Monday, December 26

Back to Balanga!

It was the 7th Ibong Dayo Festival and we were off to Balanga City!

Adri and I were fortunate enough to have had our schedules free to join Balanga in celebrating the return of migratory birds to the city's wetlands.  The festival was established a year after the 4th Philippine Bird Festival (2009) hosted by the City of Balanga, and last year, it coincided with the 10th Philippine Bird Festival which returned to Balanga, this time hosted by the entire province of Bataan. This year, the festival won for the 3rd consecutive year an award from the Department of Tourism in recognition of its exceptional efforts as "Best Tourism Event" in the city category, allowing it to rise to the Hall of Fame for awardees.

We volunteered to man the scopes to show students and visitors the birds at the Balanga City Wetland and Nature Park on the shores of Manila Bay. We skipped the parade from the town plaza and headed straight for the park. There we found other WBCP volunteers Patty A., Richard R. and Brian E. already set up at the viewing decks.  

The mood at the park was quite festive already, as the early birds (haha) waited for the parade to arrive.

The tide was high and the birds quite a distance away, but it did not stop the enthusiastic festival goers (many of them students) from dropping by the viewing decks to peer through the scopes and our binoculars!

Great Egrets stood in the far shallows, a bright white under the sun.  

Black-headed Gulls, Whiskered Terns and Greater Crested Terns perched on the fish pen poles in the distance.

A pair of Collared Kingfishers were a source of great delight, perching on fence netting right next to a larger than life photo-tarpaulin which identified them.

Later the tide began to recede, exposing an expanse of mudflats.  The waders came in, flying in large flocks: sandpipers, stints, plovers and more!

Many of the birds were oblivious to the fishermen going about their daily business.

The first time birders were amazed to see clearly some Common Redshanks and Greenshanks feeding on the next beach through the scope.

Unfortunately, some of the mangrove wildlife was not so appreciated, and we saw a poor snake being taken away by some of the maintenance people.

A few Kentish Plovers and Common Sandpipers were foraging just in front of the viewing decks, until they were flushed by some kids enjoying stomping through the wet and sticky mud.  

Everyone in the view decks was amused by a little girl who was up to her knees in the mud. One of her playmates, quickly "rescued" her, only to get stuck as well!

Mid-morning and the festival was in full swing, complete with festival dancers and a busy trade fair.

Some kids arrived with a piece of paper they were supposed to fill up with the birds they saw.  To say they were competitive would be putting it mildly!

An Osprey was spotted, perched some distance away.  It was perched for so long, first eating a fish and later preening, that many of the students were able to see it through the scope and compare it to the illustration in the field guide.  Alex L was also a curiosity, taking photos with his huge lens!

The time passed quickly and soon it was lunch time!  Where did the morning go?!?

It was time to pack up and go.  We met up with the other volunteers and bid goodbye to the wetland park. We were fed (as usual!) a sumptuous meal by our hosts from the local government, and even given delicious ice cream to take home!

How can I not love the City of Balanga? A vibrant city, wonderful people, delicious food and a great wetland park: I keep coming back again and again! I'll be back to catch the spring migration next year!

Wednesday, December 21

The Tanay Honey Buzzards

On the same trip to the Tanay Epic Park Rainforest Camp where we were treated to a bird buffet in the form of a fruiting Tuai tree, we also had several fantastic views of a Crested Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus, formerly Oriental Honey Buzzard), both perched and flying. 

A Crested Honey Buzzard flying just above the tree line at Tanay Epic Park,
December 2016

While birding around the property, we would encounter the Honey Buzzard flying over head or at eye level in front of the forested hillside.  We even had a long look at it when it perched on a palm tree quite near us. It was quite thrilling to have a large raptor perched in full view. 

Balancing on a palm tree frond swaying in the wind! December 2016

The wind was blowing the palm tree fronds back and forth but the raptor balanced with no effort, its pale yellow eye glinting under the noon sun. 

Look at that long neck and pale yellow eye, December 2016

Alex was able to take great video documentation with his phone through the scope.

In my opinion, the Tanay area, situated at the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range, is one of the best places to see this raptor. During our raptorwatch migration surveys, we would often see one or a couple flying around the Pag-Asa Synoptic station which is our base.

A Crested Honey Buzzard soaring at eye level at the Pag-Asa synoptic station.
 February 2013

They are much larger than the migrating  Grey-faced Buzzards or Chinese Sparrowhawks.

Soaring beside the much smaller migrant Grey-faced Buzzards, February 2013

Once, we were even treated to the sight of (not one but) a pair of Crested Honey Buzzards coming in over the ridge to land on a tree just across the field from the station!

A pair of Crested Honey Buzzards perched near the raptorwatch site, September 2014

Both EPIC park and the synoptic station are located in Barangay Sampaloc.

Often described as having a long, pigeon-like neck and long tail, the Crested Honey Buzzard looks a little awkward (at least to me).  When flying, its small head is often held down from the body making it easily identifiable from the Philippine Hawk Eagle which has very similar plumage and often occupies the same habitat. 

The characteristic small head and long neck in flight, taken in Mindanao, March 2015

This small head and long neck is advantageous in obtaining its main source of food: bee larvae and honey comb wax and honey!

Favorite food (from which they got their name)!  Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata) hive.
This one was taken at the Ateneo Campus, unfortunately no Honey Buzzards there!

It tears apart the beehive suspended on branches or in tree hollows with its claws and sticks its neck in the broken honey comb to get to its food.  Surely a high protein (larvae), high lipid (bees wax)  and high sugar (honey) diet!

Forests, bees, and birds of prey: it's truly amazing how all life is connected. 

Here's another short video clip of the Crested Honey Buzzard from Alex as it takes of from its perch to soar high above us.

Hooray for the Tanay Honey Buzzards!

Thursday, December 15

Tuai bulbul buffet

A few Saturdays ago, Adri and I joined Alex and Tere birding at the Tanay Epic Park Rainforest Camp.  I had birded here a few times before but it has been a couple of years since my last visit. It was a relaxing trip (I even got a lifer - Blue and White/Zappey's Flycatcher, just within a few minutes of our arrival!) which allowed me to escape the end-of-sem work I had in school.

One of the highlights was the huge, fruit laden tree right in front of our cottage.  It was a frenzy of Philippine and Yellow-vented Bulbuls gorging noisily on round fruit dripping in large bunches from the branches. 

Even early in the moring, before the sun came up, a few bulbuls were already around as if to lay their claim. But the tree was so heavily burdened with fruit I am quite sure that the territoriality was unnecessary!

As we watched, amused by the birds seemingly endless appetite, we wondered what the tree was.  A small sign at its base identified it as Tuai, and a quick text message to Anthony A. confirmed that it was a native tree, Bischofia javanica.

Aside from the bulbuls, other birds were quick to pass through: a beautiful pair of skulking Scale-feathered Malkohas, a few flowerpeckers, Naked-faced Spiderhunters and Elegant Tits. A White-throated Kingfisher and a Brown Shrike would also fly in from their lookout perches nearby.

But it was really the Philippine Bulbuls that kept at it, hanging at the base of the mass of fruit and picking patiently at the drupe to get to the white flesh.

Also spotted at this magical tree were several cuckoos!  A pair of Philippine Drongo Cuckoos flitted about the large canopy.

A Rusty-breasted Cuckoo kept on quietly moving from the tuai to a tree behind our cottage and back.

Our excitement peaked every time a female Violet Cuckoo arrived, teasing us with a fleeting view or perching just behind the cover of leaves at the tree's apex!

But the cuckoos were there for another reason.  The tree seemed to be crawling with tiny hairy caterpillars! We could hardly see them even with our binoculars, but the cuckoos were obviously eating their fill of the hairy larvae!

Watching them and realizing that they were just picking off the caterpillars as they crawled past their feet was enough to make us feel itchy! 

See how many caterpillars this drongo cuckoo picked off the branch (while ignoring a couple right beside it) in the span of a few minutes - thanks to Adri for the video!

The tuai, another native tree to consider planting!

Tanay EPIC Park Rainforest Camp is located at Sitio Bayucan, Tanay, Rizal.  Visit their website at or their facebook page at

Tuesday, December 6

We meet again

I've missed you Ashy Thrush!
It's been a long time. It was great to see you again.  Good of you to stop and say hi.

Don't be a stranger!

On the other hand, you, Yellow-vented Bulbul,  I hardly miss.  I see you everyday.

And you, Common Kingfisher,  you're only here half the year, so I don't mind seeing you often when you are here.

Wednesday, November 30

Squirrels in the City

A couple of Saturdays ago, I met up briefly with Adri and his group of Japanese birders at nearby La Mesa Eco Park (LMEP). One of the first creatures we spotted, right there at the parking lot, was a squirrel! It was high up in the narra trees, busy gnawing at something on the branches.

There are no squirrels native to Luzon island, but sightings have been more and more frequent in the past few years, especially in Metro Manila.

A Finlayson's squirrel (Callosciurus finalysonii) in La Mesa Eco Park

Finlayson's squirrels (Callosciurus finalysonii) are originally from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and are thought to have been introduced locally through the pet trade.

I first saw them as a new birdwatcher at the American War Cemetery in Taguig.  It was a common experience then to be distracted from birding by the sight of a furry creature with a long bushy tail scampering across the manicured lawns and rows of white crosses at the cemetery.  Since then, I've seen them at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife in Quezon City and at Avilon Zoo (outside the cages!) in Rodriguez.  My brother, who lives in Alabang, has often complained about them raiding bird's nests and chewing on electric and communications cables in their neighborhood.  Fellow birders have spotted them at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the residential areas of Dasmariñas and Forbes Park in Makati, and more recently at the Baclaran Church compound!

Having been born and raised in Metro Manila by parents who are also from Luzon, I was only familiar with squirrels from story books when I was very young (yes, Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin!) and picture books which showed mostly North American fauna. I was thrilled to learn (quite late I admit) that there were squirrels native to the Philippines.  I always love seeing the red, noisy tree squirrels on Palawan the locals call bising (and AT LEAST once I saw a squirrel in Mindanao).  

A Palawan Tree Squirrel (Sundasciurus juvencusin Puerto Princesa

A  Mindanao Squirrel (Sundasciurus mindanensisfrom Mt. Talomo in Davao. 
Photo c/o Adri

I find squirrels quite cute (note, they ARE rodents like the more often detested mice and rats, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds them cute). They scamper about the trees, moving up and down almost non stop, waving their bushy tails in the air. The Finlayson's is definitely no less cute in my book.

The problem is that the Finlayson's is not a native and it seems to be spreading quite quickly. It's already known to cause damage to man-made structures, especially electric wires, and is really becoming a pest. How else will it affect the environments (and the native species that live there) it is rapidly invading?  

The Finlayson's squirrel is already an entry in a wonderfully informative book which came out this year "The Mammals of Luzon Island: Biogeography and Natural History of a Philippine Fauna" by Heaney, Balete and Rickart.  It looks like this mammalian "foreigner" is here to stay in Luzon, much like the more familiar Long-tailed Macaques and Civet Cats which are also thought to have been introduced to Luzon long, long ago, and which have now been "naturalized". Here to stay, for better or (more likely) for worse.

So keep an eye out for these little mammals in your backyard Metro Manilans! Who would've thought, squirrels in the city.

Saturday, November 19

Brunch with the BBS

Last week, Alex and Tere were over at the house for brunch (Adri was out of town for work) and while we were at the dining table, I noticed that our little backyard butcher had brought down something long and squirmy.

Thinking it was either a huge earthworm or a tiny snake, I pointed her out to Alex and Tere. We could clearly see her struggling with her prey through the glass windows.

I quickly ran to my room to get my optics to confirm: sure enough it was a small snake, Calamaria gervaisii (Gervais' worm snake,  This prey was not new to the bbs (backyard brown shrike) menu, as I had seen it already before, but it was only recently, that I confirmed its identity, care of herping enthusiast friend Emerson.

BBS expertly impaled the snake on a large thorn of a potted kafir lime, and with a sharp poke of her beak, broke through the skin and slowly pulled out a long, white and bloody gut. (Glad our brunch wasn't spaghetti!)

We slowly moved out to the terrace to get a better look.  BBS momentarily stopped her exertions to take a wary look at us, and then, deciding that her food was of higher concern, continued to with her eating.

The three of us watched, mesmerized by the shrike's struggle with the longish creature. On every other pull, we would see its eyes cloud over as its translucent third eyelid covered its eyes.

After a few minutes, she flew off, leaving her fresh meal behind and giving us a chance for a closer inspection.

Yumyum. Warm and bloody.

Of course as soon as we stepped back, she returned to see if we had harmed her precious chow.  Taking another suspicious look at us (and obviously deciding we were up to no good)  she picked up her snake and flew it to the climbing rose at the back of the garden.

This was her favorite larder. Though its thorns were small, they were no less sharp. More importantly, they served their purpose well. Adri and I had documented a tiny gecko and a large furry yellow moth securely caught on the thorns during that same week.

We watched again, as she expertly laid out the snake by its long side, its skin shredded as it caught on the rose thorns.  Pretty soon it had clearly skinned the little snake, and could now easily tear it up into bite-sized pieces.

Wonderful backyard natural history in action.

We left it to enjoy its meal and went back to ours. Bon appetit!