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!


  1. Nakaka-miss din ang raptorwatch! Great pics!!! =)

    1. thanks maia! yes, it's my first raptorwatch in tanay again after 2 years ata! the sight of the raptors riding on thermals is really amazing!