Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Did ja view?

Deja vu - noun - a feeling of having already experienced the present situation. French literally meaning "already seen".

Our experiences in Subic the past two days had been quite deja vu-ish . First of all, it was almost the same dates that we were here last year - just one day's difference. Then, for the most part, the scarcity of the birds were an eerie repetition of 2013's dearth of avian sightings. Finally, on a positive note, where we met a pair of newbie birders (Mr & Mrs Jorge Abiva Garcia) before, we had the same experience this year when we met Dr. Rannie Aguilar and his family. 

It was on a Sunday afternoon right at the entrance towards the Nabasan trail that we met the Aguilars. Since it was their first time to go birding in Subic, we offered to take them around the better known birding areas. For a newbie, Rannie had very sharp eyes. It was his keen observation skills that enabled Cynthia and myself to see some of the birds in the forest. Example number one: while I was busy taking pictures of the Whiskered Treeswifts, Rannie and his son's attention were somewhere else. When I approached them he pointed to a Green Imperial Pigeon. It took me a while to spot it.

By the road to Hill 394, he asked me "Did you see it?" I shook my head. He then directed me to the tree trunk across the road. A White-bellied Woodpecker was busy hunting for food.

We went to the Crown Peak area late in the afternoon. Although birds were quite numerous - Blue-naped Parrots, Black-naped Orioles, Blue-throated Bee-eaters and Yellow-vented Bulbuls were all preparing to settle in for the night - it was already too dark for us to get any decent shots. This was very similar to our experience last year. 

We agreed to meet up again the following morning inasmuch as the hotels where we were staying in weren't that far from each other.

It was still dark when we arrived at Nabasan Trail the next day. We waited patiently hoping we would encounter an owl, but none appeared. The sun was already shining brightly when bird activity commenced. Green Imperial Pigeons were still too lazy to leave their roosts. It was the Guaiaberos that were up and about.

We moved on when the bird activity dwindled somewhat. Along the exit trail, Cynthia heard some mewing sounds. We parked our cars and looked for the source of those strange noises. I looked at Rannie who was shooting at something. When asked what it was, he showed us a full body shot of a Rufous Coucal! "They already hid in the bushes," he informed us. I was devastated. The Rufous Coucal is one of my most sought after species. We've been to Subic many times and not once have we seen them. Cynthia noticed the dour look on my face. "We'll come back again tomorrow and we'll see them then," she said consolingly. Still my heart was pained. So I prayed. We were about to board our vehicles when the mewing calls once again resounded in the crisp morning air. One, two, three coucals flew across the road calling to each other. One of them perched in full view. My prayer had been answered. My last lifer for the year was now in the bag.

My wife and I needed to go back to our hotel before 10 am so we could avail of the free breakfast. A little after nine we said goodbye to our new friend and excellent bird spotter. He and his family would be going back to their home in Lucena after lunch so he wanted to make the most of his birding morning.

There weren't new birds along Nabasan trail and the Botanic Garden when Cynthia and I returned after breakfast. Our afternoon birding only yielded a Philippine Green Pigeon.

Tuesday morning, we hit the road to Hill 394 again. Like last year, another target bird, the White-fronted Tit was a no-show. That place only yielded a Luzon Hornbill and a pair of Sooty Woodpeckers.

Just like yesterday, we had to go back to our hotel for our breakfast. We both agreed that we would go home after our morning meal. To borrow the words in my blog one year ago: Our trip was not that productive bird-wise but we did gain new friends. For my wife and myself that is still a plus. And we got a lifer this time.

Sadder but Weisser

Our friend and neighbor, Chin Fernandez, PMed me in Facebook asking for directions to the Candaba Wetlands. I replied saying that if he plans to go on Friday, the 26th, I'll go with him. He said yes and so we did. My wife decided to stay at home this time.

The very first bird that we were able to photograph was a Barn Swallow doing its early morning grooming.

Other than that most of the birds (ducks, herons and egrets) were so far off that it was difficult to take pictures of them. Every so often a flock would fly and circle around the area. That was when Chin and I were able to practice our BIF (birds in flight) techniques. Black-crowned Night Herons were aplenty.

Surprisingly, a flock of about 15 Northern Pintails participated in the flight displays.

Of course, what would Candaba be without the endemic Philippine Ducks.

The Ardeids were more individualized in their flights. Such as this Purple Heron.

The Intermediate Egret..

..and the Little Egret.

What made our day was when fellow Wild Bird Club member Randy Weisser informed us that there were four (!) Eurasian Wigeons - one male and three females - in the pond near the entrance to the wetlands. Actually, he and his family were birding in that area while Chin and I were closer to the Mayor's House patiently monitoring a pair of Purple Swamphens gather nesting materials. 

I was surprised when I saw their van coming towards us. "I thought they already left," I told Chin. The van stopped next to me. Maria, Randy's wife, showed me a Kennedy Guide opened to the page showing the ducks. "If you want to see the Eurasian Wigeons, I'll show them to you," she said, pointing to the illustration of that particular species. I quickly informed Chin of the good news. We boarded his SUV and followed the Weissers. Randy was sitting on a stool peering through his spotting scope when we arrived. He pointed at the flotilla of ducks on the farthest pond. "They're there." he assured us. After some serious scanning using my long lens, I found them! Chin had to look through Randy's spotting scope to check the exact spot where the rare migrants were.

Having done their good deed for the day, the Weissers continued on their birding around the wetlands. We thanked them profusely as we enjoyed our bird of the day.

Everything was sort of anti-climactic after that. We were on the way out and I was lamenting the fact that we had not seen waders at all. "Where are the Sandpipers, Plovers, Stints and Stilts?" It was more a sad statement than a question. Then as serendipity would have it, a small group of Little Ringed Plovers and a single Wood Sandpiper paraded on the fallow fields to our right.

For us it was just a so-so day except for the uncommon Eurasian Wigeon. Who would have thought that there would be 4 of them in Candaba. It would have been a sad day of birding for us had it not been for the Weisser family. We sincerely express our gratitude to them for that.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Weather or Not

Saturday was the exact opposite of last week. Whereas we slept late that time expecting torrential rain coming from typhoon Ruby but turned out to be a sunny day, this time believing the words of the local weather bureau that it would be nice and clear, we woke up early to go birding - to a place more than 90 kilometers away. Only to discover that it was dark and gloomy as soon as we got out of the house. We were all dressed up and ready to go anyway, so regardless of the weather, we still went.

It was a stygian Saturday morning with occasional drizzles interspersed now and then with teasing moments of sunshine. Overall, grey was the color of the day and almost all our photos were unintentionally black and white. Not only that, some of the birds we expected to see at Mt. Palay-palay were not there.

One of the very first birds we saw was a Pygmy Flowerpecker. However, it was so heavily backlit that none of our combined 50-plus shots could even be salvaged through post processing. 

A calmly perched Brahminy Kite yielded only some so-so photos.

Our luck, or rather, Cynthia's luck, turned for the better when I saw a male Luzon Hornbill feeding on some red berries. I said Cynthia's luck because she got at least one great shot while I got a big fat zero.

It was my wife's day, actually, because she was also the one who got better photos of one of our target birds - the Philippine Bulbul.

With the weather not promising to get better, we agreed that it was time to go. The trip home was a sad punctuation to an already unproductive day. Combine drizzles and the Christmas season in the Philippines and what do you get? The worst traffic jam you can imagine.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Come Before the Storm

We woke up late Saturday morning. We did not make any plans to go birding because we thought that the incoming super typhoon named "Hagupit" would bring torrential rains this weekend. However as we looked out our window, we saw blue skies and the sun shining gloriously! 

"Do you still want to go birding?" my wife asked, knowing what my answer will be.

"Since it's already late, let's just go somewhere relatively near. How about Antipolo?"

Antipolo it was. We skipped our regular breakfast and just had coffee and "ensaymada" on the go so that we could catch up with the morning activity of the birds.

As we entered our favorite birding place, I was surprised to see four, yes, four! Coppersmith Barbets in one tree. I always thought that this species was the loner type.

While we were taking shots at the Barbet community, a Long-tailed Shrike flew near to where we were and looked at us as if saying, "What about me?" So I humored the poor bird.

The rest of the morning had been rewarding even if we only saw the usual avian inhabitants of this still forested subdivision.

Three species in particular gave us quite a challenge albeit in different ways. The Arctic Warbler (or Kamchatka or Japanese Leaf Warbler - it was relatively silent during its foraging) was popping in and out of the dense leaves and never stopped moving even for a second.

The Grey Wagtail, on the other hand, restricted its movement at ground level, and like its arboreal counterpart, was always on the move. What made photographing the wagtail more difficult was that we were inside our car thus restricting our coverage area.

The third bird that posed a challenge was a Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We were already driving on our way out when I caught a glimpse of this tiny bird perched atop a leafless tree. As soon as I stepped out of the car it flew away.

"Wait for it, it will come back," Cynthia assured me.

So I did. It did come back and then flew off again even before I was able to lift my camera to take its picture. This happened several times pushing my patience to its limit. My wife, meanwhile, was off searching for other subjects to photograph. Well, she did get a more cooperative one, a Large-billed Crow.

Eventually, when I was at the edge of my patience, the flycatcher perched once again at the leafless tree and stayed long enough for me to get off a few shots.

"That's it!" I told my wife, "we can now leave."

Cruising down Sumulong Highway, Cynthia suggested we go to the Holy Garden Memorial Park located along the way. This was the second time she made this suggestion. The first time was several months ago and I refused to go then. She stopped talking to me the rest of the trip home. Learning from that experience, I now happily obliged. Good thing I did, too. We added two more species in the short time we stayed at the cemetery grounds - a Paddyfield Pipit and a pair of Pied Bush Chats.

Paddyfield Pipit
male Pied Bush Chat
female Pied Bush Chat

As were enjoying lunch at Wendy's (the Baconator with Mushroom melt was fabulous!) we talked about our birding adventure. We both agreed that we were glad we came before the storm.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Missed Purple Mystery

The last time we saw it was in April, 2011. We've been to Candaba lots of times since then and we never even had a glimpse of it. "Isn't it a bit mysterious that the once very confiding Purple Swamphens were now nowhere to be seen?" I told my wife. Cynthia couldn't agree more. "It's been more than three years and we missed seeing this bird!" she confirmed.

Saturday we were back at the popular birding site in Pampanga, once again hoping that we would see our long lost target species. It was a beautiful sunny morning and the usual denizens of the wetlands were up and about. A male Pied Bush Chat was shaking off the dews from its feathers.

A Clamorous Reed Warbler was living up to its name climbing to the top of the bush loudly announcing its presence.

As we entered via the "back door" to the marshy area, Black-winged Stilts and Sandpipers (Wood and Marsh) were beginning their foraging for breakfast.

Black-winged Stilt
Wood Sandpiper and Marsh Sandpiper
Of course, this time of the year, the migrant Common Kingfisher was a sure sighting here.

Surprisingly, ducks were scarce. Only a few Philippine and Wandering Whistlings were present. Luckily, there was a single (yes, just one), where there used to be hundreds of them, Tufted Duck. I said, luckily, because this was the first time I was able to take a decent photo of this annual visitor.

The hours passed. The absence of the usual migrating species was saddening. There were some Grey and Purple Herons but they preferred to stay at a distance, with one exception.

Purple Heron
It was nearing 10 am and the blue skies were now slowly being covered by grey clouds. We were already on our way out when Cynthia suggested we linger near the junction of the road from the mayor's house. My wife walked a hundred feet or so and stared at the wetlands before her. I was scanning the edges hoping to see a Black Bittern. "Purple Swamphen!" my partner suddenly yelled. "But it flew away already!" I walked over to where she was and she showed me a photo of our hoped for bird, flying indeed. 

"Maybe it will come back," my wife said assuringly. We switched places. I stayed where we were and she went to look for Black Bitterns. Perhaps it was about half an hour when I saw something purplish emerged from the tall vegetation - but only oh so quickly - returning once again in the deep brushes. I managed to take a few quick shots before it completely disappeared from view. 

When I told Cynthia about my fleeting encounter she was happy that finally we both saw the purple bird that we missed seeing since 2011. A soft drizzle signalled that it was time for us to go. It was amazing that it decided to wait until we both have seen our target bird before the rain started to fall.