Sunday, December 23, 2012

Butastur of Hope Shone Above

It was a humdrum birding for the three of us Saturday morning. None of the expected wave of mixed flocks came to the trees in front of the deck. This was the first time that it happened. Or didn't happen. I had my mind set on getting more, and hopefully even better, shots of the Citrine Canary Flycatchers, Blue-headed Fantails, Elegant Tits and Sulfur-billed Nuthatches. But none came.

We had just finished an invigorating breakfast at Bangkong Kahoy (Wooden Bench) Resort. We were pumped up having overcome the effects of waking up in the wee, small hours of the morning. Sadly the caffeine-induced excitement slowly faded as the day wore on. 

Sure, there were moments when some birds showed up. Especially for our friend, Peter, who got his first ever Rough-crested Malkoha, perched on a branch way down the wooded glen. A pair of Philippine Coucals and a flock of Balicassiaos also made brief appearances. From a distance we caught a glimpse of a soaring Besra.

We reluctantly gave up on the birds we were hoping to see and decided to roam the premises. The only species kind enough to give us photographic opportunities was a White-throated Kingfisher.

To cover more grounds we three decided to split up. Cynthia went ahead and stayed at the lawn next to Ramon Quisumbing's hotel. I saw some Scaly-breasted Munias and decided to stalk them. Peter remained behind and while looking at some White-breasted Wood Swallows got rewarded with another lifer - a Coppersmith Barbet.

It was while we were on our own individual pursuits that the "star" shone above us. Little did we know then that it was the gift that we needed to allay the discouragements we felt at that time. I was about to take a shot at a pair of Munias when a raptor flew overhead. Instinctively I took several shots. Later on when Peter and I joined my wife at the hotel, I was so glad that they too were able to get pictures of that very same bird of prey. I dismissed it then as just the Besra we saw earlier. That night after processing our photographs, I noticed that the "Besra" does not look like one. I consulted Desmond Allen. As soon as he had provided the identification I immediately relayed the information to my wife. Shouts of "Yes!" and accompanying high fives reflected the fact that we have just gotten another lifer: Grey-faced Buzzard, Butastur indicus. I PMed Peter of the good news. He replied back, "We are very lucky!"

Sometimes we don't realize our blessings right away. We often remain focused on our problems and discouragements that we fail to notice the hope shining before us. Just as it was some two thousand years ago when shepherds saw a star. They followed the star and saw a baby lying on a manger. They didn't know then that the star led them to what they were hoping for. Then there were the wise men who travelled hundreds of miles because they saw a star shining in the east. There were times when they were discouraged and seemed to have lost their way. But they knew that as long as they follow that star they will find what they were looking for - the answer to all their questions.

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

That's all Itiks

Itik - the Pilipino word for duck, usually, but not always, referring to the domesticated kind.

As my wife and I were standing at the edge of the concrete road, scanning the distant ricefields, we were hoping to find a particular kind of "itik". Tadorna tadorna, as it is known in the scientific community, is an extremely rare visitor to the Philippines. But one was seen by our friends right from the very spot where we were at that moment. Without the aid of a spotting scope and the morning's light not really that bright we were getting frustrated. The group of Philippine Ducks that our target bird usually associates with were so far away they might as well be in Africa.

Even the Ruff crowd that we saw last time were no longer there and thus our hopes for our other target bird, the Black-tailed Godwit, went down the drain. Or in this case the newly planted ricefields.

Cynthia, bless her heart, sensing the growing despair in me suggested we go to the usual birding spots at the Candaba Wetlands. "Maybe we'll see some interesting birds like the Purple Swamphen or the Black Bittern" she said encouragingly. We have not seen both birds this year yet so that is definitely a good incentive. 

To make a long story short, we did not see both species. Not even a glimpse. So as we completed the loop, we just photographed, albeit halfheartedly, some of the local avian denizens that we encountered.

Striated Grassbird
Chestnut Munia
male Pied Bush Chat
female Red Turtledove
It was a palliative of some sort but not quite so. It's like taking a laxative for your constipation but even after some time had passed you still feel kind of bloated, you know?

Before we called it a day, we decided to give the search for the Shelduck one more try. Cynthia called our friend, Irene (who was among the first to see this rarity), and asked for specific directions. As soon as she got off the phone, my wife pointed to a small structure sitting atop a berm. "If you go close to that thing, you'll get a better view of the ducks," she said. "But Irene said to be careful as it is not the easiest of trails."

I borrowed my wife's smaller and lighter camera gear and set off towards the horizon. Irene wasn't kidding! The trail was basically hardened mud and so uneven that it challenged my balancing ability. Rudolf Nureyev would have been proud of me. Finally I was at the point where I have a more panoramic view of the birds on the fields below. I can see clearly the flock of ducks huddled close together! Through my binoculars I looked at each and everyone of those hundred or so endemic members of the Anatidae family. Several times! None of them had a white body and a dark head and neck. Not. A. Single. One.

With an aching heart I reenacted my balancing act as I retraced my way back to where my wife was patiently waiting for me.

But wait! we did see a duck with a white body although it was not with the group huddled in the hinterlands. 

It was with this bunch.

And in the end that's all itiks.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Boat Ride We Would Take

The trail behind the dam yielded nothing but a quick glimpse of a Scale-feathered Malkoha. We were surrounded by a symphony of bird song but the sources of those melodies remained hidden from view. Our host, Karen Ochavo, then suggested we take the banca, a tiny motorized dugout canoe with bamboo outriggers. We would see a lot more birds that way, she assured us. Cynthia and I looked at each other. Being both non-swimmers, we were overcome with extreme hydrophobia - and we were not even bitten by a rabid dog. We hemmed and hawed and made vague promises.

On the way to where the bancas were moored, we noticed our companions, Ruben, Doc Cha, Nina and Irene, all looking up to where Karen was pointing. Okay, there's the sky. Oh, with hundreds of birds zooming about.

"House Swifts!" Karen said.

"I'm not sure" I replied, "maybe sixty miles an hour?"

"No, they are House Swifts, notice they're much bigger than the Glossy Swiftlets?" Karen clarified.

Irene, Cynthia and I (the photographers in the group) tried taking pictures of our lifers but were all unsuccessful. The birds were really swifts.

Then came the moment my wife and I hoped would not happen. We will be doing a boat ride. Just as a precaution all of us were asked to wear life vests. Ruben gave us plastic bags to protect our cameras from getting splashed on or, heaven forbid, dunked. It was established that we will take two bancas; one will have the birders (Karen, Doc Cha, Nina and Ruben) and the other will have the photographers (me, Cynthia and Irene) on board.

photos courtesy of Irene Dy
photos courtesy of Irene Dy
My wife and I uttered a silent prayer as the motor chugged and we headed towards the open waters. The river was calm and even though we were mere inches away from the surface the boat ride was quite smooth. Seeing other bancas loaded with people including small children and not wearing any vests at all somehow gave us confidence on our newfound adventure.

The birds were there alright but as skittish as can be. White-throated Kingfishers (plenty of them), Common Kingfishers and even Indigo-bandeds would fly off before we could get within photographic distance. The same thing happened with several Little Herons we saw along the way. Ditto with a Yellow Bittern.

We also saw several Bulbuls raiding a fruiting tree. They were mostly Philippine Bulbuls but looking at the blurry photographs I took when we got home, I was so thrilled to see a Yellow-wattled Bulbul among them!

The real target of this fluvial expedition was the Grey-headed Fish Eagle. Imagine our excitement when a raptor flew overhead. However our hopes were dashed when we realized it was just a Philippine Serpent Eagle - a species we've seen many times before. 

When we were on our way back, having given up on our quest, our banca started rocking from side to side. The reason for that was because our boatman, throwing caution to the wind (and us almost to the river) suddenly stood up, yelled, "Agila! agila!"and excitedly pointed at something above us. We looked up and there in all its majestic splendor was our second lifer for the day. Not wanting to further rock the boat, despite our eagerness, we slowly lifted our cameras and fired at our backlit subject. Thankfully, the eagle even obligingly perched on a tree top just to assure us that we were not making a mistake in its identity.

Soon we were docking at the shoreline. We rested for a bit and did some leisurely shooting at the Pacific Swallows.

It was a pleasant trip to Ipo Dam. We had the boat ride experience of a lifetime and chalked up two lifers. Our deepest gratitude goes to Karen Ochavo for making all these possible. As Yoda would have expressed it perfectly: Karen, yes, House Swifts they are.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Still Ruff at the Edges

Cynthia was standing at the edge of a huge pond, patiently beckoning to me and Irene and Ha Luong, our friend from Vietnam. But we three were busy taking shots at the Striated Grassbird and Clamorous Reed Warbler who were drying themselves in the morning sun. Ha was fascinated by the Chestnut Munias glowing in the bright sunlight.

Striated Grassbird
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Eventually we relented and scooted over to where my wife was. In front of her were waders, lots of them and also way too far. We tried to move closer gingerly balancing our camera equipment as we negotiated the terribly uneven trail. Just as when we were relatively close, the birds flew off….but returned a few minutes later. Scanning the multitude, I was able to point out the most obvious Black-winged Stilts and a plethora of Marsh Sandpipers. However, there were these birds that were bigger than the Marsh Sandpipers but had a shorter bill. Flipping through the pages of the birdlist in my mind, a light bulb shone over my head.

"Ruff!" I shouted.

"Your skin?" Cynthia asked.

"Dog?" Irene looked around.

"Huh?" wondered Ha.

"No! Those waders over there, they're Ruffs!"

These uncommon migrants have been seen and photographed before by some members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) and we were hoping that these birds would still be here close to the edge of the concrete road.

Elated at adding another species to our lifelists, we proceeded to the Mayor's House. There we met up with our friend, Bong and his wife, Eve. I was about to go where they were staking out some birds when Ha said, "Pied Triller!" Cynthia repeated, "Pied Triller!" in case I didn't hear it the first time. I was about to ignore them (I have seen and photographed Pied Trillers many times already) when Ha shouted "White-shouldered Starlings!" Again my wife echoed, "White-shouldered Starlings!" albeit  in a louder, higher pitched tone. Irene was already doing her patented "Eeeek!" I looked and saw four, count-em, four starlings cavorting on the tree branches above us. 

I ran towards Bong and Eve and yelled "White-shouldered Starlings!" In a flash they were both beside us. Bong had been wanting to photograph this species for the past two years and now he was having his fill.

For our final mission, we went to where the ducks usually congregate. There they were, thousands of them, seemingly thousands of miles away. There was a small group preening a little bit closer to us. This bunch of snobbish Tufted Ducks avoided the mixed crowd at the other side of the pond. I took a "hail mary" shot of the huge flock. Later that night as I reviewed my photos, it turned out that that duck convention was composed mostly of Garganeys, some Philippine Ducks and a few Northern Shovelers.  However, when we were at Candaba viewing them, we could not distinguish the individual species much to Ha's consternation because she wanted so much to see the Philippine endemic.

On our way back to the Mayor's house, I saw a group of ducks flying not too far from us. I grabbed my binos and excitedly told Ha, "Philippine Ducks!" She grabbed her binos and was so happy to have finally seen what she wanted to see.

A beautiful way to end our birding day. Now to look for a great place to have lunch.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Earning Her Thrush

It was hot and humid at the La Mesa Ecopark. 

Ha Luong, our Vietnamese guest, wanted to see the Ashy Ground Thrush so she can add it to her life list. Earlier, as we were heading towards the mini-forest, we met Bram, a Belgian bird tour guide who resides here in the Philippines. Bram had just seen the Thrush and he obligingly joined us so he can show the place where he last saw the bird.

All four us were crouched, peering through the dark undergrowth as we showered in our own sweat. It was Cynthia (of course!) who first saw it. She pointed to where it was standing among the shadows. Bram saw it. Ha saw it. I didn't. For the life of me, despite using the binoculars that Ha lent me, I still could not see the Ashy Ground Thrush! And then just like that, it was gone!

We lingered around trying to re-locate the incredibly camouflaged ground dweller. I guess it was more for my sake that my wife and friends wanted to find it again. We spread out for better coverage. It was while I was fighting off those huge, black mosquitoes that I saw it! I fired off a few desperate shots. I emitted a soft whistle to call the attention of Bram and Ha. Luckily, the Ground Thrush remained on the spot until both of them got very good looks of our target species.

"We still have time to look for the Philippine Nightjar in U.P. (University of the Philippines)" I informed everybody, all the while praying that traffic would not be so bad. The Nightjar was also in Ha's wanted list.

On our way out, we passed by the spillway where Ha got another lifer - the Barred Rail.

It was no sweat finding the Philippine Nightjar at its usual roost. I could only say "no sweat" figuratively because we were all sweat, literally. 

We tried waiting for the Philippine Scops Owl to come out of its nest but with all the commotion coming from the students getting ready to go home on a Friday night, it never showed up.

Earlier while we were still at Ecopark an issue had to be settled. The initial plan was for Ha to stay with Ruth for the night. Inasmuch as Cynthia and I are taking our Vietnamese guest to Candaba early the following day, we suggested that Ha stay with us instead. That would be the most convenient and logical way to go especially since Ruth was worried about some personal stuff that she couldn't find. After Ruth spoke with Ha advising her of our decision, Ha looked at me and Cynthia with uneasy eyes. Understandable because this was the first time we met face-to-face (we are Facebook friends) so to her we were a strange couple. I mean a couple of strangers. I can imagine what's going on in her mind. She probably was thinking, "Ok, they look like the older version of Brad and Angelina but what if they are modern-day Bonnie and Clydes? Or even worse, they could be Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett in real-life."

To her credit she agreed to stay with us for the night. 

Let's just say that on the day she earned her Thrush we also earned her trust.