Wednesday, May 8

northern rapture

our northern birding adventure continues...

after having visited laoag local birder richard and a successful yellow bunting twitch, we proceeded further north for our "official" buisness: raptorwatching!

we were on alex and tere's pet project: to find out the exit point for migrating raptors leaving the philippines during spring migration. it was serendipitous that  adri and i had vacationed with other mbb-ers at brgy pansian in pagudpud way back in april 2005 and it was there where we had our first views of thermaling raptors while waiting by the highway for our bus back home.  to our newbie birder eyes it was a strange but wonderful sight.  we had identified the birds as raptors, but why were they behaving so strangely? they were like a tornado of birds, and we hadn't yet heard of raptors gathering together like that, much less raptor migration.  i remember telling wbcp prezi mike about it and it was only then that he explained the annual migration of raptors to us.

so eight years later, we were finally on our way to see if this spot would help clear up the black hole of information on raptor migration in the philippines. a month earlier, wbcp-ers jun, jude and adri had already done a recon of the area, choosing the best possible sites for spring raptorwatch. our base would be a house on a hill in claveria, cagayan. but on the way, we stopped by other sites also. as we approached the northern boundaries of pagudpud after lunch, past the more popular saud and maira-ira beaches, adri suddenly yelled "raptors!" we all jumped out of our cars in time to see a few grey-faced buzzards thermaling over the mountains.

stopping by the side of the highway by a beautiful/ugly tree to count raptors at pagudpud

this was repeated again after the scenic patapat viaduct, this time, a few of the buzzards were observed perching on the trees.  alex explained that it was not yet the day for these birds, and they were still resting before the long journey over the north philippine sea to taiwan. 

and then again entering cagayan province, at a scenic viewpoint over sta. praxedes town, chinese goshawks flew over us just as we had gotten out of the car.

claveria town: we could actually see those twin rocky islets
 from our house on the hill (inset)

at our house (for the next three days) on the hill in claveria, jerry and nora, the caretakers , welcomed us with sad news! we were too late they said!  just four days before the skies over the house were thick with migrating raptors! still, we were optimistic that there were many more raptors to be observed.  we took over the second and third floors of the house, the latter for our living quarters and the former for our official raptor watching.

raptorwatching was a 10 hour/day affair, but definitely not a chore! we woke up at our own times (all before 6am!) and headed straight for the balcony which overlooked most of the quiet town of claveria, including the ocean, ricefield and hillside vistas. we kept close watch over the hills on the west side, the whole day, each of us claiming part of the balcony as our personal workstations (plus breakfast, lunch and merienda tables). by mid morning of the first day we had familiarised ourselves with the hilltops: we had  definite landmarks, "beautiful tree", "anahaw grove", "the low V", the rectangular tree", "sa pababa" etc., etc. delicious breakfast and lunch were all brought up to the balcony by nora, who wanted to ensure the least interruption to our count! coffee, soda, water and beer were flowing continuously throughout the day. aaaah the trials of raptorwatching!

breakfast at raptorwatch: waiting while raptors rise  from behind the hills

as early as 630am, individual raptors would fly out, and by 8am, kettles of raptors continuously rose from behind the beautiful tree.  average kettle size was 50 - 80 birds, but at one point we counted 2,000 birds streaming overhead! it was like the whole sky was full of raptors. 

don't clean your screen: those dots are raptors rising from behind adri's beautiful tree

kettles over the tree line

a kettle of raptors is an awesome sight

most of the raptors were the chinese goshawks, with a few hundred grey-faced buzzards.  there were also a few japanese sparrowhawks, oriental honeybuzzards, ospreys and peregrine falcons.

a grey-faced buzzard with 3 chinese goshawks, can you tell which is which?

most of the raptors counted were chinese goshawks at the peak of their spring migration

some of the raptors like this grey faced buzzard clearly had damaged flight feathers.
will they make it?

2 grey-faced buzzards pass each other above the balcony
 (the black fringe on the upper left corner is the roof of the house!)

sometimes, we would spot resident raptors as well: philippine serpent eagles, brahminy kites and even barred honey buzzards.

the silhouette of a resident barred honeybuzzard far, far away

i don't think i can ever tire watching the aerial show of the raptors riding on the thermals rising from the mountains, bringing them higher and higher in the sky, until they suddenly break free of the avian tornado and start streaming in a single direction creating a river of raptors.
kettling chinese goshawks

streaming off after gaining height by riding the hot air thermals

sometimes they gained enormous altitudes before streaming!

the  challenge of counting a kettle of raptors:
this kettle was initially estimated to contain 80 raptors- severely undercounted!

on the first day we counted a record 7,085 raptors, and on the second day: 2,493.  such satisfying numbers for balcony birding.

a peak of 3098 raptors on the hour just before noon on the first day!

of course we were also entertained by many other bird species.  lowland white-eyes, colasisis, olive-backed and purple-throated sunbirds, striped headed rhabdornises, philippine bulbuls, blue-throated bee-eaters, scale-feathered malkohas, luzon tarictic hornbills and many other birds provided momentary distractions. never seen but always heard were philippine hawk-cuckoos, philippine tailorbirds, white-eared brown doves and even white-browed shamas. migrating cattle egrets heading out to sea in the hundreds was a spectacular sight. when bored we would scan the ricefields and find waterhens, crakes, sandpipers, stilts and even a pair of philippine ducks! while scanning the hilltops, purple needletails which looked like miniature fighter planes on show were a joy to watch.

a very friendly rhabdornis showed up everyday

as did a very shy scale feathered malkoha

cattle egrets flying out to sea at sunset: directly north!

and the best non-raptor is no doubt a very proud rufous hornbill which delighted us by perching and flying across the hill's face just as we were wrapping up the count on the first day. everyday, the loud raucous calls of the rufous hornbills could be heard from the forested hills. 

after breakfast on the third day, we decided to split up. alex and tere would continue the count from claveria while mang boy, adri and myself would check out the viewpoint at sta. praxedes.  it was a magnificent view of the valley and surrounding mountains and it did not disappoint us.  

the view of sta. praxedes town and its environs from the highway

as the morning progressed we would see kettles of raptors rising into the sky. almost dots in the distance, the numbers over the expansive sky was impressive to say the least!  

at sta. praxedes, some of the raptors would rise so high and disappear into the clouds!

sometimes, raptors would come over the hill on the other side of the highway, so low that we actually heard quite clearly for the first time the loud call "tikwi!" which gives the grey-faced buzzards their local name!

"tikwi!" my first time to hear the call of a grey-faced buzzard

as many as 15 philippine serpent eagles were soaring high in the skies with their own mournful call.

i had never seen so many serpent eagles take to the sky at the same time before!

although the heat was in the high 30's we could not bring ourselves to stay in the shade of the trees without a view of the skies for long.  even here by the roadside, surrounded by forested hillsides we saw and heard many other birds: philippine hawk cuckoo, arctic warblers, plain-throated sunbirds, elegant tits, yellowish white-eye, philippine trogon, black-naped monarch, and rufous hornbills. 

a pretty tree with pink shoots by the side of the highway. is this apitiong?

it was a challenge though to bird by the highway, with vehicles barelling through every now and then. here we counted 4,090 raptors in 3 and a half hours.

after lunch it was time to move on and we said goodbye to our house on a hill and to pretty claveria town and thanked nora and jerry for taking such good care of us. we drove back to ilocos norte and checked into pannzian beach and mountain resort where adri and i had seen the raptors thermaling so many years ago. we all took a break from raptor watching that afternoon, and enjoyed a swim in the strong waves of pasaleng bay.

but it was back to counting early the next morning. what could've beat our house on a hill balcony office? on the beach on lounge chairs under the shade of a talisay tree of course! complete with cold iced drinks delivered by the staff!  we were even joined by kenneth, the son of the resort owner! it was joy to see the amazement on his face as we showed him the kettling raptors: first with the naked eye, then through binoculars and finally on the scope.

our "office" at panziann: we had to constantly move our chairs to stay
under the shade of the talisay  tree

we even added a few highlights to our resident raptors' list: a pair of juvenile philippine hawk-eagles displayed proudly in the early morning sun, and a pair of white-bellied sea eagles impressed us (and some of the resort guests' kids!) with their regular success in picking up banded sea kraits from the sea and carrying them to some hidden perch (nest?). alex had even spotted the remains of a common kingfisher under some coconut trees: an unfortunate migrant who had made his last trip across the seas, perhaps the victim of a migrant falcon. (and yes, we still could hear the rufous hornbills honking regularly even on the beach!)

blurred in flight: a resident white-bellied sea eagle carrying off a huge banded sea krait!

the remains of a common kingfisher

the raptor count for our last morning: 1,991!

over 14,000 raptors counted in four days! an monumental number to match an extraordinary journey.  thank you to alex and tere for inviting us to join them on their voyage of discovery: a week of birding, the outdoors, culture and food!  we're looking forward to the autumn migration!

pictures are nice but a movie is better. here's adri's digiscoped video of a part of a kettle of raptors dancing in the skies.

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