Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bittern to the End

My wife and I went to La Mesa Ecopark for just one purpose: to take better pictures of the Brown-headed Thrush! At 7:30 am we positioned ourselves in front of the fruiting MacArthur palm tree. Our friend, Bong, joined us thirty minutes later. As if on cue, our target bird appeared at 8:30 - the exact time we expected it to show up just as it did last Monday. After fifteen minutes our mission was accomplished!

We decided to go to the pond by the horses' stables to wait for the Indigo-banded Kingfisher which was Bong's target bird. We were joined by two Singaporean birders, Yam Tee Yong and Ben Quek, both of whom are my friends in Facebook. Unfortunately, the tiny kingfisher was a no-show and so was its' cousin, and another target bird for Bong and our Singaporean friends, the Spotted Wood.

At around 10:30 we returned to the Brown-headed Thrush milieu hoping it would make an encore appearance. It didn't.

Next place we went to was the Spillway and maybe, just maybe, at least one of the three raptors we saw last Monday would still be there. Not a single one showed up.

We got a couple of bonuses instead - a Barred Rail and a surprise appearance of a juvenile Cinnamon Bittern.

And with that, our visit to the La Mesa Ecopark came to a bittern end.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saving the best for last

It had been an unproductive three-and-a-half hours that Monday morning at the La Mesa Ecopark. When our friend Peter texted me a little before 9 am asking if there were any birds, I promptly and tersely replied: not much. 

Not a single Ashy Thrush nor Mangrove Blue Flycatcher showed up. The hoped for kingfishers - the Indigo-banded and Spotted Wood - were likewise absent. Our main target though was the Brown-headed Thrush. And indeed we saw it as it was about to feed on the bright red fruits of the MacArthur palm. Unfortunately as I was about to take its picture, the hood of my 100-400 lens fell producing a clanking sound which spooked the thrush. (Note: This time I opted for my smaller lens instead of the heavy 500 simply because I wasn't in the mood to carry such a load on my shoulders. There were bad and good consequences from this decision as I shall relate later.)

About 9:30 Peter joined us and we staked out the area where the tiny kingfisher was supposed to be seen. With the presence of bullying Philippine Magpie Robins and Philippine Pied Fantails, we knew our quarry would not be showing up anytime soon. We suggested to Peter that we go to the fruiting MacArthur palm and maybe the thrush would be more obliging.

Cynthia and I originally planned to leave at around 10 because she wanted to go to Antipolo for some business. At a quarter before ten, we told Peter that we would be leaving soon. It was then that there were some movement at the palm tree. I looked and was dismayed to see only a Yellow-vented Bulbul. "YVB," I told my companions. Then as I was peering through my camera lens, "Brown-headed Thrush!" "It's there just below the YVB!" I could hardly contain my excitement as I informed Peter and my wife.

This was the bad side of my short lens. Because I was just handholding it and the lens wasn't that good at dimly lit situations I only had so-so photos of the bird we came here to see. 

After the Brown-headed Thrush left, we got ready to return to the parking lot. Peter suggested we stop by the spillway first. We agreed. Besides, Cynthia's appointment had already been rescheduled so we could stay a bit longer here.

At the spillway, we met fellow bird photographer Speed Reyes who told us that he had seen a Philippine Serpent Eagle dive down to the stream below. I was a bit skeptical since it didn't seem normal for that species to be doing that. 

Again, aside from a couple of Barred Rails and a single White-breasted Waterhen, there were no other birds there. I was about to tell Cynthia that we should be going when a huge bird flew down to the stream below. "Raptor!" I shouted. It was, surprisingly, the Philippine Serpent Eagle, just as Speed had said. We took pictures as the raptor just stood there.

We then braced ourselves for a possible BIF (bird in flight) shot as we anticipated the Serpent Eagle to return to its roost. When it did, it was Cynthia who got the shot. 

It settled on the branch of an acacia tree across the spillway, way too far for my and Cynthia's feeble lenses. But for Peter's 600mm plus extender, it was just perfect. After that encounter my wife and I were about to go back to our car when I saw another huge bird flying over the spillway. My shout of "Raptor!" once again filled the air. This time my smaller lens had the advantage as I was able to track the flight of the Crested Honey Buzzard.

By the time Peter was able to move his gear to a more open space, the buzzard was already gone. Then.."Raptor!" I shouted for the third time as another fly by occurred albeit at a farther distance. This time it was an Osprey and I was able to get some good shots at it, again thanks to a lighter lens.

On the way home, my wife was telling me how all of a sudden we had a plethora of birds just as we were about to leave.

Perhaps, God was saving the best for last, I told her.

She couldn't agree more.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Harrier Pictures Too

"We won't leave this place until we see it" was the agreement Peter, Cynthia, and I had that nippy Saturday morning. "This place" was a few meters to the left of the entrance to the Candaba Wetlands Sanctuary. "It" was the Eastern Marsh Harrier.

And it came! A little more than half an hour of waiting and the raptor flew into view! Not only did we see it, we got pictures, too! Not great photos (the skies were brooding grey) but the pictures were good enough for us as it showed unmistakably what we've been waiting for. We let out our breaths as the bird flew away from view.

We agreed to wait some more hoping that the Harrier would make another fly by. My wife, on the other hand, wanted to explore the surroundings to see what else can be photographed. Thirty minutes later, it was Cynthia who yelled "raptor!" as our beloved Harrier once again made a grand entrance. This time, however, the ducks which were still sleeping during its first appearance, were now fully awake and panicked at the sight of a would be predator. Ducks and herons filled the air in frantic flight forcing our Harrier to soar higher and farther away.

By 9:30 am, we all decided to abandon our stake out and just concentrate on photographing the other denizens of the wetlands. Unfortunately, the ducks preferred to stay at some distance preventing us from finding the uncommon Gadwall, female Mallard and the Eurasian Wigeon from among the floating flock.

It was, however, the Yellow Bitterns that were the most common species that day. At every turn we make, there would be one presenting itself. 

Fittingly, a Yellow Bittern was the last bird we saw. We were already on our way out when I saw one out in the open, unperturbed by the farmers tilling the soil not that far from it.

The trip around the wetlands yielded the usual inhabitants including the colorful Common Kingfisher and Blue-tailed Bee-eater.

The Columbidae family were well represented by the plentiful Red Turtledoves and Zebra Doves.

From Rallidae were a Barred Rail and and a White-browed Crake.

As we were enjoying a sumptuous lunch later that day at Max's, the conversation went something like...

Peter: "This was the first time we stayed this long in Candaba!"

Cynthia: "Yes, and we had fruitful birding session!"

Me: (not saying much because my mouth was perpetually full).

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Sighs and Whiskers

To start off the new year, Cynthia and I went to Davao City - primarily to attend her niece's wedding - and of course, inasmuch as we were already there, to go birding as well. Our beginning of the year's birding experience can only be described as having ups and downs - sometimes literally. Please allow me to break it down in a few short stories.

Silvery Moan

Among our target birds here in Davao was the Silvery Kingfisher. One of the places where it's almost guaranteed to be found is at the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos. Despite our previous disappointing experiences in that place (we've been there twice and had only a fleeting glimpse of the kingfisher once) my hopes were still high. We decided to spend the morning of Saturday at the Eagle Center. We were greeted by a Philippine Hanging Parrot displaying just above the pond. 

Cynthia and I took turns at staking out the said pond. Grey was the mood as I meandered around the area photographing only a Grey-streaked Flycatcher and a Grey Wagtail (or is it Yellow?). 

My wife, on the other hand, had a Chestnut Munia and an Olive-backed Sunbird.

Three hours slowly passed and there was not even the sound of a wheeet nor a silvery feather. Not getting one of the top birds on my want list was heartbreaking. I can only moan in despair as we returned to our hotel.

Loth and Found

Monday morning we were picked up by our friend, Pete Simpson. He will be taking us further up Mt. Talomo to show us another bird in my want list - the Whiskered Flowerpecker. There will be some strenuous hiking involved, he told us, and I would definitely need a porter to carry my long lens and tripod. Prior to the climb, we met up with Loth, our porter and eagle-eyed birder. Pete, of course, was the expert and really great at spotting birds, but despite being relatively new at birding, Loth indeed had sharp eyes as well and there were times when he was the one who found the birds first. He also helped me direct my lens to my avian subjects because my vision had become somewhat antiquated and I had problems differentiating birds from leaves. Thanks to both Pete and Loth, the Whiskered Flowerpecker was quick tick.

The problem, however, was the ambient light. It had been mostly greyish with just a few bursts of sunshine. Despite seeing lots of birds - or in our case, silhouettes - photographing them was next to impossible. Even though we saw lifers, I could not technically include them in my lifelist simply because I did not see them clear enough to confirm the species (regardless of the assurances of Pete). Therefore, Cinnamon Ibon, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Olive-capped Flowerpecker and Short-tailed Starling, I hope to see you again preferably in bright, sunny weather next time. 

Pete, Loth and me
As we were leaving the place, we were rewarded by excellent views of a Coppersmith Barbet in glorious sunlight. Although the ones found here are of a different subspecies (mindanensis) they still look very much the same as those found in Luzon.

Hidden in Eden

In our spare time, while we were checked in at the Eden Resort, we spent them at the Mountain Trail. The Mountain Trail was that exotic place where we easily chalked up two lifers (Cryptic Flycatcher and Philippine Trogon) nine months ago. Aside from those two at least two more species made our visit to that place really worthwhile - the Ruddy Kingfisher and the Black-naped Monarch. This time though it was a complete dud. We were there in the afternoon and saw nothing but a skittish Grey Wagtail. We came back early in the morning and again saw nothing but that same old skittish Grey Wagtail.

The places around the resort were also disappointing. Birds were scarce and when we saw some interesting species (such as a Turquoise Flycatcher), the light was not cooperating and we saw silhouettes all over again. It seemed like the avian residents of Eden were hidden.

Sighs and Whiskers

Perhaps it was the time of year. Or it could be the weather. But our birding trip to Davao this time was filled with sighs of disappointment. Were it not for the sighting of the Whiskered Flowerpeckers, it would have been a complete disaster. 

We just hope and pray that this experience would not replicate itself for the rest of the year. We look forward to more lifers for us and that our bird photography would be more rewarding.