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!


  1. SO COOL! Congrats on the Cormorant! Being an unexpected lifer makes seeing it even better! =)

  2. Wow! And you even got close to your latest lifer! Congrats! :)

    1. It was like using the car for a hide... Works with boats also! Thanks Bob!