Monday, November 30, 2009

Godwit us ...and everything just falls into place

It was one of those days when everything turned out perfectly. Last Saturday's outing was saved by seeing a Golden Eagle scarfing on an unfortunate Coot. Earlier that morning we completely dipped at finding the Bar-tailed Godwit - a southern California rarity that had been seen it seems by everybody else but us.

But it was completely different this Saturday. We were so lucky to have "angels" who showed us what we were looking for. We planned our birding sortie like so: First, go the Upper Newport Bay and look for the Bar-tailed Godwit, then proceed to nearby Mason Regional Park to see White-tailed Kites - all nine of them, and finally to San Gabriel City to add the Lewis' Woodpecker to our yearlist. Sounds simple. But as any birder knows, accomplishing even the best laid plans is quite a different story.

Bright and early we were next to the bike path beneath the Jamboree bridge at Upper Newport Bay. I was scanning the small strip of land to the west where a bunch of shorebirds were still sleeping. However, one of them was busy foraging the island's edge. It looked different from the  snoozing Marbled Godwits next to it. Is it possible that we finally found our quarry? I was photographing this bird when a couple of birders appeared on the other side of the creek and started peering through their spotting scopes at the opposite direction of where I was pointing my camera! I looked up at these birders with a puzzled look on my face. One of them, perhaps noticing my curious mien, shouted, "The Bar-tailed Godwit is under the bridge!" I quickly left my camera (which was on a tripod), my wife, and sanity, as I ran down from the bicycle trail to the muddy, slippery part directly under the bridge peering at the edge. And then seeing the godwit, which was on our side of the creek, fly off to other side! My wife, who gingerly followed me, saw my exasperation and as in numerous other occasions, consoled me by pointing to the Godwit which was busy looking for food right across from us. I retrieved my camera gear and spent the next hour or so trying to take a picture of our beloved Bar-tailed Godwit. Which was not a simple task considering the bird kept moving as it searched the muddy edge of the creek for food and every so often disappears from view as it gets behind the huge concrete bridge supports.

Elated at our success in finding and photographing the Bar-tailed Godwit, we then proceeded to the William R. Mason Regional Park at University Avenue. We drove around the park trying to locate the "wilder" east side where the Kites reportedly hang out. No "wilder" parts, no kites, only picnickers. Cynthia and I were mulling our next move when Shelly, the local Park Ranger, drove up to us. We told her our dilemma and "angel" Shelly asked us to follow her to the entrance gate, where she 1) gave us the directions to the "wilder" side, 2) gave us a map of the park, and 3) refunded our $5 entrance fee! We happily thanked her and without further ado, drove to where she directed us. As we walked into the "wilder" part (which was actually called Phase III of Mason Park) we saw a lady with a camera and a zoom lens (a bird photographer, we rightly concluded). When asked about the kites, she said she was just taking pictures of them and that she would be happy to take us there. And she did, and there atop a tree were kites, all nine of them!

We were now batting two out of three! Our plan in looking for the Lewis Woodpecker would be after lunch, because that was the time that it had always been reported seen. After our rendezvous with the Kite family, we had a leisurely lunch at Irvine. Then off we were to the suburban neighborhood in San Gabriel. I did a drive by in this area a few days earlier after taking Cynthia to work (which was not that far from the Woodpecker site) and saw nothing. This time we parked in front of the house at 510 Del Mar and stared at the electrical post behind it. Nothing. Just a pole standing starkly against the grey skies. I decided to walk further up to get another angle. As I stood in front of the 512 Del Mar house, I saw it! The bird was behind the pole. As I walked back to get my camera, the Woodpecker decided to cooperate and showed itself in full view right in front of where we were parked. And that, as the saying goes, was icing on the cake.

According to the encyclopedia, the word "godwit" came from the Old English words, "god" and "wihte" which means "good creature". If our experience today was any indication, the Godwit indeed lived up to it's name.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Our Trip to the Philippines - A Retrospect

We are back in California. It was a thrilling, if hectic, fortnight we had at our home country – the Philippines. To those of you who have never been there or have not been back recently, here are a few impressions and memories:

Weather - it was hot and humid. The first couple of days we were there it rained a little. Despite that it was still humid and I was perspiring almost non-stop whenever I am out of a building/house.

People – are everywhere! No matter what time of day (or night) you see people – lots of them. It was only when I went birding with my friends at the rainforests of Cavite and Subic that we didn’t see many people. Filipinos are by nature quite resilient. A month after the devastating floods that wreaked havoc on MetroManila, I couldn’t find traces of the said catastrophe. Houses that were damaged had been repaired and the residents were once again smiling as if nothing that horrible ever happened at all. Except for some traces of debris high up on the electrical wires, I wouldn’t have believed that a 24-foot deep flood ever occurred there.

Traffic – is terrifying! There are basically no rules that are followed, except stopping at a red light (and even that gets violated occasionally). If you are one of those who gives a finger to someone who cuts in on you, you will never, I mean never, bring your finger down in the Philippines. Cutting is just a way of life on the streets of Manila. Drivers driving their vehicles within inches of each other, and that includes buses and motorcycles, are not unusual. Blaring horns are normal, too. Vehicles never give way to pedestrians who in turn would cross the street anywhere, anytime. Yet in all 2 weeks of plying the chaos that is known as city traffic, I did not see any accident at all – no scratches, no dents and more importantly, no road rage.

Food – it is no secret that Filipinos love to eat. Anything. I have never seen such a gamut of restaurants anywhere. Name it they have it. Persian, Vietnamese or restaurants catering to regional tastes abound. At my reunion with my high school classmates (all of whom I am meeting for the first time in 47 years!), they took me to a buffet that serves Pampanga (a province in central Luzon) delicacies. One of the menu items being adobo crickets! (I politely declined that one). Food is relatively cheap, too. A combo meal at McDonalds (yes they have those, and Burger King, and KFC, and El Pollo Loco, etc) cost around $3. Higher end restaurant entrees would run about $5.50 per. My wife and I have been treated by friends and families to restaurants almost on a daily basis that we probably gained a few pounds (a portion of which were thankfully shed due to the sauna-like weather).

Safety – much has been said about safety in third world countries, and the Philippines is no exception. I think as long as you don’t flaunt your wealth you will be safe there. My wife and I walked the streets of a sketchy neighborhood trying to get a ride and we never felt scared or threatened in any way. Of course exercising prudence and common sense is always a good practice.

Shopping – next to eating, Filipinos love to shop. Malls are all over the place. Not just ordinary malls, these are four-story/five-story structures that house a variety of shops ranging from Nine West, Ann Taylor to pet stores and of course, eating places. Merchandise are relatively cheap, too, and in some of the malls, haggling is tolerated. Also at the malls they have clinics as well. I had my hearing tested for about $10 (if I had a senior card it would have been only $8). I also had my eyeglasses redone for about $30 which included an eye test and new set of lenses for my old frame.

Store Names – this is one category that is truly unique in the Philippines. Where else can you find a laundromat that goes by the name of: Wash now, my love. And it boasts that it uses the latest in Microsoap technology. It seems that the laundromats were the proponents of this style. Another laundromat is named Star Wash while a competitor nearby was named Attack of the Clothes. A bakery is named Bread Pit (I’m sure Angelina Jolie would be delighted to know this). How about a store named Rest.Toe.Ran? It is a shoe place and not a “restaurant”. And then there’s Pets in the City where the hamsters are um..propagating.

All in all we had a wonderful experience. We got to meet old (sometimes literally) friends and re-bonded with our families. It is interesting that the Philippines has maintained its identity despite the advent of modern technology (people are texting all the time!). Although government and politics remained in the same corrupt quagmire, the country itself has progessed significantly. Our short stay made us more resolved to retire here rather than spend the rest of our lives in America, where sadly, things are changing for the worst.

A Golden Day, Bar None

To shake off our jet lag resulting from our recent trip to the Philippines, Cynthia and I decided to chase after the Bar-tailed Godwit at the Upper Newport Bay. We probably arrived a tad too late because the tide was already rising and as such, the rare Godwit usually flies off to the less accessible parts of the bay. Nevertheless, we still waited for about two hours for our target bird to show up, finally giving up at around 11:30 am.

From there we visited nearby San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I was walking slowly, a bit dejected from missing the Bar-tailed Godwit (which have been seen by probably every birder in Southern California) when Cynthia yelled "Hawk! Hawk!". She was pointing at some dark object by the edge of Pond C. We have not fully unpacked from our trip and that was the reason I did not have my binoculars with me to check out what my wife was enthusiastically directing my attention at. Peering through my meager 300mm zoom lens, I finally saw a raptor grasping some black thing..barely visible from the pond's edge. I thought it was a dark morphed Red-tailed Hawk. I was still pondering over its identity when it suddenly flew off carrying a dead Coot in its talons. Cynthia and I thought that was the end of it and meandered back to the parking lot, taking shots at whatever interesting bird we find along the way. Near the entrance we saw Thang, a fellow bird photographer, busily shooting something something atop an electrical post. I hurried to where he was and discovered that the "hawk" I saw was now feasting on the dead Coot at the top of the pole. Then I realized that what we were looking at was actually a Golden Eagle enjoying its lunch! This was the first time I have seen this species this close. It stayed up there until all that was left of its meal were a few feathers and some tiny bones. I will now let the pictures tell the story of an Eagle enjoying lunch:

Lunch to go:



A little stretch after lunch
What goes in.....

I'm outta here...

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Monday, November 09, 2009


I just did my first serious birding in the Philippines after more than 30 years! I have been back several times before but my time was always spent with family and friends. Now it was different! I will still meet with family and friends, of course, but this time I have some free time available to do some birding.

Cynthia and I visited the campus of the University of the Philippines which has always been a good birding place according to the local birders. Early morning of the 7th we were happy to meet Gabs Buluran near the Main Library parking lot. He is a member of the Philippine Bird Photographers  (PBP) group (to which I also belong). After a short introduction, he suggested that we go the Marine Science Institute (MSI) area where a Blue Rock Thrush was recently seen, apparently quite a rarity here. Soon we were joined by the other members of the PBP - Mark, Toto and Ding. It wasn't long before everybody was all pointing their cameras up a tall acacia tree - for there perched nonchalantly on a branch was our Blue Rock Thrush! Eventually the bird flew off and the excitement died down a little...except for me. For them seeing Yellow-vented Bulbuls was like seeing Black Phoebes in California...they were just everywhere! But for me, although I've seen this species in my previous trips, I was still thrilled to watch them gobble up the berries from a nearby fruiting tree.

The members of the PBP meanwhile would talk shop until one of them would yell "Black-naped Oriole" and everybody would be all agog, then a short pause, and once again, "Colasisi!" (a tiny hanging parakeet) and we would all point our cameras in that direction. This was then followed by a shout of "Pied Triller!" and the routine would be repeated. After a while there was a lull in bird activity and everyone spread to cover more birding ground. Luckily we tagged along with Toto who discovered a Yellow Wagtail lurking in the grass.

With bird presence now limited to the ubiquitous Bulbuls, everyone agreed that we return to the Main Library area. There we met two more PBP members, Bong and Doc Mando. This time the stake out was for a Coppersmith Barbet a small (yet very loud) colorful bird. We were all scanning the treetops trying to locate the source of the "pok-pok-pok" sound from among the what else - Bulbuls - fluttering about. It was sheer luck that it was me who first saw the Barbet and I excitedly pointed it out to my colleagues.

It was quite anti-climactic after that and reluctantly we bade goodbye to our new friends.

Cynthia and I had time to kill on Sunday morning before attending church services so we decided to visit the University of Philippines again. We went to the MSI area where we were treated to a show that I will not forget for the rest of my life. It was like watching an episode in the Discovery Channel. Too bad we did not have my videocamera with us, but luckily I was able to capture some of the scenes with my camera. The fabled Blue Rock Thrush was on the ground battling a defiant Praying Mantis. The insect which was about 5 inches long was standing up with wings spread making it appear bigger than it actually was. The Thrush was circling trying to find a vulnerable spot and an opportunity to make a swipe at its formidable looking prey. Sometimes the bird (which is about the size of an American Robin) would turn away pretending to lose interest on the mantis. Interestingly, the insect did not fly off when given such a chance, determined instead to stand its ground. Patience paid off and the Thrush was able to strike a fatal blow. To the very end the Praying Mantis held its head up high bravely facing its conqueror.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Where did Tuesday go?

Monday night, November 2nd, the glimmer of the lights of Los Angeles faded as our plane took off. We were on our way home. Thirteen hours later we landed at Seoul on Wednesday, November 4th. Where did Tuesday go? It must have been swallowed by the seemingly neverending darkness that accompanied us along the way. More than two hours of idle lounging at Incheon airport then at last we were on our way to Manila. The three hour flight felt like an eternity that the passengers applauded when the Korean Airline 777 finally touched down at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Returning Filipinos jostling to get ahead of the line through customs and immigration, people everywhere you look, raining and yet sweating because of the humidity, and going through the streets where drivers can only be described as near anarchic....I am home!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hasta la Vista, Baby!

Tonight we will be airborne. My wife and I will be visiting our native country, the Philippines, for 16 days. It will be mostly a reunion with family and friends whom we haven't seen for some time. And maybe a little birding here and there.

And one more thing before I go.....

We did one final birding foray last Saturday at nearby Peck Pit. The place was its usual birdy self. Peck Pit despite its unflattering name offers surprises every now and then. Last Saturday we saw a young Orange Bishop for the first time here. For a moment I thought it was a Grasshopper Sparrow which would have been a lifer, but getting an Orange Bishop at such an unexpected place wasn't too bad .

What we enjoyed watching were the numerous Nutmeg Mannikins who were unperturbed by our presence. What made it more thrilling was that in a few days we might be seeing their paler cousins in the Philippines where they are known as Scaly-breasted Munias. They are of the same species (Lonchura punctulata) although the endemic subspecies in the Philippines is known as cabanisi. Those found here in southern California are probably of the nominate variety, punctulata.

Cynthia and I are both excited and we hope to do a little birding in our country, time and weather permitting. My next report will hopefully cover some exotic species.

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