Tuesday, June 4

on a lifer streak in sagada

sagada! a refreshing respite from the sizzling temperatures of manila. cool mountain air, pine-scented breeze- how could i pass it up?  i joined adri on an evening bus trip to cooler climes. he was going to give a talk on birds and birdwatching for a dot (dept of tourism) organized seminar for eco-tour guides of the mountain province.

a view of the town at sunrise from our base, the homestay

adri's talk included a short birdwalk and lecture which spanned half a day. that left plenty of time for us to go birding!  we had both been to sagada before so we didn't plan on any sight seeing.  the first thing on our agenda was to find a site for the birdwalk near the seminar area. 

the last time we were in sagada the area around the episcopal church of st. mary and the cemetery on the hill behind it facing echo valley proved to be quite productive.  after a long morning's rest and a filling lunch, we decided to check it out. as expected, we ran into many of the birds common at this elevation: elegant tits, chestnut-faced babblers, mountain white-eyes, blue-headed fantails and sulphur-billed nuthatches were busy flying around the pine trees.

an ever-cheerful elegant tit wrestling with a caterpillar

a mountain white-eye on a weeping bottlebrush blossom

there were many chestnut-faced babblers, and we saw them in the exact same place where they became our lifers more than 7 years ago!

on the path to the cemetery, we were struck still by a melodious calling in the undergrowth on our left.  white-browed shortwing!  this bird was one of my nemesis birds, having heard it singing many times but never successfully catching a view of it.  

the bushes and shrubs from which it was calling were quite overgorwn so adri looked for a clearing at which he might tease it to come out into the open. luckily, there was a small break in the hibiscus and wild sunflower bushes which could serve as a proper staging area.

for some birds you need a staging area!

with some work, one individual popped into view, spot on!  even in the shady recesses of the bushes, we could see it clearly! its white eyebrows, not always visible, glowed brightly in the shadows! it hopped about in and out of view, and then there were 2! a pair of  white-browed shortwings!

the appearance came right on time, because the gathering clouds suddenly unleashed a summer storm. out came our umbrellas and rain jackets, and we stomped in the puddles happily as we headed back to the inn, giddy with delight despite the cold rain. although that afternoon did not afford me with a photo opportunity, we came back the next afternoon and i was lucky to get a shot.

a white-browed shortwing singing in the shadows: lifer!

the next morning, we were up early for the birdwalk with the local tour guides.  they were not too familiar with the birds around them, but they were a very lively and enthusiastic group. 

the particpants of the eco-guiding seminar
looking at some white-eyes in front of St. Mary's

we came across several mixed flocks and they recognized the birds even if they did not know their english names. we also saw little pied flycatchers, mountain verditer flycatchers, metallic-winged sunbirds, red-keeled flowerpeckers and scale-feathered malkohas as we made our way up the hill. 

a view of the mountain verditer flycatcher against a blue sky

the mountain verditer flycatcher in a more conventional pose

one of several scale-feathered malkohas in the area

we took a short detour heading on a path opposite the one towards the cemetery and ended up at a small garbage dump.  here, facing a bit of pine forest and the limestone cliffs that were common in the sagada landscape, we again had close encounters with many tits, babblers, white-eyes, fantails, nuthatches and warblers. a family of friendly citrine canary flycatchers perched so near to us that the participants were able to observe them closely even without binoculars! they were probably preying on the flies and other insects attracted to the trash. all the participants were delighted!

a very friendly citrine canary flycatcher

up close and personal (oops! i clipped the tail!)

it was such a productive morning that adri and i decided to return to that spot after adri's lecture. the bird activity had slowed down considerably in the afternoon. but there were some birds we had not glimpsed but called loudly around us, including mountain tailorbirds and luzon bush-warblers.

the luzon bush-warbler is a very common bird and very noisy. the workshop participants were very familiar with its call, but admitted that they had never seen the bird!  that's because it stays close to the ground and moves about quickly in the vegetation, affording one only very brief glimpses of moving leaves or of flashes of rufous feathers at best. there was one quite near to us, and adri challenged me to take a photo. and i failed spectacularly.

luzon bush-warbler: currently my most hated bird

in my frustration i began taking pictures of the flowers around us, while the luzon bush-warbler, in the bushes right beside me, continued to taunt me with its loud calls.

lilies, raspberries and wild roses all around

as we were being frustrated, errr... entertained by the elusive bush-warbler, another bird suddenly called loudly nearby and zipped into the wild sunflower bushes where our previous target was playing hide-and-seek. adri and i stalked it carefully, it was a bird we were quite unfamiliar with. it hopped around the luzon bush-warbler and had the same habits. could it be the rare benguet bush-warbler? as it crisscrossed with the luzon bush-warbler we observed that it was much redder and slightly bigger. as it moved around in the undergrowth, calling loudly, it was even harder to catch a photo of it than our first target! later we consulted the guidebook and our notes and xeno-canto, we realized it was an uncommon migrant, an oriental bush-warbler! a lifer for both of us!

needless to say that we returned to the area the next morning. our bus at bontoc was scheduled to leave at 3pm so we had time to bird some more. we set our sights on another target lifer: the red crossbill. although not an endemic, this resident bird of the pine forests was one we had always looked for but had never seen despite being described as common.  we had missed it on all our previous trips to the cordilleras- in baguio, in banaue, in mt. polis and even in sagada. it had a uniquely crossed bill which allows it to get to the seeds of the pine cones. 

we headed straight to the garbage dump and its view of the pine trees. along the way we again heard the familiar calls and twitters of the birds we had been encountering the past days. at the site, adri decided to concentrate on the citrine canary flycatchers while we waited.

the familiar scenery of sagada

elegant tit, sulphur billed-nuthatch, blue-headed fantail, mountain leaf warbler. ladida. ah, arctic warbler (is it a kamchatka warbler? a japanese leaf warbler? good grief!), a migrant!

the complicated taxonomy of the arctic warbler!

down the ravine, i caught a glance at another unfamiliar flycatcher. not being able to place it, i took a photo and notes for later reference.  plain-ish back, lighter belly, yellowish vent.  i showed adri the picture and he identified it as the endemic green-backed whistler!  another bird i had missed in our previous outings and another lifer for me! i felt like i was on a roll.

my lifer  #3 for this trip: green backed whistler!

i happily returned to my limestone rock seat and once again stared at the pine needle foliage around me. after a few minutes a small flock came in. as i trained my binoculars on them expectantly, i saw one picking at at pine cone!

"red crossbill!" i called out to adri, who was at my side in an instant.

although some distance away, the crossbills stayed for a long time, moving around the pine trees and pecking at pine cones. there were adult males, females and juveniles. it was fascinating to see them at work, painstakingly breaking through the pine cone scales to get to the seeds.

a male red crossbill picking at a pinecone

an immature red crossbill with its distinct streaked breast.

the flock eventually flew off, but soon were replaced by another larger one. after all those years of dipping on the crossbill, now we had our fill of good views!

soon it was time to go home.  we dreaded returning to the heat of metro manila, but i was leaving sagada completely satisfied.  the best lifers are the ones you least expect, and i had 4 of them! 


  1. WOW! Congratulations on your 4 lifers! I agree, the best lifers are those you don't expect =)

  2. Kahit na hindi kayo nag volt out to become paru-parozzis, reading your blog allowed me to go astral, as if I am there with you, could even feel the cool breeze, hear the calls and feasting on the sight of plants and flower... pines and pine cones! I love mountain birds next to butterflies. Thanks for sharing lovely couple. :)

    1. Atelyds! Thank you, I'm so touched by your words!

      Watch out, a couple of butterfly blogs coming up soon!

  3. eeeek ! congrats om the lifers and so LOL at the most hated bird :-D hahahha

    1. Thanks Irene! Do you know the feeling? ;-)