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!