Wednesday, December 31

Making up for lost birding months

Sad to say, 2014, especially the last half, was not a very productive birding (or blogging!) year for me. Caught up in work and other duties, my binoculars, camera and birding gear hardly left their respective confines in my room.

The start of the year wasn't so bad:  a trip to Batanes highlighted my summer, and I wrote about the birding here.  I had a trip to Davao where I racked up 3 lifers - which I never got to blog about (hopefully I can revisit that in a blog post next year!).  A return to Davao in August to help out the WBCP and the Philippine Eagle Foundation was a very fulfilling adventure which I wrote about for e-bon (here), plus an additional lifer on the beach for that trip care of Pete Simpson.

And that was mostly it for my birding year!  I had a few trips to the neighborhood LMEP, joined a couple of raptorwatches in Tanay and even did some migrant spotting in Concepcion, Tarlac and volunteered to lead a guided trip for grade-schoolers at UP - but that was it! Where did my birding year go?

By November I was wallowing in misery over my non-birding season. As soon as the classes ended in December for the Christmas break, Adri took me on a 3 day trip to nearby Candaba and Subic to try to make up for 6 months of birding deprivation. To say that I was super excited is an understatement!  

We set off for Candaba early in morning... a routine I had severely missed! I had packed food, water, overnight necessities and birding clothes for 3 days.  Checked my binoculars, my camera and extra batteries and my (slightly dusty) birding notebook. Ready and rarin' to go!

And when we got to Candaba, the calls of cisticolas and flocks of egrets were welcome sounds and sights.  I immediately began practicing photographing roadside grassbirds and munias.  

Striated Grassbirds called loudly from the side of the road.

Chestnut munias twittering at sunrise.

When we got the the mayor's ponds: ducks galore!  And it was then I realised my huge mistake!  I had forgotten to pack the tripod like Adri had asked me! I wanted to cry (in fact I actually did!)  How stupid of me!  All the ducks in front of us, and no tripod for the scope!  Worse of all, Adri could not set up his digiscoping rig without the tripod or scope! Our birding weekend had not even started and I felt like I had ruined it already! 

Adri, the best husband in the world, comforted me saying that we did not need the scope and it was ok that he didn't take any photos.  I was inconsolable.  Even a show of supremacy by the eastern Marsh Harrier and the showy displays of the Purple Swamphens couldn't make me feel better.  

A Little Grebe fishing for breakfast.

Purple Swamphens were displaying aggressively.

To make matters worse, we ran into a hunter on his motorbike, carrying his long firearm complete with silencer.  On his second time to pass us, Adri asked him "Hunting?" to which he immediately answered "Yes!".  Adri gently reminded him that hunting was not allowed to which he answered "Yes, I know the ducks can't be hunted, I'm only shooting the doves."  Adri again reminded him that RA 9147 included all birds, to which he again countered "But the doves eat the seeds we broadcast in the fields!"  And Adri (for the nth time) says "All living things CANNOT be hunted!"  Thankfully he gives a resigned "Ganun ba?" and drives away.  We think that he was also warned by the locals further down the road.

A hunter in the marshes... click on the photo and take notice of his commemorative plate.

I couldn't have been more down. Finally, Adri (did I say best husband in the world?), said we could detour back to home to grab the scope and then go on our way to Subic. We would lose some time, but most of it was dead birding time anyway.  At least we could still have a good rest for an early start of Subic birding the next day.  We left Candaba just as a Peregrine Falcon was hunting over the main ponds.

A Peregrine Falcon hunting over the ponds.

We made good time despite the horrendous Christmas season traffic, and found ourselves in Subic by mid-afternoon.  Yay! Weekend: restart!

It was, thankfully, a very birdy weekend.  

The Blue-naped Parrots and Green Racket-tails were very racuous... their loud calls giving away their perches and identifying them as they flew above.  Guiabaros were unusually shy, but the Colasisis were very showy, an unusual switch in character.

A Green Racket-tail trying to hide... but its calls give away its location!

Colasisi - I usually get photos of this parrot at home!

All the woodpeckers were busy moving up and down tree trunks, often oblivious to our presence.

A female Sooty Woodpecker.

An extremely busy White-bellied Woodpecker.

A Luzon Flameback on a Cupang tree.

Black-naped Orioles, Bar-bellied Cuckooshrikes, Blackish Cuckooshrikes, Coletos and Balicassiaos were active throughout the day, from sunrise to sundown.

The Bar-bellied Cuckooshrikes were extremely active the whole day.

There were an unusually large number of monkeys hanging out, not my favorite mammals, but one young male of a troop caught my attention: he sat comfortably on some electric cables, hands grasping his feet as he watched us bird. Talk about chilling out.

A Long-tailed macaque chillin' by the roadside.

We found a fruiting tree along one of the main roads and that gave as a few hours of time observing Green Imperial Pigeons and Philippine (formerly Pompadour) Green Pigeons.

The backside of a Philippine Green Pigeon

A GrImp approaching the feeding tree.

At Nabasan, the Cupang trees were in bloom and they housed not only cuckoo-shrikes, woodpeckers and parrots, but also a very quiet immature Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, searching actively for caterpillars in the foliage.

An immature Rusty-breasted Cuckoo high up a Cupang tree.

Of course not to be missed were pairs of Luzon Hornbills, trumpeting around the trees.  

A male Luzon Hornbill calling out to its mate at a nearby tree.

The usual suspects were also very friendly and compliant to having their photos taken: the funky looking Whiskered Treeswifts, both males and females, were at their usual perches.

A female Whiskered Treeswift...

... and a male Whiskered Treeswift.

A noisy White-throated Kingfisher also allowed his portrait taken - and he chose a natural perch!

This White-throated Kingfisher forgot to wipe its mouth after its last meal.

But the best bird of the trip was one I had never seen before in Subic.  A quiet Philippine Drongo Cuckoo paid us no heed as he flew in and out of the trees along the road, even flying in closer to us as we were observing it!

A Philippine Drongo Cuckoo oblivious to our prescence.

Although nothing could make up for 6 months of lost birding, my momentary thirst for birding was definitely quenched!  Birding at a relaxed pace! Subic is the best! I hope this last birding go for the year is a prelude to the coming year!

By the way, remember my first lifer for the year involved breaking the curse of the Chocolate Boobook? I bungled my shot, but it looks like the curse is truly broken: we had an (almost) effortless sighting of it again! Now I wonder why it took me so long to see it. 

My shot has improved, but I didn't say it was any good! 

A joyful and birdy 2015 to everyone!

Monday, September 22

Remembering Imugan

Last week I sat in the audience as Ateneo de Manila University held its annual Special Academic Convocation to honour selected individuals who excel in their respective fields and who exemplify the values of the University.  This year there were 6 honourees: an educator and mentor who continues to inspire students, a cardinal who devotes his life to peace-building in Mindanao, a woman who fights for social justice, an artist who has defined the Philippine ballet and dance, a government employee who upholds justice and fights corruption and a pastor who changed the lives of an indigenous peoples.

The Special Academic Convocation honored selected individuals who exemplify the values of the University (banner from

While many of my co-faculty recognized those being celebrated, the last awardee was known to less, but I recognized his photo right off from one of my earliest club trips with the bird club. Pastor Rice and the Ikalahan community had welcomed a large group from the bird club several years ago, in June of 2006, for a short overnight birding outing.  As the info-video highlighting Pastor Rice's contribution to education, sustainable development and community building played in the darkened theater, images of Imugan in Sta. Fe were flashed and memories of a very memorable trip resurfaced.

Sta. Fe was a long drive from Manila, past the winding road of Dalton Pass. We were a large group, and I remember arriving at Imugan just as Peter and Leni S., Ate Lyds and her daughter, Rene and Beth B. were leaving.  They had arrived earlier and had already gone around birding, in fact they had even gotten quite lost in the wilderness for a few hours!  It was a larger group of birders who replaced them, 15 in all, and upon settling down at the community center, we all immediately headed out to check out the waterfalls.

The waterfalls at Imugan

I remember blue butterflies dancing in the canopy, a jade vine wrapped around a tree, its purple (not jade!) flowers dripping like chandeliers, the group stopping to glimpse a blue-headed fantail (a lifer for many, including myself!) hiding in the gully.

Birders having fun at the falls.

The waterfalls fell sharply from the rocks above, forming crystal clear pools. We happily splashed about the cool waters- there were fish in the pools, tiny crabs in the rock crevices and dragonflies everywhere!

Clear waters, butterflies, crabs and damselflies

As it was late afternoon already, we were all ready to settle in for the night.  There was no electricity in the community center, so we ate our dinner by candle light.  

Dinner and conversation by candlelight

The locals left us after dinner, with wishes of a good night's sleep and a reminder to please lock the doors and windows before we retired for the night. After dinner we stayed up for the usual exchange of stories and I remember that the night was so inky black that you could barely see your hand if you extended your arm away from your body. The darkness of course inspired all sorts of scary stories and otherworldly exchanges and we had a few good laughs before finally calling it a night.

The peace of the night was interrupted by loud popping sounds which roused us from our sleep, alert and alarmed.  It turned out it was just Ixi, attacking some cockroaches with her slippers while shouting at them in Spanish! (Anyone who has travelled with Ixi after this knows she always carries a small can of bug spray now)  Being up, many took advantage of braving the cold night wind and taking a bathroom break at the outhouse.  These midnight episodes all gave us something to talk about in the morning and for several years after.

When morning came, we fell into little groups and went about birding separately.  I remember seeing Chary (whom I had just met on that trip), demurely washing her face in one of the clear streams that bordered the community path. It was certainly an idyllic setting.

The idyllic community pathways bordering a stream,
behind me is a hanging bridge to the community center.

We: Alex, Ruben, Tere, Des, Felix, Adri and I  had decided to bird along the road, with Des's suggestion that hunting should be minimal out in the open, therefore the birds less shy.  With Mang Boy missing, I had volunteered to drive Alex's Terrano, but Alex, being the gentleman he was, volunteered to drive himself.  This was the only time in the past 9 years that I have known Alex that we had ever seen him drive.  It turns out that it was the only time he had driven after an indeterminate number of years!  When I think of the narrow, winding roads falling off to the mountain's slope on one side, navigating landslides and crossing an incoming "top-loaded" commuter jeep, parking on non-existent shoulders to bird... I'm still not sure if I was thankful Alex had volunteered to drive sparing me the stress of it all!

Adri and I had just come from a short trip to Sagada the weekend before, and so the birds we saw were no longer lifers, having just seen them in the Mountain Province, but it was great to have a review of what we would much later (after several other trips) would come to know as "common" montane birds:  elegant tits, sulphur-billed nuthatches, chestnut faced babblers, little pied flycatchers, mountain white-eyes.  This was a time when not one of us had a long lens camera and the thrill of having a nuthatch creeping up a pine tree trunk barely a meter away was just that - the thrill of having a bird so close (and not having to worry about getting or bungling the shot!).  I remember Des flushing a pair of Philippine nightjars, one of which landing on the grass by the roadside.  Des carefully approached it, trying to find it hidden in the (not-so-long!) grass.  And just as he was about to step on it: away it flies, surprising all of us again!

Roadside birding with Tere, Alex, Des and Ruben

As I check my birding notebook , I realise I did get a few lifers though: mountain leaf warbler, citrine canary flycatcher and yellowish white-eye.  But the most memorable lifer was: a mountain shrike!  It is one of my unforgettable birding moments, clear in my mind: a shrike perched on a branch just over the hill, very close in front of us. And just as I say "Is that a Mountain shrike?"  It is just Des (who was quick to confirm - thankfully!) and Felix who spot it, right before it flies off, leaving everyone else wondering how I could mistake a now-perched Philippine bulbul for a mountain shrike!

My lifer: the endemic Mountain Shrike.
I took this photo at Mt. Polis, five years after Imugan.

This was pre-blog, pre-SLR camera, pre-automated excel generated bird list. Only memories, a bird list in my birding notebook and a few point-and-shoot camera photos to remember it by.

The citation for Pastor Rice and my birding notebook from 2006.

Back in the University, sitting in the theater, I look back on all this.  

And as I listen to the citation read by the emcee, and listen to one of Pastor Rice's daughter's accept the award, posthumously awarded, I silently give my thanks to the Ikalahan community and to Pastor Rice.  (Read his daughter's touching response here.) I had never known of how deep his contribution was to nation building: an American missionary who arrived in the Philippines in 1956 and who, as his daughter said, was probably more Ikalahan and more Filipino than many of us.

This young Ikalahan boy is probably a teenager now.

(read our old trip report here

Sunday, September 14

the migrants are here!

While most Filipinos anticipate the coming of the -ber months (SeptemBER, OctoBER, NovemBER, DecemBER) to officially herald the beginning of Christmas season, birders have quite another thing in mind.

The cooling days and lengthening nights signal the beginning of autumn migration, and while shops begin to display Christmas ornaments and the radio begins to play Christmas carols, birders are on the lookout for their first migrants of the season, usually the ubiquitous brown shrike, its arrival alerted by sharp calls in the morning of newly arrived individuals jostling for territory.

I had my first taste of migrants in the most unexpected place. I usually enjoy a well-planned trip to the more conventional birding sites to welcome migrant waders: either the swamps of Candaba or the hidden city environs of the Coastal Lagoon.  But my first migrants were spotted a little bit closer to home. Literally. We were spending a weekend in our family house in Tarlac with some birder friends and to our delight, the rice fields just across our balcony were being plowed and flooded for the next round of planting.  Even from a distance we could make out the graceful pink legs of black-winged stilts walking on the mud.

Black-winged stilts are unmistakable with their long pink legs!

Terns flew around the water-logged fields, picking up food from the water, and they were joined by many oriental pratincoles. 

Terns flying over the fields

Oriental pratincoles have both a resident and migrant population:
it was my first time to see so many near our house!

A closer inspection with our binoculars and scopes revealed several little-ringed plovers, running across the drier mud.  Some of them still sported breeding plumage and their bright yellow eye rings stood out against the somber browns of the empty fields.

Little-ringed plovers could also be residents or migrants,
and seeing them in their bright plumage is always a delight.

A few Pacific golden plovers were also present, and it was great to catch them in their distinctive black plumage, a contrast to their non-breeding golden hues.

Not the usual look sported by golden plovers for the winter.

Blending into the background were several wood sandpipers, and a few common sandpipers (although I had already seen some common sands at the airport a few months back), busy walking back and forth.

A wood sandpiper and a common sandpiper: common migrants seen at rice fields

A quick scan of the surrounding grassy areas revealed my first brown shrike for the season.  It was spotted by Adri, who pointed it out to us and also noticed a second individual just beside the first one!  It was very unusual for them to be sharing a space without much hullaballoo, so they must have just arrived.

My first brown shrike for the season
(you can catch a glimpse of my second brown shrike hidden in the grass below it)

There was also a common kingfisher patrolling the pond, a regular visitor to the farm.  There are usually two or three of them, but it seems that only this one has arrived so far.

My favorite migrant on the farm: a common kingfisher perched on the mulberry bush.

 We also had good looks of the usual residents:  blue-tailed bee-eaters and pacific swallows flew gracefully over the waters.  White-breasted waterhens walked gingerly on the vegetation at the edge of the pond while collared kingfishers called loudly all around.  The white-throated kingfisher was also busy swooping down on the muddy fields for tasty snacks.  Zebra doves and red turtle doves perched on the kapok trees lining the pond.

A cool find was a male greater painted snipe, walking with the other waders with three young birds! Unlike most birds, the male painted snipe is the parent tasked with incubating the eggs and raising the young.  Its plumage is much more drab than the female.

Do you see the well-camouflaged male greater painted snipe and one of its chicks beside it?

A walk around the fields at sunset revealed a very interesting situation.  There were also several (human) children running around the fields, each clutching a soda PET bottle as a receptacle for something they were gathering from the muddy ground.  It turns out that the field in this condition were perfect for the breeding of camaro (mole crickets) which are a delicacy to Capampangans.  

Nearby, a yellow bittern picked up a mole cricket from the mud and quickly swallowed it.  It was unmindful of us as it continued to inspect the mud for more of the critters.

A yellow bittern on the hunt at sunset.

No wonder the waders were in such a frenzy!  I would've loved some adobong camaro myself!

Adobong camaro (mole cricket): yum!

Tuesday, April 22

Easter Triduum birding

The last 3 days of Holy Week is traditionally family, prayer and quiet time and even if summer classes started on Holy Monday, the long exodus to the provinces left a sizzling Metro Manila tranquil and traffic-free.  The break from work afforded Adri and I a few bird encounters.

On Holy Thursday, Adri and I took a peek at the UP campus Scops Owl.  My brother and sis-in-law were taking morning walk on campus and we were excited to show them this nocturnal creature.  When we got to the site, I was surprised to see how the summer heat had thinned out the lush vegetation which the owl took refuge in during the day.  It took us quite a while to find the owl, and to our delight, we found a pair of them.  They looked very sleepy and were unperturbed at our presence.

I didn't plan to bird on Good Friday, but I was delighted to get a new record for the backyard (well, front yard, strictly speaking).  A small bird perched on an almost leafless flamboyant tree caught my attention.  It flew off its perch only to circle back and land on the same branch.  A Grey-streaked Flycatcher!  Even if it was high up in the tree, I was able to take a photo of this tiny migrant.  It was probably on its way back north for spring.

For Black Saturday, we wanted to take advantage of the calm before the storm and took a short road trip up to Candaba before the city dwellers began returning to the city.  Together with Melanie, we decided to leave Quezon City way before sunrise, to take advantage of the short, cool hours of the morning.

When we arrived at the main ponds, we were greeted by views of the busy rookeries of the Black-crowned Night-herons and the Purple Herons.  A few Philippine Ducks and Wandering Whistling Ducks were swimming around the few remaining water surfaces still available.  A stately male Watercock stood proudly above the water hyacinths.

Having parked the car under the shade of a tree (big mistake!), we backtracked to take a picture of the Watercock (failure!), a small bird scuttled out to the middle of the dirt path.  It was a Siberian Rubythroat!  We positioned ourselves with the rising sun at our backs and facing the handsome bird.

Later we were joined by WBCPers Jude, Alex, Tere and Patty.  Adri pointed out the area where they could stalk the Rubythroat while we moved on to look for other targets.

As early as half past the hour of eight, the heat was already becoming unbearable.  We parked ourselves under the shade of some acacia trees.  In front of us the pond was choked with lotuses in full bloom.  The pale flowers were calming to look at, and several Barn swallows perched on the lotus peduncles.

Jude and Co. soon joined us, and we became firmly planted at the spot, the heat keeping us from venturing further.  We entertained ourselves looking at the swallows, spotting a Common Kingfisher, a family of Purple Swamphens and a lone female Northern Shoveller.

While we exchanged stories, a loud chirping interrupted us.  Above us was a tiny warbler.  The Arctic Warbler was recently split into 3 separate species: Arctic, Kamchatka and Japanese Leaf Warblers.  These 3 species are frustratingly similar to each other in terms of appearance and until recently, Adri and I would jokingly argue about the ID of what warbler we were seeing.  A recent article ( though in the WBCP online newsletter explains clearly how to differentiate these 3 species by their call. So I could finally say with confidence that I have the Japanese Leaf Warbler on my life list.

 A (half?) lifer, a backyard record and great views of familiar (though not-so-often-seen) birds.  Great birding for a non-birding long weekend.