Saturday, February 16

quiz-time at olango!

i may have mentioned before that waders are not exactly my favorite group of birds. but when jops and maia invited us to join them on a wader-watching trip to olango, how could i resist? it was cebu and it was the beach! there's no better excuse to brush up on my observation and id skills (even if it's past the awc season!)

the iconic main view deck at olango island wildlife sanctuary
and so we joined jops, maia, jun and leni. i was ready to be burned under the hot sun (reflected on the white sand) and i was ready to test my wader id-skills.

test my wader id-skills: that is EXACTLY what it felt like.  a test. not unlike taking a practical test in school. the kind where you didn't really know if you were going to pass or fail while taking it. even if i had lots of studying put into it: hours of reading kennedy and surfing on the web and an equal number of hours doing the awc (at 2 sites for 2013!). thankfully, i wasn't going to be graded.

i had been to olango only once before, waaaay back in 2007 during the cebu birdfest.  i picked up several lifers then, but it being a birdfest, my mind was not 100% on birding. it was a very short day trip, unlike this one where we had planned to stay 2 nights on the island. i was looking forward to a very birdy weekend. this trip i had two goals in mind: knots and dowitchers. 

for our stay, first low tide was scheduled a bit before sunrise, the first high tide around midday and the second high tide in the late afternoon.  well, it turns out the "low" and "high" tides of the day are terms used very loosely that weekend.  with less than a meter rise and fall, it seemed like it was low tide the whole day!

high tide (aka low tide) or low tide (aka really, really low tide):
what's the diff?
which was not very helpful to us because that meant that the birds were scattered far and wide! but it didn't mean it wasn't birdy. 

day one: going knots

after settling in at olango bonita inn at barangay suba sabang, we took our tricycles straight to the olango island wildlife sanctuary for afternoon birding!

the oiws is in baranggay san vicente
on our first afternoon of birding, i was surprised that everyone had brought their own scope! i was the only one who didn't have a scope for personal use! we all got a good laugh out of it - joking that it would be a kanya-kanya (to each his own) birding trip!

Q: how do you fit 5 scopes and 6 birders on a mini view deck?
A: you can't!
we immediately set out for the view deck, getting very excited with the few birds around us, when we suddenly realised that there were many, many, many more birds further off! and so the id-ing challenge began! plovers, whimbrels, curlews, godwits, sandpipers, egrets, tattlers, turnstones, sandpipers, redshanks, greenshanks, gulls and terns! whew!

how many waders can you id? five!
whimbrel, grey-tailed tattler, ruddy turnstone, great knot and grey plover
thankfully, many of the waders were all walking together and quite near us, so we could have side by side comparisons of size and field marks.  leg and bill color, bill size, straight bills, decurved bills, upturned bills, rumps, eyebrows, rounded or angular heads, size, underwing, tail, wing edge. aaaargh! more than once, we would get into arguments while peering into our bins and scopes, only to find out that we were looking at different birds!

the first afternoon of birding was a bit overwhelming

we couldn't resist getting down from the view deck to try to get closer to the waders. it was nearing sunset and we were all bathed in a golden light.  in that first afternoon (after much pointing and discussion!), i got my first lifer goals: red knot and great knot! special mention of course were a few chinese egrets, one of the two flagship species for the sanctuary (the other being the coveted asian dowitcher).  

the whimbrels had an general assembly that afternoon

great knot! maia and i had a good discussion before id-ing this lifer for me!
a better picture of the great knot by adri - there were many of them that afternoon

chinese egret - a species long associated with the oiws

as it got darker, we were surrounded by an eerie procession of hundreds of whimbrels, marching to a silent drum.

whimbrels on the march at sunset

sunset at olango! such a wonderful time enjoying the serenity of the wildlife sanctuary. it was definitely a big bonus for staying overnight on the island. 

the sun sets on our first birding day

that night we enjoyed a filling dinner and good night's sleep at our inn. 

day two: the long walk
staying overnight in olango also meant that we didn't have to get up too early the next day to take the ferry! all we had to do was ask our tricycle drivers to pick us up at 730am the next morning. 

on our second day, we did a bit more exploring, dropping by first at the old hide, which unfortunately we couldn't use because there were no steps! 

the grey tailed tattlers were not very afraid of people
as mid morning approached, there were more visitors to the sanctuary as it was now the weekend. one of the guides, mang boy, mentioned to us that the dowitchers were last seen across the great expanse of sand in front of the view deck.  that got us all excited, and in the midday sun, we started our long walk. we came across several waders on our walk, a large flock of curlew sandpipers busy probing the sand with their curved beaks, several plovers and stints and curlews also busy with looking for lunch.  

a pair of far-eastern curlews - the underwing and buffy underparts best separate it from the very similar eurasian curlew

a long walk at midday. can you imagine this is approaching peak high tide at 1130am!

curlew sandpipers foraging for food

and rufous-necked stints too!
while many birds were quite active, there was also a number of them asleep! heads hidden under their wings, they presented a different identification challenge! a few of them were already showing hints of their summer plumage, giving us little hints and clues.  

plovers galore: a grey plover, a kentish plover with a hint of breeding plumage 
and a lesser sand plover (or is it greater? haha)

after a couple of hours walking, we decided to turn back for lunch.  mang boy had pointed past some coconut trees in the distance and said that it was where the dowitchers were seen, and that our inn was also in that direction. we all looked at each other and our minds buzzed with the possibilities for the next day.

for lunch, delivered to the sanctuary by our friendly tricylce driver, we were joined by cebu birders nilo a. and tateo o. they brought more food and watermelons!  we enjoyed our little picnic under the mangrove trees beside the ranger station which was undergoing major renovation.  nearby, the resident rufous night-heron regarded us suspiciously and some distance away a very thin looking whimbrel searched the sand for food.

a very handsome rufous night-heron. he has two legs, but he only has one eye :(

a whimbrel on the hunt at midday.
there weren't too many birds out near the view deck after lunch, but the olango island wildlife sanctuary is hardly a place to get bored. it is a beach combers paradise and the beach and sea grass beds are full of little treasures for curious eyes.  i took the chance to watch the different fish taking shelter between the stepping stones to the view deck, combed the sea grass for molluscs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, and harrassed some hermit crabs and starfish. mudskippers, mantis shrimp, fiddler crabs, all of them scuttled away from my shadow! i could spend hours just watching these sea critters!

a pair of cowries grazing on the sea grass, a goby hiding in his hole, a colorful crab and a well-camouflaged mudskipper

as the sun set on day 2, the whimbrels, gulls and terns flew in, and a breeze blew in to cool our sunburned backs. tomorrow we had a singular goal: we had to find the dowitchers.

we ended the day with a lovely seafood dinner. yum. we finished every single morsel served to us.

fish, crustaceans and mollusks. yummy!

day three: the search for the dowitchers (and the sanctuary!)
mang boy had promised to come by the inn to show us the way to the sanctuary but it was past 7am already and we decided that he probably got held up somewhere so we should just go by ourselves. we only had a half day of birding as our flight back to manila was in the afternoon, and we quickly set down the rules: dowitcher or not, we should be back at the inn for lunch by 11am and check out after.

one of the staff from the inn let us out the back gate which faced the mangroves on the beach and pointed the general direction we should take. this led us to a rather wide river, which was crossed easily enough. the waters came up to below my knees, the wettest i had gotten so far. we then found ourselves inside the mangroves, but with several people walking in the same or opposite direction, it was easy to ask for directions. 

across the beach behind our resort

we had to cross this wide river, which was thankfully very shallow

we found ourselves second guessing our decisions though, as we seemed to be walking away from the sanctuary rather than towards it! but we decided to follow the path more traveled, and at the end of the mangroves we found... a tricycle station!

surreal.  this tricycle station was such a time (and effort) saver!

it was a surreal scene to find the tricycle station "in the middle of nowhere". of course it wasn't really the middle of nowhere. the tricycles ferried people to nearby pangan-an island, across the limestone beach, during low tide. not wanting to walk in the tree-less landscape under the burning sun, we asked if they could shuttle us to the sanctuary.  they immediately agreed, and off we went.  two tricycles and two  motorcycles racing in mad-max fashion off track. i think our tricycle driver was even a little gleeful at the change in routine.  the landscape was so flat that we arranged a hand signal to them at the station from the beach when we were ready to go back.

already there were a few plovers and tattlers around us.  a greenshank nearby and a bar-tailed godwit and a chinese egret. off in the distance, towards the same coconut trees mang boy had pointed to the day before (we were seeing them from the other side this time), were several more waders. we decided to move in closer.

closing in on some waders far, far away

we were momentarily distracted when i spotted an octopus by my foot in the shallow water. it was the largest octopus i had seen, bigger than my hand, and i squealed with delight "octopus! octopus!" the others came rushing to me and we admired the molluscan unfurling its tentacles and changing colors when our shadows hit it.  of course at the first opportunity it quickly darted to a hole in the sand, poor thing. it probably suffered a heart-heart-heart attack! (octupi have 3 hearts, get it?) anyway...


as we were trying to get better views of the long billed waders far away (godwit, godwit, godwit, godwit...) adri, who was scoping the birds, suddenly exclaimed: "heto, dowitcher! no joke."

dowitchers somewhere in the flock

and there they were: the second flagship species for the olango island wildlife sanctuary: asian dowitcher.  long straight bill, all black. kennedy even mentions: "often with simmilar bar-tailed godwit".

a pair of dowitchers and a grey plover

it was good timing too, as we moved in even closer, we suddenly lost the dowitchers. not than anything flew off... they were asleep! keeping their heads hidden, they were very hard to differentiate from the sleeping godwits.  in a few minutes though, they began to wake up, but that didn't make it any easier for us as they began to move in circles around the other waders, as if to challenge us to keep up with them! 

not very easy to pick them out except for their long and straight black bills!

there was also a demonstration of the sewing machine-like head movement as the probed the sand for food. they even took to the air (all of them, not just the dowitchers!) long enough for us to admire their flight, them landed in exactly the same spot.

in flight! asian dowitchers  and bar-tailed godwits, plus a ruddy turnstone and a... -nother wader ;)

bar-tailed godwits flying high

asian dowitcher, rare migrant, a lifer for all of us! just in the nick of time!

as we headed back to the beach, we saw our drivers already waiting for us. perhaps they had mistaken our celebratory whoops and jumps as the signal? 

all set to go!
the walk back to the inn through the mangrove, across the river and along the beach took less than half an hour, now that we knew where we were going!  quick showers, packing and a good lunch ended our stay in olango.  

a final lunch with yummy mango shakes
we should've checked out the map in the dining room BEFORE we left that morning

we said our thanks to our hosts plus the obligatory group shot. our friendly tricycle drivers (except for the unexpected tricycle ride that morning across the limestone island we rode with no one else) were ready to bring us to the pier where the ferry would bring our merry group back to mactan.

the ferry back to mactan: 15 pesos plus 1 peso terminal fee

relaxed birding at the beach in shorts and white shirts, sun on our shoulders, a sea breeze on our cheeks and saltwater lapping at our feet. no wonder olango always beckons. pop quiz notwithstanding.

rainbows over olango

Monday, February 11

the mystery gull and the wild gull chase

it all began when adri and i found ourselves back in the balanga city wetland and nature park, one week after the awc.  this time we were with american birder e.m., who was interested in seeing waders in their winter plumage. surprisingly  there weren't as many birds as the previous week, but we still had good views of the usual egrets, herons, greenshanks, redshanks, plovers, sandpipers, stints, stilts, terns and gulls.  it being a sunday, the park full of people enjoying the ocean breeze and wading in the cool waters (which were unfortunately part of the very polluted manila bay).  em was especially delighted to see several locals toting binoculars and cameras, with obvious appreciation for the birds. it was a very relaxing morning, and as we were leaving, we decided to scan the exposed mudflats where various waders, gulls and terns were quickly gathering as the tide continued to rise.

and there it was. a gull which was obviously larger than the hundreds of black-headed gulls. even in the white heat of mid-morning, its grey brown plumage stood out in the sea of the mostly white black-headed gulls.

and adri and i had no idea what it was. we could also make out a black tipped orange-ish bill, and it behaved quite differently. it ran around on the mudflat at the waters edge constantly, very active compared to the black-headed gulls which mostly stood in one place while preening and would fly off after.

might it be a herring gull, em asked.  it could, we answered. the kennedy field guide had 3 suggestions: herring gull, slaty-backed gull or black-tailed gull.

at a loss, we took down notes and tried to document the bird.  it was too far away for both my short 350mm lens and even for adri's digiscoping set-up.  the harsh lighting and strong wind did not help our cause.

the mystery gull: with pictures like these it could be the loch ness monster

that night, adri posted a "possible herring gull" message on the wbcp facebook page, but nothing could be confirmed. black-tailed gull though was looking to be a better candidate, according to more experienced birders.

we didn't think it would generate much interest, but little did we know that 2 wbcp-ers, irene and rob would be back in balanga the next day to try to find the mystery gull.

did they find it? no, but they did find and photograph a beautiful laughing gull, the first record in the country!

now, that picture got several people twitching, and the very next day, i found myself in the company of a group of them: ivan, mel, rob, irene, tonji and sylvia! what the hey, it was still just past january (my personal "waterbird season") so might as well try to pin down the id of sunday's gull, and maybe get a laughing gull lifer! besides, it was a school holiday. adri, unfortunately could not join us as he was off guiding another group.

we all arrived at the wetland park just before the peak of high tide, which again would hopefully gather the birds closer to shore. it was now a weekday, it was virtually empty of people, although the stifling heat and burning sun could have also chased any normal person away.

we scanned the nearby mudflats again looking for any unusual gull. nothing but whiskered terns and black-headed gulls. it was a hard wait under the hot sun. later, a few common terns caught our interest, but still nothing more interesting. we waited in anticipation as the gulls and terns began flying in as the ocean level rose. a couple of great crested terns (i was excited about them the last week though), still not very interesting.

a whiskered tern (left) and a common tern (right):
if only they could always be side by side for size comparison

when it became painfully obvious that neither mystery gull nor laughing gull was there, we decided to move to another baranggay where we could take a bangka out to look around the fishpens.  talk about a determined group!  somebody likened it to looking for a needle in a haystack.

whiskered terns and black-headed gulls

so we took two small outrigger boats out, and circled the nearby fish cages and even took the boat all the way back to the wetland park. for the next couple of hours: black-headed gull and whiskered tern galore.

a pair of elegant black headed gulls

whiskered terns all in a line

a sand martin, spotted by rob, flying with some swallows over newly planted mangroves was consolation enough. 

a sand martin among the swallows

on the way back we did get out of the bangkas one more time to take a look at some fishponds. more waders, but no gulls. and no unusual waders.

assorted waders plus whiskered terns and gulls in the fishponds

oh well, you win some you lose some. we left balanga as the sun was setting. mystery still unsolved.

Wednesday, February 6

osprey on the hunt

i loved watching the osprey hunt at bani! osprey are quite cosmopolitan, found on all continents except in antartica. i actually saw my first osprey in the louisiana bayou but since then i have had several encounters with this large raptor locally. the largest congregation of osprey i have seen is in bani in pangasinan! last year we recorded 22 osprey all within a kilometer of each other, perched on the fish pen nets, unmindful of each other.  this year we saw "only" 19! 

at bani this awc, we took a short break from counting waterbirds as noontime approached, and watched 3 osprey hunting for bangus, quite successfully, at the fishponds. it would be wonderful to set up a hide by the fishponds and watch these birds of prey in action.

first, hovering over prey spotted in the fishpond

then folding its wings coming into a stoop

talons forward to grab the fish

dive and splash!!! (maybe sometimes they do it just to cool off!)

a show of power as they pull out from the water

and flying off with the fresh catch

far, far away to enjoy the bangus in private

there's nothing like watching the predator in action in real time, so here's adri's short video (watch in hd for optimum viewing):