Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Please don't step on the birds!

Kapi'olani Park in Honolulu. Right across from the world-famous Waikiki Beach - a place where tourists, beachcombers and heliophiles throng. Who would've thunk that there will be birds in a park with such proximity to a tourist spot? And yet, birds thrive in this cosmopolitan atmosphere. Plenty of them even. So plenty and so used to the presence of human beings that there ought to be sign that says, "Please don't step on the birds!"

This was the second time we visited Kapi'olani Park in about a year's span. Although we stayed only two days this time (as compared to six days last year) we were still able to see the birds we hoped to see. And even added a couple of lifers to boot!

As soon as we have checked in at the nearby Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, we proceeded right away to our favorite birding place in Oahu. Almost immediately, we saw a flock of Java Sparrows feeding on the grass. 

Pretty soon we were observing the regular avian inhabitants of the park, many of them quite oblivious of the people strolling on the lawn-like grounds. Some of these birds, like the Common Myna and the Zebra Dove were so used to humans that they are almost stepped on by the park visitors, flying off only when they are inches away from one's foot.

The morning of the following day, Cynthia and I were both so happy to see the lovely, angelic White Terns flying over the park and then perching on the nearby trees. 

We were about to return to our hotel when I saw a flash of green alight on a branch not too far from us. Followed by another flash of green! Looking up I almost squealed in delight as I discovered that those flashes of green turned out to be a lovey-dovey pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets! A lifer for us!

That afternoon we joined a nature tour that took us to the various beaches along the leeward side of the island of Oahu. As our fellow passengers in the tour van were awe-stricken by the seawater spouting up through a hole in the rocks, my wife and I were going ga-ga over the Red-footed Booby gliding just a few feet above the raging sea below. Our second lifer! 

Our nature tour also took us to a marshland where a Hawaiian Mallard and some Hawaiian Stilts were lazily lounging in the afternoon sun. 

Then off we went to a Haeio (a tribal sacred place composed of layered stones). While our guide was explaining the history of ancient Hawaiian tribes I was busy trying to get a good photo of a White-rumped Shama which was hopping from branch to branch in the shaded part of a grove. 

Our last stop was at Pali Point where we tried, really, really tried not to get blown off by the strong gusts of wind howling from the steep valley below. While the wild chickens were smart enough to hide behind the bushes.

It was a short stay in Hawaii but we had fun and were able to get some good shots of the "local" avifauna (many of which were introduced to Oahu many, many years ago). Strolling through a lovely park with colorful birds practically at our feet was an experience that we would never forget. To which we say Mahalo, and Aloha.       

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Keeping it U.P.

Our eyes nearly leapt out of their sockets when we saw it: 54 pesos per liter of gasoline! (About $4.71 a gallon). Suddenly visions of future birding trips began bursting like frail soap bubbles on windy day. Mt. Palay-palay *POP!*, Candaba *POOF!*, Subic *PFFT!*.....It felt like our bodies suddenly became flaccid from such discouraging thoughts. I wanted to throw a tantrum like a child who can't get the toy he wanted. I wanted to whine until I can get what I wanted. But being an adult (okay, a senior citizen) somehow tempered such controlling urges. As in countless times in the past, it was my wife, Cynthia, who came up with a solution.

"But wait", she said, sounding like a TV ad, "why not go birding at U.P. instead? After all it's just a few kilometers away. And there's always some interesting birds there."

It was as if windows had been suddenly opened ushering in a glorious light that overcame the pervading gloom as angelic fanfares accompanied such grandiose spectacle.

"By golly, you're right!" I agreed with a smile spreading on my face.

Thus began several trips to the renowned campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. It started on March 1st, as I ventured alone in search of the Barbet's nest and without the aid of my wife, failed miserably to locate it. However I was rewarded with seeing the very uncommon Violet Cuckoo (please see my previous blog, "Roses are red but violets are not blue").

The following Saturday, I was back, this time with Cynthia. Of course, she found the Barbet's nest rather easily. (How did she do that? or rather, how come I couldn't?). Here we met fellow birders Butch San Juan and Adri Constantino. However, because of some ongoing ground cleanup, the Barbets were as skittish as hunted deer. The Pied Trillers were bolder, unmindful of the commotion underneath and the constant harassment from the neighborhood thug aka Brown Shrike and from the always curious Yellow-vented Bulbuls. When the cleanup crew became more animated and noisier we decided to move to somewhere more subdued. At this point, Butch, who had a meeting to attend, bade us farewell. As we were driving by the MSI (Marine Science Institute) building, I told my wife, "It's sad that the Blue Rock Thrush no longer hangs out the.."

"There it is!" she yelled even before I finished what I was saying, and pointed to a silhouette of a bird on the driveway. I abruptly stepped on the brakes, backed-up and drove straight down to the parking lot, to the bewilderment of Adri who was following us in his car. We were taking a few shots of the colorful migrant when it began to drizzle. It looked like the downpour won't be stopping anytime soon so together with Adri, we decided that a late breakfast would be a perfect palliative.

Three days later we were back at the MSI parking lot with hopes of getting better shots at the Blue Rock Thrush. But it wasn't there. Cynthia saw a pair of Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers cavorting along the branches of a nearby tree. I scurried over to where she was, got some disgustingly backlit photos and was trying doggedly to get better angles when raindrops began to fall. We both ran to the car and waited for the rain to stop. Thirty minutes later and it was still pouring with no signs of letting up. Reluctantly, disappointingly, we drove home not even thinking of consoling ourselves with a late breakfast as we did three days ago.

Another three days passed and we're back. Once again we checked the area where the Barbets were vainly trying to get settled in their nest making duties. Apparently they have given up because not even a shadow of a Barbet appeared. It was when we were exploring the surrounding area that I saw a small bird displaying a distinct flycatcher habit of perching then flying to catch some insect in the air and then returning to its perch. Thoughts of Ferruginous Flycatchers teasingly formed in my brain. I borrowed the binoculars that Cynthia was holding. I looked, focused, and realized that the tiny bird showing in my lenses was a Fferr.....a Grey-streaked Flycatcher! Maybe not as colorful nor as rare as a Ferruginous but still a good find, especially in a non-montane environment such as a university campus. Having had our fill of this active, brown bird, we returned to the MSI parking lot where the Blue Rock Thrush was waiting for us!

The following day was pretty much a reprise of the day before, with both Grey-streaked Flycatcher and Blue Rock Thrush present and accounted for in their respective milieus. A stake-out at the patch of wilderness known as "frogs" with pal, Ralf Nabong, resulted in zero sightings except for a family of Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

The old cliche about making lemonade when life gives you lemons somehow rang true. The prohibitive gasoline prices may have prevented me and Cynthia from going to the more distant birding places but that didn't prevent us from pursuing our hobby. We had to keep the passion burning even if it comes from such urban places as U.P. Diliman.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Roses are red but Violets are not blue

There I was standing forlornly beneath a tall tree staring at the tiny pond covered by huge waterlilies below. Hoping against hope that a bird, any bird for that matter, would suddenly materialize before my despairing eyes.

Earlier that morning, I could not find the Coppersmith Barbet's nest near the NIGS building at U.P. Diliman. It was supposed to be a can't-miss location, but me being directionally-challenged that I am, and without my trusted scout, Tonto (aka Cynthia, my wife), this Lone Ranger disintegrated into a pathetic Lost Ranger (a perfect example of an oxymoron right there). Then seeing but not photographing a Yellow Wagtail added to my woes.

I was in that particulary surly mood as I wished, no, prayed that I would see some bird soon. The gray clouds parted and a burst of sunlight illuminated the leaves of the tree on my right side. A brownish bird flitted by and perched on a branch. At first I thought it was just one of them Yellow-vented Bulbuls that seemed to be conjured into existence by the flash of sunlight. But the color looked different on this particular bird. I looked at it through my binoculars. My heart skipped, jumped and beat furiously. I can tell it was some sort of a Cuckoo, but can't nail the ID. Brush? Bronze? It was small, smaller than the cuckoos I have seen before and just about the size of those Bulbuls. What am I doing? I should be taking pictures of this mysterious bird. Hurriedly I raised my camera and began shooting like crazy. Then it flew off! Only to return to a different perch and now it was backlit! Aaargh! I kept shooting knowing I can rely on good ol' photoshop to tweak the image later on.

Like any moving drama story, the villain came. Black-masked and tail-wagging, it gave a screech and chased my cuckoo away.

Back home I quickly grabbed my Kennedy guide and frantically flipped the pages until I found what I was looking for. My cuckoo was a female Violet Cuckoo, quite an uncommon species especially in a semi-urban environment such as the campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman. It may not be as colorful as the male - which is actually violet plumed - the female was still a beauty to behold with its bright reddish head, striped belly and bronze wings. Colors that took my blues away.