Tuesday, January 27

Migrant spotting at Laoag

While we were already up north, we had planned to visit Laoag-based birder Richard R. who always had nice surprises at his local birding patches.  Laoag in Ilocos Norte is a bustling city but its northern location, coupled with Richard's constant surveillance, makes it an ideal place to twitch migrants not easily seen elsewhere in Luzon.  Thankfully, the weather improved south of rainy Pagudpud and it was dry but still cool.

So early Sunday, Richard picked us up at our hotel for a full morning of birding. Our destination was nearby: privately owned fishponds which were no longer in use and were now home to hundreds of ducks.  Adri and I had been there before, and we were looking forward to a few good sightings.

As we entered the property, Richard immediately pointed out a team of ducks on the first pond. Among the more conspicuous Philippine Ducks were several Gadwalls!  They were out in the open, on the water where we could see clearly their white speculums! We had seen Gadwalls before (at Bani and more recently at Candaba), but these near and unobstructed views made it feel like we were getting it as a lifer for the first time!  Unfortunately, there was a noisy procession right behind us for the feast of the Sto. Nino, and the brass band music quickly disturbed the birds into flight. 

No matter, we were sure we would spot them again at one of the inner ponds away from the road.  And of course we did.

The main pond was full of Philippine Ducks!  It was a very zen experience, watching the ducks floating on the still, green waters. 

Ducks, ducks and ducks!

We quickly tried to find our main target.  Alex and company had spotted a pair of Spot-billed ducks here the day before.  They were not as bold as the other ducks and kept hidden behind the vegetation at the far end of the pond.  A quick survey revealed two of them, right where they had been spotted the previous day.  They were quite larger than the Philippine Ducks and of course the distinctive yellow spot at the end of their bills confirmed their identity. The species was a lifer for both Adri and myself.  Richard looked happy as usual to have contributed again (for the 3rd time in my case!) to our life lists.  

Do you see the pair of Spot-billed Ducks?

The ducks probably felt our inquisitive eyes focused on them and quickly retreated into the vegetation.  Every now and then they would come out, but never venturing out in the open water like the other ducks.

Of course among the ducks were our earlier targets, the Gadwalls. At first glance, both the male and female were rather drab-colored compared to the other ducks, however, long and clear views through our binoculars and scope revealed that the males had a beautifully intricate scalloping pattern on their breast.  Richard pointed out a great identification clue: a black patch on the undertail.  The female had the two toned bill of dark grey and orange. And for both, the white wing patch was evident.

A male Gadwall ...

... and a female Gadwall.
Quack! Quack!

As we admired the serenity of the duck pond, Adri suddenly spotted something different in the flock. "Is that a...? Cormorant! Cormorant!" 

Sure enough, a bird mixed in with the ducks  flies from the water straight up and above us.  A Great Cormorant!  We had just seen this bird for the first time a week before at the Bani Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), and here it was again!

A Great Cormorant in flight!

Our sighting excited even Richard, who had not seen this species at this site the past few years. Circling above the pond several times, it finally dropped out of sight into the neighboring pond behind the vegetation.  What a thrill!

Richard suggested we walk to the far side of the pond towards the coast, to check out the prickly aroma bushes (Kandaroma in Ilokano according to Richard or Acacia farnesiana (Linn.) Willd.).

Richard and Adri staking out the prickly Kandaroma bushes.

As we walked alongside the ponds' edge, the ducks surprisingly did not fly away ("They already know me," said Richard. "They know I am not here to harm them so they aren't afraid."). They did however, swim slowly away from us, ending up at the side of the pond where we had previously stood.  This slow movement allowed us to observe other ducks: a few Eurasian Wigeon (their light foreheads giving them an eternal-spotlight-on-their-head-look) and a single female Tufted Duck and a couple of Northern Shovellers.

One of these things is not like the other... find the Eurasian Wigeon.

I took a careful look at the Tufted Duck, which was in eclipse plumage - just to make sure it wasn't the mega Greater Scaup (wishful thinking!).

A female Tufted Duck in eclipse plumage - just making sure it isn't a Scaup!

A Wigeon and a Tufted Duck swimming with the locals.

As we reached the end of the pond, Richard pointed out the aroma bushes - perfect perches for the Yellow Buntings.  And of course, sure enough, not 5 minutes after he mentioned the buntings, in came 1... 2... 3... 4! Four yellow Bunting perched in the distance. Funny how a bird described as "uncommon to rare" by the field guide can be a regular visitor here!

Four Yellow Buntings!

We waited patiently for the buntings to perch closer for better photos.  As we waited, a Lesser Coucal flew across our path, its short wings giving it an awkward, ungainly flight.

Lesser Coucal in flight... check out that belly.

We could see the buntings in the distant bushes, being bullied by the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows.  To our delight, there were't just 4 of them but 6!  I got a lucky shot with the scope-ipad combination and caught one in flight, wings open.

Yellow Bunting - in flight also!

The Cormorant surprised us again by suddenly appearing above us, circling the pond several times, only to disappear as before.

 The Great Cormorant still circling above us.

Sure enough, in time, a few of the buntings flew in and perched on the bushes nearest to us, giving me an opportunity for an improved photo.

Even if the wind was cool and the weather pleasant, we decided to go on our way and head back.  As we passed the pond, I caught a quick glimpse of bright orange legs of a duck sleeping in the shadows.  

Whose that sleeping under the bush?

Ever alert, it quickly woke up when I stopped walking and lifted its head.  It was one of the Spot-billed Ducks allowing me a final good look.  I hope it  decides to fly further south to Pampanga in the next few migration seasons, so I can see it more often!

It's the Spot-billed Duck again!
Our walk on the eucalyptus lined path interrupted a few Java Sparrows, pretty looking birds who are unfortunately very popular in the pet trade.  

A pretty pair of Java Sparrows.

Easy birding in pleasant weather with the Ilocos master.

The Cormorant flew above us one last time - maybe to say goodbye.

The Great Cormorant. Again.

A graceful Grey Heron stood as a sentinel to one of the smaller ponds. 

The silent sentinel.

 A Philippine Duck flew nearby, its speculum changing from green to blue to purple in the morning sunlight.

May Philippine Ducks always fly free here.

Here was a little sanctuary where a few hundred ducks found refuge.  Hopefully they will always find safety and protection here.

The magic ponds at Laoag.

Sunday, January 25

Rainy days and toys for big boys

"My favorite weather is bird chirping weather." - Terri Guillemets

Unfortunately, not every outing is blessed with the perfect weather for birding, or for birds chirping!  A sudden 5-day weekend was declared for Metro Manila for Pope Francis's visit, causing both an efflux and influx of traffic out of and into the city.

Adri and I joined the exodus, boarding a bus to Northern Luzon mid-evening of Wednesday (to avoid the rush out of the city).  By 530am we had reached our destination, and got off on a still dark highway at Brgy. Pancian, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

On board the pink Florida bus for a night trip!

We were back at Pannzian Beach and Mountain Resort!  It was my third time back and Adri's nth.  Our first visit was waaaay back in 2005, and it became one of the raptorwatch groups' base for spring migration the past couple of years.  The resort had a simple, laid back vibe, great food, a beautiful beach and mountain property and best of all: no TV or wifi! We were looking forward to a couple of days R & R.

As fate would have it, those days were cloudy, dreary and coooold! Not the best for birding, but definitely the best for relaxing!

Cloudy and cold days at the beach.

We did attempt to do some birding... but the birds seemed to be enjoying the cool weather too - hidden and quiet!  Still, we had a few good sightings.

On the morning we arrived, we hiked up to the mountain spring.  We pointed out this Colasisi, calmly preening itself at eye-level, to another couple who were guests at Pannzian.

A male colasisi in the rain takes a break from preening to glance at us.

The forest was extremely quiet, but we did have several sightings of Philippine Fairy Bluebirds.  This endemic is quite common here, we've even had sightings of them crossing the highway further up north on the road to Claveria!

A Philippine Fairy Bluebird showing a bit of blue on the wing.

Our pleasant hike (uphill is no problem if the temp is in the low 20's!) was interrupted though by a sudden downpour!  We tried to wait it out, but it showed no signs of stopping - and so we headed carefully down the mountain, especially careful walking beside the muddy and slippery rice fields towards the bottom.

Despite the dreary weather, the views from the beach were majestic... with powerful waves crashing on the shore and wind pushing grey clouds across the sky.  Adri and I must have looked silly, running around the cold beach, our umbrellas turning inside out in the wind.

Powerful waves and the Patapat viaduct in the background.

That evening we were joined by the company of Alex, Tere, Melanie and Mang Boy.  They had driven up on a long 15 hour journey, caught in the traffic of city dwellers escaping the Metro for the long weekend!

The next day was no less dreary and we decided to do a little exploring by car after breakfast.  The road up to Adams, a small municipality several kilometers inland was already partially paved and we wanted to check it out.

Our trip was postponed though by what greeted us as we left the restaurant area: perched on one of the almost-bare trees at the edge of the property beside the highway was an immature hawk eagle!  We excitedly called the owners of the resort: Tita Bing and her son Ken to take a look at one of the residents of their property.

Raptor perched on the tree!

The young raptor paid little attention to us - even if we created a fuss setting our scopes and cameras on it. It looked busy scanning the fields and mountainside for food.

Identification wavered from immature Philippine Hawk-Eagle to immature Rufous Bellied Eagle.  Looking at my photos now, it seems that the former ID is correct.

An immature Philippine Hawk-Eagle: a top predator is often sign of a healthy environment.

As we all admired it from the lawn, an adult Philippine Hawk Eagle was calling out loudly from the mountain across the highway.  Adri quickly spotted it and placed it in the scope.  Such a majestic bird!

Is this mom (or dad?) calling mournfully in the rain?

It was already approaching noon, but the weather was still cool, so we decided to go on to exploring the road to Adams.  The forest surrounded us as we drove up to higher elevations, and a thin fog clung to the trees. Coming to the end of the paved road, we decided to walk back down.

Not exactly dressed for birding, but the weather was not exactly best for birding either.

Not too many birds were around, a few Philippine Bulbuls called noisily in the rain. 

A bulbul singing in the rain.

Blue-throated Bee-eaters didn't mind the light rain and continued catching their food.

A bee-eater eating in the rain.

We caught sight of a pair of very quiet Luzon Hornbills by a stream near where some of the road construction workers were having a break. The workers regarded us curiously, probably initially mistaking us for hunters as they shooed away the hornbills.  As we approached them though, they saw that we carried optics and not guns, and they engaged us in conversation.  "Those small hornbills aren't often seen here," they said. "Usually it's the bigger kalaw that pass by."  Rufous Hornbills!  We knew that this place still had a good population of Rufous Hornbills, and even at the resort we would hear their loud calls in the morning.

The construction workers, all big, muscular men (as you might imagine road workers to be), had a charming way of entertaining themselves.  They had an assortment of toy trucks built from small broken twigs and various fruits form the forest!  

Big boys and their toys - simple joys!

We inspected their toys with great amusement and curiosity: there were four-wheelers, six-wheelers, a roller, one even had a little driver behind the wheel! All their toy trucks were made with such creativity and innovation.  Their simplicity and resourcefulness was truly admirable.

Our company had to disband that afternoon as Alex and co. left for Laoag that afternoon, where Adri and I would follow the next day.

On our third morning, a bit of sunshine peeked through the clouds for a few hours. As Adri and I scanned the mountainside we got a pleasant surprise.  A lone Luzon Hornbill was enjoying the warm sunshine.  And above him soared a family of Rufous Hornbills!  Three proud adults, their red casques standing out against the forest green, followed by an immature individual and 2 more adults.  What a sight to send us off!  We shall definitely be back: rain or shine.

Monday, January 19

ABC: AWC, Bani, Cormorant!

For the WBCP, January means the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) and it's time to apply wader and waterbird identification and simple math skills.

This year Adri and I joined the intrepid Bani team, off north to Pangasinan to do the count at the mangrove sanctuary of the Bangrin Marine Protected Area. It would be the third time in 4 years that we joined regulars Alex, Tere and Juan (plus driver Mang Boy of course!), this year joined by second-timer Jude and first-timer Homer.

Early on Saturday we started out, our ~ 230 km journey made faster by the taking the NLEX-SCTEX-TPLEX combination expressways.  We arrived in time for a super late lunch care of the LGU.  Everyone was busy preparing for the pakwan (watermelon) festival which was to be held in a couple of weeks, but an LGU rep, Imman, welcomed us, checked us in in our accomodations (right across the munisipyo!) and cleared up our schedule for the AWC the next day.  Since it was still early enough, we decided to spend the afternoon with a quick ocular of the count site, and so off we went to the port where we had our boatman waiting to take us to the sanctuary in a small flat boat.

The mangroves at Bangrin: home to thousands of egrets, ducks and other waterbirds.

The boats do not have an outrigger!

In the golden afternoon light, the scenery around us was magical. From the guardhouse/ watch tower we could see the fish pens where terns, egrets and herons were perched.  Alex even spotted a Rufous Night-heron, a species which is greatly outnumbered by the more common Black-crowned Night-heron.

Alex surveying the count site at dusk.

A Rufous Night-heron in the golden light.
As the sun set, scores of egrets flew into the mangroves from the mainland.  It was a great preview to the challenge of counting them at sunrise the next day, going in the opposite direction!

Egrets coming in to roost at sunset.

Joining the egrets heading to roost at the mangroves was a flock of 120 Crested Mynas! It was an unexpected sight seeing them flying low over the water and into the mangroves.

We headed back just as the darkness set in, fishermen now readying for their night catch, oil lanterns floating on the calm waters of the river.  A family of Little Grebes dove under water as our boat passed by, and popped out a few meters away.

A peaceful co-existence: fishermen and egrets.

A hearty dinner was prepared for us, and we all enjoyed the fresh bangus (milkfish) and chicken pork adobo.  We all went to bed early, only to be wakened (but not Adri and myself who slept like logs) at 3 am-ish by an earthquake which rocked western Luzon.  We did get up at 5 am for a quick breakfast and off we were, arriving at the still dark dock.  Stars sprinkled the velvet sky above us, and the horizon was clear, from the Southern cross to the Big dipper.

As light began to creep in and single egrets began to fly above us, we got on the boat to meet the egrets flying out.   On the river, left and right, egrets, terns and wild ducks flew and we were quickly counting them out as Tere and I took down notes.

Upon reaching the guardhouse, Alex, Tere, Juan and Jude got down, ready to count from the tower and boardwalk.  Homer, Adri and I took the boat down to the other side of the mangroves where the mudflats were more exposed, to count waders and the ducks.

Smaller tributaries through the mangroves.

As we moved through the mangroves, rails - mostly barred and a single buff-banded rail, sandpipers, common kingfishers,striated herons and little egrets were busy foraging and hunting at the edges.  A small flock of Pacific Golden Plovers stood quietly at the water's edge. As we rounded the mangroves opposite the guardhouse, our boat landed softly on the mud beneath the shallow waters.  The expanse of mudflats was busy with Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and Marsh sandpipers.

The extensive mudflats at low tide.

A few Whimbrels and Grey Plovers were also foraging some distance from the boat.  They were soon joined by Kentish Plovers and Sand Plovers as the tides ebbed.

Grey Plovers and Redshanks
Beside our boat, an eel was getting stranded on the mud, providing us with measure of how fast the waters were receding.

Peter Gabriel would sing: Stranded [eels] have no place to hide.

Near us, a common sandpiper was quite successful in finding its prey by poking its beak in the soft mud.

A common sandpiper busy catching it breakfast.

More difficult to count were the hundreds and hundreds of ducks at the edge of the mangroves.  Most were floating on the water, either busy preening or asleep, but some were standing on the mud, half hidden in the tangle of mangrove roots.  The unstable boat made counting a challenge, especially through the scope.  We finally moved the scope so that 2 legs of the tripod were on the slightly more stable mud (sinking almost a foot deep) with the third leg balanced on the boat.  Using this technique we spotted a few Northern Pintail and Northern Shovellers mixed in with over a thousand Philippine Duck.

Can you spot the ducks?

As we were counting, we received an excited call from Alex and co.  They had spotted a Great Cormorant!  This was a very rare migrant, and a would be lifer for the three of us on the boat!  We could see Alex, Tere and Juan in the distance, on top of the watchtower, looking out in the direction of the fishpens.  All we could do is hope that the cormorant stayed on until we could finish the count from our side.

We continued our count, taking note of a lone Black-winged stilt and several Grey herons. Unfortunately, we had recieved news that the cormorant had flown into the mangrove area and was out of sight.

Always graceful with their long legged legs: Grey Herons

As we were finishing up, 8 Bar-tailed Godwit flew in, a great inclusion to the count.  A quick check showed that we had covered our area extensively, and it was time to head back.

As we were entering the main tributary, we again received an excited call from Alex.  The cormorant was perched on a large driftwood in the middle of the river!  We could attempt to approach it on the boat!  A quick scan quickly revealed the distinctive bird in the distance, just as Alex had described.  Our boatman quickly spotted it also.  He recognized it immediately, saying that it was "bagong dayo" (a newcomer) and that just that Monday, there were three of them!  Unfortunately, the two disappeared during the week leaving the one. He confidently said that we could approach it quite closely on the boat and that it would not fly off.

Do you see the cormorant on the driftwood?

And so we did just that.

Closer.  Peering through our bins.

How about now?
Even closer... Homer on his bins, myself peering through my camera's view finder and Adri on the scope!

The unmistakable Great Cormorant.

And even closer, so we could see all the details, even some of the feathers stuck on its beak from its preening!  The bright yellow face, white cheeks and even its webbed feet were clear even on the slightly bobbing boat (out boatman had cut the engine by now and we were drifting)!  Super cool lifer for my 2015 AWC!

Lifer!  Great Cormorant: first record for Bangrin.

Ooops,  we soon drifted too close, it took off towards the fishpens.  We returned to the watch tower triumphant!  We rejoined with the rest of the group and went over our numbers. Having concluded the count, we now took our time enjoying views of the cormorant through the scope.  It seems the driftwood was its favorite perch as it returned there quite regularly.

Nearby, a pair of whiskered terns were making a ruckus, with one calling loudly from the ground while the other flew around it.  was it an immature begging for food?

This Whiskered Tern was noisily crying out to another.

Another highlight of Bani are the Ospreys, and although there were fewer of them this year, we still counted 11.

The sun was quite high in the sky already and we decided to head back.  Behind us, the Philippine Ducks suddenly took to the air, an impressive flurry of birds flying around the mangroves.

A safe haven for thousands of wild ducks.
We took a quick look at the fishponds at the dock area, but since their water levels were quite high, we only spotted a few Wood sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers, Stints and Black-winged Stilts.

A trio of Little Ringed Plovers in varying plumage.

Black-winged Stilts in leg-deep waters.

Over lunch we consolidated our lists and came up with an impressive total of 16,604 birds composed of 29 waterbird species! Highest counts were 9,400 egrets, 3,879 Philippine ducks, 1,229 Whiskered Terns, 658 Redshanks and  515 Greenshanks. Another super count for Bangrin!

After lunch, we went our separate ways, with Juan, Jude and Homer heading back to Manila.  Alex, Tere, Mang Boy, Adri and I decided to check out the nearby Masidem Small Reservoir irrigation Project (SRIP) before driving back home.  It was white hot up at the dam, and the heat was almost unbearable under the sun.  Our side trip was not in vain though as we spotted several ducks.  Most of the ducks were Northern Shovellers (~73)  and Philippine Ducks (~45).  But there were also several Eurasian Wigeons, 22 of them, the most I had ever seen together! Adri also spotted a lone Common Pochard, its distinctive head shape and mostly white body distinguishing it from the wigeons.

Alex, Adri and Tere counting ducks in the heat of the sun.

All in all, it was a great trip.  Bani has continued to surprise me with lifers (Silky Starlings in 2012, Black-tailed Godwits and Gadwall in 2013 and this year a Great Cormorant!).  I hope I can be back again next year!