Saturday, September 30

South Cot and Gen San birding

Adri and I still had the full weekend ahead of us after Friday's Tacurong Bird Festival and our day birding at the Baras Bird Sanctuary.  SOX is a great place for some quick target birding, and Felix already had it all planned out for us.

On Saturday morning, we got up early to go birding at Mt. Matutum in South Cotabato.  It was a long drive across dirt roads criss crossing hectares of pineapple farms and avocado orchards just to get to the foot of the mountain.  I certainly can't imagine walking all that way!

We picked up our guides along the way and the view of Mt. Matutum was quite ominous.  It was a grey morning and the mountain was shrouded in cloud! Not looking very good!

Not the best of weather to go up a mountain and bird!

We left the vehicle at a school house at the edge of the residences, and walked through vegetable farms so commonly seen at the edges of protected areas.  We soon heard the familiar twittering of white eyes.  After a brief discussion on their identity (Everett's or Mountain?) and good looks at their underparts, we decided they were Everett's White eyes.

A pair of Everett's White-eyes

We did spot Mountain White eyes later.

We flushed several White-eared Brown Doves (Short-billed Brown Dove) along the path. Small mixed flocks were flying around the still wet leaves, we saw Brown Tit Babblers,  Little Pied, Turquoise and Citrine Canary Flycatchers.  

In the distance, flocks of Short-tailed Glossy Starling flew across the valley. Closer to us, a pair of Scarlet Minivets were moving around.

One of a pair of Scarlet Minivets - a bird I've only ever seen on Mindanao
It was only a short walk to a few stands of exotic African Tulip Trees where we waited for our main target.  We settled down and had a quick breakfast on our feet (ground was wet!) while waiting.

Signage to remind visitors of the Protected Landscape.

Flowerpeckers zipped back and forth above us: Olive-capped, Bicolored, Red-keeled, Buzzing and Orange-bellied.  White-eyes also joined in an occasional frenzy. 

We watched the bright orange African tulip blooms carefully.  Colasisis came and go nibbling at the blooms.  I distracted myself with looking at the red flowers of thick boughs of mistletoe growing on the tops of trees.  A fallen branch gave me a close up view of the bright red flower clumps.

Mistletoe in bloom high up in the trees and a closer view
from a broken branch I found on the ground.

Orchids also adorned the moist tree branches which were also covered with thick lichen and moss.

Orchids up in the trees.

I was looking at a distance at a Colasisi on the orange flowers when it jumped out of my view to be replaced with... Apo Sunbird! This tiny bird was our target!  It's not yet split as a separate species, but many birders are looking forward to when it will be recognized as T'boli Sunbird.

It was a brief view.  Both Adri and I would see it a few more times, but unfortunately for us, no photo.

Felix was exploring further up the trail and came back to say that we might want to try another Matutum specialty: Mindanao Miniature Tit Babbler.  A heavy mist was coming in and precipitation was starting to form, but hey why not?  He led us to a huge (gigantic!) tree where the birds were usually seen.

The misty forest and the huge tree where we were supposed to spot the
Miniature Tit Babblers - maybe next time!

Erm. The weather was too much and soon dampened our optimism.  It was just too misty and dark!  Soon we made our way back, still happy with our Apo Sunbird (T'boli soon!) despite the disappointment of the miniature tit babbler dip.

Rain fell for the rest of the day, making us call off any birding plans... so we comforted ourselves with: food of course!  A popular halo halo snack store on the highway provided a sugar high and dinner in GenSan wouldn't be complete without a seafood dinner cooked fresh from the day's catch.

Yummy food!
The next morning we drove past Mt. Matutum towards Lake Sebu and it famous waterfalls.  It was a pleasant drive and we passed the town of Surallah with a cheerful rotunda.  The rotunda depicts the T'boli, the Muslims and the Christians in a musical parade around various agricultural produce.

Tukiba Surallah: Discover Surallah (Hiligaynon)

We proceeded to one of Lake Sebu's waterfalls - a regular birding site for Felix. From the main road, we took a small path that led downhill to a view of the waterfall. Our first bird was a quiet Philippine Cuckoo Dove, with its tail feathers quite worn. We saw quite a number of them that morning.

Philippine Cuckoo Doves

There were also several White-eared (Short-billed) Brown Doves. We got both distant and close-up views.  

White-eared (Short-billed) Brown Doves

The Philippine Bulbuls were making their usual racket while chasing each other through the canopy.  But they were definitely outnumbered by the Yellow-vented Bulbuls that seemed to be perched everywhere!

Yellow-vented Bulbuls busy preening

We passed a flowering papaya, where a Rufous-fronted Tailorbird was hopping around. And of course I got the most comical photo of it:

Photo fail!  Rufous-fronted Tailorbird with the rufous front hidden!

A pair of Purple-throated Sunbirds also showed up.  They were the subspecies juliae, quite distinct in their coloration from the other Purple-throated sunbirds elswhere in the Philippines.  Of course while the drab female posed gamely, the more colorful male did not seem to want to!

A pair of Purple-throated Sunbirds, with the male not wanting to show his purple throat! Another photo fail!

We had several other views and heard other birds: Guaiaberos, Common Emerald Dove, Plaintive Cuckoo, Blue-throated Bee-eaters, Collared and White-throated Kingfishers, Large-billed Crows, Black-naped Monarchs, Coletos, and Yellow-bellied Whistlers.  We spotted migrants too: a Grey-streaked Flycatcher and a noisy Brown Shrike.

A few creepy crawlies were also out on display!

I caught these two bugs in the middle of some action!

When we got down to the falls, it was an impressive sight.  The heavy rains must have amplified the cataract's flow, white gushing water poured out into the brown river below.  

The waterfalls of Lake Sebu are a big tourist attraction!

It was turning out to be a sunny morning, and the hot air and wet ground was attracting a few butterflies to a marigold plot.

Butterflies on a sunny Sunday morning!

Damselflies and dragonflies too!

While I was passing time taking photos of butterflies and dragonflies, a young boy out with his family on a swimming picnic approached me and began to ask several questions.  Despite the language barrier, I tried my best to explain what I was looking at and doing, showing him photos from my camera and the field guide.  He got very excited, even pulling his un-interested younger sister to show her the photos.

Later, as Adri, Felix, Roland and I settled at a nearby picnic hut, the little boy left his picnicking family to join us, He excitedly pointed out the birds flying around and checked them out through our binoculars, scope and book.  He was very keen, insisting he was seeing a yellow bird on some hagimit fruit hanging quite a distance across from us.  He patiently leafed through the book and was contemplating the Elegant Tit.  Every now and then he would glance at the hagimit and point "there it goes again!".

Eventually we all saw what he was pointing at.  A tiny Orange-bellied Flowerpecker!

Our young companions sharp eyes kept on seeing this Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. 
It took us oldies quite a while before we spotted it on its nth visit to the fruiting hagimit.

Many other birds were interested in the hagimit including brown doves, Coletos, a Wattled Bulbul and Hair-crested Drongos. 

A handsome Wattled Bulbul

Noisy Hair-crested Drongos

We also saw a pair of Black-faced Coucals and a pair of Philippine Coucals skulking around the vegetation.

Black-faced Coucal

Philippine Coucal

A quiet Mindanao Hornbill played hide-and-seek with us up a nearby tree.

A hiding Mindanao Hornbill

We heard the sharp call of a Silvery Kingfisher as it made its way up and down a nearby stream. Each bird we saw and heard brought a new excitement to our young companion!  His enthusiasm was infectious.

Our enthusiastic birder for the morning!

Soon it was time for us to go, as we had an afternoon flight back to Manila to catch. We stopped by a restaurant with a view of Lake Sebu on a sunny Sunday for lunch.  On the lakeside we saw Yellow Bitterns, Javan Pond Herons, Little Egrets and White-browed Crakes walking along the fish pens.  Barn Swallows and Glossy Swiftlets were gliding across us, and in the gardens below Chestnut Munias were busy building nests.  The SOX birding weekend had turned out to be more eventful than I had expected!

Sunny views of Lake Sebu

But that isn't the end of our SOX adventure.  Felix had one more ace up his sleeve for us. On our way to the airport after picking up our things at the hotel, Felix asked if we wanted to check to see if the Spotted Kestrel was around.  This is a new addition to the Philippine Bird List, in fact, a pair had been spotted and documented last year nesting - so it was definitely a resident.  We made a quick detour to the rocky face of a hill on the outskirts of Gen San.  The bird had not been spotted recent to our visit but it was close enough to warrant a check.

As we got down from the car, we surveyed the holes which dotted the bare rock face.  And there it was!  Sitting very still in one of the shallow caverns was a Spotted Kestrel! 

Adri and Felix scanning the rock face.

Can you spot it?

A Spotted Kestrel: one of the latest Philippine records!

It was later identified through our photos as a young, subadult individual.  Was it one of the offspring from the last breeding season?  We did a little dance of joy by the side of the road.  A last minute lifer from our weekend SOX adventure.

Saturday, September 2

The cageless wonders of the Baras Bird Sanctuary

It was my first time ever to anywhere in Region XII, that Mindanao region with a tongue twister for a name: SOCCSKSARGEN (for South Cotabato, Cotabato City, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Saranggani and General Santos City). Glad to have the 3rd Tacurong Bird Festival fall on days with no classes, I was excited to join Adri on his trip. I was also excited to touch base with Felix, who had been based in Gen San for the past several months.

As soon as we touched down in Gen San early Friday morning, we were immediately whisked off by Felix's right-hand man Ronald to the opening ceremonies for the bird festival - a conservation forum held at the City of Tacurong in neighboring Sultan Kudarat, a couple of hours away.  I wrote about the conservation forum for the WBCP monthly newsletter here.

After a productive morning at the forum, we proceeded to the Baras Bird Sanctuary. Formerly a peppercorn farm owned privately by the family of Rey Oliver Malana, the sanctuary came to be when a few egrets began regularly roosting in the area.  The roosting population grew larger and larger, and eventually the farm became a regular breeding site for thousands of egrets and herons. It was then converted to a sanctuary for the birds who found it a welcome and safe home.  The sanctuary became a top tourist destination for Sultan Kudarat and the Tacurong Bird Festival was started in 2015.

When we got to the sanctuary, a large banner for the bird festival welcomed us.  Booths and buntings and a trade fair in full swing greeted us.  Music was playing (of course, what's a Philippine fiesta without the loud music?!?) and different activities were ongoing.  

We started with a brief stop at the information center, where there was a map of the property and also a photographic list of birds which could be found in the sanctuary. Adri exchanged pleasantries with the owner and the guides he had met on a previous training workshop. Everyone was in a good mood.

I was excited to get started on the path and look at the birds, already I could see (and smell!) the fringes of the roosting and nesting area.  Felix and I had to wait a while as Adri was ambush-interviewed for the local news.

Wide-brimmed kudong (native woven hats after which Tacurong City was named) were piled at the start of the path, an invitation to everyone to please wear the head gear or risk (high risk!) getting splattered with bird droppings in your hair and shoulders! 

There was also very informative signage about how not to disturb or touch the birds and about the regular health surveillance at the sanctuary.

The herons and egrets seemed to be everywhere!  Flying above, walking around in the trees and on the ground, sitting on nests, feeding, being fed, preening - it was an overwhelming display of roosting and nesting behaviour.

There were several Black-crowned night herons, looking handsome in their breeding plumage, with scarlet red eyes.  

There were several immature herons walking around too.

Little Egrets were also plentiful, again with billowy breeding plumes running down their necks and backs.

The most in number were Cattle Egrets, with their distinct orange heads and breasts, a contrast to the all-white non-breeding plumage they take on the rest of the year.

Felix even spotted an Intermediate Egret at the nest with a very young nestling.  It was the first photographic evidence for breeding of this species in the Philippines!

Sadly, the 2 species I was looking most forward to seeing: breeding Great Egrets and the Glossy Ibis, were no where to be seen. (I guess this warrants a return trip!)

But there was a lot to see and observe, so the entire walk through the sanctuary was engrossing to a birder like me.

The density of the nests was amazing.  it seemed that every available branch was occupied by a careful pile of sticks and twigs (looking very flimsy to me). Look left, right and up... nests were everywhere.

The ground was littered with broken eggshell, and I'm sure I spotted a few intact eggs as well, probably jostled out of the nest accidentally, or even on purpose.

I even saw this dead frog.  Probably food brought back to the nest but dropped in the feeding frenzy.

Competition here must be fierce.  The frantic scrambling at the nest inevitably leads to some young birds falling out.  Several times we saw young birds walking on the ground, like this young cattle egret.

They can come quite close to the human visitors, here's Mindanao-based WBCP-er Forest taking a photo of the young bird that fell right on the path.

There is actually a wire fence around the main roosting and nesting area (you can see Felix in the photo above right beside it).  The fence is to keep humans out rather than the birds in.  The sanctuary is also bordered by a river, and unfortunately, some people still come in at night to poach eggs.

The young Little Egret wandered around, blocked by the fence, it turned the opposite way towards the bank of the river lined with bamboo.

The chances it would survive would probably be very low.  Though the signs of new life on nests were everywhere, a careful look around also showed a few young victims of the balance between life and death.

WBCP-er and wildlife biologist Lala E. had a student with her who was studying the stomach contents of these unfortunate casualties, to determine prey and prey density.  I imagine the biomass required to support these thousands of young birds must be astounding!

Benches were placed every few meters on the trail (sit at your own risk!), and I often stopped to enjoy the view of a contemplative young bird bathed in sunlight...

... or the almost comical actions of adults as they groomed, scratching left and right...

... and the frenzied madness of feeding when a parent arrives at a nest with food!

 Of course there were other smaller birds at the sanctuary.  We spotted the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Yellow-vented Bulbuls had Philippine Pied Fantails, Asian Glossy Starlings, Zebra Doves and Collared Kingfishers.  A Philippine Magpie Robin sang melodiously, partially hidden in the bamboo.

Brahminy Kites flew overhead and in the surrounding rice paddies we also spotted Javan Pond Herons and Rufous night herons.

There were several visitors to the sanctuary that day, probably because of the festival. Emelie Jamorabon, municipal tourism officer, mentioned that the sanctuary was one of the top local destinations for tourists.  I hope that the opportunity and the potential of the sanctuary for connecting the general public with nature and for education is maximised. At least, I'd like to think that these "common" birds, placed in great density and an intimate setting, at an interesting  point of their life cycle, can be engaging even to the generally nature-averse person.

The organizers set up a tall crane at the edge of the roosting and nesting site for a (literal) birds' eye view. With the sun set as a back drop to the flocks coming in to roost, the view was worth the "oohs" and "aaahs".

My favorite birds for that afternoon were the Cattle Egrets.  A familiar bird on any pastoral landscape - perched on carabaos and following farmers in the rice fields; at the sanctuary they seemed to take on an almost regal bearing in their breeding ensemble .

Snow-white plumage highlighted in orange,  piercing eyes, beaks and facial skin now almost magenta, feathery plumes running down their bodies.  Sometimes, you just have to take a second glance at a fortuitous time and see that the common can be uncommonly beautiful.

The 3rd Tacurong Bird Festival was held last May 12-13, 2017.  Learn more about the Baras Bird Sanctuary by visiting their facebook page.  Thanks to the organizers of the festival and the owners and staff of the Baras Bird Sanctuary!