of the butterflies and integrated them in the garden so there were as many, and more kinds of butterflies flew free and visited the garden than were in the enclosure.  Simply Butterflies receives several visitors a day, mostly tourists who have had lunch at the Loboc River cruise and on their way to the Chocolate Hills.  Most of these visitors came between 1 pm and 3 pm that day.

Hanging out in our cottage at Simply Butterflies

Learning about the other winged creatures at the butterfly sanctuary

Hmmm... pansit!

A froggy (one of many!) in the garden after dinner
We were glad to have ended birding early, and we separately went about inspecting the creatures of the garden and generally doing what we defined as "nothing".   A perfect vacation.  Tomorrow, we would move on to the sea and beach.

To be continued...

Some pictures from Melanie and Adri, thanks guys!
For more pictures see:

Bird lifers:
1. Philippine Frogmouth
2.  Steere's Pitta
3.  Yellow-breasted Tailorbird
4.  Samar Tarictic Hornbill
5. Rufous-lored Kingfisher
6.  Blue Fantail
7.  Black-faced Coucal
8.  Philippine Leaf Warbler
9.  Black-crowned Babbler
10 Wattled Broadbill

1. Philippine Tarsier
2. Philippine Flying Lemur
3. Long-tailed Macaque
4. Philippine Pygmy Squirrel

1.  Small bent-toed geckko
2.  Jagor's Sphenomorphus
3.  White Spotted anglehead Lizard
4.  Common burrowing Skink
5.  Malay Flying Lizard
6.  2 striped Mabouya (?)
7.  Gecko gecko