Friday, June 29

a visit to sunbird ridge

rhonda was excited for us to meet tony & lyn, who lived in barangay lonos and had quite an interesting bird-friendly garden. despite our aching legs from our tablas adventure the day before, we gamely walked up the hill to their home, not imagining the delightful surprises we would encounter.

sunbird ridge stood on a hillside overlooking the passage to romblon island, a beautiful view of turquoise waters, white sand beaches and green islands. but the beautiful vista was not the only attraction of their home, they also had a daily stream of feathered visitors coming to their garden!
a view of sunbird ridge from the ferry

a view of the sea from sunbird ridge

tony had several sunbird feeding stations set-up all over their garden.  each station had a convenient perch over four shot glasses of sugary solution placed on planter basins with enough water to deter ants. cheerful sunbirds came all day long to enjoy this sugary open bar!
sunbird feeding stations were set up all over the garden

it was a delight to sit on their porch and watch the sunbirds, mostly olive-backed, come to the feeders and drink up the sugar solutions. sometimes there were 7 or more birds at a single feeding station! these were familiar friends of tony and lyn, they could identify the young ones as well as some of the long-time patrons.  there was even a very competitive male, guarding his stash of 4 shot glasses, and chasing all other sunbirds away.  until, that is, he was quite overwhelmed by the number of competitors arriving to drink that he finally gave up and perched, enjoyed his sipping the home-made nectar.

a male olive-backed sunbird enjoying his fill of sugared water

tony and lyn would prepare the sugar solution by boiling brown sugar in water at a specific ratio, then pour the sterilized solution in the shot glasses served over the course of the day.  they started out with honey solution, but that was too expensive to maintain!  they now ration the solution so that they "only" serve 1/4 kilos of sugar a day.  in order to prevent bacterial and fungal infections in the birds which can cause beak deformities, tony washes the glasses and replaces any leftover solution daily and gives the containers a good scrub with bleach every couple of days. initially, it took them quite a few weeks to get the birds interested in the feeders. it was a gradual process, starting with dropping some of the solution on the real flowers until finally one bird perched on the shot glass strategically placed beside the plants accidentally dipped its beak into the sugary water. after that the learning process progressed quite quickly with the other birds.

how many sunbirds can you see? 

most of the sunbirds were female olive-backs

it was a rainy day when we first visited sunbird ridge, but the showers didn't stop the sunbirds from dropping by tony and lyn's garden!  even with the rain we saw that the volume dropped to half the shot glass in under an hour!
a steady stream of visiting birds even on a rainy day

we couldn't resist visiting again the morning before we left.  it was a beautiful morning, with the sun shining brightly and the aquamarine sea shimmering in the distance.

a beautiful sunny day

in the full sun, the sunbirds, too, shimmered. like little jewels, they zipped back and forth, stopping to drink and to sing cheerfully. there were also purple-throated sunbirds! first, a drab female, looking inconspicuous next to the olive-backed girls then a young male with just touches of red starting to show on its belly.  then, an iridescent male, its emerald green head and shoulders glinting in the sun, purple throat and scarlet breast standing out.  it was such a joy to watch.

a female purple-throated sunbird shows up...

... then a juvenile male purple-throated sunbird...

... and finally a beautiful adult male purple-throated sunbird! (notice the reaction of the olive-backed: hecheche!)

a confrontation between the 2 males of different species

there were several other regular visitors to the garden.  we saw kingfishers, oriental magpie-robins, spotted and zebra doves and pink-necked green pigeons.  a yellow-vented bulbul had a nest near one of the doors, an oriole nest was found near the porch and a coucal nest on the grassy area beside the house. tony and lyn told us also about the other birds they had observed.

juvenile and adult spotted doves were frequent visitors also (errata: des a. says "juvy" is actually an island collared dove)

we had a grand time over at sunbird ridge! tony and lyn regaled us with bird tales: of sunbirds recognizing and approaching them in town, of rarities spotted after typhoons, of the ups and downs in keeping a bird-friendly garden. they shared the photos and paintings they had accumulated over the years.  lyn, who made hand-made jewelry, showed us her intricate handiwork. i suppose that our birdy-minds made us kindred spirits in a way.  lyn was so delighted that we didn't find their bird obsession strange (like many others they had met who found the bird conversation kooky), and that we in fact shared the passion, and could spend the whole day talking about birds. she dubbed us all members of the kooky-kooky club!

bird brains: the kooky kooky club

i loved that sunbird ridge showed that we could have bird-friendly gardens here in the country! hummingbird feeders in the united states fascinated me. back home, the sunbirds would be attracted to our backyard because of the heliconia and banana flowers.  last christmas, my brother gave me a hummingbird feeder to try out (sadly, it is still in its box).  wbcp-er neon had also reported his success with hummingbird feeders for the sunbirds in his garden... tony and lyn's garden shows that it is possible to set up feeders even with regular items found around the house. plus a lot of patience and a bit of kooky-ness of course!

Sunday, June 17

twitching at tablas: a lesson in unprepared-ness

yes, there is a bird that can only be found on tablas island.

no, not on sibuyan, on tablas.

these were our answers to the common questions asked of us when we voiced our intention to hop over to tablas from romblon, and even when we arrived at tablas itself.

how could we resist?  we were already in romblon, and we found out that the ferry schedules to san agustin, tablas could allow us a quick overnight trip to tablas.  rhonda, our host, wished us luck and promised to see us when we got back for a courtesy call to the mayor of romblon. the manager of dream paradise mountain resort, ma'am joy, was supportive of our decision, even putting us in touch with the municipal administrator of san agustin to help us out with the logistics. 

which is really already a lot of help, because, aside from a few message exchanges about the general birding area between des a and adri on facebook, that was the extent of our preparation.

and who really needed to be prepared?  ferry boat, birding at a watershed, that's it, right?  wow, after 7 years of birding, i really should've known better. 

we were concerned about the weather.  we woke up to a sunny morning on romblon, but we could already see the ominous grey clouds on the horizon.  after a quick breakfast, one of ma'am joy's drivers came to pick us up and bring us to the pier.  he was a little late, and we zipped and zigzagged speedily from brgy mapula to town.  mel and i were seated on plastic chairs on the back of a pick-up, our knuckles white from gripping on to the railings.  we'll make it! our driver exclaimed enthusiastically after he asked mel what time it was as he poured a bottle of petroleum into the truck. he was probably convincing himself, as we later learned he had said exactly the same thing to adri who was seated inside the cab.

speeding to the pier on the back of a pick-up

we barely did.  

when we got to the pier, the 8am passenger ferry had already left for san agustin.  thankfully, there were enough passengers waiting to validate a "special trip".

not very familiar with maritime commuting, the three of us plonked ourselves right at the front seats. hey, you never know what pelagics we might run into, right?

excited to get to tablas

melanie and the tiniest overnight bag ever

wrong!  as soon as we were a couple of kilometers from the pier, every window in the boat, including the entrance, was slammed shut.  coffin boat! i thought!  the crossing was rough because of the bad weather.  the kid beside adri clung to his mother fearfully, tears and moans coming from a crumpled little boy on his mothers lap.  halfway there and several tosses of the boat, mel gave out a little laugh of hysteria. this had better end soon i thought, getting woozy from the boat and the petrol fumes.

after an hour, san agustin! we jumped (and i mean jumped) from the boat to the dock, and set out to find the munisipyo to meet up with ma'am joy's contact.

the port of san agustin

san agustin, it turns out, is as big as the palm of my hand.  as we reached the munisipyo, a man on a motorcycle drove up to us and asked who we were looking for.  mang ed, we answered, to which he replied: that's me!  he pointed to a mountain covered in cloud behind the town, and that's our watershed, dubduban. you're climbing that? he asked.

the watershed covered in rain cloud behind town

hmmmm... it certainly looked wet and rainy, we answered.  yes, he said. but it's june. that's how it is during the habagat. 

is there really a bird that can only be found here in tablas?

yes, here in tablas and nowhere else in the world.

wow. you must send me pictures, he said.

if we get any, we said with much hesitation staring at the cloud covered mountain.

he had researched around and had found a watershed employee who apparently knew the trails and the spot to look for the bird. it was best we hired motorcycles to get us to the foot of the trail.  aaaah. habal-habal, i said. no problem. 

but it was 10am and the sun was out, could we maybe check in at an inn and take off after lunch?  

of course, mang ed said, and we headed across the plaza to august inn (in san augustin, get it?).

at san agustin, we stayed at august inn: open 24 hours & with generator

aaaaaah, are you here to see that bird? our proprietress exclaimed as soon as she saw our attire and equipment.

you know about that bird, says mang ed incredulously.

no, she answers, but many of my guests come to see it and i just had a couple of guests over to see it, and a swiss guy just left this morning after seeing it.

is there really a bird that can only be seen here in tablas?

yes! yes! yes!

she laughs, i usually have foreigners visiting, i think you're the first locals.  they climb up the watershed to look for that bird even in the rain! there are leeches there.

leeches!!! mel and i look at each other and at our keen-sandal clad feet and then at adri. uh oh. our shoes were back in romblon.

we check in, taking the largest room.  800 pesos for a three person air conditioned room with its own toilet and bath.  600 pesos if we just use the electric fan.  oh there's no electricity today.  so 400 pesos, asks mel with a laugh.

we settle in, and hang out at the balcony overlooking the plaza, well, the entire town, while planning our day.  ok, it looks like rain says master adri.  we'll go after lunch, if we miss it, we can still bird tomorrow morning and take the 1pm ferry back and meet rhonda for late lunch.  if we see everything this afternoon (we laugh at that), we can take the 6am roro.

waiting in vain for the rains to let up at the inn's balcony

a view of the pier from the balcony

as we watch life going by in this small town, it begins to drizzle, and then the rain begins to pour. 

let's go for early lunch so we can set off earlier, says adri. and we head across the plaza in the rain to a row of turo-turos. as we eat, the rain continues to pour.  

not good. 

from our table, adri spotted a guy on a motorcycle driving up to our inn.  that must be rodel, the guide he says!

we scoot over across the plaza again after eating, but the guy is gone.  we park ourselves back on the balcony, watching starlings flying around and a couple of java sparrows hopping around the plaza.

asian glossy starlings and a pair of java sparrows entertain us

rodel arrives past lunch, and we go down to meet with him.  

do you want to go now, he asks.

how do we get to the site, we ask.

10 minute motorcycle, and a short hike.

hike?!? how long?

not a problem, maybe half an hour.

uhm. leeches? we're not really prepared we're all wearing sandals.

meron din. ok lang sandals, eh di mas madaling makita at tanggalin yung limatok, he answers with a smile.

eargh. adri looks apologetically at mel and myself.

will we see the bird, even in the rain?

yes, it's there, rodel says.

in half an hour we're all on motorcycles, speeding through the town in a light drizzle.

they call it single, but it's really a double

at the foot of the watershed in barangay dubduban, we get down at a coconut plantation.  we arrange for the bikes to come back for us in around 3 hours at 5pm. and follow rodel up the trail.

the trail?  it's muddy, uphill, and at times the trail falls off to a drop to the river below! we had to hang on to the side of the mountain and whatever vegetation we could cling on to, our feet sliding from the muddy (non-existent) path parallel to the vertical hill side!  after that bit, the trail angled up, so that it was in front of your face as we clambered up it!  i could hear mel talking to the mountain, as sweat poured down my nose and adri balanced with the scope.  our guide of course, scrambled up without any effort, way ahead of us slowpokes.  not far, he called back to us.

and for once, thankfully, not far actually did mean not far.  the last portion was a steep path down to the river bed.

birding spot: down by the river

we're here, rodel said.  this is where we wait for it.

while waiting, mel found a leech on her foot. and adri found 3.

mel's little friend

we heard a variable dwarf kingfisher whistle past us.  an unfamiliar call was resounding above the soft flow and fall of water.

white-vented whistler!

adri was surprised that it was a lifer for both mel and myself.

a white-vented whistler sings cheerfully in the rain

wait, wait, wait.

the search and the wait

rodel, apparently guiding an entirely local group for the first time, becomes talkative, telling of us the others he had guided, some familiar names. des, mark jason, rob hutchinson.

i spotted a leech doing acrobatics on a nearby rock.

one big limatok!  adri got one like this on his foot before it could bite.

you always see it here?


when was the last time?

just yesterday with a swiss guy.

what time did you see it?

5pm, rodel answers with a smile.

it was just 3pm!

is that the same path back?

yes. the other one is shorter but steeper.

i groaned. steeper?

mel had to say: you mean there's something steeper than that?!?!?

adri admonished us:  yan, hindi kasi kayo fit.


the silence was deafening. what bird would be out in this weather anyway?  i was actually afraid we wouldn't see it.  and i knew i didn't want to go through that trail again tomorrow.

adri occassionally played his call (yes, adri was the most prepared).




more rain.

now i was watching fish in the river.

the kingfisher zipped back again, invisible except for its call.

all of a sudden a sharp, loud call came from above us!

directly above us, all black in the low light, was the tablas drongo!  its long and deeply forked fish-tail was 3 dimensional, the ends curling around like a vase, criss-crossing in a scissoring motion.

dicrurus menagei, this is a possible split from d. hottentus, the more common spangled drongo. the wbcp checklist still considers it a subspecies, but birdlife has split it already.  it is restricted to the forests remaining on tablas island, only recently re-discovered as it was thought of as extinct in the late 1990s.

it circled around us for several minutes, responding to the playback, affording us several, brief looks. 

whew! relief in all forms.

later as we were following it around us, a single streak-breasted bulbul landed in front of us.  a rather plain bulbul (yes, plainer than usual), it was also a distinct subspecies from the ones found in cebu or siquijor. 

the drongo continued to flit around us, frustratingly refusing to be caught on camera! we must've been a comical site, running across the river and back to get better views.

tablas drongo:  good views but all we got was this blurred picture!

it was almost 5pm when adri decided we should head back. we didn't want to be caught on the trail in the dark! so we huffed and puffed back up. we took short rests to see some sunbirds, when 2 birds zipped between adri and mel and landed briefly near us: blue-headed fantails!  another tablas island endemic subspecies!

unbelievably, despite the horrid birding weather, we had gotten our targets down in less than 3 hours! 

when we got back to where the motorcycles were waiting, we decided to head back to town and return later that night for owling.

we returned to a darkened plaza, the electricity was still out!  we celebrated our common lifers with beer and silog for dinner. and according to mel: we also celebrated surviving our near-death encounter (or at least the risk of severe injury from falling off the mountain!)

celebratory dinner and beer in the dark

after dinner, we met up again with rodel, and we rode in the dark of night back to the coconut plantation.  

riding away into the darkness

rodel lead us to a huge, giant tree in the middle of the fields.

the owl should be up there, he said.

wow, could the tree be any taller, we answered sarcastically.

then the grunts and hoots in the dark started.  thankfully, the first owl was not up the tallest tree in the world, but on a slightly (just slightly) smaller coconut palm.

the mantanani scops owls, we found out, were rather cooperative owls, staying in our light and in our view for several minutes at a time.

soon, the owl calls surrounded us.  there was no need for playback as they were calling back to each other themselves!

an almost full moon illuminated us as we walked back to the main road, elated by the several owls we had seen...not something we often experience.

as we walked back on the main road, there was a loud growl just in front of us. our light illuminated an owl perched quite near to us! it stared down at us as we gawked at it.  front views, back views, 360 views.  a light rain had begun to fall so the owl was quite content to be in the light under the shade of a tree, rather than the alternative: wet and out in the rain.

sigh. another blurred owl picture for me,

mantanani scops owl, romblonis: check! 

good thing adri got wonderful shots of the mantanani scops owl!

4 tablas island endemic subspecies in 4 hours: target birding at its best.  enthusiasm wins over unprepared-ness!

needless to say, we caught the 6am roro back to romblon the next morning. mel and i had to struggle with stairs (can you say pain?) for the rest of our stay in romblon.

whew! the maria querubin: making it to 6am roll on roll off ferry.

to be continued: our other adventures on romblon island!