The sweet smell of pine trees wafted by the cool mountain breeze filled the air. We were in Baguio City, a tourist mecca nestled high in the Cordillera mountains some 270 kilometers from Manila. It was Friday afternoon. After checking in and enjoying the sumptuous lunch buffet at Baguio Country Club, we basked in the nippy weather as we waited for our friend and local birder, Jocelyn (henceforth referred to as "Jho").
At 3 pm, she came running - literally - towards us having just finished a meeting at the school where she works. Inasmuch as Jho had a scheduled trip the following day and therefore would not be able to go birding with my wife and I, she promised to show us the places where we could go on our own tomorrow. As we passed by Camp John Hay she pointed out the trails where she said the wave of birds would pass. "The time of day does not matter," she explained, "there will always be a wave. You just have to wait for it".
Some 40 minutes later we were negotiating the steep road to the summit of Mt. Santo Tomas. As we passed by a "landslide" she indicated that this was where the crossbills come in the morning. Near the end of the road, we parked the car and walked, or rather "trudged", the rest of the way. "This place is the home of the Mountain Shrike and the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker," Jho informed two out-of-breath senior citizens. Unfortunately, both species were not present that time.
It was nearing five in the afternoon and a thick fog was starting the envelop the mountain. We all agreed that it was time to go. While walking towards our car, Cynthia suggested I turn around where the incline towards the top began. I argued that I can make a u-turn right where we were parked. I don't know why but when I started the car something within me just urged me to follow my wife's proposition. As soon as I made the turn I saw a bird move in the tree right in front of us. "There's a bird there!" I told my companions. The bird then flew down to the vegetable garden below.
"Island thrush!" Jho exclaimed and jumped out of the car. Cynthia immediately followed. I had to park the car properly, get my gear out of the bag before I was able to join them and hoped the bird would still be there. No worries though as Jho pointed to a black bird foraging for insects in between rows of cabbages. Somehow the fog slowly lifted and the sun shone brightly. The thrush paused from its meal hunting and posed for us. It was a lifer for Cynthia and myself.
While the two ladies were still having the time of their lives photographing an extremely cooperative thrush, I saw a light-colored bird at the other side of the road. It looked different from any I've seen before. Slowly, I approached it all the while trying to get a picture (which was not easy because it was quite small and blended perfectly with its surroundings). Up until now I am still unable to put a proper identification to this bird.
Satisfied with our encounter with the Island Thrush (and the unknown bird), we moved on. Down the road, Jho shouted, "Mountain Shrike!" I stopped. Once again our friend was out and was pointing to a brown bird sitting smugly on a low shrub. Before I could raise my camera to my eyes, it flew. Jho and I tried to follow where we thought it alit but it was not there. Nor anywhere else in the vicinity.
Back in Baguio City, we said goodbye to our friend and thanked her profusely for showing us where to find the birds in her stomping grounds. Tomorrow we plan on going back to this place early in the morning and then try the eco-trails later in the day.
Update: The unknown bird turned out to be a Paddyfield Pipit. Thanks to Rob/Irene and Choi Way Mun for the ID.