With a very short semestral break and a busy schedule for the long undas weekend, I wasn't able to fit in a long birding trip like last year's Sablayan adventure. So Adri & I decided to go on short birding trips when we had the chance. The first chance that came up was a trip to Makiling. It yielded an unexpected lifer for me... but the lifer came well at the tail end of a very long birding day! And so dear reader, bear with me as I go through the events of the day before I reveal what my lifer was.
It was on the day when the amihan blew into the country, and the gentle wind blowing as we hiked up the mountain was no longer heavy with humidity, but cool and very dry. We had unfortunately come two weeks too late to witness the feeding frenzy at the balete at the TREES lodge. With barely any fruit left on the balete, there was only the option of birding on the forest trail. Thankfully it was a weekday,and the trail was not as busy as it was on the weekends (at least when we started up the mountain). A scale-feathered malkoha (with one bad eye) was our first bird (not counting the philippine bulbuls, balicassiaos and rhabdornises) a few meters into the trail - a good omen to start the day. A cheerful mixed flock composed of elegant tits, sulfur-billed nuthatches, stripe-headed rhabdornises, a Philippine pygmy woodpecker, a lemon-throated leaf warbler and a striped flowerpecker delighted our eyes and lightened our steps. It seemed that Mariang Makiling was going to bless our birding day.
We spent some time with a very sleepy white-eared brown dove, its feathers all fluffed out giving it quite a comical look.
The yellow-bellied whistlers, grey-backed tailorbirds and white-browed shamas teased us with their calls only, but it did not matter so much that we didn't see even a shadow of any of them that day. Common emerald doves crossed the trails, large flocks of ashy minivets frolicked in the canopy and a Philippine serpent eagle called mournfully from the clear blue skies.
Lizards large and small surprised us with their rustling in the dried leaves on the forest floor.
Spotty the spotted wood-kingfisher was at his usual bend, together with a female, while further up the trail we were delighted to see a pair of Philippine trogons playing hide and seek with us among the vines and tangles.
When we reached the bukohan it was nearly lunch, we stopped to eat and chat with Tita Glo, the sari-sari store owner.
After our brief rest, we attempted to continue up the trail, only to be thwarted by ashort but heavy down pour! We decided that it was probably time to head back down, it was getting very warm and sunny after the rain, and it was also getting very quiet.
The hike back to TREES was uneventful bird-wise, however as we neared the bottom, the silence was broken by loud shouts, laughter and all sorts of boisterous noises of students.We wondered if they could be at the Botanical Garden, but the voices seemed so much nearer. When we got to near where the path forked leading down to flat rocks, we were dismayed to see a battalion of maybe 50 high school students tramping through a non-existent trail! Adri and I were very annoyed and Adri requested the teachers to advise their students to keep the noise down since they were technically in the forest. The teachers shrugged politely and I noticed that their guide, who was struggling to keep the students under control, wore a shirt printed with Outbound Adventure, was he from Lakbay Kalikasan? I guess that you really can't force young students to appreciate what they have not learned to value. Such a shame.
So anyway, Adri & I found out that the troop we ran into was just one of the groups of several students on field trip that day. Deciding that we didn't want to take a chance that there were other students at the Botanical Gardens, we just drove around the campus for more birding before heading off to the DTRI meadows and the rice fields around IRRI and Biotech. There had been several reports of various rails and waders in the area and it was worth a look, especially since that route was not our usual Los Baños itenarary.
It was good to see a pair of indigo-banded kingfishers, busily catching small crabs and fish on a clear, fast flowing stream. Grey wagtails hopped from rock to rock, wagging... their tails.
We were also able to add a good number of swifts and swiftlets while buying chocolate milk: a noisy flock of house swifts, fork-tailed swifts, asian palm swifts, pygmy and glossy swiflets as well as pacific swallows were busy gliding gracefully through the air as they snapped up insects on the wing. We also saw a Eurasian Kestrel flying over the fields. We followed it with our binoculars as it flew out of sight over the nearby hills.
When we finally got to the rice fields, the late afternoon sun was well below the zenith, with golden light spilling into the green fields. Not the best of situations to go birding in, tall grasses against the light. We stopped where muddy gullies separated the rice paddies, successfully getting glimpses of hiding snipes and bitterns, of crakes and rails walking in and out from the thickly planted rice. All this while striated grassbirds, cisticolas, zebra doves and crows filled the air with all sorts of birdsong.
I had definitely taken this part of Los Baños for granted. Grasslands so near to the forest! Two habitats in one birding day! My bias for forest birding gave in to the enticing activity of the grassland birds.
And then we saw it. A head peeked out from the palay. That was no white-breasted waterhen! It disappeared back into the palay. Argh. And peeked out again! A rail slowly walked into the open furrow. Brown crown, grey breast, patterned back... even in the blinding yellow light we could see it clearly: a juvenile slaty-breasted rail! It was maddening how it would keep walking back and forth into the tall grasses, giving us only a few seconds of full views. And an immature white-breasted waterhen parading just a few feet away, as if to just confuse us further, did not help lessen our exasperation. With patience we had maybe a five second full view (it could be a case of the usual time dilation associated with good bird sightings though) before it walked away and finally disappeared into the tall palay. Lifer!!!
We continued driving on to the Biotech building, enjoying several Richards pipits, a gazillion grassbirds and finally spotting a long-tailed shrike (we thought there should've been more of them).
We spotted another Falco, this time a peregrine falcon, flapping hard in the still air. As it got darker, we started to drive back, stopping again at the gully where we saw the rail. The snipes were still there, as well as a white-browed crake, which jumped into hole in a pile of dried grass - probably a nest. A bittern stood silently still... its features mocking us as we strove to see it through our scope and bins in the waning light. Was it a female cinnamon bittern or the elusive Shrenck's bittern (which had been reported fairly recently)? Before we could perform any sort of documentation, the still figure suddenly came alive and looked right, then left... and then it actually left. It left the gully and left us perplexed in the near dark.
No choice but to leave that lifer for another day!