Monday, March 24

Frozen - the case of the posed kingfisher

"Look, it's a dead kingfisher!"

Manny pointed out a Collared Kingfisher at the base of the swimming pool.  We were walking on a short boardwalk through some mangroves and towards the end an edge-less swimming pool peeked through the mangroves on our left.

It was a strange sight.  No more than a couple of meters away from us, the kingfisher was all wet and bedraggled, in a standing position and its wings spread out.

Why was the lifeless body of a collared kingfisher in a bizarre pose?

"Are you sure it's dead?" Anna and I asked.  "That's a freaky sight."

"Why is it standing like that? Was it posed?"  Ok, maybe I have been watching too much forensic TV drama, but the position was really, really strange.

We all leaned over the boardwalk railings, trying to get a closer view.  Its eyes looked bright and alive!  "It must have just recently died, otherwise the ants would have gotten to his eyes!"

Anthony joined us in a couple of minutes.  "Are you sure its dead?!? Why does it look like that? Are you sure it isn't moving?"

And so we clicked away at the strange, dead kingfisher.  Its lifeless body stood at the catchment for the overflow of pool water.  The terraced design of the stone wall behind him looked looked like some ancient South American civilization ruins plus his bright cobalt blue feathers looked like royal regalia, so we dubbed him King(fisher) of Machu Picchu. Later this became a play of words on the Filipino Macho Pecho ("muscular breast" - referring to a choice chicken cut).

We spent a maybe 5 minutes (at least!)  staring at him, leaning over the fence to get closer views and trying to come up with a COD.  (It turns out that I wasn't the only one watching too many forensic TV dramas)

Did he drown in the pool? Was he fished out and posed by the pool boys as a prank?  Why put him there at the base of the pool?  It was all so bizarre.

When we walked back to the beginning of the boardwalk, Maia and Lanie were stalking a noisy clamorous reed warbler and we told them of the mysterious kingfisher.  As we continued our morning walk across the extensive private estate, documenting plants and birds, our conversation would always go back to the kingfisher.

Later that afternoon, we discovered that our lunch was to be served at the pavilion by the pool!  We were excited to show Maia and Lanie our mystery kingfisher, and to check it out from the poolside.

And guess what?  It was gone!

When Anthony asked the food servers about it, they merely shrugged their shoulders.

"That blue bird?  It goes swimming everyday in the pool. It probably flew off."

It turns out that the kingfisher had gone for its regular morning swim, and was sunning himself and drying out its feathers when Manny spotted him!

Freezing is a known defensive behaviour in birds.  Apparently when confronted the choice is either to fight, flee or freeze.  Obviously, one bird versus 4 humans is not a fair contest so I suppose fight was out.  Flee?  It was so bedraggled and its feathers looked so waterlogged - I guess flee was not an option either.  That left freeze.  Many prey animals freeze to avoid detection (Remember Jurassic Park?  "If you don't move he won't see you?" A move that has worked well when avoiding people too!). Or maybe, to make them look dead and un-appetizing (like how chickens would keel over when a kite is flying overhead). It certainly worked on us!

We all had a very good laugh over the whole incident while eating our lunch. We couldn't get over how we didn't even consider it was alive and just "frozen"! We were had by a kingfisher! Poor thing, it was probably a hair's breadth away from a heart attack with all of us struggling to get closer and staring at it while talking loudly and animatedly!

As we ate our lunch, the collared kingfisher was flying around us, perching around the pool area and calling loudly.  Well, it had certainly gotten over its morning fright, even if we hadn't gotten over how we were all fooled by a frozen kingfisher!

Monday, March 10

The Waiting Game

After an unremarkable morning up the forest trail (hornbills, yellow-bellied whistler, several white-eared brown doves, malkohas, rhabdornises, minivets, monarchs, black-chinned fruit doves, serpent eagle, a few flowerpeckers, flameback, etc. plus LOTS of people!) and spotting 4 tourist buses and 3 jeepneys parked at the botanical garden entrance, Adri and I decided to stake out the dirt roads at the dairy for some quail action.

It was still early in the afternoon and the sun was quite high in the sky when we parked our car and ourselves by one of the dirt roads.  Summer was beginning to creep in and everything was dry, even the slight breeze that blew every now and again. 

Buttonquail Crossing

Hardly had we brought down our gear from the car when Adri exclaimed: mayro'n ng tumatawid! (there're birds crossing already!)

Sure enough, several meters up the road in the direction we had come from, a pair of Barred Buttonquails were in the middle of the path, scratching at the dry dirt.

A pair of barred buttonquails crossing the dirt road.

We struggled to get our optics in place, but the duo was too far away from us, and the heat shimmering from the ground did not make for very good views or photos.  After a minute or so, the 2 birds split up, one disappearing into the right side of the road and the other walking into the grass on the left.

Wow, barely 5 minutes from parking we already had a sighting! We quickly settled down to wait again.



Wait, wait, wait.

"Maybe that was it for the afternoon," joked Adri.  "Yes, that's their quota for crossing the road today, you think?" I reply.

A slight movement up the road caught our attention.  Another Barred Buttonquail.  After a few minutes, it disappeared again into the grass.



Wait some more.

My uber-patient partner.

Another unsatisfying appearance by an individual of the same species.  Far away from us.



Finally, some movement again in the grass bordering the road!  Another Barred Buttonquail! It was again some distance from us, but this time it was making its way towards us.  It would walk across the road and back, and then cross again.  Sometimes it would disappear from view for a while at the edge of the road, only to reappear again, just a bit closer.  And closer, and closer!

A buttonquail in the shadows.

It was very active, and so it was difficult to get a good shot.  Adri and I were hardly moving.  A few meters away from us, and something on the ground caught its interest.  

Pecking at some fallen fruit

It picked at what looked like a ripe, red fruit on the ground. It became quite preoccupied with it, and stayed out in the open for a looooong time.  Sometimes it moved away a bit, but then it came back to peck at the fruit.  It even sat down for a while beside the fruit! After several minutes, it seemed to have its fill and waddled away. 

Totally engrossed in the fruit for several minutes.

It was such a great close (well, close enough!) encounter with a usually shy ground bird!  And Adri and I had that mysterious fruit to thank.

The aftermath: after the fruit was pecked at, it looked like this.

I quickly looked up and spotted the vine where the fruit came from.  It was a familiar vine with conspicuous red-orange fruit, and though I have seen it many times before in various places, I did not pay it much mind before now. 

This is what the ripe and unripe fruit looked like:
is this from the cucumber family?

While watching the vine and waiting for more quails, a yellow vented bulbul flew in and perched on the vine right where the fruit was, and immediately began eating it! It is always interesting to know what the birds are eating. 

Even the yellow-vented bulbul had a go at the fruit still on the vine.

A quick internet search led me to a vine native to the Philippines, Coccinia grandis, which is part of the cucumber family.  Is this the mysterious vine which gives fruit that the quail (and the bulbul!) seemed to like so much?  The description seems to fit perfectly. I'll be on closer lookout now for this plant and fruit.

Adri and I wanted to wait for more quails crossing, but as the afternoon got cooler, foot and bicycle/motorcycle traffic on the path increased.  After several minutes, we glimpsed another pair of quails far away from us, way back where we had the first sighting for the afternoon.  Soon a group of kids decided to film a class project right behind us.  What were they role-playing? Scenes from Ibong Adarna!  The mythical bird who lured in princes with its song and finally transformed them into stone with a touch of its poop. We were amused at the apt-ness of their storyline, but decided that it was probably time to go.  

Ibong Adarna by the neighborhood kids.

We doubted any quail crossing would beat our earlier encounter.  Having achieved success, we no longer felt like waiting.

Tuesday, March 4

malling swallows

The malling swallows are back! It's that time of the year. 

I've always been fascinated with the migratory Barn Swallows' choice for roosting sites in the city. For several years now, even before I was a birder, I would notice that a major mall in the QC area (just watch the video and you'll know which one) plays host to thousands of Barn Swallows around the time of spring migration.  They would fly around the mall frontage, perching on lighted letters, logos, ledges, the roof or even the vertical wall face!

I remember a long time ago (more than 15 years ago!), even before this particular mall had its numerous expansions and renovations, I was with my sister on the third floor of the mall which looked out to the huge atrium. Flying all around us were hundreds of Barn Swallows! We wondered how they had gotten inside the mall and were worried about how they would find their way out again! Until today I sometimes wonder if they ever found an exit. 

There is a similar sight in the southern end of Metro Manila, where one can observe Barn Swallows roosting on electric cables in front of a mall. The electric cables are at eye level when you are travelling by car on the elevated highway, and it's a curious sight which has been noticed by many non-birders as well. 

The swallows are most active at these roosting areas at twilight and a few hours after. Are they attracted to the insects which are attracted to the lights? Do these structures act like huge roosting trees in the urban jungle? Do they just want to go people watching at the mall?

I saw these QC swallows a few days ago. As I was taking the video, I heard a mother and her son notice me and comment "Look, so many birds!" 

This is a much improved observation from another mother and son from exactly the same place three years ago (I was also taking a video, and Adri and WBCP-ers Arnel and Tin T. were there too) "Look, so many bats!" 

Here's a throwback video (those streaks are swallows!) from way back then:

Other swallows roosting from several other places in Luzon have been in the news the past month. Unfortunately, many people see these swallows as pooping machines, rather than the helpful, insect eating birds they are. Recently, the Barn Swallows of Batangas City were on the local news

Watching the swallows in Quezon City reminded me of what I was missing in Zamboanga. Too bad school activities have prevented me from participating in the 9th Philippine Birdfest held in Zamboanga City, it's the very first birdfest I have missed attending!  Downtown Zamboanga City is also home to thousands of migratory Barn Swallows. It's amazing that in the middle of the noise and chaos of busy streets, the swallows co-exist with city folk. 

A photo of the barn swallows in downtown
Zamboanga City, taken from our trip in 2012.

They were actually adopted as the offical "mascot" for the birdfest, with an equally apt theme: Pajaros: Bula sin Miedo, sin Lingasa.  This translates to "Birds: Fly Without Fear, Without Worries”, in the local Chavacano dialect.

The logo for the 9th birdfest drawn
and executed by talented WBCP-er Arnel T.

The malling swallows are just another great example of how wildlife can share urban areas with humans. Yes, even shopping malls. Mallrats? I'd rather run into mall-swallows!

Sunday, March 2

night birds during the day

I have always considered owling an especially patience-requiring type of birding, often testing the perseverance and persistence of even the most stoic birder. The challenge of finding nocturnal birds in the darkness, with only their calls to give you a hint of where they are, is exciting and can be difficult, but the rewards of finally getting the target in the beam of the torch (no matter how fleeting) is just as fulfilling.

Finding a regular roost site for night birds is a different type of pleasure.  It is not easy to spot a night bird, even knowing where it sleeps by day.  These are birds not meant to be seen by the harsh light of the sun, they often sleep in tangles and hidden crevices, or camouflaged to look like part of  the environment.  After all, they need to rest and sleep while the rest of the world is wide awake and busy with their daily tasks.

It is lucky for me that two known roosting sites are on my way to school.  Last week I needed a pick me up before facing the rush of finals week for our graduating seniors.  So I asked Adri if he wanted to check out recent reports of an owl on campus and to also take a look at the nightjar which has been very reliable the past few months.

It took quite a while for us to find the Philippine Scops Owl in the complicated mass of vines and branches. I was about ready to give up when Adri finally spotted it!  Of course it had already spotted us by then, the crunch of dried leaves under our feet giving us away.  Viewed at night, the owl can look very stern, but in the daytime, it looked... cute!  It had twisted its head at a right angle to get a better view of us between the tangles, giving it a slightly comical appearance.  I'm sure Adri and I were also in some yoga-worthy poses as we tried to get an unimpeded view of it.

I can see you!

I am still in awe of all these owls in the city.  This one was sleeping right next to our old hangout when I was still an undergraduate student! The old structure had already been torn down and replaced with new buildings that were an extension of the neighboring research institute (it actually smelled like an animal house, the familiar smell of mice from grad school, maybe an additional bonus for the owl).  Did these owls live here so many years ago when these were all tambayans for our student orgs? Probably!

The owl eventually got comfortable to our presence, and after one last wide-eyed glare, slowly closed it eyes to catch up on some sleep.

The Philippine Scops Owl giving us a stern look
before catching up on some shut eye.

Our owl search-and-find took a little longer than we had anticipated, which left us no time for the nightjar for that morning.  So we checked on it a few days later.

Even though the mango tree it slept in was quite small, we still had a hard time spotting it.  Again, we were almost resigned to the fact that it had found another roost when I finally spotted an out-of place broken branch.  Looking through my binoculars, I confirmed that it was the Philippine Nightjar!  Despite the live and loud kulintang music coming from the arts building beside the mango tree, it seemed fast asleep.  

A nicely camouflaged Philippine Nightjar.

A curious security guard approached us, and although he already knew we were looking at a sleeping bird, he still engaged us in conversation and took a look through the scope.  He shared his amazement at the regularity of the roost of the bird, and how it seemed unfazed by the hustle and bustle of the university during the day. Adri and I both nodded in agreement, although, we pointed out to the mango blooms which would soon give way to fruit by the end of the summer.  Harvesting the fruit would surely drive the bird to find another perch in a few months.

A slight breeze blew, and the nightjar gave a little shake, as if to sway with the branches and the leaves.  All the time, it kept its eyes closed.  Sleep well, sweet dreams little nightjar!

A slight breeze blows the leaves obstructing our view,
giving us a good look at its white tail patch.