Thursday, September 30, 2010

Da WOW Experience, Part 4

Day 5 - Where the birds are...

..the birdnuts will be there. Cynthia and I together with some fellow members of the Philippine Wild Bird Photographers group, otherwise known as "birdnuts" had an agreement yesterday that we will be up early today, Sept. 25th. The reason? To do what birdnuts love to do, go birding! Our destination: the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) with the hope of seeing and getting photos of the Silvery Kingfisher.

It was just a little after 6 am when we got there and thanks to a prior arrangement with PEC Executive Director Dennis Salvador, we were allowed inside the premises at such an early time. All seven of us (Tina and husband, Wency; Tonji and Sylvia, Cynthia and I, and Neon) stood by the pond and waited for our target bird to show itself. Other than a few Pacific Swallows, the kingfisher never appeared.

So we fanned out into the other parts of the center, leaving my wife behind who decided to sit it out by the pond to wait for the kingfisher and because she was having some slight back pains. I joined Tonji and Sylvia who were postioned beneath a fruiting tree. There species after species came to feed. First were the Coletos which were then followed by the Philippine Bulbuls and even some White-bellied Munias. It was then that Neon joined us and immediately announced that there was a Yellow-wattled Bulbul in that tree also. I looked hard, and indeed there it was albeit partly covered by the branches. I still counted it as a lifer, nonetheless. When bird activity in that tree abated somewhat we moved on to where Tina and Wency were admiring the beauty and majesty of the Philippine Eagle.

Philippine Bulbul
White-bellied Munia
Yellow-wattled Bulbul

Then a White-throated Kingfisher flew into a clump of bamboo which of course attracted our attention. Thanks to Neon for giving me excellent tips on photographing birds in the shade and even taking me to a good vantage point, I got some pretty good shots. Shots which I would normally have botched given the lighting circumstances.

Cynthia, meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, had been quite lucky by just sitting near the pond. She was able to get a picture of a Philippine Serpent Eagle that flew by and of a Yellow Wagtail that stopped by above her as if to say hello. When she said that she thought she saw a kingfisher-like bird stop by the pond, Neon and I rushed to the site. Like a phantom the Silvery Kingfisher remained unseen. On the way back, we were consoled by seeing a Little Spiderhunter which was another lifer for me. Later I would find it again feeding on top of a red flower.

Philippine Serpent Eagle
Yellow Wagtail
Little Spiderhunter
Neon went on to join Tina (Wency decided to sit this one out also), and I was about to join Tonji and Sylvia when I saw them shooting away at something. Following their line of vision and right in front of me, some 30 feet away was a White-eared Brown Dove nonchalantly eating some berries at almost eye level. I just picked up my eighth (and final) lifer of the trip!

After the dove had its fill and flew off, we also joined Tina who was very excited about some bird that was frolicking among the red flowers. It was a sunbird she said, but it had red coloring on both sides, something she hadn't seen before. As the tiny bird popped out from the flowers, a burst of shutter clicks filled the air. Later when we were able to look at our photos more closely, we all came to the conclusion that it was an immature Purple-throated Sunbird still in molting stage.

Pretty soon it was lunch time. Despite having quite a productive birding day, we were still disappointed that we did not see the hoped-for Silvery Kingfisher. (Tina and Wency finally saw it the following day when they returned with the bird fair group).

We stopped by Dencio's Hilltop restaurant for lunch. While waiting for our food to be served, we had fun trying to take pictures of the White-breasted Wood Swallows nearby.

Back at the hotel, the bird fair was coming to a close. Booths were being disassembled and the people manning them were heaving sighs of relief for it had been quite humid on both days and visitors which included hundreds of school children had been quite plentiful.

That evening we attended the turnover ceremonies where yet another buffet dinner was served. The delegation from Taipei, where the 2nd Asian Bird Fair will be held next year, hosted the event.

Day 6 - Time to say goodbye

I stood at our veranda the morning of Sunday, Sept. 26th. I can see that some of the participants in the bird fair were already getting ready to board the bus that would take them to the Philippine Eagle Center and then to Eden Nature Park for some birding activities. Then I saw James Biron, a Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member, aiming his long-lensed camera at the palm tree close to the room where Cynthia and I are staying. My curiousity was satisfied when I saw a Collared Kingfisher fly and then land not that far from where I was standing (which was on the second floor). I quickly grabbed my camera and took advantage of this welcome opportunity.

After breakfast and since we still have time to kill before Chito would pick us up, my wife and I agreed to try to get some photos of the Chestnut Munia that we keep seeing on the fair grounds. Sure enough there they were, unperturbed by the previous day's activities, they have resumed their nesting duties.

A short trip to the breakwater yielded (what has now become) the usual suspects: Common Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler and Whimbrel. This time they were joined by a pair of Zebra Doves. It was a delight to watch them as sometimes all four species would be on the same line of sight, as if they themselves were discussing the success of the events that transpired two days ago.

Around 11 am Chito came and drove us to Davao International Airport. Then came the goodbyes. And the promise to return. The Silvery kingfisher better be there when we do.

We had a good time on this trip to Davao. Cynthia was re-united with her brothers, the Asian Bird Fair was a tremendous success and the birding was great. I smiled as I thought about the 8 lifers that I racked-up and the 8 lbs I gained from all those buffets.

At the end of those six memory-filled days in Davao, all I can say is WOW!

Da WOW Experience, Part 3

Day 4 - It's a Shore Thing

September 24, 2010 - the 1st Asian Bird Fair officially opened today. We were busy visiting the various booths and meeting foreign birders throughout the whole morning.

After lunch as things quieted down somewhat, Cynthia and I were walking back towards our hotel room when we met two young delegates from Hongkong. We told them about the Collared Kingfisher that frequents the coconut groves near the hotel. They were very grateful and in return they informed us that there was a Little Heron by the breakwater area behind the hotel. We quickly gathered our gears and rushed to where the Little Heron had been found. When we asked permission from the guard if we could enter the breakwater explaining that we would be looking for shorebirds, he confirmed that there were indeed birds there when the tide was low.

Of course, the tide was low the time we were there and it wasn't long before we saw our first bird. It turned out to be a lifer - a Grey -tailed Tattler! Just then the Little Heron flew in and landed at the pier across from us. I was busy taking shots at the heron when a small bird emerged at the top of the berm adjoining the pier. It was a Common Sandpiper and another lifer for us! While I was shifting back and forth in viewing the Little Heron and the Common Sandpiper, another bird came flying in. Brownish with a long curved bill..a Whimbrel! Our relatively short stint at the waterfront yielded four species of shorebirds. Not bad at all!

Common Sandpiper
Little Heron
Grey-tailed Tattler
The rest of our afternoon was spent in pretty much the same way as we did that morning. That night the bird fair participants were once again treated to another buffet this time hosted by the Primer Group, local distributors of Columbia apparel. Another day, another buffet. It's a sure thing.

Da WOW Experience, Part 2

Day 3 - Hail the King!

Bright and early in the morning of Sept. 23rd, my wife and I quickly got out of bed. The crisp mountain air was rife with the smell of pine trees. Birds were twittering as they greeted the slowly rising sun. Both flowerpecker species (Orange-bellied and Red-keeled) were already busy among the flowers. A Pied Triller was trilling up above us. But this morning we are focused on a single mission: to find and photograph the Sulphur-billed Nuthatch. You might think..okay, that's a reasonable endeavour. Well, not exactly. In the first place I don't even know if that species occur here at Eden Nature Park (no sightings have been made yet, as far as I know). I just thought that inasmuch as there are hectares of pine trees here and since Sulphur-billeds love pine trees, ergo they should abound here. Logically it seemed feasible enough but as any seasoned birder knows, logic sometimes go down the drain when it comes to looking for a specific bird. So armed with hope, no, make that fervent faith, that we sought our target nuthatch. Roaming the pine forest and developing a crick on our necks from constantly looking up, we were about to head to the restaurant for our breakfast when I saw some movement about halfway up the trunk of a tall molave. Raising my binoculars and focusing on that particular spot, my heart stopped. A Sulphur-billed Nuthatch with a caterpillar in its beak! I was incredulous! What self-respecting nuthatch would find prey in a molave tree and not in a pine tree where it should be? Defies logic, don't you think? Nonetheless, it was mission accomplished. We then proceeded to have a leisurely breakfast elated from our unbelievable stroke of luck. 

We were even given a bonus when we we saw and photographed this scruffy looking Black-naped Monarch.

Around 9 am Chito picked us up and brought us to the Philippine Eagle Center. There we were greeted by Dennis Salvador, Executive Director of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, who happens to be Chito's friend as well. At the center we came face to face with the king of Philippine birds, the Philippine Eagle. We can't help but be awed by the majestic look of this bird. Sadly they are critically endangered creatures and we laud the efforts of the Philippine Eagle Foundation in trying to preserve a national treasure.

It was about midmorning and because there were about 7 jeepney loads of school children visiting the center at the time, birding wasn't very fruitful. 

Three in the afternoon and we were at the Insular Waterfront Hotel where the 1st Asian Bird Fair was going to be held. Three pm and our room wasn't ready yet! Considering that their check-in time is two pm, that was a bit exasperating! So we mingled with fellow participants until finally at about 5 pm we were ushered into our room. We barely had time to freshen up and get ready for the welcome dinner hosted by the Davao City government at the Matina Town Center.

Four buses escorted by the local police unloaded the delegates and participants at the Town Center at around 7 pm. Dancers in their native costumes swayed to the beat of drums as the guests started to pour in. Lovely young ladies welcomed us by putting ethnic necklaces on us. Lines were formed to partake of the raw tuna (sashimi) and roasted calf. These were just the appetizers! A sumptuous dinner buffet followed. When everybody had their fill, the welcome ceremonies began. We witnessed a grand pageantry that included native songs and dances, a hip-hop dance exhibition, beauty queens and a fashion show. It was a festive night that made us visitors to Davao feel like kings and queens for a night.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Da WOW Experience, Part 1

My wife and I came to Davao basically for three reasons: to visit Cynthia's brothers, to be a part of the First Asian Bird Fair and oh yeah, to go birding.

Day 1 - Clueless

We decided to go earlier than the scheduled Bird Fair which was going to be held on the 24th and 25th of September so that we could fulfill reasons 1 and 3 (we thought that it would be better to "case the joint" before the throng of participants in the bird fair go there). A little before noon of Sept. 21, we were aboard the Cebu Pacific airbus that would take us to our destination in southern Philippines. When the stewardess offered some snacks and drinks we readily availed of such goodies (it was lunchtime after all). Major, major mistake! We were surprised when the stewardess asked for P280 for a couple of pastries and 2 cans of soda. Being our first time to fly Cebu Pacific, we were clueless as to their policies when it came to serving food. Apparently they were not free. Lesson learned. On our return flight, as soon as the stewardess offered snacks, we took out the food that we brought along with us and smiled lovingly at the flight attendants. Anyway, about two hours later, we were relaxing at the home of Chito (Cynthia's brother) and his wife, Terry, enjoying the fresh fruits that they served.

Day 2 - A Taste of Paradise

The following day, Sept. 22nd, Chito drove us to the Eden Nature Park and Resort. As soon as we have checked in (thanks to the management and staff, we were allowed to check-in earlier than the official time), we immediately explored the trail right next to our cottage. Just at the start of the path, we saw a White-bellied Munia. But the Munia was too deep in the vegetation that it was next to impossible to photograph it. Surveying the narrow and long mountain trail ahead of us we both agreed not to continue the trek justifying our decision by excuses like "the path is too narrow for my big lens/tripod combo" and "the forest cover is too thick that the sunlight barely reaches the ground - not good for photography". Actually the fact that trail loop was about 4 kilometers long and included some 45 degree inclines (note the plural) were just too much for our ancient legs.

So we turned back and instead explored the grounds in front of our cottage which was dotted by tall pine trees. This was where we got our first lifer of the trip: The Everett's White-eye! Inasmuch as it was nearing lunchtime, we ambled towards the restaurant where we saw some Philippine Bulbuls and our second lifer, the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker.

Everett's White-eye

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker

Lunch was a sumptuous buffet (the first of many that we will have in Davao). Here we were joined by Guada Gamboa, Eden Nature Park's Marketing Assistant. She introduced us to the resort managers Celia and Tina. Cynthia and I took this opportunity to sell them the idea to promote Eden Nature Park and Resort as a birding area. All three ladies were enthusiastic and promised that they will take our suggestion to upper management.

That afternoon, the sweet ladies of Eden sent one of the resort's drivers to give us a private tour. One of the places the ladies asked the driver to bring us to was the zip line and soccer field. There are always birds sitting on the wires they told us. They were right, of course! As soon as we got off the tram, White-breasted Wood Swallows were lined up on the electrical wires (and on the tree branches, too) , occasionally swooping down over the soccer field and then returning to their perch. Here a Long-tailed Shrike hunted for bugs a mere 12 meters away from me. It would perch on a wire then fly down on the grass, grab an insect, swallow it and fly back to the wire perch. This routine was repeated several times and I just stood there enjoying the scene. And sometimes getting distracted by a Richard's Pipit sunning down the slope and a Striated Grassbird that popped out every now and then beneath the wire which the shrike uses to spot for prey.

White-breasted Wood Swallows

Long-tailed Shrike

Richard's Pipit

Striated Grassbird
Cynthia, who was trying (and failing) to take pictures of the wood swallows in flight, called my attention when she saw a kingfisher suddenly fly across the soccer field and alighted on one of the goal posts. As I turned to go after it, a Spotted Dove walked slowly in front of me. After it entered the dense grass of the field I turned my attention back to the kingfisher which turned out to be a White-throated.

Spotted Dove

White-throated Kingfisher

At around 5 pm, the driver came to pick us up. We had an early dinner and retired back to our cottage shortly after. The cool mountain air felt so refreshing and it wasn't long before we were fast asleep.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Eagle has Landed

The campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City had become renowned for producing unusual birds every so often. In October of last year, a pair of Java Sparrows decided to start a family near the library and became an instant sensation. That was followed in November by a Blue Rock Thrush that had everybody (including myself during a visit to the Philippines) going ga-ga. December, it was the Philippine Scops Owl. And on and on it went. Recently it was the Brush Cuckoo(s)? that drew bird photographers from all over MetroManila to U.P. Just as the cuckoo's popularity started waning, a new star was born!

Welcome the juvenile Philippine Serpent Eagle.

The morning of Sept. 13th, I received a text message from fellow birdnut Bert Madrigal saying that he, Propjerry, Doc Mando and Alain, were looking at a Philippine Serpent Eagle at the "lagoon" (actually a small patch of forest) in front of the Engineering Library. It was close to noon so I texted him back saying I'll be there after lunch.

One-thirty in the afternoon. My wife and I were already having neck pains resulting from scanning each and every branch of each and every tree in the lagoon. And not finding the eagle. Despite the help and encouragements from the two security guards manning the area, we broken-heartedly left U.P. after two hours.

That night eye-popping pictures of the Serpent Eagle were posted in the Philippine Bird Photography Forum. I resolved to go back and try again. Looking at my schedule for the coming days, however, sank any hope that I had been harboring. Tuesday, I need to take my wife to her appointment at her former office. Wednesday morning, we would be visiting a friend's house in Antipolo where he said there were some birds in their backyard. Thursday we are banned from the main streets from 7 am to 10 am. (This was a local ordinance passed to ease the traffic in MetroManila at peak hours and was based on the last number of the license plate). So it will be only on Friday that I will be able to return to U.P. That seemed like a long wait. *sigh*

Tuesday night Cynthia called our friend in Antipolo to confirm our planned visit the next morning. He apologized profusely explaining that something came up and that they will not be home to entertain us. My wife then told me that now we can go to U.P. on Wednesday morning.

Six-thirty in the morning, we were craning our necks scanning each and every branch of each and every tree in the lagoon. The guard on duty that morning, bless his soul, suggested we look at the balete tree near the bamboo grove. That's where the young eagle usually hunts for food in the morning he explained. Sloshing through the muddy field, I espied what I initially thought was a chicken searching for food among the dewy grass. But it seemed quite big for a chicken. I looked through my camera lens and couldn't believe my eyes. "There it is!" "There it is!" I yelled as I slowly moved towards the raptor. (If you read my blogs regularly, you'd notice that I have yelled those exact same words everytime I spotted our target bird. I firmly believe that it's hard to be verbally creative in situations like those).

Pardon the disgression. As I was saying, I moved furtively next to the clump of bamboo. Inasmuch as I was only using my 300mm lens with a 1.4 extender, I needed to get as close as I can without spooking my quarry. Holding my breath I fired off a burst of shots hoping that despite the distance and the not so conducive light, I would be lucky enough to get a few good ones. As I exhaled slowly, the bird flew. It flew and I had no idea where it went.

The effect of adrenaline rush oozed out my trembling body. I was relating the story to my wife (she stayed behind when I saw the eagle on the ground) when birders Rhea and Boboy joined us and asked the expected, "Have you seen it?" I animatedly told them of my short-lived encounter with the Philippine Serpent Eagle. I was waving my arm to show them the general area where I thought the eagle went when I saw the shadow of a huge flying bird. We all ran towards that direction. This time it was Rhea who saw it perched high among the branches of a tall acacia tree. Rhea, who also had a camera, and I assumed a stalking posture and like a pack of wolves intent on capturing their prey we inched closer and closer to the tree. Every now and then we would peer through our cameras to see if the bird was now within photographic range. Silently we were joined by Doc Chito, another birdnut, as we gestured and pointed the eagle to him. Then it flew!

To our surprise it flew closer and in a more open area. We couldn't believe our luck as we started shooting away. I don't know, but this had happened to me a number of times already - when the object of my photography felt that it had given me enough opportunity to take its picture from all possible angles, then it would simply fly away, as if to say, "that's all folks!"

To which I always replied, "thank you!"

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meeting San Juan

There's a place that I heard of. An almost legendary place for birding. Particularly during migration. Since migration had already begun in earnest, I longed to be there. I called on my fellow birdnuts and persuaded them to take me to this avian paradise where waders were reportedly frolicking almost within arm's reach. My persuasive powers must have been effective because eight other birdnuts decided to take that trip with me.

In the pre-dawn darkness of Friday, Sept. 10 (which was declared a holiday by President Aquino) seven birdnuts (Alain, Bong, Dennis, Jun, Rey, Toto and myself) left Ortigas Center aboard two SUVs. At the Shell station in Alabang another SUV with two more birdnuts (Tonji and Sylvia) joined our caravan. From there we all proceeded to San Juan, Batangas - a place I would be "meeting" for the first time in my life.

San Juan at 7am! Tall coconut trees dominated the tiny village of Pinagbayanan. The owner of the fishponds that we will be birding at, Ka Instik, welcomed us warmly albeit with a hint of sadness. He informed us that the migrants have not come in full force yet. As we looked at the ponds in front of his house we immediately knew what he was saying. They were empty! Except for an Intermediate Egret in the distance and a pair of Collared Kingfishers rattling nearby, the place was devoid of birds!

But we seasoned birdnuts are a bunch that doesn't get discouraged easily. To us every dark branch has a silver feather behind it. As we fanned out to explore the area, I got a glimpse and a quick shot of a Pacific Golden Plover! Not exactly a lifer but the first time I've seen it here in the Philippines. The hours slowly crept by and the birds we were seeing were those that can be found in places like the University of the Philippines campus.

My fellow birdnuts trickled back to where we parked our vehicles. Along the way I got two lifers, the Rufuous Night Heron and Oriental Pratincole. However, both species were flying high above that I only was able to get a bad shot of the heron and none of the pratincole.

Half past ten and we were in a dilemma. With such a scarcity of birdlife shall we stay and hope for a resurgence of bird activity? Or do we pack-up and head back home? Rey's face suddenly lit up and said that since Villa Escudero is only about half an hour away, why don't we have our lunch there and continue our birding adventures at that lovely resort. Jun immediately contacted Mela, the owner (and fellow birdnut), and announced that we would be visiting shortly. Tonji and Sylvia, however, opted to return home.

Torrential rain was pouring as we parked inside the resort. Did I mention that we are a very highly optimistic group? When we saw a flock of Pacific Swallows perched on a wire enduring the heavy downpour, we all took out our gears and started taking photographs of the drenched swallows.

The buffet lunch at Escudero is always something to look forward to. Seven hungry guys heartily partook of this heavenly culinary fare. As if on cue, the rain stopped as soon as we finished having lunch. Again we spread out in search of our individual target birds. Some went to look for Red-keeled Flowerpeckers while others waited for the Indigo-banded Kingfisher to show up by the river. As for me I just wandered around hoping I might find something interesting. During lunch Mela suggested that we look for the snipes which she saw while she was biking. They were found near the road on the way out, she said.

Later that afternoon when we were ready to leave, we followed Mela's advice and explored the roads near the exit. Being far from the hustle and bustle of the resort, we saw quite a number of birds here. The snipes were there, of course, but were just too quick for me to photograph. On the other hand, the Richard's Pipit, Common Kingfisher and White-browed Crake were quite cooperative.

I arrived home at around 8 pm, exhausted yet happy that the disappointment of meeting San Juan was turned to gladness in birding Escudero. I'm certain that later in the year San Juan would live up to its promise. I hope to be there when it does.

For other (more productive?) birding blogs and photos, please visit:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Easy Swallow-ing

The day that I photographed the Brush Cuckoo, my wife and I paid a visit to the Ninoy Aquino Park and Wildlife Area with the hope of seeing and maybe even photographing the Dollarbird that had been seen there several times already.

We dipped. Despite staking out the place where it had been observed regularly for more than an hour, we dipped. Surprisingly, the place was not birdy at all. The bitterns and waterhens that usually inhabit the lake were conspicuously missing.

But then there were the swallows. Early arriving migrants, Pacific Swallows were zooming above the lake waters hunting for tiny flying insects. Occasionally, one or two would rest on the wires nearby, offering easy photo opportunities. Which we hastily took advantage of, naturally.