Friday, December 24, 2010

Four to Geese

Twas the day before Christmas eve, and some of my friends were free
and so we thought we'd get together and go on a birding spree.
Bong said, "Let's go to Candaba since the weather is quite fair
and maybe we'll get lucky and see the white-fronted geese there."
I hemmed and I hawed because I've seen those birds before
but then I was reminded that Candaba has not just geese but even more.
So we went early in the morning while it was still very dark,
all four of us bird photographers, me and Gabs, and Bong and Mark.
As soon as we arrived Bong started to yell, "Javan Pond Heron!"
With a lifer to start our birding day, we knew we'd be lucky from thereon.
So we moved on and saw the ducks swimming far, far away.
Occasionally they would fly and that's when I saw the Garganey.
With that I got my second lifer of the day tucked under my belt
the smile on my face reflected the sheer happiness I felt.
I was in this elated state when I saw the white-fronted geese
flying towards us - a sight that no one among us could ever miss
Thirteen geese a-flying, four cameras a-clicking and I could see
my friends jubilantly rejoicing as I gladly shared with their glee.
Later on a a cute family of Little Grebes we were also able to find.
So much so that I knew my friends and I - we are of one mind
after having seen such uncommon birds, that for all four of us
This will be one very merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Return of the Naked

Okay, so here I was rather content on my photographs of the very uncommon Naked-faced Spiderhunter - you know those that show the entire underparts of  this  hyperactive bird - when to my surprise there appeared in facebook a whole plethora of fantabulous shots taken by my fellow bird photographers the day after we were at La Mesa Ecopark. What a difference one day made! 

I was envious! I was jealous! All those sins of vanity darkened my brooding heart. I went to bed that Saturday night with heaviness of spirit. A text message in the middle of the night got me jumping out of bed. It was my birding buddy, Neon. He said he will be going back to the Ecopark Sunday morning. Apparently he, too, was hit hard by those nicely-posed pictures of the spiderhunter and he, just like me, wanted to have the same. He will even pick me up from my home, he volunteered.

Now I am not a religious freak but I do know my spiritual priorities. So I politely declined Neon's proposal and went back to bed feeling at peace with my decision. Sunday morning I told my wife, Cynthia, about what transpired the night before. She suggested that we can go to the evening service instead of the 8:30 am one that we normally attend so that we can be with Neon to look for the spiderhunters. But I was firm. I texted Neon advising him that we will just meet up with him at the park at around 11 am and to please wait for us.

A little before 11 am we were at Commonwealth Avenue. Cynthia called Neon to confirm if he was still there and to ask for directions in getting to the park. We arrived about 10 minutes later. I was about to register and sign the waiver (required if taking photographs in the park) when the lady at the counter waved us off saying our friends already signed the waiver on our behalf. Next came the queue at the booth where the entrance fees were paid. Inasmuch as senior citizens residing in Quezon City are admitted free we bypassed the booth and just nodded at the guard at the entrance, who nodded back amiably.

Finally reaching the orchidarium, that quaint enchanted place where the naked-faced spiderhunter poses for photographers, we bumped into fellow birdnut DocMando who said that our quarry had been there about 10 minutes ago and now it's gone again.

Undaunted by this somewhat depressing news we joined the rest of the group: Neon and his wife Aphine, Bong, Bert, Mark, and Doc Chito. Although they already had some good views of the spiderhunters (there were two of them) earlier the gang was still hoping for more (and better) photo opportunities. For more than an hour we waited, sometimes under a soft drizzle, regaling each other with our avian encounters. At one point when I was feeling the onset of despair, I turned to my wife who was chatting with Aphine and gestured to her to pray. I uttered a silent one myself. At half past twelve, we were all getting antsy. Bert and Mark said they couldn't wait any longer and packed up their gears. We that remained behind looked at each other and came to an agreement that we will all leave at quarter to one regardless. Five minutes after Bert and Mark left, the sun peeped through the gray clouds. I told my buddies that the stage was now being set for the spiderhunters to come down to the orchidarium. It was then that we saw Doc Mando who was at the other side of the fence, point to the heliconia bush in front of us. Lo and behold the Naked-faced Spiderhunter was there and for the next five minutes or so gave us the looks that we all have been waiting for. By 12:45 the enigmatic feathered creature was gone, leaving five bird photographers breathless and exhilarated.

With that we turned our focus on our next endeavour...having lunch. As Cynthia and I were driving home, I was thinking, was it Divine providence that the spiderhunter showed up just as we were getting ready to leave? Was it Divine providence that the sun shone albeit briefly just at that precise moment? Did I mention that it rained rather heavily right after we left? I am not a religious person but I know that prayers do get answered.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Naked We Came

The warning on the waiver sheet was very clear: "All photographs taken in this park must be of wholesome nature." I was whispering to Neon, who was signing said waiver on our behalf, that our real purpose for coming was all about getting the naked..when he abruptly shushed me and flashed a disarming smile at the lovely park attendant.

Formalities having done with, all five of us (Neon, Rey, Alain, Doc Mando and myself) proceeded to the orchidarium united in a single purpose: take a picture of the Naked-faced Spiderhunter. We all already had a foretaste of this endeavour when right across from the parking lot we had glimpses of this legendary bird cavorting high up in the narra tree. But now we were spread out trying our very best to blend among the various heliconia patches with hopes that the spiderhunter would award us with its presence.

Patience finally paid off when it alit, not on a heliconia, but on another flowering plant. Where it was partially hidden from our view. Nevertheless, bird photographers never let an opportunity, no matter how daunting, go to waste. 

Three hours later all I had to show for my efforts was a full body shot...from below.

Meanwhile, back in Valenzuela, Bulacan, fellow birdnut Edu was texting everybody informing us that the migrant Black-headed Gulls were still in his "backyard". A quick meeting with my confreres resulted in an agreement that we all (except Alain, who will be joining his better half for their anniversary celebration) proceed to Bulacan. And to heck with lunch.

The pangs of hunger and the stress from going through an aggravating traffic situation all dissipated into thin air as Edu welcomed us into the hut overlooking the fishponds (known as Solomon's Place). There before us were literally hundreds of Black-headed Gulls. This time bird photography was as easy as it can get.

Having obligations later that day, Neon and I had to beg off from this pleasant undertaking. Thanking our hosts, we left at around two pm, trying not to think of the road battles set before us. I finally got home at 4:30 after dropping off Neon at the University of the Philippines where he will be joining his children at the Lantern Parade that night.

As I was processing my photographs that evening, I can't help but smile. Not only did we get two lifers that day, naked-faced we came and returned black-headed.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Size Matters

There was a time when I was a firm believer of the adage, "it's not the size of your equipment that matters, it's how you use it". However an incident in Los Angeles a couple of years ago made me reconsider my perspective on that subject matter.

My wife, Cynthia, was at work, and I, being retired, decided to go to the Los Angeles Arboretum for some birding. I was busy taking pictures of a Red-whiskered Bulbul using my 100-400 zoom lens when I noticed a pretty lady ogling me from a distance. She had a camera of her own albeit with a "normal" lens and she would occasionally take some shots of the various flora around her. Then her gazes toward me became more frequent and more intense until to my surprise she decided to approach me. She looked at me with desirous eyes and said, "You have a big one! May I hold it?" To say that I blushed with the intensity of freshly cut beef sirloin was an understatement. Flushed and frozen I just stared back at her. 

"I just want to know if a tiny woman like me can handle such size", she tried to explain.

 "W-wwell, my wife certainly can, and she's just about your size", I stammered. "As a matter of fact it is hers." Whereupon with trembling hands, I handed my camera with the zoom lens to her.

"Oh, it feels good!", she said with satisfaction.

Regaining my composure and trying to conceal my embarassment, I proceeded to extol the virtues of having this type of lens especially when taking pictures of birds (which she said she would be interested in trying.)

The choice of lens has long been the subject that interests most, if not all, of those who would like to go into bird photography. Allow me then to pitch in some of my points of view regarding this matter.

Bird photographers are almost always birders also and to some degree some birders also like taking pictures of the birds that they see. Birds, in general are tiny, active and skittish creatures and to be able to capture good images of them, a long lens is a must. If out on the field and your primary purpose is to see and hopefully photograph as many birds as there are possible to see, then a 400mm lens (but not the one with a maximum aperture of 2.8 - those are monsters!) would be your best bet. They are light enough to be carried along long walks and powerful enough to capture the images of the birds you encounter along the way.

On the other hand, if you intend to pretty much stay put in an area where birds come (or if you are strong enough to lug them around), then a 500mm lens is the equipment for you. These bulky things, by and large, should be mounted on a tripod for stability purposes, which, of course, adds to the setup's total weight. The results, however, fully compensate for the encumbrances of these photographic gear.

I was explaning all these things in even more detail to the lady when she flashed me a quick smile, uttered a quick "thanks!" and left. Jolted by her sudden departure, I looked at the direction she was headed and smilingly shook my head as I realized the reason why. There stood a man brandishing a humongous 500mm lens with an extender looking as virile as any bird photographer with this kind of equipment can get.

Size matters. Really.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Three and they're far

But enough about golf talk...

A short stint at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos resulted in below par as far as expectations go. The fruiting tree next to the TREES hostel was still fruiting but apparently not as much as before. Aside from the noisy bulbuls (both Philippine and Yellow-vented) there were no other birds to speak of. Well, there were a couple of Tarictics who preferred the fruits on the far (and hidden) side and therefore were not seen. Let me rephrase that: they were seen, albeit so briefly, but were not photographed. Let me rephrase that further: They were photographed, albeit so badly that it didn't really count. So there.

What saved the day for me and my wife was that we got two lifers and one photo-lifer (seen before, but photographed for the first time).  It all began when Fred Serrano (a Philippine Bird  Photographer Forum member) and his daughter, whom we met at the TREES hostel grounds, invited us to visit the Agri-Park where he said tons of Oriental Pratincoles had been observed. Now Oriental Pratincoles are on the top ten, no, make that top five, of my want-to-photograph list. When we got there, my heart stopped as there, none, nada, not a single Pratincole. Or any bird for that matter, except for a couple of Intermediate Egrets and a Brown Shrike. We were in a state of percolating disappointment when my wife pointed at a black bird perched on a wire in the distance. "I think that's a Crested Myna", she said hesitantly. My binos confirmed that it was and sensing an opportunity for a photo-lifer, I immediately set-up my gear..the one using the 500mm lens (with a 1.4 extender, mind you).  Let me explain at this point that the Myna was perched on a wire above the middle of a ricefield and that the closest I can set my tripod on was at the road's edge a thousand feet away. But a photo-lifer is a photo-lifer even if the subject was a mere dot on my camera's viewfinder.

Back at the hostel grounds our moods became gloomier harmonizing perfectly with the darkening skies. Families of Philippine Falconets and Coppersmith Barbets all sharing the same dead tree failed to revive the elan we once had.

It finally rained when we decided to have lunch just outside the campus grounds. It stopped when we returned to the TREES' premises. We sat forlornly as we waited for the skies to clear up. I glanced at the pine tree near the road and noticed a clump of green. Couldn't be a pine cone I mused. Again, using my binos, I almost slipped on the wet mossy surface of the hostel parking area as I realized I was looking at a Guaiabero! A small chunky green feathered ball way up in the tree, way out there by the roadside. A lifer! ...and it was not only far, it was backlit. Don't you just love it when we bird photographers have a term for a picture that is well below our acceptable standards. We call them "documentary" shots. Photos taken for documentary purposes only...just to prove that we indeed saw this particular species. And believe me these are documentary shots of a Guaiabero at its very essence.

The third, and final, super far-away, dot-in-the-screen photograph we got was that of another lifer - the Stripe-headed Rhabdornis. When the Falconets and Barbets finally abandoned the tall dead tree, the Rhabdornises came. These are unobtrusive, tiny, brown-and-white birds that blend so well against the tree trunks where they hunt for grub. Needless to say, all we got were some gorgeous documentary shots of our newest lifer. (At least we also got pictures of the tiny flies swarming at the Rhabdornis' head).

In golf, three under par is a really good score. In our case, three and even though they're far, were good enough scores as well. Actually we could even claim four or maybe even five and-they're-far pictures but that would really stretch the analogy. Let me just say that we had pun while it lasted.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pure Genius and a Stroke of Luck

Ask any brainiac and he will explain to you in so many discombobulating words that "genius" and "luck" never go together. "You make your own luck", the smart ones preach to us less mentally endowned people.

However, those two words applied to me this morning, albeit in some bizarre, unexplainable way. The presence of a rare bird at the campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman enkindled a certain amount of restlessness among the local bird photographers. Being one of them, I was there bright and early Friday morning. Apparently this gem of a bird inhabits a small patch of green where the local workers reside. As I stood outside gazing at the branches of the trees within the compound, the residents realized I was after the bird that "some people photographed yesterday." Graciously they allowed me into their inner sanctum, so to speak. When my target bird alit on a branch at eye level, I began clicking my camera's shutter button. During a pause in my shooting, one of the men watching me couldn't contain himself and asked me what kind of bird is it that draws photographers to their place.

"Ferruginous flycatcher", I told him.

"Pure genius plykatser?", he repeated. I smiled and explained to him that this bird flew all the way from northern Asia to escape the cold winter there. I told him that this kind of flycatcher doesn't normally end up in an urban area such as this place, that's why we bird photographers were so excited to see it.

It wasn't long when I was joined by Gabs, Doc Mando and Doc Chito. We all had our fill in photographing this lovely migrant from practically all angles and at various distances. At about 10 am, we all called it a day, inasmuch as my three companions still have to report to their respective offices.

As I drove in into our subdivision in St. Ignatius, I took a road that I normally don't take. Towards the end of Woodside Street, a taxi was loading passengers and thus blocked my way. I had no choice but to park by the roadside to wait until the taxi moved on. It was then that I saw a relatively big, brown bird fly down on a tiny strip of lawn about 15 feet away from me. Looking closer, my heart skipped as I realized that this was a female Blue Rock Thrush! - a bird that I never seen much less photographed before. I immediately grabbed my smaller camera gear (300mm) and fired away. First, the thrush was close enough for a smaller lens. Secondly, it would take some time for me to assemble my big lens plus tripod, to which the bird could have already flown away before I'm done, and there wasn't much space to put it in anyway.

Now, let me just tell you that I normally don't bring both my 500mm and 300mm when I'm birding without my wife (she usually handles the smaller lens). Why I did so today was beyond me. Call it luck. Call it whatever. I'm just glad I did.

Update: I went back to that place along Woodside St. in the afternoon, but the female Blue Rock Thrush was no longer there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Say aaahhh!

I have not been birding for quite a while. My son, Kurt, is here visiting from the United States. Since this is the first time in 23 years that he will be seeing the country where he was born, I've been busy showing him around. And as any self-respecting birder knows, the longer you don't go birding, the stronger the itch becomes.

When fellow bird photographer, Bong, informed me that he and another colleague, Ely, will be at the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman on Tuesday morning, I got excited. It so happened that I had a couple of hours to spare that morning before I return to my paternal duties, so off I went.

My first destination was the area in front of the Marine Science Institute (MSI) building. This is the haunt of the Blue Rock Thrush. And sure enough, as soon as I had my gears ready, it  flew to its favorite acacia tree. It wasn't long when Ely arrived and joined me. We both discovered that Blue Rock Thrushes (or at least this one that we're looking at) also eat fruits! It would swallow whole the red berry-like fruit of a palm tree and after a few moments regurgitate the seeds out. Very interesting since I thought all along that these species are insectivores.

The Blue Rock Thrush saying "aaahhh"

Ely and I were photographing the thrush's antics when he got a call from Bong. Bong informed us that he saw the now famous juvenile Philippine Serpent Eagle near the Vargas Museum not far from where Ely and I were.

Perched on a tree not far from the museum building, indeed, was the Serpent Eagle. Unmindful of the three birdnuts (which were later augmented by some curious students) taking its picture from different angles, the raptor just stayed there seemingly to the point of utter ennui.

Philippine Serpent Eagle saying "aaahhh"

Two hours went swiftly by and I bade my comrades adieu. I was smiling as I drove home, thinking, what do you say when your itch had been scratched? You say, "aaahhh!"

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tus' Company

Saturday, seven o'clock in the morning, Cynthia and I were at the parking lot next to the Biology building of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. We were for two reasons: First, to locate the Philippine Nightjar that had been roosting here lately and second, to meet up with my high school classmate and now Biology professor, Augustus (Tus) Mamaril.

We got the nightjar quite easily, thanks to the advice of another U.P. professor, Jerry de Villa, and the help of Mang Donato, one of the building's janitors. I was already busy taking pictures of the Philippine endemic when Tus came. I asked him to tarry a while as I promised fellow bird photographer, Bong, that I'll wait for him and show him where the Nightjar was. That was my way of paying him back for the favor he did for me last week when he waited for me so that I can take photos of the Pink-necked Green Pigeon also here at U.P.

Pretty soon, Bong drove in and I immediately showed him the snoozing night bird. Having done my duty, Cynthia and I asked Tus to join us for breakfast so we could reminisce the good ol' days. Inasmuch as I was a "nobody" (The song "Mr. Cellophane" from the broadway play "Chicago" would be a very apt description of me) during high school, I am quite amazed and even flattered that our valedictorian would remember a lot of things about me. Pleasant moments always fly swiftly by when spent with pleasant company, and so we were surprised to realize that it was already 11 am and Tus had to fulfill some professional obligations. On our way back to the parking lot, we saw a group of bird photographers lined up by the road. They were my birding buddies, Bong, Jun, DocMando, Rey and Val. When queried why they were so seemingly excited, they all pointed to a tree about a hundred meters away and said, "Philippine Serpent Eagle".

We took Tus back to his car and bade him goodbye with the promise to meet again, and rushed back to the where the boys were. We all had a grand time photographing the endemic raptor until it eventually flew off to somewhere we were no longer had the inclination to follow.

It was one of those weekend mornings that everything seemed to fall into place. We got the nightjar which was the bird we came to see and even got a bonus with the serpent eagle. And of course, a wonderful time in the company of friends both old and new.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Allow me to go a little Wagnerian this time (unfortunately I can't put opera music to go with this blog. Which is good since "Here comes the bride" is somehow quite inappropriate with my story). Anyway, here goes....

Mist swirled at our feet as we approached the grove of trees. The faint murmur of human voices floated in the dawning morn. Squinting, we could barely perceive the shape of an armed man standing viligilantly. But the voices we heard were that of more than one person. Slowly, silently we drew near, all the while tightly gripping our weapons. Daylight broke through the leaves and revealed the sources of the mutterings. Standing as if on guard was Alain, while resting on the side were Maia and Jops. Friends. People of the same mind and purpose, we heartily greeted them. It wasn't long when to our gladness came also Bong and the two Jun Os (Osano and Obilde).

Pleasantries were shared all around. The excitement was quite palpable. I asked my partner, Gabs, to come with me and wander to yonder grounds where our quest had been recently observed. Jops and Maia tagged along since this would be the first time, if ever, that they would encounter this creature. We all tarried in rapt anticipation until Jops in wild jubilation pointed at the tree before us and uttered the name of the reason for our being here: Blue Rock Thrush!

Sighs of relief and admiration mingled with the sound of shutters clicking as the rest of the group joined us in capturing the image of this lovely bird. Moments flew quickly and I realized I must take leave. Spousal duties I must fulfill thus I bade adieu to my enchanted colleagues begging them to notify me if and when the other mythical winged being should materialize before their very eyes.

Hours passed as I looked at the images of the blue thrush that I had taken and pondered whether those whom I left behind have been blessed with luck and sighted the other, more intriguing, avian visitor of that mystic place. It was then that I saw a post in the book of faces that Jun Osano had seen green. Hastily I communicated with my partner Gabs who confirmed that it was so.

In a flash, I was at the grove of trees where Bong remained waiting for my arrival and to assure me that the bird I came rushing for was still there. It was just him and Mark, another questor, that remained on guard. As I came barging in both of them lifted their heads and pointed to the branch of a fruiting tree swaying gayfully in the wind. "Pink-necked Green Pigeon" they uttered almost reverently. Satisfied that he had done his duty, Bong departed from the scene. It wasn't long when pangs of hunger stirred within me.  I looked at Mark who vowed to stay so that late arriving kindred spirits may be led to the virescent bird resting amid the verdant leaves and red berries. I left in profound silence.

Later that day as I reminisced of what transpired that morning, I smiled. If I were to describe those fortuitous events in three words, it would be "Blue and Green".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Owed to a Skylark

Famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote, "Hail to thee blithe spirit.." Those words could very well be an appropriate summary to describe our recent birding trip. 

Calatagan is a small seaside town in the province of Batangas. We were hoping that we would see some waders and migrant shorebirds here. Little did we know that access to the shorelines was next to impossible. For one thing, land adjoining the sea were all privately owned! Then the only road (actually a trail) leading to the lighthouse was so narrow, muddy and overgrown with weeds that we dared not drive our SUV through for fear of getting stuck in the mire.

The resort where we were staying had coastal access but there was no "shore" so to speak. There was a low wall that separates the sea from land. However, the seawaters here were being used for seaweed farming. At low tide, the mudflats that emerge were about a kilometer away. To make a long story short, there were no shorebirds here at all.

Thankfully, adjacent to the resort is a grassy open space where the local cattle are allowed to graze. It was here that we saw Richards' Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Cattle Egrets, and Striated Grassbirds. And Oriental Skylarks! At first Cynthia and I were unsure of their identity as we debated whether they could be Singing Bushlarks or even (gasp!) the uberrare Red-throated Pipits. But they were indeed Oriental Skylarks, a small flock that represented our only lifer of the trip.

On the way back we made it a point to stop next to the various paddyfields along the road hoping to see some migrants. The usual suspects of Little Ringed Plovers and Wood Sandpipers and an occasional Yellow Wagtail were the only birds we encountered there.

It could have been an uneventful birding trip for us. An utter disappointment. A frustrating outing. Thanks to the small, brown blithe spirits that forage nonchalantly on the grassy field, those Oriental Skylarks made our excursion to Calatagan worth it. Hail to thee blithe spirit!

For other (just as poetic?) birding blogs and photos, please visit:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Colors of Candaba

In the beginning it was black.

We learned from the members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) who were here last week about them. There's plenty of them in Candaba these days, we gathered from their reports. When we saw one fly over, our hopes were buoyed. It wasn't long after we have assembled our gears, that Olan,  a fellow birdnut (a term we use to describe members of the Philippine Bird Photography group) started yelling and was enthusiastically pointing at a thick tangle of bushes. We (Alain, Bong, Mark, Rey, my wife and myself) all rushed to where Olan was standing and tried very hard to locate the object of his excitement. I can already hear the clicking shutters of my friends cameras and I was still squinting, looking at every leaf, every branch, every bough and getting frustrated at not finding the reason for all this commotion. Until finally with the help of Cynthia, I saw it! A Black Bittern! A lifer for all of us! It was huge, bigger than any Philippine bittern I have seen and it was indeed black, a contrast to the green everything around it.

Hello, yellow!

Tall and thick vegetation now cover most of what used to be a huge pond where we saw the Bean Goose last April. Much to the delight of the local waders. Black-crowned Night Herons established a nesting colony and some of them were enjoying an early morning flight. Then of course, there were the bitterns. Normally skulkers and seldom seen in broad daylight, we were pleasantly surprised to find them out in the open. Unlike the uncommon Black Bittern, Yellow bitterns are quite plentiful, some of them even inhabiting semi-urban areas. One of these secretive birds was so intrigued by my wife's imitation of its call that it stretched out its neck in rapt curiosity. That was the first time I've seen a Yellow Bittern do that.

A flash of white.

Rey was driving my car while Cynthia and I were riding "shotgun" as it were when we saw a flash of white fly up to a "camachile" tree. Rey slowed down and quietly stopped as I trained my binoculars to the dark area beneath the canopy of the said tree. Turtle Doves were staring down at me and I'm thinking, no, these can't be the birds that we just saw. Some movement past the doves caught my attention, brownish birds with white breasts and bellies. I described them to Rey and his eyes widened. White-shouldered Starlings! he said almost in disbelief. As soon as we aimed our cameras at these avian wonders they flew. We could not find them again.

A touch of purple.

There was a pond where the heads of heron stuck out from the surrounding brownish stalks of reed. Once in a while one these huge birds would take to the air, its enormous wings flapping slowly. Purple Herons convey a certain degree of royalty not only with their color, but also when they stare with seeming arrogance. They are magnificently tall creatures with their back covered in a purplish cloak. Somehow I picture them in my mind holding a scepter ruling over the ponds of Candaba.

There weren't that many birds in Candaba that morning, in terms of variety. As for us, we were quite happy. It was bittern than nothing.

For other (even more colorful?) blogs and photographs, please visit: 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Gone Coastal

Despite its proximity (after all it is located in Metro Manila) we have not visited the Coastal "lagoon" in Paranaque. So when friends Tina, Tonji, Sylvia and Ixi told us that they were planning to go there on the morning of Oct. 6th, we asked to be counted in.

When our convoy of four SUVs passed through the gates that Wednesday morning, Cynthia and I had a lot of expectations. Migration was in full swing and we were hoping that we would get closer looks at the species we've seen at the Macabebe/Masantol area (see my previous blog titled It's a mud, mud world).

The "lagoon" is actually a reclaimed piece of land that had been left on its own. Over the years vegetation had grown over it and this in turn attracted birds. The shoreline is a bit rocky and covered with...garbage!! It seemed like all the detritus thrown at Manila Bay ended here. Surprisingly, shorebirds and waders inhabit this place.

But not apparently on the very day we were there.  The usual suspects were there, of course, like the dozens of Little Egrets standing amidst the rubbish. Grey-tailed Tattlers and Common Sandpipers would occasionally drop by among the rocks by the water's edge. The only Whimbrel that showed up was so skittish we barely had gotten good looks at it. Chestnut Munias, Brown Shrikes, Zebra Doves and Spotted Doves were all doing their own businesses among the shrubbery. Despite all the trash washed up on the shore, the evidence of fish life was made obvious by the presence of Collared Kingfishers (the most number I've seen in one place) and Whiskered Terns. It must have a convention day for terns because they are just everywhere! Many of them diving for fish just a few feet from the water's edge.
The hoped for migrant species of plovers and sandpipers were heart-breakingly absent. And so we just contented ourselves at practicing our BIF (birds-in-flight) shots. Those swift-flying terns definitely provided the challenge we needed. Were it not for the great company of friends, this would have turned out to be a rather unexciting day.

It was when I was processing my photos at home that I noticed something different with an egret that I took a photo of. Unlike the abundant Little Egrets at the lagoon, this one had an all-yellow pair of legs and a somewhat pinkish bill. Looking closer at the photo, there was a faint bluish tinge between the eyes and the beak. Could it be that I have taken a shot of an extremely rare Chinese Egret? It appears so but I will wait for the opinion of the experts before I can claim that it was so. 

Update: Experts confirmed that this is indeed a Chinese Egret, therefore a lifer for us! Yay!!

Monday, October 04, 2010

It's a mud, mud world

The first light of dawn is slowly filling up the sky. It looked like it will be another day of gray clouds and warm breezes. I was carefully maneuvering my SUV to avoid another pothole filled with muddy water from yesterdays rains. It was an exercise in futility. We were negotiating the ten-kilometer strip of unpaved road that traverses several barangays (local communities) of the towns of Macabebe and Masantol in the province of Pampanga, about sixty kilometers northwest of Manila.

We came here at the invitation of fellow Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) member, Linda Gocon. She informed us last week while we were in Davao, that the migrants had started coming in into this marshy area close to Manila Bay. My wife and I were excited, of course, as we were sure that our life list would be augmented quite considerably by sighting some shorebirds that have traveled all the way from Siberia to spend winter here.

We didn't expect the road to be this muddy, though. We were following Linda's SUV and I could see gooey, sticky mud splattered under her vehicle and I could imagine the same thing happening to my beloved Nissan X-trail. The promise of lifers kept us going.

Soon Linda stopped and we did likewise. She got off her SUV and pointed us to the clump of trees across a wide pond. Black-crowned Night Herons roost there, she told us. Sure enough, there were hundreds of them, taking off from their perches every now and then. Cynthia and I have seen close-ups of this species in California so the sight of them did not exactly elicit a "yay!" response from us. Then we heard it. "Tut" "Tut" floating in the air like a cadence. My wife and I looked at each other and we both said "coucal!" in unison. She ran towards the source of the call while I ran back to our vehicle to retrieve (and assemble) my bulky gear. Of course as soon as I had it ready, the Coucal flew away. And of course, Cynthia already got a photo of it.
We all returned to our respective vehicles and moved on. Throughout the morning that would be our modus operandi. We would stop at the spot where migrants are usually found or whenever we see a bird that we would like to photograph. And sloshing through thick, brown mud all the way.

At our next stop we bagged our first lifer, the Little-ringed Plover. Actually I didn't know what particular species it was until we were already home and looking at our photographs and referring to Kennedy Field Guide. But at that time in Macabebe, any small plover would be a lifer for us. 

As we moved further west, the birds became more plentiful. Soon we were ticking off Black-winged Stilt and Little Grebe off our list of lifers. The mudflats were teeming with shorebirds! Common Greenshanks and Common Redshanks were side by side probing the mud for tidbits. Little Long-toed Stints were skittering with Kentish Plovers as the morning air warmed up and the humidity shot up a few notches.
Black-winged Stilt

Little Grebe

Common Greenshank

Common Redshank

Long-toed Stint

Kentish Plover
A single wagtail sent Linda and myself into species analyses. Superficially and in non-breeding plumage, both Grey and Yellow Wagtails look very much alike. Initially we settled on Yellow, but when I looked at the photographs at home and noticed a small dark spot on the breast of the bird in question, I was more inclined to call it a Grey. I emailed Linda about my findings and sent her a copy of my photo. She seemed convinced but she forwarded my email to the experts just to be sure. We're still waiting for their decision.

With about three more kilometers to go I saw a huge pothole ahead of us. Caution won over valor as we told Linda that this was as far as we need to go. We thanked her profusely for her kindness in showing us where to find the birds in this area and for all the lifers we had seen (we had seven, eight if the wagtail is eventually confirmed to be Grey). Linda promised to let us know when the road conditions would be much better and hopefully even more migrants would have arrived by then.

Now to have our shoes and SUV cleaned from all those mud!

For other (much cleaner?) birding blogs and photos please visit:

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Da WOW Experience, Part 4

Day 5 - Where the birds are...

..the birdnuts will be there. Cynthia and I together with some fellow members of the Philippine Wild Bird Photographers group, otherwise known as "birdnuts" had an agreement yesterday that we will be up early today, Sept. 25th. The reason? To do what birdnuts love to do, go birding! Our destination: the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) with the hope of seeing and getting photos of the Silvery Kingfisher.

It was just a little after 6 am when we got there and thanks to a prior arrangement with PEC Executive Director Dennis Salvador, we were allowed inside the premises at such an early time. All seven of us (Tina and husband, Wency; Tonji and Sylvia, Cynthia and I, and Neon) stood by the pond and waited for our target bird to show itself. Other than a few Pacific Swallows, the kingfisher never appeared.

So we fanned out into the other parts of the center, leaving my wife behind who decided to sit it out by the pond to wait for the kingfisher and because she was having some slight back pains. I joined Tonji and Sylvia who were postioned beneath a fruiting tree. There species after species came to feed. First were the Coletos which were then followed by the Philippine Bulbuls and even some White-bellied Munias. It was then that Neon joined us and immediately announced that there was a Yellow-wattled Bulbul in that tree also. I looked hard, and indeed there it was albeit partly covered by the branches. I still counted it as a lifer, nonetheless. When bird activity in that tree abated somewhat we moved on to where Tina and Wency were admiring the beauty and majesty of the Philippine Eagle.

Philippine Bulbul
White-bellied Munia
Yellow-wattled Bulbul

Then a White-throated Kingfisher flew into a clump of bamboo which of course attracted our attention. Thanks to Neon for giving me excellent tips on photographing birds in the shade and even taking me to a good vantage point, I got some pretty good shots. Shots which I would normally have botched given the lighting circumstances.

Cynthia, meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, had been quite lucky by just sitting near the pond. She was able to get a picture of a Philippine Serpent Eagle that flew by and of a Yellow Wagtail that stopped by above her as if to say hello. When she said that she thought she saw a kingfisher-like bird stop by the pond, Neon and I rushed to the site. Like a phantom the Silvery Kingfisher remained unseen. On the way back, we were consoled by seeing a Little Spiderhunter which was another lifer for me. Later I would find it again feeding on top of a red flower.

Philippine Serpent Eagle
Yellow Wagtail
Little Spiderhunter
Neon went on to join Tina (Wency decided to sit this one out also), and I was about to join Tonji and Sylvia when I saw them shooting away at something. Following their line of vision and right in front of me, some 30 feet away was a White-eared Brown Dove nonchalantly eating some berries at almost eye level. I just picked up my eighth (and final) lifer of the trip!

After the dove had its fill and flew off, we also joined Tina who was very excited about some bird that was frolicking among the red flowers. It was a sunbird she said, but it had red coloring on both sides, something she hadn't seen before. As the tiny bird popped out from the flowers, a burst of shutter clicks filled the air. Later when we were able to look at our photos more closely, we all came to the conclusion that it was an immature Purple-throated Sunbird still in molting stage.

Pretty soon it was lunch time. Despite having quite a productive birding day, we were still disappointed that we did not see the hoped-for Silvery Kingfisher. (Tina and Wency finally saw it the following day when they returned with the bird fair group).

We stopped by Dencio's Hilltop restaurant for lunch. While waiting for our food to be served, we had fun trying to take pictures of the White-breasted Wood Swallows nearby.

Back at the hotel, the bird fair was coming to a close. Booths were being disassembled and the people manning them were heaving sighs of relief for it had been quite humid on both days and visitors which included hundreds of school children had been quite plentiful.

That evening we attended the turnover ceremonies where yet another buffet dinner was served. The delegation from Taipei, where the 2nd Asian Bird Fair will be held next year, hosted the event.

Day 6 - Time to say goodbye

I stood at our veranda the morning of Sunday, Sept. 26th. I can see that some of the participants in the bird fair were already getting ready to board the bus that would take them to the Philippine Eagle Center and then to Eden Nature Park for some birding activities. Then I saw James Biron, a Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member, aiming his long-lensed camera at the palm tree close to the room where Cynthia and I are staying. My curiousity was satisfied when I saw a Collared Kingfisher fly and then land not that far from where I was standing (which was on the second floor). I quickly grabbed my camera and took advantage of this welcome opportunity.

After breakfast and since we still have time to kill before Chito would pick us up, my wife and I agreed to try to get some photos of the Chestnut Munia that we keep seeing on the fair grounds. Sure enough there they were, unperturbed by the previous day's activities, they have resumed their nesting duties.

A short trip to the breakwater yielded (what has now become) the usual suspects: Common Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler and Whimbrel. This time they were joined by a pair of Zebra Doves. It was a delight to watch them as sometimes all four species would be on the same line of sight, as if they themselves were discussing the success of the events that transpired two days ago.

Around 11 am Chito came and drove us to Davao International Airport. Then came the goodbyes. And the promise to return. The Silvery kingfisher better be there when we do.

We had a good time on this trip to Davao. Cynthia was re-united with her brothers, the Asian Bird Fair was a tremendous success and the birding was great. I smiled as I thought about the 8 lifers that I racked-up and the 8 lbs I gained from all those buffets.

At the end of those six memory-filled days in Davao, all I can say is WOW!