Monday, November 26, 2012

Ducks in the Back

Everyone who had recently been to the Candaba Wetlands were saying only one thing: ducks. "Thousands of them" was the unanimous description. With news such as that how can we not go to Candaba? As self-respecting birders shouldn't we also take in the breathless view of thousands of ducks  filling the morning sky?

Well, yeah.

Saturday was designated duck-day and we were supposed to meet up with friends Irene, Ivan and Micky at the wetlands. "Supposed" being the operative word because due to iterated misunderstandings, mostly on our part, we didn't get to see each other until about two hours later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. While Irene and company were enjoying their breakfast watching the rising sun blocked by thousands of flying ducks, I was gingerly negotiating our vehicle over the deeply rutted "road" towards the Mayor's house with my wife spewing out all the cautionary words in her very deep vocabulary. 

Dawn, I dare say, is probably the time when birds are the least skittish. It is when all their attention and efforts are spent in shaking dry their moist feathers that had been saturated by the night's dew drops.

White-breasted Waterhen
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Zitting Cisticola
At the mayor's house and not finding our friends, we decided to backtrack and try another even more deeply rutted route. Which brought us lots of anxiety (we almost got stuck in the muck) and not a single bird to tally. Well we did see a couple..of humans. Mark Wallbank and Paul Bourdain came from the opposite direction and regaled us with duck tales. Not to be outdone I showed them my photo of, get this, an uncommon Island Collared Dove that I got earlier which elicited some "cracking shot you got there!" remarks from them.

Finally after several frantic text messages and phone calls, we met our friends and proceeded yet again to the mayor's house. From there we all crossed on foot the two concrete slabs that passed for a bridge. Ivan did a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't trick as he took his spotting scope to look for the - you guessed it - ducks! and promptly disappeared from view.

Now the four us, me, my wife Cynthia, Irene and Micky perambulated the rough road and gazed at the pond on our left.

"Quack! quack! quack!"  

"Ducks!" Irene yelled.

"Um, actually that was my ringtone" I said sheepishly. I checked my cellphone and it was just some nasty telemarketer reminding me to get a loan because interests are quite low.

We stopped under the shade of the trees alongside the road. While we were taking a breather, I saw an airborne flock flying towards our direction.

"Duck!" I shouted. My companions bent over and covered their heads.

"Philippine Ducks!" I corrected myself. Cameras were raised just in time to capture the magnificent birds as they flew almost overhead. Singaporean Micky was ecstatic because at last he was able to photograph his target Philippine endemic, at flight even.

That routine was repeated several times although on several occasions we were fooled by the Wandering Whistling Ducks who pretended to be the local species as they flew in the same formation in our direction.

Moving on, we went to a nearby mudflats where Little Ringed Plovers, Long-toed Stints, Wood Sandpipers and Black-winged Stilts came to play. And where we almost fainted from the unshaded heat of the day.

Then the questions that had remained unasked so far finally came: "Where are the thousands of ducks?" 

I asked a couple of farmers and a frogger (one who catches frogs) on separate occasions and they were unanimous in saying "There at the back of those trees - thousands of them!" 

Since it has been assumed that Ivan was there (and possibly Mark and Paul as well) Irene and Micky decided to walk in that direction. To which two old, worn-out bodies politely declined. To us trekking to see the ducks at the back of the woods would bring so much displeasure to our backs. 

As we were leaving there was a loud "Quack! quack! quack!"

It was my ringtone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Triller Nonetheless

Saturday and I was still feeling the aftereffects of my recent bout with sinus cold. I promised my friends that I'll meet up with them at the campus of the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman for some slow-paced bird photography, so despite the doldrums I was there at 6 am. Another factor that contributed to my not so enthusiastic mood was that my wife was not able to go with me.  She would be busy preparing for a welcome lunch for her sister-in-law who'll be visiting from abroad.

The very first place that we (I was now with friends Peter, Irene and Micky) was the mango tree where a Philippine Nightjar roosts. I've had pictures of this bird before so I was just happy watching the three of them take shots at this nocturnal bird.

We then moved on to the Main Library grounds because my friends wanted to see the Coppersmith Barbets, among other birds. This was the time we were joined by our friend, Bong. It must have been a holiday for the avian metalworkers for none showed up that day. Thankfully, the Golden-bellied Gerygones were having a convention and provided my friends some good photo-ops. The highlight of the day though were the Pied Trillers. Normally birds of the treetops, this pair thought that a bamboo grove would be a nice spot to hunt for those tasty caterpillars.

Because I was still feeling a bit weak, I spent most of the time sitting on a bench (which was a strange deviation from my usual forever standing posture). Even though I was also able to squeeze in a few shots at it, for the most part I was just happy to watch my friends get excited by the presence of a Triller. 

Pied Triller after raiding the nearby bamboo grove
That morning I turned from someone who watches birds to one who watches bird photographers. And it was a thriller in a pleasurable sense.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Davao Trip: Logistics and Information

Davao City is a huge place! Birding areas, generally speaking, are about an hour away from the city proper. Here are some tips if you're planning a trip to this place:

Accommodations: We stayed at two different hotels during our stay.

Court View Inn is located at the city proper and is one of the newer hotels in town. The room we had was for P1095 per night. The price includes free breakfast. The room itself is clean, has airconditioning, cable TV and hot shower. The hotel staff are very friendly and helpful. The only nit is that it is not a stand alone hotel. The 41 rooms are located on the 4th and 5th floors of a commercial building with only a single elevator. Nevertheless we highly recommend the place.

Eden Nature Resort is about an hour's drive from the city. The cottage we got cost P2352 (senior discounted) per night. That includes free dinner and breakfast. Our cottage does not have airconditioning but it is cool in the evenings anyway. There is also no Cable TV and the reception for the local programs are quite spotty. Hot shower is available though. The cottages/lodges are at some distance from the reception area and the restaurant, however the resort provides van to pick up and return guests to their respective lodgings. As the name states, this is indeed a nature resort and we did all our birding inside the compound. Also highly recommended especially for nature lovers.

the cottage where we stayed
Check out their website: Eden Nature Park

Transportation: Name it they have it - taxis, buses, multicabs, tricycles and even habal-habal.

Although we had the benefit of Cynthia's brother driving us around, we still had to hire a van to take us to the PEC and Eden Resort. The cost of the van was P2500 per day plus fuel expenses (we paid P1000) and food for the driver.

Since both the PEC and Eden are away from the main roads, a taxi is recommended (haggle for  the cost and arrange for a pick-up as well).

Food: restaurants are everywhere and the food is delicious and cheap!

The restaurants we dined in are:

Yellow Fin Seafood Restaurant - excellent fare, and very reasonable price. Either order a la carte or from their self-service section. Check out their Facebook page: Yellow Fin Seafood Restaurant

Delongtes Seafood Grill & Barbecue - not as good as Yellow Fin but delicious food nonetheless. Service though is a bit slow. Their Facebook page: Delongtes Seafood Grill

Mamma Maria's Pizza/Gino's Burgers - is located at the first floor of our hotel building. The food here is surprisingly good (considering that these are the fast food joints of Davao). While Cynthia had a single (9-inch) pizza, I had a Mushroom Bacon Burger. For a hamburger sandwich in the Philippines this one is quite big - and only about the same price as a Big Mac at a local McDonalds (where "Big" is an exaggeration). Did I mention that the taste is 100 times better than a McDonalds? Aside from Charlie's in  Pasig and Greenhills, Gino's arguably is the closest to an In-N-Out burger when it comes to taste.

Sito's - is what I would call a "casual dining" place even though it is actually categorized as a fast food place. You have the option of eating "al fresco" or inside an airconditioned area.  Again the food is delicious and unbelievably cheap. Not only that every now and then the waiters would break out in a dance routine for the entertainment of the guests.

Birding Places: Due to our limited stay, we were not able to bird Davao to the fullest. However here are some of the places we visited.

Bacunan Beach is not a beach resort but simply, a beach. Thanks to Pete Simpson, we saw lots of shorebirds here. To get there I suggest you contact Pete (email me for his contact info).

Philippine Eagle Center is the place where the national bird is being bred in captivity for future release in the wild. Needless to say this is a very birdy place. Bulbuls (Yellow-vented, Yellow-wattled and Philippine) can be seen here. Various sunbirds and the Little Spiderhunter had also been observed. If you're lucky you might even see the Silvery Kingfisher.  Fore more details see their website Philippine Eagle Center

Eden Nature Park, as mentioned earlier, is also a good place to see mountain birds. Everett's White-eyes are guaranteed here. At night, if you're patient enough you might see the Mindanao Scops Owl. Outside the resort is an uphill trail where towards the top Whiskered Flowerpeckers can be observed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Davao Trip: Day 3 - Eden, and then…..

It was because of the heavy downpour last night that we had to cancel our date with Pete Simpson for this morning. The original plan was to meet up with him at the Eden Nature Resort's gate and from there climb up the trail to where the Whiskered Flowerpeckers play. Last night's deluge made that steep trail the slide center of Davao. Concerned about the safety of our cameras - not to mention our antiquated bodies - we called off our appointment with Pete with heavy hearts. 

Surprisingly, the morning was sunny and bright! After a buffet breakfast, we birded the area around our cottage which was dotted with extremely tall trees. Once again, all we saw were Yellow-vented Bulbuls. I was already at the point of exasperation but my more patient spouse kept searching for some movement in the canopies. Finally she saw a flock flew in. Everett's White-eyes! This was our primary target species here at Eden Resort. As in any white-eye flock, the feeding group was frenzied in their movements.

Eventually the white-eyes moved on. I wondered why this flock was composed only of Everett's White-eyes. Normally a flock moving through the forest would have several species symbiotically feeding together. I half expected Sulfur-billed Nuthatches, Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers, maybe some kind of flycatchers or fantails to join them. That wasn't the case here.

Once again there was silence. Long, frustrating silence. There would be some movement…we would look….and it would just either be another Yellow-vented Bulbul or a bullying Brown Shrike. Are we in a forest in Mindanao? I kept asking myself because it certainly doesn't feel that way.

Another movement. I looked and was somewhat relieved to notice the bars on its breast. Finally, not a Bulbul or a Shrike. A female Violet Cuckoo was definitely a surprise. Problem was it was too far up for me to get a decent shot. 

Another problem that I encountered were the gnats! Those tiny flying insects must have had a convention that morning and agreed in toto to attack my eyes. Each time I removed my face from the viewfinder of my camera, wham! a gnat would smack into my eye. Then another. And another! You could almost hear the shouts of "banzai!" as they would zoom then slam into my organs of sight. So for the most part I had my eyes closed. Of course birdwatching wouldn't be what it was if the "watching" part wasn't there. Even worse was that I am slightly hearing impaired and therefore could not even listen for birds. To partially solve this nuisance, I covered my eyes with my hands and peered through the tiny gaps to look for birds. If I find a photographable one, I would paste my right eye to the viewfinder and close my left, then take pictures. After that it was a race on which gets to my eyes first, my hands or those pesky gnats.

As we returned to our cottage, I again saw the little brown bird that was perched on a tall fern frond yesterday. I couldn't make a proper identification then because it was rather dim (it was drizzling yesterday, remember?). Now that the skies were clear, I was quite sure that this was a Grey-streaked Flycatcher. 

Eleven in the morning and check-out time. We headed back into the city and stayed at the Court View Hotel (the same place we stayed at on our first day). As we were finishing lunch and thinking of a birding place to go to afterwards, we received an unpleasant news. It was so heart-breaking that Cynthia and I both agreed to just stay in our room that afternoon to mull over things and fight the depressing feeling that was overcoming us.

I got sick that night. High fever coupled with a sore throat made sleeping almost an unachievable task. The following morning we dismissed anew any plans to go birding. We ate breakfast just because we had to. Our flight back to Manila was scheduled for 1:35 that afternoon. When we got to the airport at around 11:30 am, we were advised that the flight had been delayed indefinitely. Dismay added to my already weak physical state. At last at 4:05 pm we were off. Everything was a just blur to me since then.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Davao Trip: Day 2 - Dud Birding

Birdwatchers in the Philippines have coined the phrase "dude birding". Basically, it means seeing birds with the least amount of effort - usually from a car window. Now allow me to add another term to the ever growing compilation of birdwatching lingo: Dud birding. It means getting a perfect zero in trying to find your target birds.

And it hurts even more when you travelled great distances to find certain species and ended up with absolutely nothing.

On our second day in Davao, we hired a van to take us to the Philippine Eagle Center. Thanks to the kindness of its Director, Dennis Salvador, we were admitted into the facility way before its normal opening time of 8 am. Cynthia and I immediately stationed ourselves by the pond where target bird #1 - the Silvery Kingfisher - was reportedly hanging out. Minutes excruciatingly crept by. Only the Pacific Swallows and noisy Yellow-vented Bulbuls kept us company. Then a flash of black-and-white! But it was gone before our brains could even react. With even a smidgen of a doubt I cannot call it a "sighting"…and therefore could not claim it as a lifer.

I left my wife by the pond to continue the vigilance while I tried to look for the other two target species:  the Yellow-wattled Bulbul and the Little Spiderhunter. Roaming around the area all I saw were Philippine Bulbuls and Olive-backed Sunbirds.

Cynthia and I then switched positions. I stood by the pond and eyed it with the patience of a vulture. My wife, in turn, looked for the birds on our want list. However all her wanderings yielded only Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers.

Then it was time to leave, Cynthia had a lunch date with her ex-officemates from PNB an hour's drive away.

That afternoon we checked in at the Eden Nature Resort. It was drizzling…leading to a torrential downpour later that night.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Davao Trip: Day 1 - Shore Enough

As soon as my wife and I had checked-in into our hotel, the text messaging began. It was fast and furious. The time and place for the rendezvous had quickly been agreed upon. That being settled we indulged in a leisurely lunch with Cynthia's brother, Chito and his family.

Two in the afternoon, we met up with the guy with whom we exchanged text messages earlier. Pete Simpson, a Brit and a birder, then led us to Bucanan Beach. "Plenty of shorebirds here" he declared in his clipped British accent. It was low tide and sure enough there were shorebirds galore. Except they were too far. Soon Pete was calling out species by species. "Oh easy for this chap, he's using a bloody scope!" I thought to myself. 

I wanted to go nearer but Pete warned me that the shore was mushy at certain areas and my foot just might get stuck. I was giving this warning some serious thought when a couple of fishermen walked from their boat to where we were. And not one of their four feet was swallowed by the mud. Throwing caution to the wind I lugged my gear (with the big lens, mind you) and sauntered over to where the birds….and bunch of frolicking kids were. Which, of course, resulted in the sudden flight of the shorebirds.

I admit that I am not one of those grampas who enjoy the presence of kids. So with self imposed patience I waited until the kids have had their fun and had moved on to another part of the beach. 

The birds, as expected, flew back to the shore albeit more wary than ever. Finally I was able to see and even able to identify the majority of them. Greater Sand Plovers and Kentish Plovers mingled with the Grey-tailed Tattlers and Terek Sandpipers.

There was even a snobbish Whimbrel who preferred to be alone.

One species though that seemed to not mind the presence of humans was the Chinese Egret which was so insouciantly hunting for fish by disturbing the shallow waters with its foot.

At around 4 pm, Chito came to pick us up. We thanked Pete for taking us to this place which was sort of a mixture of the Paranaque Coastal Lagoon (for the trash - though not as many) and Olango (for the shorebirds - though not as many).

It was quite a fruitful first day of birding for us. Sadly the following days were not as good.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Birding with "Pureners"

An American, an Englishman and a Singaporean walked into a car……

….and went birding with a bunch of locals, including myself and my wife. The three foreigners (henceforth collectively referred to as the "pureners") were tightly packed in the compact car of our friend, Irene Dy. Another birding friend, Jasmin Meren, was also with them hence the crampiness of the situation. We, including our buddy, Ralf Nabong, met this closely knit group at the McDonalds by the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) and relieved them of the tallest purener, American Dick Norton. Dick, as we learned while traveling to Los Banos, was from Topanga, California and he knew many of our birding friends from that part of the world.

At the TREES Hostel parking lot in Mt. Makiling we met another group of birders from the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP). They were warming up for the long arduous hike up the mountain. Our group thought about joining them and actually even walked the first hundred meters or so but the weight of my camera gear was becoming a burden to my ancient shoulder. My wife and I paused as the  WBCP group moved on. We noticed Linda Gocon, another member of the WBCP, looking up and pointing something to our foreign guests. They were some fifty meters behind us so we used this as an excuse not to continue with the expected body torture of joining the younger group going up the mountain.

Back to Linda…she was naming species after species as she pointed non-stop to tiny dots frolicking in the tree tops. Even with my long lens, those dots only became bigger dots. Enough though to be able to determine what kind of birds they were. Ashy Minivets were the biggest in the flock and therefore the easiest to see. Then there was the wagging tail that separated the Striped Flowerpecker from the rest. The other dots were most likely Olive-backed and Purple-throated Sunbirds, also Red-keeled Flowerpeckers and maybe even Stripe-headed Rhabdornis. Soon the mixed flock was gone.

A short visit to the ricefields yielded nothing much except for Oriental Skylarks and a family of Common Moorhens.

Ten in the morning and we were in a quandary. We've birded the area and there wasn't anything new anymore to show our guests. Why not try Villa Escudero? came the suggestion.

About an hour later we were met by resident birder, Carmela Balcazar, at the reception area of Villa Escudero. We all proceeded to the dining area by the waterfalls (and in the river) when the avian star of the Villa afforded us good looks and delighting our foreign guests.

Lunch, as usual, was delicious, and a new experience for our non-Filipino friends. Imagine enjoying native fare while the cool river waters flow over your feet.

Our next stop was to look for the Philippine Scops Owls nonchalantly sleeping within the comfort of the leaves of a huge tree. On the way there, a Grey Wagtail was itself busy having lunch.

From there we were entertained by a Red-keeled Flowerpecker feasting on the fruits of a ficus tree.

Carmela then issued a challenge to the photographers in the group - and that, unfortunately, included me. She will flush the Snipes in the field and we will try to photograph the birds in flight. The only way to properly identify a Snipe was by the markings of their tails…something that can only be seen when these birds fly. Please note that the flight of these species can only be described as abrupt and fast.

Let me just say here that despite the multiple attempts by all six of us, not one was able to successfully accomplish the task. When Carmela returned from her umpteenth and final attempt at flushing the Snipes, we all knelt before her and pleaded,  "We all failed. We deserve to die!"

Magnanimous person that she was, Carmela pardoned us. Not only that she even showed us the Philippine Magpie Robin that hangs out near the parking lot as we were on our way out.

An American, an Englishman and a Singaporean birded with a group of Filipinos and we all had fun! Thank you Dick Norton, Brian Ellis and Micky Lim, our "purener" friends for a wonderful time.

photo courtesy of Jasmin Meren