Tuesday, January 28

guided trips in january part 2: on campus

barely in to the week after our candaba guided trip, adri and I were conducting another guided triP. this time it was for members of BOx, the department of biology's home student org, who were celebrating bioweek.

joining us to help out lead the walk were wbcp-ers maia and luke.  i guessthe walk was scheduled too early in the morning by the organizers. at 7am, only 6 students turned out for an almost one-is-to-one particpant-facilitator ratio!  of course, this was a huge advantage, since a small group is always better than a large group when birding, even on a well-populated campus!

we did our usual route around campus, starting at the parking lot. of course our first bird was the long-tailed shrike!  long-tailed shrikes are definitely the boss-birds on campus, with one or two lording over each quadrangle, parking lot and green patch.

as we moved on, we spotted the usuals: philippine pygmy woodpecker, brown shrike, yellow-vented bulbul.  a very cooperative kingfisher gave good views, it's color the striking blue associated with the university.

we challenged the students to spot a noisy golden-bellied gerygone, calling loudly for a small, skittish bird, hopping about the branches above us.

there was also a brief view of a coppersmith barbet, and white-breasted woodswallow were at their predictable perch.  surprisingly, the black-naped oiroles were nowhere to be seen.

as we were walking down the path back, we were in for a huge treat.  remember how i said that raptors are always a very good birds on a guided trip?

we ended the trip with a great raptor: a migratory peregrine falcon, spotted by maia!  it perched on nearby communication towers giving us all long good views!  this peregrine falcon must be a regular, we have seen it the past 3 seasons!

as we all took turns on the scope (even a PE teacher watching over his running class on the road got a good look), we rattled off facts about the peregrine falcon: it was found worldwide, it was the fastest animal alive, it was just as comfortable on cliffsides and forests as it was on skyscrapers in cities where it caught domestic pigeons. looking at it through our bins and scope, its powerful claws grasping the steel bars left no doubt that this was a hunter. 

one of the students was anthropomorphizing all the birds we had spotted as "mabait" and "hindi mabait" and was mulling over whether giving prey a swift, dignified death was kind or not.

although it was the wrong raptor (and it certainly wasn't blue!), the students were impressed to be sharing the campus with such an awesome bird. we ended the hour and a half morning walk with 13 species on our list (only biology majors would include IUCN conservation status on the list!)

Monday, January 27

guided trips in january part 1: candaba

its always a great experience for me birding with first-time or newbie birders.  seeing "common" birds through their eyes always makes the bird new and exciting again.  so it must be a good omen that january began with 2 very different guided trips, in 2 very different places for 2 very different groups of people!

on the 2nd weekend of the month, adri and i joined leni, who was taking a family of four (dad, mom and 2 daughters) who lived in her neighborhood for a guided trip at candaba. the weather was perfect for morning birding at candaba: there was a cool breeze, the air was crisp and dry and the sunlight was golden.  mt arayat rose clear above the plains of rice fields. at the main pond we immediately spotted 52 eurasian teal (green-winged teal)! it was the largest flock of teal i had ever seen! they were swimming in a small clearing in the middle of the weed-choked pond. a few philippine ducks looked swam around the edge of the grass.

52 eurasian teal!

of course more obvious at the main pond were the colony of black-crowned night-heron and several purple heron.  both species had individuals in various stages of maturity, and clumsy stick nests were visible sticking out of the grasses.

to our surprise,there were less ducks at the adjacent pond.  the largest group was a flock of tufted duck, joined by a lone garganey.  there were a few philippine duck, and even fewer northern shovellers.

can you spot the garganey among these tufted duck?
while we were observing the ducks behind the grass (we had to move away from a very paranoid carabao mother and her new-born calf), we spotted another group of birders waving at us from across the pond.  it was kitty, irene, rob and mark b!

watching birds (& birders!) from behind the tall grass

when they had walked over to our side, they pointed out a little grebe, sitting on a nest built hidden in the kangkong (Ipomea aquatica). the eggs had already hatched and every now and then a little striped chick with a reddish beak would pop out from underneath.

a little grebe sitting on its young on a well-hidden nest

the back ponds were already drained and planted so we decided to back track and head to the main house. just as we had parked by the gates, a flurry of herons at the main pond caught our attention.  an eastern marsh harrier was flying over the pond!

a migrant eastern marsh harrier flying low over the ponds

a raptor is always a very good bird on a guided trip - perhaps it is the majesty and strength of the bird that never fails to impress not only the newbies but even the more experienced birders.

as we prepared to leave, the well-hidden wandering-whistling ducks took to the air, more than a hundred of them, disturbed by a group of excursionistas who were clapping their hands. 

wandering whistling ducks disturbed - not by a raptor, but by humans clapping their hands!

it seems that people can be more threatening to the birds than raptors!

Monday, January 6

the boobook at last!

it was 6pm and the darkness was falling fast.  above the shadows of the treeline hung a small sliver of the moon.  i remembered a fairy tale where the heroine thought the crescent moon was a comb, suspended from the branches of a tree outside her window.  it was almost as if i could reach out and pick it up.

around us the sounds of the night were growing louder.  auditory acuity is always more sensitive when you lose your vision. looking up,the night sky was much brighter than our surroundings.  the fruit bats flew above us silently, giant wings flapping gently. luzon hawk owls hooted in in the distance.  a spotted wood-kingfisher gave out its goodnight call.  nearby a philippine scops owl growled.  in the distance a great-eared night jar called hauntingly.

but these were not our targets.  

"woopwup woopwup woopwup woopwup woopwup woopwup woopwup"

it was here! 

adri called it in.  it was getting closer... and closer... and closer!

adri's torch illuminated a tall, almost bare, tree beside us.  the perched owl immediately flew off, followed by a second owl!

another attempt.
same result.

after a few minutes we walked further down the road.

this time the torch illuminated a perched owl, facing away from us! it flew away even before we had a chance to lift our binoculars to our eyes.

would we be doomed to in-flight sightings?

we walked even further down the road.

again a soft hooting close to us.

adri pointed the torch high above us.  and there it was. perched on a vine, in full view.

at last. the chocolate boobook shows itself to me. all previous failures are now pleasant memories which make the final victory so much sweeter.

(it did stay long enough for me to attempt a photo. but i guess i was too excited because this was all i got)

first lifer for 2014: chocolate boobook.

Thursday, January 2

ending 2013 with a couple of lifers

the end of the year saw me neglecting birding for work!  but while my birding activities slowed down considerably compared to the last few years, i was still able to slip in a few day trips to candaba to enjoy both resident and migrants.

on the first trip, adri wanted to check out the condition of the dirt roads. this year was a bit drier for the -ber months and so, except for some deep ruts, the road was not a problem for a vehicle with a high clearance.

most of the philippine ducks, wandering whistling ducks and stilts we found were by the main highway, enjoying the water-logged earth which was still not being planted.

at the mayor's ponds, several purple swamphens were out in the open, looking more like dinosaurs than modern-day birds.

there were several little grebes also, both adults and juveniles.  it's always fun to watch them swimming around and diving under water, only to pop out several meters away.

blue-tailed bee-eaters perched on the tall flowering grass, gracefully gliding to and from their perches.

adult and juvenile purple herons were also a-plenty, together with grey herons, black-crowned night-herons and an assortment of egrets.

at the back of the mayor's house, adri and i pointed out to mel a small colony of bats which we discovered roosting earlier in the year. (no, bats are not birds!)

wood sandpipers were busy foraging through the mud of the un-planted fields.  a closer inspection revealed a few sharp-tailed sandpipers, a lifer for adri.

the next trip to candaba was to twitch a very rare migrant.  wbcp-ers linda g. and brian e. had reported seeing a pair of black-faced spoonbills a few days before! they had seen it just as the last week of school before  christmas break was ending and i was impatient (i think i was literally twitching!) for monday to come to see if they were still around.  the weekend passed with daily reports of birders seeing the spoonbills in exactly the same spot. i was hoping and praying they would stay put.

on monday morning adri, andrew and i met up with mike a., tonji and tito along THE spot on the baliuag-candaba highway. i was surprised at the changes in the landscape in the past 2 and a half weeks. many of the fields had been planted already, those which weren't were quickly being drained and plowed.  egrets and terns followed the farmers tilling the fields.

when we got to the reported site, we were greeted by probably a thousand black-winged stilts!  there were several waders as well: some greenshanks, asian golden plovers, little-ringed plovers and more. 

although the sun had just risen, our targets were nowhere in site. wait, wait, wait. soon we were joined by other birders and photographers.  at exactly 9am, adri came shouting and running down the road (he was talking to ruth who was parked a few meters away) "spoonbill! spoonbill!"

and sure enough, at the far end of the field in front of us, were 3 black-faced spoonbills!  they were chunkier than the egrets and herons around them, and of course, their black-faces and spoon-shaped bills gave them away.

black-faced spoonbills breed in china and korea, migrating south for the winter to hong kong and taiwan.  there are less than 3,000 individuals in the world, and this small population justifies its status as endangered. there have been a handful of reports of the black-faced spoonbill in the philippines, i remember a photograph being taken at an awc at candaba several years ago, seen only by that photgrapher, rey, and missed by all of us census-takers. the black-faced spoonbill is one of 6 spoonbill species world-wide, and the only one which is endangered.  (it is also my second spoonbill species, the first being the roseate spoonbill which i had seen in the Louisiana bayou in 2005!)

the spoonbills seemed quite at ease, taking turns, sleeping, preening and once in a while, walking in unison for a few meters. after a several minutes, they took to the air, circled around and landed in almost the exact same place.  

having satisfied our twitch, we decided to walk away.  as we came to our vehicles, the spoonbills again took to the air and this time landed in the tall grass, out of site.  a truly wonderful experience and a very pleasant christmas present for all of us birders from candaba.

while the others headed home, adri, drew and i decided to drop by the mayor's ponds.  there were a few ducks in the area: mostly philippine and wandering whistling ducks.  there were also some tufted ducks, garganey and some shovellers.  

the whistling ducks were quite close to the road, looking very handsome in the bright noon light.  it's amazing how many there were, considering that when i started birding in 2005, there were no reported wandering whistling ducks in candaba and i had to pick it up as a lifer in far off agusan marsh!

we checked on a very friendly siberian ruby throat and the very hard to see dusky warbler.  the dusky warlber was skulking around the exact same bush we found it in last migration season in january.  we also had a very brief and unsatisfying view of a middendorff's grasshopper-warbler, what would've been a lifer for me.  (i counted it as a third of a lifer - yes, not even half a lifer).

we were getting hungry and the sun was high in the sky, so we decided to head back.  the farmers were still busy in the fields, probably to get in as much work before christmas day.

i thought that would be my last birding day at candaba for 2013, but then, 2 days after christmas, melanie wanted to see the spoonbills too!  she and mark jason picked us up at 430am and we met up with her friends: first time birders cindy and flyn.

when we arrived at the ponds, we were again surprised at the changes over a few days!  half the pond had been tilled as was being readied for planting! uh oh.  the black-winged stilts were still there, although less in number, probably having transferred to undisturbed fields.  while waiting, a group of waders caught adri's and mark's eye.  some greenshanks were preening, and there was one bird that seemed to have a different jizz than the others.  

closer inspection on the scope revealed it to be a dowitcher!  was it the very rarely reported long-billed dowitcher?  there had been less than 5 reports of it in the country, and it wasn't even in the philippine field guide!  it was a lifer for all of us!

we had almost forgotten about the spoonbills, which were still nowhere in sight.  having heard that the previous group to visit had sighted them at the adjoining fields, we walked up the grass covered ground separating the fields.  it was a short walk but it was challenging walking through the tall grass on uneven ground!  we were rewarded with closer views of the spoonbills!  they were busy foraging (and again sleeping and preening) among the stilts, herons and egrets.  they must have gotten used to the farmers because they were unmindful of the farmers who worked nearby.  

knowing that it would probably be the last time i would see them, i took my time looking at them and taking in details including the ridges on their bills, their red eyes, and the short feathers on the backs of their necks.  one of them had a yellow patch in front of the eyes - a sign of a mature individual.

hopefully, as global attention is brought to the plight of these spoonbills, their population continues to increase (their status was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered in 2000), and they will be seen regularly in candaba in the future.