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: