Saturday, May 28, 2011

For Bee-eater or for Worse

Despite the threat of a storm we still went. After all, birders are supposed to be intrepid people. And these two birders are as intrepid as they can get. Well, not really, but the fact that our trip would be mostly "dude" birding (generally staying inside the car with a minimum amount of walking), we thought we would be safe enough should a heavy downpour occur.

As we entered Nabasan trail, one of the favorite birding spots in Subic Bay, Cynthia was all agog as she saw a pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers (a lifer for us!) out in the open. As she was shooting furiously from the window of our vehicle, I gingerly got out of the driver's seat (the "away" side from the birds) crept behind the car and opened the trunk. As soon as I pulled out my camera gear, the woodpeckers flew away. 

That pretty much summed up my experience that early morning. Birds were practically everywhere but every time I focus my camera on them, they would, without exception, all fly away. My wife noticing the undeniable frustrated look on my face suggested that we go to Cubi Point instead where the bee-eater colonies were. I, of course, agreed. I mean birding that area could never get worse than our experience here at Nabasan trail.

We were on the way to Cubi, when suddenly Cynthia yelled "stop!" We have birded together long enough for me to know that when she does that, there must be a bird nearby that caught her keen eyesight. I quickly parked the car, got out and started assembling my gear. Cynthia, on the other hand, was already busy taking pictures of a Blue-naped Parrot perched on a bare tree. I plunked my tripod in front of that tree and for the next hour or so was treated to an array of birdlife including a few surprises, such as a Bar-bellied Cuckoo Shrike and an Asian Glossy Starling. Oh, and there were bee-eaters, as well.  Unlike Nabasan trail which is surrounded by forest, this place was quite open, with only a few trees on either side of the road. Somehow I found it ironic that we have photographed more birds here than in a heavily forested area.

At Cubi, the bee-eaters were plentiful. Although their nesting season was already over,  many still remained here to enjoy the bounty of flying insects. Keeping the bee-eaters company were White-breasted Wood Swallows.

After lunch, we decided to return to Nabasan trail, hoping that our luck would change for the better. As soon as we entered the trail, it began to rain. I did a quick turn around and on the way out, we settled for taking photos of a White-throated Kingfisher seemingly upset at the falling raindrops.

It was already pouring hard when we left for home. We got a lifer and some good shots of quite a number of birds but we also had a frustrating time early in the day. Summing up our birding at Subic, allow me to borrow a Dickensian theme: it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Four off the Bench

All four of us were seated, chatting idly as we waited for some action. Occasionally we would exchange pointers on how to improve our game. Sometimes we would reminisce the thrills we had from places we've been to. At about seven, we stood up, took our positions, and looked intently ahead filled with great anticipation.

Soon they came. A trickle at first, then followed by a flock.

Cynthia and I were enjoying the hospitality of Ramon and Poch at Ramon's house at the slopes of Mt. Banahaw in a place called BK Valley (the BK stands for Bangkong Kahoy or Wooden Bench). Ramon had been telling birders and bird photographers that the trees in front of his balcony hosts a variety of birds. And boy, he wasn't kidding! There before us were birds galore! Led by the colorful Blue-headed Fantail (lifer!)

the mixed flock also consisted of two kinds of White-eyes; the Yellowish and the Mountain (both lifers!)

the active Citrine Canary-Flycatcher (lifer!)

the gorgeous Sulfur-billed Nuthatch

and the black-and-yellow Elegant Tit. 

Ramon later described it as having a furious 15-minute photography session with these tiny, active birds. As is the nature of any mixed flock of forest birds, they eventually moved on. Recovering from the burst of adrenaline rush, we relaxed a bit. I took that opportunity to answer the call of nature. Upon my return, my wife was frantically waving at me and pointing at the tree in front of her. I noticed that Ramon and Poch were already firing off shot after shot from their vantage points. I looked at where Cynthia was pointing and was amazed to see a Brush Cuckoo perched insouciantly some 7 meters away!

A little past eight and bird activity died down somewhat. We thanked Ramon profusely and returned to the resort's restaurant to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Which was interrupted by the appearance of a Red-crested Malkoha alighting on the tree right next to the restaurant. I grabbed my wife's camera, almost scrambled on the way to the tree where the big black bird was, tried to get it's photograph but bungled the job miserably.

Back to our delicious breakfast, Cynthia and I were so happy to have visited this quaint resort in the town of Dolores, in Quezon province. Our gracious host, Dion Pullan, made sure that our stay at BK Valley was comfortable and pleasant. 

Did I mention that I got four lifers off the Wooden Bench?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

That's a lotta bul-buls

Yellow-vented Bulbuls are so common here in the Philippines that very often they no longer get the attention of birders. A birder sees one (or two, or more) and the usual reaction is "ho hum, just another YVB". (Filipinos have this habit of shortening names and that applies to birds, too, more so with bulbuls because in Tagalog "bulbul" refers to an unmentionable part of a human being. Therefore one does not go around yelling "bulbul" when one sees this species especially if there are other non-birding Filipinos around).

It was not very birdy this particular Saturday morning at my favorite hang-out, the University of the Philippines' campus in Quezon City. The Black-naped Orioles were a-calling but they were not a-landing on the fruit laden tree in front of me. The only birds enjoying the fruitful bounty were "ho hum, just another YVB". Lots of them, actually.

So I decided to make lemonade out of the lemons I was given by photographing the antics of these ever present brown birds, capturing their images as they gobbled up the abundant fruit.

It was a good thing that I was at some distance from this tree. Otherwise I probably would have been the recipient of some Bulbul s*** (er, droppings).

Monday, May 09, 2011

Oriole Happy?

The trees were laden with fruits. There I was staring unblinkingly at the tree before me lavishly adorned with bright red fruits like an overdone holiday decor. And hoping that some other bird would be attracted to these feasts other than the noisy, ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

Then came a "ki-kiyaw!" So loud that even my impaired ears were able to hear it. Then came another and another, each one louder than the one before. I held my breath. Soon a flash of yellow ungracefully swooped through the green leaves and red fruits and ungainly landed on a branch. Followed by another flash of yellow. Why do they have to perch behind those twigs and bunch of leaves? I waited. Their hunger finally getting over their sense of caution, the Black-naped Orioles gave me some photo opportunities as they plucked the ripe fruits and swallowed them whole.

Having had their fill of these bounty, the orioles left. Only to be replaced by a group of Coppersmith Barbets.

When once again only the Bulbuls were the only ones enjoying the fruits, I started walking back to my car. It was then that my friend and fellow bird photographer, Ralf Nabong, arrived. It was also then that the Philippine Hawk Cuckoo flushed from somewhere and alit on a branch not too far from us. I managed to get off one quick shot while Ralf struggled to assemble his gear. Just as soon as he was ready, the cuckoo flew to an acacia tree. We quickly gave chase but it flew again from tree to tree not allowing us to get a good look at it until the bird flew to where we would not be able to follow.

After calming down our frustrations, Ralf and I decided to go to where the Lowland White-eyes are found. As we approached the fruiting "alagaw" tree, I immediately saw the roosting Philippine Nightjar on the branch of a nearby tall acacia.

Turning our attention to the "alagaw" tree, we met another fellow bird photographer, Rey Sta. Ana. As always the fruiting tree was swarming with Yellow-vented Bulbuls. Once in a while a flock of Lowland White-eyes would fly in to feed on the fruits. All three of us enjoyed the challenge of photographing these constantly moving, tiny green birds that blend so well with the large alagaw leaves.

At around eleven, Ralf had to leave due to some personal duties. Rey and I went back to the cuckoo place but it was nowhere to be found so we too decided to call it a day.

Later that afternoon as I related to my wife our adventures that morning, she asked, "Are y'all happy?"

"Oriolelly am", I replied

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Enjoying BBQs

I do not consider myself a patient person. That is a strange statement coming from me because I am a birder and a bird photographer. Patience is supposed to be a virtue that practicers of these hobbies should possess. 

When news that Barred Buttonquails (BBQs) have been observed regularly at Los Banos little did I know that to see these small birds would require patience. Lots of it! 

Cynthia and I were sitting in our car staring at the empty road before us. Waiting for a buttonquail to appear any moment now (or so we thought). Thanks to the map provided by fellow bird photographer Mark Itol, we were confident that we were at the right place. So we waited.  Nothing. Then a car approached us, stopped, and out came a gentleman.

"I think I know you," he said as he approached our car. "You're Bob Kaufman, right?"

Flattered, (how can a complete stranger know me?) I nodded in response. "And you are....?" I asked with a broad smile.

"Tirso Paris", he replied.

"Prof. Paris!" I exclaimed as I shook the hand of the man who first reported the presence of the buttonquails in this area.

Professor Paris then explained the habits of these furtive birds and advised us that we would have better chances if we moved forward a bit and stay next to the African Tulip tree. He wished us good luck as he prepared to leave inasmuch as he will be meeting with fellow bird photographers Enrique Frio and Alain Pascua at the Botanic Center in a few minutes. Just as he was leaving a Barred Buttonquail emerged from the clump of grass along the road. It was on Cynthia's side so I handed her the camera. Unfortunately she was too excited and the bird too quick that she wasn't able to get some good shots. We waited for it to come out again, but impatience got into us. We moved to where Tirso suggested we should stay. Again we waited. The fact that somebody decided to use the road we were at to learn to drive a car didn't encourage the secretive quails to come out in the open.

Eventually the student driver drove off. Once again, lack of patience got the better of us. So we drove slowly along the short stretch of road that's supposed to have a bunch of buttonquails just waiting to be photographed. Still nothing. Luckily, we saw some swallows bathing in a tiny puddle. That got our attention and we were even more thrilled when some of those turned out to be Striated Swallows. Lifers for us! 

After getting some good shots, we staked out the road anew. Watching Oriental Skylarks mingling with the plentiful Eurasian Tree Sparrows feeding in the middle of the road somehow alleviated the boredom. Perhaps the presence of these brown birds gave the necessary courage for the Barred Buttonquails to determine that it was now safe to come out of their hiding places. And they did, not just one, but several of them. We had an enjoyable time taking turns at capturing the image of the lovely, skulking BBQs.