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.


  1. That cormorant was really following you around! =) I loved the photo of the Gadwall with its beak open =P Have to plan a trip to Laoag SOON! =)

    1. Haha. Yes, it was our season for cormorants. :-) Sama ako sa Laoag!