Thursday, October 25, 2012

Down in the Dumps

One week after our Coron trip and I was down in the dumps - no, not depressed, but more like exhausted.  It had been an exciting, if a bit strenuous, five days of birding. I was extremely happy at the results - getting five lifers and being able to get pictures of most of the species I wanted to photograph. But this sixty-plus-years-old body ain't what it used to be.

When friends, Peter and Irene, invited me and my wife for a sortie in Caylabne, I was agreeable but not very enthusiastic, to be honest. Thank goodness, it was a very pleasant, even breezy, Saturday morning when we started birding the road to Mt. Palay-palay. Surprisingly, considering the gorgeous weather, birds were quite few.

But, and this was a big but (definitely no pun intended), Peter's and Irene's target bird, the Philippine Falconet, or in this case, Falconets, were out in the open.

The remaining six kilometers or so were once again devoid of birds, except……

"Eeeek! Brahminy Kites!" shouted Irene. Ahead of us the lovely raptor was dive bombing something. We all jumped out of our vehicle and waited for a clear shot of the now soaring bird.

Inside the Caylabne Resort we gave in to the pleadings of our collective stomachs and indulged in a delightful brunch. We also planned our next strategy so that we could perhaps, maybe, you know, see more birds. Based on the experiences of our friend, Mike Anton, we all agreed to go to the resort's dumpsite(?!).

Down in the dumps, aka, the place where the resort dumps their recyclable stuff - bottles, cans, etc - which by the way, was surrounded by trees and greeneries, things began looking up. Rather, we began looking up. For up in the branches were birds! Blue-throated Bee-eaters were numerous! 

Some Philippine Bulbuls also would occasionally drop by.

And last but not least (don't you just love cliches?) were the Whiskered Treeswifts, another target bird of our two companions.

The trip home was tinged with a bit of trepidation because we know we had to be rerouted through a series of narrow roads to get back to the main highway. The bridge connecting the towns of Naic and Ternate was being repaired - the sign (which we missed) even said so. It said something like "Bridge being repaired, please take ternate route". Perhaps the "al" in "alternate" got covered, or was hidden from view. Whatever it was, it prompted me to make the comment that "Al" has left the building…(of the bridge?)

That corny joke should be placed in a dump…..and left there to rot.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Coron Trip: Logistics and Other Information

It was a fruitful birding trip we had in Coron except for an inauspicious start. Here are some tips and logistics should you plan on visiting this place:

Flight: Zest Air, Airphils and Cebu Pacific offer regular flights to Busuanga (the point of entry to Coron). We took Cebu Pacific and as mentioned in my earlier blog, we had to turn back to Manila because of "inclement weather".  The following day, everything was just perfect and the 50 minute flight was pleasant.

Accommodations: We stayed at a place (known as Roger's House) that was practically unknown to visitors to Coron. They don't advertise nor have a website. Basically we just rented a room (with a private bathroom) of big house. I learned about this because the administrator was a cousin of my classmate in high school. The cost was P1500 per night. The room was just about right in terms of size. There were two beds, one queen and one twin. It has air conditioning which was OK but there had been brownouts at night sometimes lasting more than two hours. On the negative side, the bathroom shower was not working and there was no hot water. 

Breakfast (and sometimes also lunch and dinner) were included in the price. Another plus was the sense of security. We know we can leave our laptop in our room without fearing that it won't be there anymore when we return. Bits, the administrator saw to it that we were really happy in our stay.

I'll give it 5 stars for the service and 3 stars for the facilities.

Having said that, there are many hotel options in Coron, from the high end Grand View and Sophia's to the budget places and everything in between. We recommend the Gran Vista not only because of its nice facilities (although no aircon and no hot water also) but because you can do great birding right on their premises! 

Another one although not yet open already looks promising. La Natura will start business come December and again the area around it is quite birdy. The rooms are not airconditioned but it is cool in the evenings anyway, the owners assured me. Hot water is available though and breakfast is included in the price.

Transportation: Make arrangements with your hotel to pick you up at the airport - a good hour's drive away. We paid P150 per person for the van pick up (and for taking us to the airport on our date of departure). Some hotels offer free pick up and return to airport so you might want to consider that when choosing a place to stay. 

Travel within the town of Coron is via tricycle. Haggle with the driver as to prices especially if you need to be picked up after birding. Short distances usually commands P10 per person fare. For our trip to Cabo Beach via Maquinit Hot Springs we paid P500 all in. The driver waited for us as we birded these places and even along the way.

For the trip to Capayas Creek (where bird guide Erwin also stays) we paid P150 to take us there and pick us up later. We paid the same price even when we had a side trip to Dipulao before proceeding to Capayas Creek.

Bird Guide: Erwin Edonga is the local guide and we recommend him highly. His rate is P1000 per day.

Birding Places: Capayas Creek is a sure place to see Black-naped Monarchs, Blue Paradise Flycatchers, Lovely Sunbirds, Palawan Flycatchers, White-vented Shamas, Ashy-fronted Bulbuls, Ashy Drongos and Ruddy Kingfishers. Possibly Blue-headed Racket-tail.

Maquinit Hot Springs: Collared Kingfishers and a strong possibility for Stork-billed Kingfisher.

Dipulao: Rufous-backed and Blue-eared Kingfishers

Grande Vista Hotel grounds: Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, White-bellied Munia and Spot-throated Flameback.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Coron Trip: Day 6 - Five, More and Less

We met up with our new friend, Maween Rios Reyes, at the small patch of forest adjoining the San Agustin Academy premises. Just as she described to us yesterday, this place was quite birdy. However, the birds were those that we have already seen at Capayas Creek. It was still thrilling though to be serenaded by a White-vented Shama this early in the morning. The Black-naped Monarchs and Olive-backed Sunbirds were already busy hunting for food. A lone Grey Wagtail was a lifer to our friend who was just getting into the birding groove.

After about an hour, we have seen all the birds that this place had to offer. Since it was still early, Cynthia and I invited Maween back to the boulevard. I still want to get further documentation of the waders that inhabit that area. Somehow I couldn't get over the fact that these tiny patches of water not far from a marketplace would harbor such a diversity of birds!

Sadly when we got there, the avian population had become sparse. The lone Black-headed Gull still remained along with the Whiskered Terns though. 

The Plovers were down to a few Kentish(?) Lesser Sand (?). 

The Red-necked Stint pair were still foraging tirelessly. 

Both the solo Grey-tailed Tattler and Wood Sandpiper also decided to stick around. 

Of the Wagtails, only one Yellow remained.

We attributed the decline to the slowly evaporating ponds caused by the fiercely shining sun. The heat was so intense that Cynthia and Maween could no longer endure standing in the open. I, on the other hand, was intent on my desire to photograph the unusual shore birds of Coron. Until I noticed my clothes sticking to my skin like duct tape. Reluctantly, I joined my companions who were fanning themselves vigorously in the semi-comfort of a shade.

My wife and I thanked our friend for a wonderful morning then bade her a fond farewell and promised to keep in touch.

Around 10 am while we waited for the van that will take us to the airport, Cynthia and I reminisced on our adventures here in Coron. It was pretty much summarized as: five lifers more and five pounds less.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Coron Trip: Day 5 - A Mythical Mystery Tour

Ibong Adarna, or the Adarna bird is a legendary bird of the Philippines. It is believed to have a very long fancy tail, with numerous shiny metallic colors. It knows a total of seven songs that are believed to lull anyone to sleep as well as cure any type of afflictions; it changes its feathers into more colorful hues and shades after each song. Seven color changes of feathers for the seven songs... Colors were perlas (pearl), kiyas (bronze), esmaltado (emerald), dyamante (diamond), kristal (crystal), tinumbaga (gold and copper alloy), and karbungko (carbuncle /dark red garnet). After the last song, it excretes waste, then finally, sleeps with its eyes wide open. Its dung (poop) can turn any living organism into stone.

Though her song was believed to be so dangerous, any one can still nullify the curse-effect of her song , if and only if, that person wounded his palm and at the same time squeeze a calamansi/ kalamansi (a citrus fruit from the Philippines looks like a lime but just small). And by staying awake, anyone has now the chance to catch her and ask for her curing abilities of any kind of sickness.."  taken from

Yesterday afternoon we were talking with Gigi Velasquez, owner of Grande Vista Resort Hotel. When she learned that we were bird photographers, she told us that there are many birds within their property. One of those birds, she said, was the Ibong Adarna.  We were skeptical, of course, thinking how can a mythical bird be real. 

Early the following morning we were at the Grande Vista ready to take on the local avifauna and who knows, we might even encounter the legendary bird. At first, all we saw were the usual suspects - Ashy Drongos, Ashy-fronted Bulbuls, and a loud Collared Kingfisher. Then came a flock of White-bellied Munias. I still don't have a decent shot of these tiny seedeaters so I thought that that opportunity had finally come. Well, maybe a little better than before but still short of my expectations.

As I was wrestling photographically with the munias, Cynthia was staring at the tall tree, seemingly a hundred kilometers away. 

"There's some movement on that tree. I think it's a bird" she assured me.

I looked through my binoculars. It's a bird alright. A Spot-throated Flameback, as a matter of fact. We've been looking for this species the past three days and failed miserably. But it was way too far for a decent photo. I fired off a few half-hearted shots and just hoped it will turn out well enough.

We meandered over to where the grove of trees were. Again it was my wife's sharp eyes that saw something big and rufous protruding out of a leafy branch. Slowly I moved closer to try to get a better position. However, it flew quietly up and that's when I realized that this bird, the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, was the Ibong Adarna that Gigi was talking about. It's resemblance to the fabled bird was quite striking, except that this creature was completely silent.  Suddenly like any fowl of lore it disappeared from view.

We were still recovering from the impact of this discovery when this time it was I who saw some movement on a tree branch not that far away from us. I motioned to Cynthia, who was a few meters ahead of me, to focus her attention on that particular tree. Soon we were rewarded with good views of a pair of Spot-throated Flamebacks - nearer and definitely more open than the one we saw earlier.

At ten in the morning we returned to the reception area and told Gigi about our encounter with the mythical Ibong Adarna in her property. She was thrilled! Soon our ride came to pick us up. We thanked our host and bade her a fond farewell.

On the ride towards the place we were staying in, I asked Mark, the tricycle driver, to bring us to the boulevard instead. Now that I have my longs lens with me I wanted to take better pictures of the shore birds we saw yesterday.

As I walked towards the shallow pools of water, I noticed something different, something strange. It was a tall, grey wader. My jaw dropped to the ground and my eyes leapt out of their sockets as I realized I was gazing at a Pacific Reef Heron! (or Egret in other reference books) I was amazed for this was not the kind of habitat that this bird prefers. Looking at it closely, I noticed that there was a plastic string tied to its right ankle. The bird doesn't seem to be in trouble - it looked healthy to me - so I just hoped that it would be able to survive well on its own. 

Later that afternoon, we returned to this place but the Reef Heron was gone. 

"It was meant just for us" Cynthia rationalized. 

"Perhaps it was a gift from the Ibong Adarna" I joked.

Nevertheless the ponds were filled with birds. This time we were joined by Maween Rios Reyes, local photographer, newbie birder, and new friend. 

We stood there as we watched the lone Black-headed Gull rule the tiny kingdom while Whiskered Terns darted back and forth. Plovers - Little ringed, Greater Sand, and possibly Kentish were all over the place.

Another surprise was a group of White Wagtails mingling with the more common Yellows.

Rounding up the group were a pair of Red-necked Stints, a Grey-tailed Tattler and a single Wood Sandpiper.

The golden hour faded into hues of red as the sun slowly sank in the horizon. We promised Maween that we'll meet up with her early tomorrow for our final day of birding.

As we retired to bed that night we were thankful for the new friends we have made and the birds we saw and the incredible 5th lifer we got on our 5th day here in Coron.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Coron Trip: Day 4 - Lunch, Lunch, Coke on my Pants (or I'm Seeing Blue)

It was deja vu in the Frenchiest sense of the phrase. Cynthia and I were enjoying spam sandwiches during our lunch break. Like yesterday Coke was the drink of choice. This time I was uber careful in removing the bottle cap - the unwelcome drenching of my clothes from the previous day's mistake still fresh on my mind. Not having any table for our food,  my wife decided to place her soda-filled glass on the chair I was sitting on. I have been duly warned, of course, so my movements were down to a minimum.

"Lovely!" "Lovely!"

It was Erwin pointing at the Lovely Sunbird that had just alit on the hibiscus plant not more than 3 meters away from us. Cynthia, in her eagerness to take a shot at the tiny bird before it flies away, grabbed her camera and stood up. In so doing she bumped into my chair toppling the soda-filled glass.

"You made me wet my pants" I told her almost tearfully.

"Sorry! Sorry!" she murmured as she kept pressing her camera's shutter.

"Lovely!" "Lovely!" Erwin was almost begging me to take the picture of the sunbird.

So with my behind dripping and harboring some not so pleasant thoughts at my birding companions I positioned myself behind my camera (which was mounted on a tripod) and clicked away.

Just like yesterday, our day started off quite pleasantly. Erwin took us to a place called Dipulao. We stayed at an area where they make hollow blocks. A river runs through here and a creek borders its premises. 

We were assured that the kingfishers that frequent this place were so used to human presence that they would perch quite close. Boy, they were not kidding! In typical Erwin fashion, he was soon shouting, "Orange!" "Orange!" The Rufous-backed displayed its brilliant plumage as we happily took its picture.

Then, "Blue!" "Blue!" At first it was perched at quite a distance from us, but after a while as if summoned by some higher power, it flew to within a few meters from where we were standing.

"Grey!" "Grey!" This time it was me as I pointed at the Grey Wagtail posing from a pole practically begging for its picture to be taken. To which we happily obliged.

We even had those "oooh" moments when a Stork-billed Kingfisher flew right by us and we were just too amazed that we weren't able to do anything photography-wise. Too bad it didn't land at all.

Back at Erwin's neck of the woods, he suggested that we do a tour of the area surrounding the Capayas Creek Nature Reserve to try and look for the Flamebacks and the Racket-tails, my target birds for this day. Once again, Cynthia opted to sit this one out. Erwin and I haven't gone that far when I saw a largish grey bird. 

"Black-bellied Cuckoo Shrike!" I exclaimed. My guide seemed to be perplexed and kept asking what bird it was despite my repeated and detailed explanations. He seemed to have forgotten that we saw the same species at almost the very same spot two years ago.

The tour was a dud as we failed to see the birds on my wanted list.

It was after that wet lunch experience that things got better. (was it because of the Coke?) The guava tree next to the hibiscus plant was teeming with Palawan Flowerpeckers and Ashy-fronted Bulbuls.

A little later, Erwin's sharp ears detected the screeches of the Blue-headed Racket-tails and his super sharp eyes eventually found them. Problem was they were just too far and too hidden among the leaves. Did I mention that they were almost always backlit? Nevertheless, a lifer is a lifer and I have to document it photographically.

Happy that I finally had my two Blues, we decided to call it a day at around 3pm.

After resting a bit, Cynthia and I put on our tourist caps and explored the area called "the boulevard". When we first arrived here in Coron, I checked out the roof deck of the place where we were staying. From there I could see the waterfront and noticed some terns flying by. Today I wanted to satisfy my curiosity if there were really birds in that area. Since we are on a "tourist" mode I just brought my short lens (20-135mm). Big mistake!

By the boulevard were some patches of water perhaps created by the recent rains. As we approached these, I saw birds! There were the terns, of course, probably Whiskereds, but there were also shorebirds! Two Black-winged Stilts were among the various peeps that I figured were Plovers - Kentish, perhaps. Not having a long lens or even a pair of binoculars with us, we were frustrated.

The sun slowly descended the skies painting the shores with a warm reddish glow. I turned to my wife and looked at her eyes with the same warmth that enveloped us on that golden hour.

"We'll be back." I half-whispered in her ear.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coron Trip: Day 3 - Lunch, Lunch, Coke on my Pants (or going over to the Dark-Side)

We were about to have lunch just outside the house of local bird guide Erwin Edonga. The high humidity was causing my pores to spew sweat in quantities I never thought possible. When Erwin handed me the 2-liter bottle of Coke I grabbed it like a lifesaver thrown to a drowning man. As I twisted the cap the contents burst into several streams that would put all the fountains in Rome to shame. A few minutes of this and it finally died down leaving me with a half-empty (or half-full to you optimists out there) bottle of Coca-cola and my t-shirt and pants sopping wet. Note to self: do not open a soda bottle that just came from a bumpy motorcycle ride.

"I think I wet my underpants," I calmly told my wife as I nonchalantly poured my soda into a glass filled with ice cubes.

To her credit she didn't fall off her chair laughing but merely continued enjoying her fried chicken as if we were in a fancy restaurant.

Other than this pitiful (for me) or comedic (to you, i'm sure) circumstance, it was a wonderful day birding-wise. We were at Erwin's place bright and early Wednesday morning. Cynthia and I were amazed at the number of birds that inhabit this place. Blue Paradise Flycatchers and its almost look-alike cousin, the Black-naped Monarch, were already busy hawking for insects close to the ground.

female Blue Paradise Flycatcher
male Black-naped Monarch
While we were trying to photograph these active birds, Erwin, in his patented enthusiastic mode, called our attention to a tiny feathered creature silhouetted in a coconut tree.

"Lovely!" "Lovely!" he interjected while pointing to the tree.

We thought he was just describing the bird he was seeing. Then "ding!" I realized we were now looking at our second lifer of the trip - the Lovely Sunbird. Strange name for a male. The female clothed in drab yellow and brown, interestingly is also called "Lovely Sunbird". Of course, there is a Handsome Sunbird found elsewhere in the Philippines and the name applies to both male and female. And scientists who are responsible for naming birds are supposed to be smart people. Hmmm.

But I digress.

Erwin suggested we explore the Capayas Creek Nature Reserve now owned by our friend, Ramon Quisumbing. I wanted to photograph the three kingfishers that I saw here two years ago, and Erwin assured me that we will see two for sure, and maybe even the third one.

Cynthia decided to stay behind and wait for the furtive Hooded Pitta and Common emerald Dove - her excuse for not wanting to walk up the slippery trails.

The Ruddy Kingfisher was a no-sweat (I was speaking figuratively here inasmuch as I was already literally drenched in perspiration at this point).

The smaller Rufous-backed was a bit of a problem though. Everytime we would see it, it was in an unphotographable spot (too far, behind a leaf or a branch, etc). On our way back, I saw something brown alight on a branch. It would dart off after an insect and then return to its original perch. That is so flycatcher-y, I thought to myself. I was able to take a few photographs of it and looking at the results, I was perplexed. My first guess was that it was just one of them Grey-streaked ones, but somehow, something looks different. We did see two Grey-streaked Flycatchers later and I pointed out to Erwin the apparent differences from what we saw earlier. The Grey-streaked was smaller and the streaks were just too obvious. It was only after Cynthia and I got back home that I was able to properly identify (and confirmed by Desmond Allen) that it was a Dark-sided Flycacther! Lifer number 3 for us. Darth Vader would have been pleased.

It was while I was explaining to Erwin the difference between the two flycatchers that a Rufous-backed Kingfisher came out of nowhere and perched in full view just a few meters away from us!

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I mean where Cynthia was, she apparently had been busy as she was all smiles when we approached her.

"Cuckoo!" she said with a naughty smile.

"So are you!" I retorted.

Then she showed me the bird she photographed.

"A B-b-brush Cuckoo? Here in Coron?" I was incredulous.

I was still trying to assimilate this fact when "Cuckoo!" 

This time it was Erwin pointing to a brown thing perched on a branch.

I got a photograph. When I looked…..

"A Plaintive Cuckoo?"

Now I was going cuckoo in my mind. First there was a Brush and now a Plaintive!? Imagine that!

I was in this cogitative mood when it was announced that it was time for lunch.

And that was when I wet my pants.