Sunday, April 22, 2012

Whisperings in the dark

Darkness fell. We were all talking in hushed voices as we waited for it. Then a sound.

"Do you hear that?" my wife whispered to me.

"Darling, you know I am hearing impaired, of course I can't hear that!" was my somewhat annoyed reply. "What does it sound like anyway?"

"It's like a bicycle coming to a screeching halt followed by air escaping from a blown tire." 

I tried to imagine that sound.

Then some movement. Flashlights were turned on. I peeped through my camera lens towards where the light was being directed.

"Do you see it?" It was my wife again, whispering.

"Yes, but all I am seeing is the butt," I answered also in a whisper. "And I'm having a hard time focusing!"

Then it was gone. We waited once more, conversing in soft murmurs. After a while the braking bicycle sound again filled the night. Flashlights were aimed at it but we still saw nothing but butt.

A change of tactic was formulated. 

"Let us go to the other side. We should be able to get a better angle there," our host suggested.

So we did. 

Finally, success! A full frontal view was obtained. The flashlight beams were sufficient enough for auto-focusing and an acceptable photograph. We uttered suppressed squeals of delight. There was happy talk, albeit in undertones, as we returned to our original spot.

I turned to my wife and asked, "Why are we whispering?"

"So as not to spook our quarry." was her logical answer.

"But we are standing next to a swimming pool with folks splashing around and talking in normal voices!"

A smile. Then silence.

Here is the result of so much whisperings in the dark:

Please see the blogs of our friends Trinket and Maia about the same subject of whisperings in the dark.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meeting "Jack Hanna"

Well, actually it was jacana, not Jack Hanna (sorry, googlers!)

Allow me to elaborate a bit: We were in Candaba, in the province of Pampanga. Here in the Philippines, it is a well known fact that the locals have a tendency to not pronounce the "h" when it precedes a vowel, i.e. "unter" instead of "hunter; and to add an "h" in front of a vowel when there was none, as in "hant" instead of "ant".

Now how does that all fit in my story? As I was saying, we were in Candaba for the primary purpose of looking for Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. Now in their breeding plumage, these birds are quite gorgeous with their long tails and golden napes. Surprisingly, they were quite easy to find. I was photographing one of these beauties when a curious local approached and asked what it was I was taking pictures of.

"Jacana," I replied.

"Jack Hanna?"

I was so tempted to say that the object of my photography was not really wearing any hat nor khaki pants while cuddling some furry animal and therefore could not be um, Jack Hanna. But since the inquirer would probably just scratch his head at my obvious nonsensical words,  I just smiled and nodded.

The real Jack Hanna
It was scorching hot at the Candaba Wetlands when we went early Wednesday morning. 8 am and we were drenched from too much sweat. Birds were not that plentiful at the usual places made even more apparent by the absence of the migrants. The usual thousands of Garganeys and Shovelers were no longer  in their regular haunts. Even at the "other ponds" (thanks to our birder friend, Jun Osano, who gave us directions to get there) the migrant ducks were no longer visible. Only the Philippine Ducks, and even then just a few hundred of them, remained. On the other hand, Oriental Skylarks were bursting forth from the grasses like feathered skyrockets and Oriental Prantincoles were promenading on the trails like some Middle-eastern potentates.

Zitting Cisticolas were zitting on the grass ztalks, zinging all the while. 

Back at the mayor's place, Cynthia spotted a pair of Wandering Whistling Ducks which elicited an excited "woohoo!" from me.

But it was the Jack Hannas that were the stars of the day. They were at the "other ponds". On our way back they were at the ponds by the mayor's house and as we were leaving, a pair was at the junction of the "back door" trail.

And so it was a fitting goodbye for us, being sent off by a pair of lovely birds with long tails and golden napes.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Take my word for it. Please!

I came. I saw. I photographed.

The wrong bird.

When fellow birder, Prof. Gerry de Villa announced that there was a Lemon-throated Leaf Warbler at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Cynthia and I were there first thing the following morning. And saw nothing but the uber common Eurasian Tree Sparrows, those little brown birds that liked to impersonate the more uncommon species. We were at the parking lot next to the Vargas Museum approaching a state of despondency when I heard a quacking noise. "That's your cellphone," my wife told me. I recently got a new iphone and I thought it would cute, and quite appropriate for a birder like me, to have a duck's quack as the ringtone for my incoming messages.

I quickly pulled out my cellphone from my pocket and looked at my incoming text. "Lemon-throated is here" was the curt message. We ran towards where the statue of the naked lady was and saw Prof. Gerry standing beside it and looking upwards. "Listen to the melodious and continuous trilling," he told us while pointing at some object up in the trees. Since I am a bit hearing impaired, I looked at my wife for confirmation. She nodded vigorously and began pointing upward also. Soon both of them were yelling, "There! There!" And I was saying, "Where? Where?"

Then I saw it. A tiny brown bird warbling incessantly (I can tell by its open beak and vibrating throat) and flitting from branch to branch. It had a slight yellowish tint on its throat and rump. I was convinced that we found our Lemon-throated Leaf Warbler and began taking its photograph.

As soon as we got home, I posted the picture that I took in the internet. With a certain amount of pride, I declared that I, Bob Kaufman, was able to document the presence of an uncommon bird found in U.P. Diliman. Only to be told by the experts that the photo I posted was that of the similar-looking Arctic Warbler! To avoid further embarrassment, that image is no longer in Facebook, FYI.

The following morning, Cynthia and I, together with friends Jun Osano and Peter Ting went to La Mesa Ecopark. We saw the Red-bellied Pitta calling early in the morning and later the Ashy Ground Thrush on its nest. I even had glimpses of the Grey-backed Tailorbird. But please don't ask me for photographs of these birds, for there were none. None worth publishing, that is. 

Later that afternoon, my wife and I attended a friend's wedding being held at the Valley Golf Club in Antipolo. Inasmuch as the venue was in an open area, Cynthia and I were entertained by the calling of several Black-naped Orioles (yes, I heard them, too!) in the nearby trees. While waiting for the ceremony to start, Cynthia was socializing with the other guests and I was sitting by myself admiring the bright blue skies. It was then that a small flock of birds came gliding overhead. From the wing shape, manner of flight and white underparts, I concluded that these were White-breasted Wood Swallows. What surprised me was when a bigger bird, slightly bigger than a domestic pigeon, flew along with the small flock. It has the same manner of flight and wing shape as the Wood Swallows, except that the wing tips were black. I can pretty much tell that it was some kind of a raptor. Inasmuch as there wasn't a camera within grabbing distance, I committed that image into my memory.

That night when we got home, I hastily consulted the Kennedy Guide and narrowed the possibilities to 1) Pied Harrier or 2) Black-shouldered Kite. I'm leaning towards the Kite because of its size and habitat. However, since there were no photographs nor a second pair of eyes to confirm the sighting, I decided not to include this species in my life list.

And oh, on our way home that evening after the wedding party, I saw a bright object in the night sky. It had a disc-like shape and emitted an intermittent light. After hovering for a few seconds, it zoomed silently into the darkness. It could only be a UFO, I thought to myself.

Just kidding! - on the UFO, but you'll just have to take my word on the others.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Two Birders to Go - Big Island, Hawaii

Birding the Big Island is always exciting. You get to see a good mix of endemics and introduced species. Cynthia and I spent four days here and saw most of the species we expected to see, missing only the Nene and some of the forest-dwelling endemics (it usually requires some amount of hiking to see them, something our bodies are not conditioned to do).

Getting there:

There are almost hourly flights from Honolulu Airport via Hawaiian Airlines and Go! Airlines to Hilo Airport (and vice versa).


On our first night we stayed at Aaron's Cottage, a mom-and-pop B&B. It is a very friendly, cozy place. It offers free wi-fi, has a refrigerator and airconditioning (which you probably won't use - the air is fresh and cool, especially in the evening). Breakfast is free and offers a wide array of choices. You can even ask Penne, the owner, to cook something for you. The room we got was $70 a night. We would have wanted to stay longer but they were already fully booked the rest of the week we were staying in Hilo.

For the next three nights we stayed at Uncle Billy's Hilo Bay Hotel. This hotel had seen its glory days perhaps 20 years ago. It is now a sad shadow of what it used to be. Carpeting are all worn out. The in-house restaurant/bar is no longer in operation except to offer the complimentary continental breakfast (toast bread, butter, muffins and coffee). The rooms are still comfortable though and be prepared to be lulled (or disturbed, depending on how you take it) by the constant chirping of coqui frogs at night. Our room had a partial (very partial) ocean view. However, our balcony also overlooks a tiny stream surrounded by pretty plants which is nice. The hotel staff are very friendly and very helpful. Our room was at $85 a night. They offer free room coffee and wi-fi as well.

Getting around:

It is best that a rental car is used. Public transportation is not that plentiful in Hilo. We got a mid-sized sedan from Alamo and costed us $500+ for four days (inclusive of taxes, insurance and all that jazz). I admit it was a mistake getting a mid-sized sedan when an economy car would have sufficed. It's just that we planned on driving on Saddle Road, and the way I remembered it back in 2005, a big car would definitely be an advantage. Little did I know that the new Saddle Road is just like any other highway in the continental U.S.A. - wide and well-paved.


Never a problem. From the ubiquitous fast-food places (McDonalds, KFC, etc) to the fine dining restaurants, Hilo has them. One of the, if not THE, most popular place to eat is Kens House of Pancakes. It is open 24 hours and offers a wide variety of meals. We had breakfast and dinner there and I must say the food and the service are well worth the price.

Birding Places:

The places we went to go birding are the following (please see my previous blogs for a more detailed report):

Bird park (Kipuka Pua'ulu) is located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about 30 miles from Hilo. This is not really a "park" but more of a trail looping through a forest. Kalij Pheasants are guaranteed to be seen here. You may also see some endemics like the Apapane, Elepaio and Oma'o. Northern Cardinal, Red-billed Leiothrix, Saffron Finch and Japanese White-eye also inhabit this place.

Saddle Road is the highway connecting Hilo to Kona. At its highest point, it is over 6000 feet above sea level as it traverses between two volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Birding is best between miles 43 and 47 (mile 1 starts at Hilo). Short-eared Owls (aka Pueo) and Eurasian Skylarks fly near the highway while Ring-necked Pheasants and Erckel's Francolins are on the grassy areas by the road.

The Mauna Lani hotel grounds at Kona will yield Grey Francolin, Japanese White-eye, Yellow-billed Cardinal, Saffron Finch and African Silverbill.

The beaches and ponds in Hilo will have Black-crowned Night Heron, Hawaiian Coot, Wandering Tattler and Ruddy Turnstone.

Birds that you will see almost everywhere are Common Myna, Spotted Dove, Zebra Dove, Nutmeg Mannikin and Pacific Golden Plover (absent in summer).

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Up, Up and Hawaii, Part IV

Well, Hilo there!

On our third day, our visit to the Bird Park was once again cut short by a busload of students doing a nature walk. Before that we were able to take photos of the male Hawaiian Elepaio and a documentary shot of an Oma'o.

Before we left, Ted Brattstrom, a teacher of the school having an outing, engaged us in a really serious avian conversation. He encouraged us to check out the areas not far from our hotel. He even mentioned Coconut Island which is more of an islet, really, that is connected by a short concrete bridge from a park about a stone's throw away from where we were staying.

Back in Hilo, per Ted's suggestion, we surveyed the areas somewhere between the airport and our hotel. And discovered a pond. This pond harbored only two species of birds, Black-crowned Night Heron (we saw a total of 2 and both were juveniles) and Hawaiian Coots.

Across the street from the pond was a "beach". Not the white sandy kind that you probably picture in your mind. The shore was rocky, yet there were still a lot of beachcombers around. Despite the presence of a lot of people, some of which were rather loud, there were birds! Common Mynas, Pacific Golden Plovers, Zebra Doves, Spotted doves and even Yellow-billed Cardinals were mingling insouciantly with humanity. The rocky crags by the shore harbored Wandering Tattlers and Ruddy Turnstones, just as Ted said.

After lunch we ventured towards the famed Coconut Island. Along the way, I was surprised to find Scaly-breasted Munias (or Nutmeg Mannikins, as they are known here) feeding on the grass by the sidewalk! 

Coconut Island was pretty much a reprise of what we have seen earlier, except the beach goers here were of the more genteel variety. The birds were even more accustomed to the presence of human beings. The Yellow-billed Cardinals were checking out the trash cans while Ruddy Turnstones were feeding on chips! A Wandering Tattler, already in breeding plumage, decided to stop wandering for a while and a Zebra Dove thought a little sun would do good for its underwing feathers.

That evening while we were buying some foodstuff to take to our room, I got my bonus bird. It was a Northern Cardinal, quite common here in the Big Island. We've seen it Kona, and even at the Bird Park, but never managed to get a good picture of it. But now, here it was trilling from a tree next to the parking lot and not flying away when I came near unlike it's unfriendly cousins elsewhere. 

That brought closure to our birding trip to the Big Island. We got the birds that we expected and then some.

Up, Up and Hawaii, Part III

Back on the Saddle again

Back in September, 2005, Cynthia and I joined a birding tour with Hawaii Forest and Trails. Basically it was a drive via Saddle Road, a badly maintained 50-odd mile passageway connecting the cities of Hilo and Kona with various stops along the way to explore the nearby kipukas (a tract of land surrounded by hardened lava flows, literally, "opening"). Birding was great then and we saw a good number of endemics, albeit involving a considerable amount of hiking.

We have no intention of repeating that strenuous hike we did almost 7 years ago, but the idea of going through Saddle Road once again excited us. This time we will be starting from Hilo and go to Kona unlike the reverse direction we did in 2005.

The very first thing we noticed as we entered Saddle Road was that it was a lot wider and very nicely paved! And the second thing we noticed was the lack of birds! We have traveled over 40 miles and the only birds we saw were the Common Mynas as we were leaving the city of Hilo. At mile 45, we finally saw some Eurasian Skylarks flying overhead. At mile 47, we saw a small structure which was actually a booth where prospective hunters register. A seemingly out-of-place male House Finch greeted us as we checked out the area. 

Across the road, about 100 feet further up was an open area. We parked here and observed a Short-eared Owl, known locally as the Pueo, gliding in the distance. We got excited as it flew towards us and then alighted somewhere beyond our line of vision. We crossed the road and searched and searched. We gasped simultaneously when we discovered the Pueo perched on the wire fence staring fiercely at us. Having fulfilled its obligation to be photographed by me, the owl then flew off and resumed its hunting duties.

As we continued our drive towards Kona, there were no longer a dearth of birds. We saw Ring-necked Pheasants and Erckel's Francolins along the road, not to mention the super-skittish Skylarks. 

Our destination in Kona was the 5-star Mauna Lani Hotel. This was where we stayed in 2005 and I still remember seeing a lot of birds on the hotel grounds. We hoped to see those birds once again. We first stopped at the hotel's shopping center. The ubiquitous Common Mynas and House Sparrows were there, of course. What got my attention was a limping bird foraging on the lawn. It was a juvenile Yellow-billed Cardinal. 

The Pacific Golden Plovers were quite plentiful here in various stages of molting into their more colorful breeding plumage. 

At the hotel grounds, just by the parking lot, we saw what we came for, the Grey Francolin. Saffron Finches and adult Yellow-billed Cardinals populated the nearby trees.

Since it was close to noon, we decided to have lunch at the King's Shopping Center in Waikoloa. While enjoying our food from the Island Fish and Chips, I noticed a tiny light brown bird perch on the store's roof. This was another of those bonus bird, serendipitous sightings happening again. It was an African Silverbill! The last time I saw this species was inside the atrium of the Mauna Lani hotel in 2005. Not wanting to go inside the hotel this time without presenting ourselves to the concierge as non-guests, I decided to forego the search for the silverbill there. And now here they were (it was a pair!) busily trying to build a nest inside the eaves of the store's thatched roof.

The silverbills were nesting under this roof!
The drive back to Hilo again via Saddle Road was pretty much uneventful except we had better looks at the Erckel's Francolin and finally got a really bad shot of the Eurasian Skylark. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Up, Up and Hawaii, Part II

Apapane thing happened on our way to the Volcano

On our first full day of birding we went to the Volcano National Park about 30 miles south of Hilo and over 4,000 feet in elevation. Based on our research, we hoped to be able to see some Hawaiian Endemics in this area. Hawaiian avifauna is composed of introduced species and a few remaining endemics, the latter being confined to the highland forests.

After consulting at the Visitor's Information Center, we headed supposedly towards the forest area but apparently we took the wrong direction. I stopped our car at a nearby military camp to get our bearings. As I was trying to figure out east from west, Cynthia yelled, "Red bird!" I looked and saw tiny red birds flying about. I grabbed my gear and walked towards the tall tree where the tiny red birds landed. Soon enough I was getting good looks, though a bit far, at our first endemic, the lovely Apapane!

Having finally figured out where to go, we proceeded to the "Bird Park" which is basically a small patch of forest with a 1 mile loop trail. The first bird that greeted us were the Kalij Pheasants, an introduced species that thrived well here in the Big Island and our first lifer.

A short walk up the trail gave us our second and last lifer of the trip. But this bird is one of my sought after species. The Red-billed Leiothrix is a colorful small bird that originally came from the far east. In the pet trade it was also known as the Pekin Robin.

Still further up the trail we encountered the very active female Elepaio, another Hawaiian endemic. 

We decided not to continue the loop because a school was having a nature walk and the children were quite boisterous. What happened next sort of set the rule for our subsequent birding outings: a bonus bird, a serendipitous encounter, if you may. This time it was a pair of Saffron Finches who were perched on our car roof when we were about ready to go home. These bright yellow birds flew to the ground as we approached and stayed there just a few feet away from us. 

But we have to leave, albeit reluctantly, because it was already noon and the rumblings in our stomachs can no longer be ignored.

Up, Up and Hawaii, Part I

Hawaii. The mere mention of that word conjures up visions of white sandy beaches, of lounging by the shore sipping mai tais and enjoying the cool ocean breeze while lovely wahines in grass skirts dance the hula to the accompaniment of ukeleles. Or watching various Polynesian tribal dances while partaking of a sumptuous luau on a warm tropical night under star-studded skies.

Did we do any of these?


The last time Cynthia and I visited the Big Island of Hawaii was in September of 2005.  It was an all-expense paid trip that my company gave me as a reward for my 10 years of loyalty. That was when we did all the beach lounging and luau feasting, with only some birding on the side.

This time however, we took off our tourist's hats and put on our birding caps. The bird photographs that I had taken in 2005 were saved in the external hard drive that was stolen from our home early last year. I already have photographs of some Oahu birds taken during our two previous visits there but now I wanted to compile a Big Island bird gallery inasmuch as there are some birds here that are not found in Oahu.

Birding in an Airport?

Actually, our birding began, quite unplanned, I might add, at the Honolulu Airport. We were on a 5 hour layover while waiting for our flight to Hilo. We just had lunch and Cynthia and I were conditioning ourselves for a long, boring wait (wi-fi is not free and I have no desire of putting in my credit card information in a public place like this) when a Spotted Dove walked nonchalantly towards my feet! It kept on walking and only flew off when it was almost stepped on by someone unaware of its presence. My wife, out of curiosity, wanted to know where the wild dove went. A few minutes later she came rushing and practically hauled me (and our carry-on luggage) to an open air area within the airport where there were trees and plants and bushes. It was a small park complete with concrete benches! And even better, it had birds! Wild, free-flying birds! We counted a total of 7 species in all: Spotted Dove, Zebra Dove, House Sparrow, Common Myna, Japanese White-eye, Red-whiskered Bulbul and Red-vented Bulbul. 

And then it was time to board our plane to Hilo. We were so happy that we were able to enjoy our waiting time at the airport watching all these birds.

Spotted Dove
Common Myna
Japanese White-eye
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Same Ol' and Surprise Encounters

The last few days of our stay in California were spent birding familiar places. Birding areas that were close to where we used to live such as Veteran's Memorial County Park in Sylmar where we got some nice looks at the Chipping Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch.

Eaton Canyon in Pasadena was the place closest to home and despite harboring a great number of visiting Homo sapiens, was still birdy enough to produce California Quail, the always skulking Fox Sparrow, the winter resident Golden-crowned Sparrow and another winter visitor, albeit uncommon, the Pacific Slope Flycatcher.

Finally, Legg Lake in South El Monte, another park where humanity congregates, also had White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons and Ring-billed Gulls inhabiting its three lakes.

The surprise came after we had our lunch at Waba Grill. As we were driving out under a drizzle, I caught a glimpse of a small brown bird hawking for insects by the wire fence. I asked Kurt to stop and for the next half hour or so tried to photograph the skittish Say's Phoebe. As fitting finale, rain started to fall and a Common Raven dropped by and perched on the same fence where the Phoebe was and protested the cold downpour.