Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pine Birding - Part II of our Baguio Trip

Once again the enticing aroma of pine trees greeted us as we parked by the "landslide" area along the road to the summit of Mt. Santo Tomas. Our friend, Jho, assured us that the Crossbills come to this area early in the morning. So far, nothing but the ubiquitous Pied Bush Chats frolicked in the morning sun.

Then I saw a silhouette of a bird perched on an electric wire. I walked slowly towards it. Blue Rock Thrush! I only managed to get a few backlit shots before it flew off and completely disappeared from view.

Cynthia detected some movement in the brush. The brown bird popped up and promptly returned back into the dense foliage. The only feature that we both noticed, aside from its color, was its long tail. Could it be the furtive Long-tailed Ground Warbler? Sadly, it never reappeared for us to confirm our suspicions. I even tried to get near the bush where it hid itself hoping it would reappear. Something appeared alright but not the long-tailed skulker but rather a curious Siberian Rubythroat. Just a few feet from me! I was so surprised and excited that I got my camera settings all wrong and managed just a "documentary" shot.

I was about to join my wife when out of the blue, a small bird alighted on the electric wire above us. "Crossbill!" I shouted. We both took pictures and to our delight it flew down to the "landslide" area just as Jho had predicted. Soon it was joined by its less colorful mate. Cynthia and I were surprised and even amazed at the cooperativeness of this pair of Red Crossbills. They just fed on the tiny plants growing besides the rocks as if a couple of human beings holding cameras were not there.

Past ten in the morning and it was us that got tired of photographing these uncommon montane species. We checked out the summit but failed to encounter either the Mountain Shrike or the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. We were about to board our vehicle when I saw a raptor gliding below us. It was my wife who was better at BIF (birds in flight) shots who got a few photos. It was another puzzler, made even more difficult to identify because of the great distance between the bird and the photographer. It turned out to be an Eastern Buzzard, another lifer for us! (Thanks, Jho, for the ID)

On the way down, the only species we encountered were a flock of Mountain White-eyes and (now I'm quite sure) a Paddyfield Pipit.

We were at the eco-trail a little before 11. It was not long after when Cynthia alerted me. "I can hear them!"she said. First came a huge flock of Mountain White-eyes. Then a solitary Grey-streaked Flycatcher stopped by. A totally unexpected sighting was that of a Colasisi or Philippine Hanging Parrot! 

While I was enjoying my colasisi, my wife was photographing a mystery bird. Unfortunately it was behind a patch of greenery and totally backlit that her shots were all too dark. I can only figure out that it had an orange breast and a blackish head with a tiny strip of white behind the eye. It was while we were comparing the results of our photographic endeavors that another lifer appeared. We added Turquoise Flycatcher to our list.

Happy with our encounter, we broke off for lunch. Past one pm and we were back this time at the eco-trail by the paintball area. Jho told us this was where the mixed flock "wave" passes through. True enough as soon as we were among the pines that the flock came. First was the Sulphur-billed Nuthatch (too far, too dark) then a Citrine Canary-Flycatcher dropped by. It was followed by the Chestnut-faced Babbler (a lifer but no good photo), then a Blue-headed Fantail and finally, an Elegant Tit.

Citrine Canary-Flycatcher 
Blue-headed Fantail 
Elegant tit
After that exhilarating experience, the forest became quiet again except for an occasional Arctic Warbler passing by. We agreed to call it a day. We just had a light snack that evening and were fast asleep by 8 pm.

We had a wonderful time in Baguio - thanks to our friend, Jocelyn Alberto-Floresca, for showing us the birding places in the area. Because of that, we added five lifers to our list: Island Thrush, Red Crossbill, Chestnut-faced Babbler, Eastern Buzzard and Turquoise Flycatcher. We thought about planning a return trip, perhaps stay longer so we can don our tourist hats too. Or just concentrate on birding again. Who knows?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Island in the Fog - Part I of our Baguio Trip

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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What you saw you shall keep

I wish it was that simple when it comes to photography, especially bird photography, to keep the photos of the birds Cynthia and I just saw and had taken pictures of. Of course, in reality, that is rarely the case. Even if we had all the settings correct, the odds of getting that perfect image are still in the hands of fate. But then we consider ourselves only so-so bird photographers and definitely not in the league of those who do these things for a living. Still, in one of the workshops my wife and I attended way back in 2006 held by Bob Steele, one of the best bird photographers in the United States, what he said stuck to our minds. His advice was to "spray and pray" - meaning to shoot as many pictures as you can of that particular bird and pray that at least one of your photos would be acceptable enough. Very practical advice, if I may say so. Despite doing this practice of "spraying and praying" there were still times when Cynthia and I could not keep some of the photos we had just taken. It was either too dark, there were so much foliage covering the bird, it was a bit blurred and a thousand other reasons. Another thing is that I am not that good at "photoshopping" (Cynthia leaves this aspect of photography to me). I could make minor adjustments to the photo and even clone out a distracting branch here and there but to be able to alter an image is totally beyond my abilities.

By and large though, our photographic adventures had been fruitful. We had gotten some pretty decent pictures of birds, sometimes even during adverse conditions. One such occasion was on our recent trip to Antipolo. In open situations, the lighting was a bit harsh, and in other circumstances, it was too dark under the shade of tall trees. In spite of these, we were able to keep most of what we saw. Here are some of them:

Pied Triller

Collared Kingfisher
Golden-bellied Gerygone
Grey Wagtail
Long-tailed Shrike

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Undas my Story (and I'm sticking to it)

It was undas - the time when the Philippines observe All Saints Day. The time when a great majority of Filipinos troop to the cemeteries and memorial parks to honor their departed relatives. It was on undas that I went to the La Mesa Ecopark for a completely different purpose: to try my luck at locating an uncommon migrant to this country.

So many mystical and quaint stories had been associated with this day. Tales of ghosts and spirits and strange occurrences. Speaking of which, something eerie did happen on undas - not eerie in the macabre sense but more in the line of fortuitousness. Here's the story:

I was at Ecopark at 6:30 am. The place was as quiet as a graveyard on a non-undas day. The flycatcher I was hoping to see was not at the place where it was seen by my photographer friends the day before. Shortly after 7, my buddy, Bong, arrived. I appraised him of the situation. An hour passed and still nada. Another bird photographer pal, Prof. Reuel, joined us and seeing the disconsolate look on our faces decided to explore the mini forest. He saw a White-eared Brown Dove perched unmovingly behind a clump of red berries. We all took pictures "just so we wouldn't have a zero" today.

We then went back to the "pond" area, aka the flycatcher's milieu, only to find a pair of Philippine Magpie Robins frolicking. And still no flycatcher. 

Just then I got a text message from our friend Bert who informed me that the Boobook Owl in Hardin ng Rosas was back. That was good news! Two times the past week my wife and I went there to look for this nocturnal raptor and two times it wasn't there. I told my confreres about this. Prof. Reuel and Anthony, another friend and resident birder (and who discovered the flycatcher), decided to stick around and search for other birds. Bong and I agreed to go to Hardin for the owl. While walking towards the parking lot we were distracted by an insouciant Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker who was more concerned in getting its food than being bothered by the noise and the people around it. 

It was when we were already driving out that I got a call from Anthony. 

"Where are you?" he asked.

"We're already on our way out," I replied.

"Come back," he said, "there is a Boobook right here at Ecopark!" 

I quickly thanked him and started honking my horn and flashing my headlights to get the attention of Bong who was driving ahead of me. He stopped when the narrow road widened a bit and I relayed to him the good news. We hurriedly made a U-turn, returned to Ecopark, parked, and slung our gear on our shoulders and sped to the mini-forest. I alerted Anthony as soon as we got to the "pond". He came running to meet us and then led us to the area behind the jogging trail.

"There it is!" he said as he pointed to the top of a tall tree. While we were having a grand time photographing the Boobook who was clearly visible despite the height of its perch, Anthony regaled us with the stroke of luck he and Prof. Reuel had in discovering the presence of this owl.

Eventually, the nocturnal bird fell asleep. Reuel and Anthony said they would look for the flycatcher again. While Bong and I continued to take pictures of the slumbering owl, I saw a small rust colored bird fly into the trunk of a tree next to us. Apparently Bong also saw it because we both yelled "Ferruginous!" simultaneously. Photography-wise the situation was far less than ideal - it was dark, it was a bit high up the tree, the bird was quite small and moved a lot. But opportunities like this might not happen again so we both started taking photos of the flycatcher. I also texted Anthony telling him that we found our quarry. As the two of them were walking towards us, the Ferruginous Flycatcher flew away - towards them! We waved at Anthony and Reuel to get their attention.

"It's probably going to the 'pond'!" I shouted.

Anthony sprinted to the place and confirmed my hunch.

What happened next was a photographic session with a very cooperative subject. Reuel was so confident that the flycatcher would stay where it was that he called another friend, Wins, who lives in Las Pinas some 40 kms away, and told him to come to Ecopark. Just a little more than thirty minutes and Wins was already with us.

At 11:30 Bong and I decided to call it a day. We bade goodbye to our friends and thanked Anthony profusely for turning our day around. As I was driving home I couldn't help but think of the circumstances that happened earlier. How our early disappointment was changed to incredible serendipity. Imagine how perfect the timing was when we were heading for a semi-hidden boobook at Hardin and then being redirected to a perfectly open one at Ecopark! How the Ferruginous Flycatcher, a bird Bong and I last saw in 2010, suddenly appeared in front of us and seemingly invited us to follow it to its regular hang-out. Strange? Mysterious? Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it.