Saturday, March 30


my brother had asked me if i wanted to join him on a drive to bacolor, pampanga to visit the church of san guillermo for visita iglesia on holy thursday. this was my father's hometown, and i had very blurry memories of it, since my grandparents had passed away when i was young and since there was nothing to go home to anymore, as mt. pinatubo had all but wiped away the old town, now buried under lahar.

the last time i was in baculud was in 1992, a year after the explosion of mt. pinatubo.  lahar had already changed the landscape dramatically, and i remember walking on the apartment type tombs which lined the campu santu with my dad, trying to locate the general location of my grandparents' graves. 

in 1995 a river of lahar flowed from the mountains during the rainy season and the town was buried even deeper.  i remember thinking that all my father had now of his hometown were memories and photographs, and how nature could wipe out everything in a blink of an eye.

as we drove up unfamiliar streets, it was not hard to find the church, we still could be clearly seen from the main highway.  there was no longer a huge plaza in front of it, none of the old houses i remembered, no trace of the store with a wooden coin box from vague memories of my childhood.

the once huge church was much smaller now. not in the way that everything was larger when one was younger, but literally smaller.  the lahar buried more half the church which was built in 1576 and stood witness to much of history, even when bacolor became the capital of the philippines during a brief british occupation. 

the middle nave was the width of the church now, as all the side aisles which had a lower ceilings, as well as half the bell tower, were under the hard earth. the window of the choir loft was now the main entrance, under an image of Christ which looked out a circular window once overlooking the town plaza.

the retablo, which was dug up after the first rivers of lahar which flowed immediately after the eruption, was placed under the main dome of the church, and half submerged side windows now serve to let sunlight in from the lower parts of the walls.

in the almost noon-time heat, my brother called my niece and myself to the back of the church, where the cemetery was.  what was once a maze of tombs from my childhood,  deftly navigated during all saints days of old to build balls of candle wax, was now an almost flat landscape.  some of the larger family crypts still had their roofs visible, strange triangles on top of the ground.  the tower where they blessed the dead before they were buried, very distinct in my memories, was now a small dome amid white crosses to commemorate the now nameless dead.

but they were not completely nameless.  on the new walls of the campu santu, were a list of those buried under the lahar, filed by year of death, on carved marble tablets. their graves were now lost, but not forgotten. to respect those who have been laid to rest here, the cemetery is no longer used, and no new graves are placed over those nature has buried even deeper.

after reading through the names (neither my brother or myself remember when my grandparents died), we finally found them. i did not even remember that they had died merely a year apart.

there is no real house to remember them by or go home to, only a cloudy memory of a house with a stairs and a trap door, with a small drying hut and a small pond where water collected and a rice store on stilts. of watching the street from second floor windows and walking on narrow roads lined with shallow canals. memories of relatives' houses with vinegar stored in red earthen pots beneath the floors and of watching a long procession of images on good friday. and two names, among many, on marble tablets.

we passed the back of the church on our way back and many thoughts went through my mind.

as my brother and niece walked in front of me i took one look back at the buried cemetery, not knowing how long it would be before, if ever, i would be back.  a bougainvillea was in full bloom, an explosion of color in the summer heat. 

memories fade, buildings fall, but people move forward and life goes on.


Tuesday, March 26

pink flowers in the month of march

albert hall at jacinto corner lakandula street was part of my regular routine for more than a decade. by the driveway and parking lot (parking was not so much of a problem yet then!) was a palawan cherry tree. it showered the driveway with pink flowers as the school year ended and summer started. for several years i would search for seedlings at its base, and constantly ask our all around maintenance man, mang lito, to try to grow me a tree from seed. we never succeeded at either.

i've moved on to katipunan from up, and i'm delighted that i still get to see pink flowers in march (or april) annually. in front of miriam college are two palawan cherry trees, not as large as the one at albert hall, but just as pink!

Sunday, March 24

grey-faced buzzards on the move

raptorwatch is unlike any other birdwatching activity. it sort of reminds me of the asian waterbird census (i.e. migrants, counting, many birds) but it's a whole different thing too!

"One problem is that hawkwatching requires a different technique from other forms of birdwatching.  Most field and woodland birding is stalk and stab.  You walk quietly and, when you come upon a bird, snap your binoculars to your eyes for a quick look.  The drama is played out in a few moments, and you either get the bird or you don't.  Hawkwatching, especially at lookout sites, is more like reeling in a fish.  A raptor appears off in the distance, swimming in the sky.  You must find the bird in your binocs and hang onto it-- for a long, slow, wrist-trembling, neck-crinking, eye-straining diagnosis.  If you're lucky, you may pull in a bird close enough for its field marks to become obvious.  More often, the hawk breaks away by dropping below the trees or soaring into the sun."
Jack Connor, The Complete Birder

counting waterbirds is done in january and february, where the migrants are presumably at their peak numbers, gathered at various wetlands feeding.  counting migratory raptors is done in march and april, when the normally solitary birds gather together as they move up north.  they use rising columns of warm air, called thermals, to help them soar up to higher altitudes without having to spend so much energy flapping their wings. many birds are seen at these thermals, and the flocks are called "kettles".

those dots in the sky are actually raptors riding on a thermal, forming  a "kettle"

alex has attempted to find good raptorwatching sites (remember our failed dingalan adventure here?) but so far the most reliable site for raptorwatching so far is in tanay, rizal.  the view of the sierra madre mountains stretches out all around, and thermals abound.  in the past few years, the club has been lucky enough to have been allowed by pag-asa to use their weather station which has a lovely open air deck on its second floor giving a 360 degree view.  this is a far cry from when i first joined the bird club and we would spend mornings and afternoons getting burned by the hot sun in an open grass field by the side of the highway!

the pag-asa station in tanay has become our home base for raptorwatching,
thanks to permission for us to use it
a huge shout out to pag-asa for allowing us to use their deck for raptorwatching!

wbcp raptor-boss alex t. had been counting almost daily the past two weeks.  among the first migrants to leave are the grey-faced buzzards, or the tikwi.  he had counted almost 10,000 birds heading north the past week, and i decided to join the raptorwatch group on palm sunday to enjoy the awesome sight of raptors spiraling up into the heavens.

the grey-faced buzzards are among the earliest raptors to start migrating north

we arrived at the tanay pag-asa station at nearly 8am, and alex and jelaine immediately took down weather info: wind speed and direction, relative humidity, temperature and cloud cover. and we all settled down and waited.  the great thing about raptor watching is that you can talk and laugh (and eat) as much as you want, it really doesn't matter much, if the birds are there, you will see them!

raptorwatchers on the lookout for migrating birds of prey

we didn't have to wait long, and raptor-guru-in-the-making jelaine quickly spotted our first kettle of raptors! the grey-faced buzzards were on the move!

can you spot the kettle of grey-faced buzzards?
here, the grey-faced buzzards spiral upward,
rising with the hot air of the thermal, with barely a wing flap
raptor id can be quite tricky, but with practice,  the "jizz"
(general impression, size and shape)  will help with pinning down the species

sometimes the raptors soar so high they get lost in the cloud cover!

a couple of hours and several kettles later, the wind picked up and we could see the cloud cover thickening over the northern mountains which we were watching closely. it turned out to be a good thing because the raptors, avoiding the rain, made their way to us and began flying over the station!

when they reach a high enough altitude or lose the thermal, the raptors start streaming. if they lose altitude again they can move on to another thermal and begin to form an new kettle. here the grey-faced buzzards are all streaming in one direction, breaking up the more disorderly kettle.

once in a while, we would spot a different species of raptor, a larger oriental honey-buzzard with its long chicken neck, or a resident philippine serpent eagle with its broad wings curled up at the tips.  another resident, a rufous-bellied eagle, would skim the top of the a nearby ridge barely in sight. as the morning progressed to noon, we noticed the grey-faced buzzards were being joined by the much smaller chinese goshawks!

most of the raptors we counted were grey-faced buzzards
but there were other raptor species as well...

an oriental honeybuzzard soaring quite near us at eye level

the oriental honeybuzzard joined by grey-faced buzzards
rising on a thermal on a nearby ridge

another honeybuzzrd being mobbed by a much smaller chinese goshawk

a resident philippine serpent eagle taking advantage of the thermals too

we all stood in awe excitedly, as someone would shout out and describe where to spot the rising raptors over the mountainous horizon. 

raptorwatchers watching a kettle rising (on the upper right quadrant of the picture)

raptorwatcher award goes to jelaine:
spotter, records-keeper and  environment note-taker!

we finally packed up at 3pm, more than a dozen kettles and 2,370 raptors later!  hopefully the raptors we counted make their way up north to taiwan and beyond, and will be back again next season!

the rolling hills and mountains of the sierra madre:
a lovely site for raptorwatching

what a great and leisurely way to spend sunday.  birding friends, good conversation, lots of food and many, many  (big) birds!  until the next raptorwatch!

Friday, March 22

simple joys

so close, yet so far, the summer break was still hidden underneath unchecked exams and undergraduate papers to be read.

one of our students came to the seminar room where we were listening to students presenting their thesis proposals and brought me a little gift, a reminder of the full summer ahead.

Friday, March 15

3 thrushes in 3 hours

having recently broken my work imposed birding mini-hiatus (see my latest backyard lifer here), it seemed inevitable that my resolve not to bird until the second semester grades were submitted would melt away.

i joined adri and visiting singaporean birder albert l. on thursday afternoon to take a look at a new family of philippine scops-owls at the parish church grounds.  these owls were recently "discovered" by jops who, just last year, had his own nightly scops-owl visitors to his backyard. we met up with maia and jops (and several curious homeowners) and very quickly found the owls which the subdivision security guards were keeping a close eye on.  2 adults and 3 very fluffy fledglings hunted actively in a very small area in the early evening, their high pitched calls sounding surreal with the evening mass music being played in the background.

an adult philippine scops-owl, busy hunting in the night to feed a brood of 3.

over dinner, adri and albert casually mentioned their plans to bird at the la mesa ecopark the next day, with the ever popular endemic ashy ground-thrush on top of albert's checklist.  when jops asked me if i was going, i said i was really tempted to take the morning off to join them, especially with the recent reports of migratory thrushes being spotted in the area.

eventually we all decided to take the morning off and join adri and albert.  what twitchers we were! 

and so at 630am, we all met up at the lmep, ready for anything!

our first bird on the trail was a very plump red-bellied pitta, busy trying to get a big & fat earthworm down its throat.

a red bellied pitta caught a bit more than it could swallow.

we ran into bram, who was busy stalking the ashy ground thrush.  we went our separate ways, adri and albert in search of the ashy ground thrush, and the rest of us looking our for our target: the migratory brown-headed thrush, photographed a few days earlier eating ripe and red palm tree fruit.

after a few minutes, i decided to leave jops, maia and bram in front of the palm trees to look for the ashy ground thrush.  it was very dark in the inner trails, and i came across a very quiet hooded pitta hopping in the undergrowth. adri and albert were still busy looking for the ground thrush so i decided to walk the whole loop which led me back to jops, maia and bram.

an awful picture of a hooded pitta in the dark;
but if you squint your eyes at the screen it comes into focus :)

maia was a bit agitated as a whole flock of thrushes had flown in and left, leaving her with barely a glimpse, "madami sila pero hindi ko nakita!" she complained to me as i rounded the corner into their view.

argh. did i miss them too?

it must have been several minutes that we stood at the same spot when bram suddenly straightened up, alert at a sharp zeeet-ing call.

above us on a mango tree, very quickly, was a brown-headed thrush, belly view.  it quickly flew to a nearby defoliated gmelina, giving a lovely profile view. in a few seconds, it was gone again. a lifer for all 4 of us! we quickly re-hashed our whole experience, describing the birds to each other.

within a few minutes, the thrushes were back!  a few of them began feeding at the red palm fruit, giving us opportunities for photos.  i quickly messaged adri to come, because i knew that it would be a lifer for both him and albert.

a brown-headed thrush daintily eating some red palm fruit

soon, both of them appeared on the path, having finally bagged the ashy ground thrush. unfortunately, the brown headed thrushes had once again disappeared.  we waited patiently, as they had appeared now 3 times before, we hoped it was just a matter of time before they circled back again.

and they did!  a single thrush alighted on the palm tree fruit and we all trained our binoculars on it.

"but that's an eye-browed thrush!" a disappointed tone obvious in adri's voice as he id'd the more common thrush he had seen several times before in kitanglad.

and an eye-browed thrush mixed in with the brown-headed thrushes!

whaaaaaaat?!? jops, maia and i were confused.  sure, eye-browed thrush was a lifer for us also... but...

bram and albert, definitely more seasoned birders than the 3 of us, agreed it was an eye browed thrush.

"but the one before was definitely a brown-headed thrush," bram quickly said.

"it must be a mixed flock," adri reassured us. (we must have looked very confused)

"yes, these turdus species tend to mix together," agreed albert.(we must have looked very confused AND bewildered)

a quick look at the field guide confirmed our confusion.  the two species looked very much alike!

we needn't had worried: like clockwork, they were back a second time, and on the same palm tree we had both thrushes: an eye-browed thrush and a brown-headed thrush! the side by side comparison had us celebrating 2 lifers!

being very greedy for good views and photo opportunities, we waited for several more minutes as they came back and back again.

we were finally satiated and decided to go back for the ashy ground-thrush, and maybe a better view of the hooded pitta and the slaty-legged crake (spotted by adri and albert earlier).

we got separated again, when maia pointed out to me a lowland white-eye nest, cleverly camouflaged under the large palo santo leaves.  in a few minutes adri came hurrying down the path.  the ashy ground-thrush was out in the open!  he led us back to albert who was happily clicking away at the endemic thrush perched on an open branch.

the ever handsome endemic ashy ground-thrush

even if i had only skipped half a day of work i knew i would hardly have my mind on it in the afternoon as a re-lived 3 thrushes in 3 hours in my head over and over again. i wonder if any of the others got any work done?

Thursday, March 14

an unexpected backyard bird

like a sudden storm, the end of the school year wreaked havoc on my birding adventures. with the workload piled high, there was very little time for me to bird (or much else!) the past month.

so it was a relief for me to have the morning free, and sit down to enjoy the fresh air of the backyard.  since losing maggie, backyard birding from the terrace has not been the same, and with the strange brown shrike this year, i have hardly paid attention to the backyard birds.

while adri & i were discussing a possible roosting tree for the neighborhood nightjar which we had been hearing daily at 5 am, a familiar twittering came from macopa tree.  the fruit-laden macopa was right beside the rambutan, which was just starting to flower. it seemed that the colasisis were enjoying the crunchy pink fruit in season.  as we tried to spot the green parrots amid the foliage, it suddenly went quiet, and the twittering moved to our neighbor's ficus across the street.

our neighbor's ficus is also very popular with the birds, that morning a pair of black-naped orioles were chasing each other noisily in the canopy.  finally,  adri caught sight of our little parrot.  very chunky and had ... no tail?

and it wasn't a colasisi.

it was a guaiabero!

definitely a new bird to add to the backyard list!

such a pleasant surprise to round up the last few weeks of the school year and usher in the summer!