Saturday, June 30, 2012

Puerto Princesa Birding - Day 1

Carlos "Angel"

Cynthia and I checked in at Palo Alto Bed & Breakfast at around 2 pm. The vicinity around the hotel was forested and looked promising bird-wise. Since we had nothing planned for that afternoon and the sun was shining gloriously, we decided to explore the surrounding areas. 

The very first bird we saw was a female Olive-backed Sunbird enjoying the gumamela blooms. And where there's a female could the male be far behind? 

There was an empty lot nearby except that it was not "empty" in the fullest sense of the word. For trees abound on it - avocado, star apple, mango and a flowering tree which we couldn't identify. Beneath were low shrubs competing for the sliver of sunlight that filters through the leaves of the tall trees. Among these shrubs dwell a juvenile White-vented Shama.

Cynthia heard some chirping coming from the trees inside a compound. The gate was ajar so we sort of sneaked in to locate the source of that sound. That's when a young man came out of the house perhaps suspicious of these two elderly people who were pointing their cameras at their residence area. We told him that we were looking for birds.

"Can you hear that call?" Cynthia asked him.

"Tamsi", was his curt response.

"Sunbird", was my short explanation to my wife.

We asked him his name.

"Carlos", he replied tersely.

For the rest of the afternoon Carlos guided us around his neighborhood, listening and then pointing the birds to us. Thanks to him we saw and photographed the Brown-throated Sunbird, also known as Plain-throated Sunbird, also known as NOT-the-Copper-throated-you were-hoping-for Sunbird. 

Aside from the sunbirds, a flock of Palawan Flowerpeckers also joined them in picking at the tiny flowers. These birds were so small and active that we had a difficult time taking their picture.

He also pointed to us some Ashy-fronted Bulbuls also known as Olive-winged Bulbuls. As we discovered during our stay in Puerto Princesa, Ashy-fronteds were the equivalent of the Yellow-vented Bulbuls here in terms of ubiquity. We also had fleeting glimpses of the Black-naped Monarch. 

Ashy-fronted Bulbul

We were chasing a Drongo when it rained. Hard driving rain that lasted about 30 minutes. When it let up a little bit Carlos borrowed an umbrella from their neighbor (in whose premises we got caught in the rain). He let us use the umbrella and accompanied us as we returned to the hotel.
While Cynthia was drying up at the hotel room, I wandered over to the deck. The rain finally stopped and the sun was slowly emerging from the dark clouds. I was looking at some movements below the deck and was surprised to see a Rufous-tailed Tailorbird! I sprinted back to our room with the speed of a fleeing antelope, grabbed my camera and dashed back to the deck. But the Tailorbird was gone! I waited for a few more minutes - still nothing. Just as I was preparing to go back to our room to get ready for our trip to the Badjao restaurant, it returned to where I first saw it.

We went to the restaurant around 5:30 while there's still light so we can hopefully see the Copper-throated Sunbird. It's a sure thing there, our friends assured us. But there was no Sunbird. Only a very busy Pied Fantail. 

We went inside the restaurant and asked one of the waiters if they have seen any kingfishers nearby. Only Stork-billed was his reply. We were excited since this would be a lifer for us as well (like the Copper-throated Sunbird). We waited for the food we ordered and kept an eye on the mangrove trees around us. Darkness soon fell and no Stork-billed ever came. At least the food arrived right on time. And it was delicious!

Puerto Princesa Birding


Allow me to borrow a Dickensian term to describe our birding experiences in Puerto Princesa, Palawan: 

It was the best of times because we met some wonderful people whom Cynthia called "angels" (which will be the underlying theme of the subsequent blogs on Puerto Princesa). We enjoyed some good food and stayed at very relaxing hotels. Above all we added two more species to our life list and saw some gorgeous and unique birds. 

It was the worst of times because even though we saw many birds  we also missed most of our target species. Blame it on the rainy weather and also some bad luck. Despite the research we've made prior to our visit, there were still some glitches - like needing a permit to get to the Underground River in Sabang. We thought that this could be obtained by the local hotels inasmuch as they sponsor tours to this place as part of their packages anyway. Apparently there had been a recent change in procedures that now require potential tourists to get their permits personally from the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) office in Puerto Princesa City (a good 80 km from Sabang). 

We also declined the offer to take the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour for fear of having our cameras getting wet not just from the waves but also from the pluvial downpour. Did I mention that it was raining off and on throughout our stay in Palawan?

Despite these setbacks we still enjoyed our stay in Puerto Princesa. Even before embarking on this trip we knew there would be uncertainties and we prepared ourselves accordingly by not expecting a lot. For my wife and myself this was some sort of a "casing the joint" adventure. Based on what we went through we learned a lot that would make us more successful next time around.

As we boarded the plane to take us back to Manila we were already drawing up plans to return. When the rainy season is over.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Rain Falls Mainly on the Plain

We could see the dark clouds ominously gathering in the skies as we climbed the road to Mt. Palay-palay in Cavite. I was driving very slowly, both Cynthia and I scanning the trees alongside hoping to see some birds. We saw a lone Whiskered Treeswift earlier but it was too backlit for a good photograph. However a female Tarictic gave us some good views. 

As we approached one of the many curves in the road, I saw a black bird foraging on the ground. Barred Rail I thought to myself. I eased our car to a stop and opened our windows. A blast of hot and humid air grabbed our faces. My wife's eyeglasses started to fog up. I brought the binoculars to my eyes and they almost popped out of the lenses. I urged Cynthia to start photographing this dark-colored bird while I with the least movement possible retrieved my gear from the trunk. Cynthia was a bit surprised at my actions thinking that this bird was just one those we have seen many times before. "Darling, this is a lifer for us!" I told her. "Plain Bush-hen!"

But the story didn't end there. Although it was one of those serendipitous encounters with a lifer, the strange events surrounding such encounter made us more than just a bit mystified. It's just that every time we saw this particular Bush-hen - and we spotted it at basically the same spot three times that morning - rain inevitably followed.

A few minutes after we saw our lifer, rain fell. Not just your ordinary pluvial downpour, this was hard, driving, torrential rain. It was as if we were driving under an endless waterfall. It was so strong that we had to pull over since visibility was almost zero despite the frantic to and from motion of our windshield wipers. About an hour later the rain stopped and the sun shone. Bright, warm sunshine greeted us as we arrived at the entrance of the Caylabne Resort. As I was stretching my body after driving for almost three hours, Cynthia yelled, "White! White! and pointed at something behind my back. I turned around and caught a glimpse of white on a tree at what seemed to be a kilometer away. I moved a few steps forward plunked my gear and peeped through my camera lens. A white-morphed Philippine Coucal! I took a couple of quick shots hoping to get at least a documentary shot before I attempt to get closer. Of course, it flew off the moment I took one single step forward.

We got back into the car and turned around, hoping to see more birds while it was still bright and sunny. Once again we saw the Plain Bush-hen not too far from where we first saw it. Just like before, it was completely oblivious of our presence. Then it rained. Another deluge. Another hour of sitting inside the car. When the skies cleared we returned to the Caylabne gate holding in our hearts a fervent hope that we will see the White Coucal again. Its non-appearance dashed our hopes into smithereens. While I was desperately seeking the enigmatic coucal, Cynthia was busy photographing something. "Elegant Tit!" she answered my unspoken question. I hurried and got my camera gear. As soon as I got to where she was, the tiny bird flew away.

Back on the road again. As soon as we passed by the Bush-hen territory it was deja vu as torrential rain fell from the skies. Forty-five minutes later the rain became a slight drizzle. Surprisingly that was when we saw the Philippine Falconets trying to dry themselves from the slowly emerging sun. 

Further down the road we saw one flew over a coucal's nest (Please see my previous blog).

The trip home was punctuated by guess what? - interspersion of rain and sunshine. Even without a Plain Bush-hen in plain sight.

One Flew Over the Coucal's Nest

The bird flew across the road directly in front of us. I screeched to a sudden stop then slowly moved our car to the grassy shoulder at the opposite side of where the huge bird landed. I quietly lowered the window next to me and was thrilled to see the Philippine Coucal perched on a low branch carrying a withered cogon leaf. With the stealth of a predator, I pointed Cynthia's camera at it. (My huge lens was lying at the backseat and we were afraid that heaving it to my driver's position might spook the coucal.) 

The bird and I eyed each other for a few minutes - each one not daring to move first. Then it's parental instincts prevailed over caution and it launched itself into the air, landing about a yard and a half towards the tall grass. Once again it gave me a look and then like a rabbit in a magician's hat completely disappeared from view. My wife and I could tell that it was in the deep recesses of the clump of cogon for we could hear it's cooing sound.

We fought the urge to come close to see the nest itself, afraid that it might disrupt the coucal's nesting behavior. We drove off feeling lucky that we saw the coucal fly over its nest.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

To bird or not to bird

To bird or not to bird—that is the question:
Whether tis better to remain in slumber
And enjoy the comfortable coolness of our room
Or take a trip to find birds even in neighboring places
And in finding, photograph them. To bird, to sleep
No more—and by birding to say we end
The lassitude that comes on a bright Saturday morn.
To awaken past the rising of the June sun made it
Impossible to travel the distance where feathered
Creatures thrive in more bucolic conditions.
To bird—perchance at nearby haunts: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that nearby haunt are birds already seen
And thus offer nothing new to excite our
Twitching hearts. Yet a birder’s soul must be
Satisfied even by the most banal of birds. Thus off we went
Under a blistering heat and encountered a thriller
In the form of a triller. Later the black and white
Continued as a pair of mynas appeared 
Before my wife’s eyes and mine as well.
To bird or not to bird—the question had been answered.

Pied Triller
Crested Myna

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Better Half

My wife, Cynthia, and I have been doing bird photography for about seven years now. Throughout those years I was the primary photographer. She was the one who would take the responsibility of locating the birds using her super sharp hearing. It was our tacit agreement that if we would be targeting a particular species then it would be just me who will bring the camera. However, if we are to visit a place where we will be encountering a lot of birds then she would also bring her gear albeit with a shorter lens. That way we would have better coverage of the area. In cases such as this, she would, by and large, defer to me when we are shooting at the same bird. I have better equipment and more experience was her rationale for doing so. However, there were instances where she would produce much better pictures than those I have taken. One such instance happened last Saturday.

We were at Subic along with our friend, Ralf Nabong. It was a dark, gloomy morning. In-between rains, as it were. The parrots were quite active perhaps hoping for the sun to shine through the gray clouds. Most of these were Blue-napeds. Among these noisy crowd was a smaller, plainer bird perched on a bare branch. "Green Racquet-tail!" I informed my companions. Ralf and I fired away with our 500mm lenses. Cynthia, unbeknownst to me was also shooting with her 300mm. This would be a photolifer for us.

That evening when we got home and as I was processing the results of out photographic expedition I was pleasantly surprised to discover that her shots of the Racquet-tail were better than mine. Much better!

And that wasn't the end of it. While waiting for some Tarictic Hornbills, I was entranced by some movement behind a heavily vegetated area. I could tell it was huge and blackish, perhaps a Philippine Coucal. It was stealthily moving about yet not showing itself completely into view. Losing my patience, I joined Ralf in waiting for the hornbills. A few minutes later Cynthia walked towards us grinning from ear to ear. She just came from where I was standing before and now she was showing me the image of what she has just photographed. It was a Rough-crested Malkoha! For the past couple of years I have been wanting to take a picture of this lovely bird but had not been successful. Now because of my wife's patience we finally got one. Another photolifer!

Despite the inclement weather, we were able to see some nice birds, although none of what we were hoping for. I did add another lifer to our list, though, a Philippine Cuckoo-Dove last Friday. I even got a photo of that, too! Sadly, it was just a documentary shot, backlit and all. 

I should have let my better half take the picture.   Unfortunately she was performing her wifely duties, preparing for our lunch (along with Eve, Ralf's wife) back at the apartel.

Having been outshot, did I become the bitter half in our relationship? Of course not! I am always proud when my better half lives up to her role.