Sunday, November 21, 2010

Three and they're far

But enough about golf talk...

A short stint at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos resulted in below par as far as expectations go. The fruiting tree next to the TREES hostel was still fruiting but apparently not as much as before. Aside from the noisy bulbuls (both Philippine and Yellow-vented) there were no other birds to speak of. Well, there were a couple of Tarictics who preferred the fruits on the far (and hidden) side and therefore were not seen. Let me rephrase that: they were seen, albeit so briefly, but were not photographed. Let me rephrase that further: They were photographed, albeit so badly that it didn't really count. So there.

What saved the day for me and my wife was that we got two lifers and one photo-lifer (seen before, but photographed for the first time).  It all began when Fred Serrano (a Philippine Bird  Photographer Forum member) and his daughter, whom we met at the TREES hostel grounds, invited us to visit the Agri-Park where he said tons of Oriental Pratincoles had been observed. Now Oriental Pratincoles are on the top ten, no, make that top five, of my want-to-photograph list. When we got there, my heart stopped as there, none, nada, not a single Pratincole. Or any bird for that matter, except for a couple of Intermediate Egrets and a Brown Shrike. We were in a state of percolating disappointment when my wife pointed at a black bird perched on a wire in the distance. "I think that's a Crested Myna", she said hesitantly. My binos confirmed that it was and sensing an opportunity for a photo-lifer, I immediately set-up my gear..the one using the 500mm lens (with a 1.4 extender, mind you).  Let me explain at this point that the Myna was perched on a wire above the middle of a ricefield and that the closest I can set my tripod on was at the road's edge a thousand feet away. But a photo-lifer is a photo-lifer even if the subject was a mere dot on my camera's viewfinder.

Back at the hostel grounds our moods became gloomier harmonizing perfectly with the darkening skies. Families of Philippine Falconets and Coppersmith Barbets all sharing the same dead tree failed to revive the elan we once had.

It finally rained when we decided to have lunch just outside the campus grounds. It stopped when we returned to the TREES' premises. We sat forlornly as we waited for the skies to clear up. I glanced at the pine tree near the road and noticed a clump of green. Couldn't be a pine cone I mused. Again, using my binos, I almost slipped on the wet mossy surface of the hostel parking area as I realized I was looking at a Guaiabero! A small chunky green feathered ball way up in the tree, way out there by the roadside. A lifer! ...and it was not only far, it was backlit. Don't you just love it when we bird photographers have a term for a picture that is well below our acceptable standards. We call them "documentary" shots. Photos taken for documentary purposes only...just to prove that we indeed saw this particular species. And believe me these are documentary shots of a Guaiabero at its very essence.

The third, and final, super far-away, dot-in-the-screen photograph we got was that of another lifer - the Stripe-headed Rhabdornis. When the Falconets and Barbets finally abandoned the tall dead tree, the Rhabdornises came. These are unobtrusive, tiny, brown-and-white birds that blend so well against the tree trunks where they hunt for grub. Needless to say, all we got were some gorgeous documentary shots of our newest lifer. (At least we also got pictures of the tiny flies swarming at the Rhabdornis' head).

In golf, three under par is a really good score. In our case, three and even though they're far, were good enough scores as well. Actually we could even claim four or maybe even five and-they're-far pictures but that would really stretch the analogy. Let me just say that we had pun while it lasted.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pure Genius and a Stroke of Luck

Ask any brainiac and he will explain to you in so many discombobulating words that "genius" and "luck" never go together. "You make your own luck", the smart ones preach to us less mentally endowned people.

However, those two words applied to me this morning, albeit in some bizarre, unexplainable way. The presence of a rare bird at the campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman enkindled a certain amount of restlessness among the local bird photographers. Being one of them, I was there bright and early Friday morning. Apparently this gem of a bird inhabits a small patch of green where the local workers reside. As I stood outside gazing at the branches of the trees within the compound, the residents realized I was after the bird that "some people photographed yesterday." Graciously they allowed me into their inner sanctum, so to speak. When my target bird alit on a branch at eye level, I began clicking my camera's shutter button. During a pause in my shooting, one of the men watching me couldn't contain himself and asked me what kind of bird is it that draws photographers to their place.

"Ferruginous flycatcher", I told him.

"Pure genius plykatser?", he repeated. I smiled and explained to him that this bird flew all the way from northern Asia to escape the cold winter there. I told him that this kind of flycatcher doesn't normally end up in an urban area such as this place, that's why we bird photographers were so excited to see it.

It wasn't long when I was joined by Gabs, Doc Mando and Doc Chito. We all had our fill in photographing this lovely migrant from practically all angles and at various distances. At about 10 am, we all called it a day, inasmuch as my three companions still have to report to their respective offices.

As I drove in into our subdivision in St. Ignatius, I took a road that I normally don't take. Towards the end of Woodside Street, a taxi was loading passengers and thus blocked my way. I had no choice but to park by the roadside to wait until the taxi moved on. It was then that I saw a relatively big, brown bird fly down on a tiny strip of lawn about 15 feet away from me. Looking closer, my heart skipped as I realized that this was a female Blue Rock Thrush! - a bird that I never seen much less photographed before. I immediately grabbed my smaller camera gear (300mm) and fired away. First, the thrush was close enough for a smaller lens. Secondly, it would take some time for me to assemble my big lens plus tripod, to which the bird could have already flown away before I'm done, and there wasn't much space to put it in anyway.

Now, let me just tell you that I normally don't bring both my 500mm and 300mm when I'm birding without my wife (she usually handles the smaller lens). Why I did so today was beyond me. Call it luck. Call it whatever. I'm just glad I did.

Update: I went back to that place along Woodside St. in the afternoon, but the female Blue Rock Thrush was no longer there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Say aaahhh!

I have not been birding for quite a while. My son, Kurt, is here visiting from the United States. Since this is the first time in 23 years that he will be seeing the country where he was born, I've been busy showing him around. And as any self-respecting birder knows, the longer you don't go birding, the stronger the itch becomes.

When fellow bird photographer, Bong, informed me that he and another colleague, Ely, will be at the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman on Tuesday morning, I got excited. It so happened that I had a couple of hours to spare that morning before I return to my paternal duties, so off I went.

My first destination was the area in front of the Marine Science Institute (MSI) building. This is the haunt of the Blue Rock Thrush. And sure enough, as soon as I had my gears ready, it  flew to its favorite acacia tree. It wasn't long when Ely arrived and joined me. We both discovered that Blue Rock Thrushes (or at least this one that we're looking at) also eat fruits! It would swallow whole the red berry-like fruit of a palm tree and after a few moments regurgitate the seeds out. Very interesting since I thought all along that these species are insectivores.

The Blue Rock Thrush saying "aaahhh"

Ely and I were photographing the thrush's antics when he got a call from Bong. Bong informed us that he saw the now famous juvenile Philippine Serpent Eagle near the Vargas Museum not far from where Ely and I were.

Perched on a tree not far from the museum building, indeed, was the Serpent Eagle. Unmindful of the three birdnuts (which were later augmented by some curious students) taking its picture from different angles, the raptor just stayed there seemingly to the point of utter ennui.

Philippine Serpent Eagle saying "aaahhh"

Two hours went swiftly by and I bade my comrades adieu. I was smiling as I drove home, thinking, what do you say when your itch had been scratched? You say, "aaahhh!"

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tus' Company

Saturday, seven o'clock in the morning, Cynthia and I were at the parking lot next to the Biology building of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. We were for two reasons: First, to locate the Philippine Nightjar that had been roosting here lately and second, to meet up with my high school classmate and now Biology professor, Augustus (Tus) Mamaril.

We got the nightjar quite easily, thanks to the advice of another U.P. professor, Jerry de Villa, and the help of Mang Donato, one of the building's janitors. I was already busy taking pictures of the Philippine endemic when Tus came. I asked him to tarry a while as I promised fellow bird photographer, Bong, that I'll wait for him and show him where the Nightjar was. That was my way of paying him back for the favor he did for me last week when he waited for me so that I can take photos of the Pink-necked Green Pigeon also here at U.P.

Pretty soon, Bong drove in and I immediately showed him the snoozing night bird. Having done my duty, Cynthia and I asked Tus to join us for breakfast so we could reminisce the good ol' days. Inasmuch as I was a "nobody" (The song "Mr. Cellophane" from the broadway play "Chicago" would be a very apt description of me) during high school, I am quite amazed and even flattered that our valedictorian would remember a lot of things about me. Pleasant moments always fly swiftly by when spent with pleasant company, and so we were surprised to realize that it was already 11 am and Tus had to fulfill some professional obligations. On our way back to the parking lot, we saw a group of bird photographers lined up by the road. They were my birding buddies, Bong, Jun, DocMando, Rey and Val. When queried why they were so seemingly excited, they all pointed to a tree about a hundred meters away and said, "Philippine Serpent Eagle".

We took Tus back to his car and bade him goodbye with the promise to meet again, and rushed back to the where the boys were. We all had a grand time photographing the endemic raptor until it eventually flew off to somewhere we were no longer had the inclination to follow.

It was one of those weekend mornings that everything seemed to fall into place. We got the nightjar which was the bird we came to see and even got a bonus with the serpent eagle. And of course, a wonderful time in the company of friends both old and new.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Allow me to go a little Wagnerian this time (unfortunately I can't put opera music to go with this blog. Which is good since "Here comes the bride" is somehow quite inappropriate with my story). Anyway, here goes....

Mist swirled at our feet as we approached the grove of trees. The faint murmur of human voices floated in the dawning morn. Squinting, we could barely perceive the shape of an armed man standing viligilantly. But the voices we heard were that of more than one person. Slowly, silently we drew near, all the while tightly gripping our weapons. Daylight broke through the leaves and revealed the sources of the mutterings. Standing as if on guard was Alain, while resting on the side were Maia and Jops. Friends. People of the same mind and purpose, we heartily greeted them. It wasn't long when to our gladness came also Bong and the two Jun Os (Osano and Obilde).

Pleasantries were shared all around. The excitement was quite palpable. I asked my partner, Gabs, to come with me and wander to yonder grounds where our quest had been recently observed. Jops and Maia tagged along since this would be the first time, if ever, that they would encounter this creature. We all tarried in rapt anticipation until Jops in wild jubilation pointed at the tree before us and uttered the name of the reason for our being here: Blue Rock Thrush!

Sighs of relief and admiration mingled with the sound of shutters clicking as the rest of the group joined us in capturing the image of this lovely bird. Moments flew quickly and I realized I must take leave. Spousal duties I must fulfill thus I bade adieu to my enchanted colleagues begging them to notify me if and when the other mythical winged being should materialize before their very eyes.

Hours passed as I looked at the images of the blue thrush that I had taken and pondered whether those whom I left behind have been blessed with luck and sighted the other, more intriguing, avian visitor of that mystic place. It was then that I saw a post in the book of faces that Jun Osano had seen green. Hastily I communicated with my partner Gabs who confirmed that it was so.

In a flash, I was at the grove of trees where Bong remained waiting for my arrival and to assure me that the bird I came rushing for was still there. It was just him and Mark, another questor, that remained on guard. As I came barging in both of them lifted their heads and pointed to the branch of a fruiting tree swaying gayfully in the wind. "Pink-necked Green Pigeon" they uttered almost reverently. Satisfied that he had done his duty, Bong departed from the scene. It wasn't long when pangs of hunger stirred within me.  I looked at Mark who vowed to stay so that late arriving kindred spirits may be led to the virescent bird resting amid the verdant leaves and red berries. I left in profound silence.

Later that day as I reminisced of what transpired that morning, I smiled. If I were to describe those fortuitous events in three words, it would be "Blue and Green".