Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rainbird Connection

Why aren’t there so many songs about rainbirds? Maybe it’s because not too many people go birding in the rain. Surely these feathered creatures come out even when there’s a downpour, don’t they?

My wife and I decided to make that rainbird connection one gloomy Tuesday morning. And painfully discovered why there weren’t many stories about pluvial avian activities.

Yes, we saw some birds, most of them when we had just about given up after three hours of fruitless searching. In one particular ricefield were a lone Little Egret patiently hunting for food and a Cinnamon Bittern praying for a little sunshine. Wood Sandpipers were completely oblivious of the intermittent rain. 

And yes, we saw (but unable to photograph) the Pheasant-tailed Jacana that fellow birder, Maia Tanedo, saw the week before.

In the end, the rainbird connection, though disappointing at times, can be a source of inspiration to dreamers, birders and me.

Friday, August 26, 2011


An ominous number. A number that evokes evil and wickedness. The beast! Satan! The mere mention of it educes fear and darkness and apocalyptic thoughts.

Or, it could be the total of all the bird species I have seen so far. My lifelist.

But then could all the sinister connotations of that number be a factor resulting at me being stuck at that total for quite some time now? Was it responsible for me not seeing the Grey-backed Tailorbird despite hearing that bird in many occasions? My would be 667th species?

Perish the thought!

How can I even attribute such failure to a set of digits? I was not getting a new lifer because, to be really honest about it, I have not been going out much. The combination of crappy weather and good old sloth were the culprits for my sedentary behavior. Sure I missed the tailorbird after a couple of tries. But that wasn't unusual. I have had similar disappointments in the past. And none were caused by some creepy numbers.

666? When I see that number, this is what comes to mind:
(You have to click play to fully comprehend the hidden message.)

Disco baby!!!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Angry Bird-er

We were huddled together squinting though the unceasing rain. Enduring the stifling humidity as we patiently waited for our target. Our muted conversations mingled with the monotonous patter of the raindrops falling on the canvas sheet above us. Occasionally I would peer through my weapon, gauging the distance, adjusting the aim, going through the motions should the object of our quest suddenly decide to appear. My sharp-eared partner, on the other hand, was picking up and analyzing every single chirp that broke through the sound of the drizzle. The morning darkly and lazily dragged on and we started to feel the creeping discouragement that we both did not want to articulate.

The downpour finally abated and slowly the trees came to life. We held our positions albeit with increased wariness. Now with senses peaked to any sound or movement, we continued our wait. When still nothing appeared we could not bear our dismay any longer. My frustration was unloaded on a poor commoner whom I shot without the slightest twinge of remorse.

We stood up and left the place of our vigil. Along the way, we saw a different target. Targets, for there were many of them. Tiny, constantly moving in every direction, and perfectly blending with their leafy backgrounds. A perfect way to practice my skills. And I nailed some of them. Hah! Bravado now replaced my early feelings of exasperation. 

My partner and I agreed that there is one more way to offset our early setback. A few days ago, we both were shamed by the skulking habits of this one. Opportunities presented all became opportunities missed. This time we were determined not to let it happen again. It wasn't long before my mate saw it. I was about to give it my best shot when a pair of kindred spirits came. Looking for the same exhilarating experience  that we are now about to have. We gladly pointed the tiny quarry to them almost invisible within the dark interior of the bushes. Together we blasted away. Triumph! Smiles were exchanged. The gloom lifted both from the skies and from our souls. In gratitude, my partner's counterpart taught her the distinct sound of our original target.

Now armed with such advantage we resumed our quest for the cause of our early morning heartbreak with raised expectations. Only to be disappointed time and again. The distinctive trill would come seemingly from everywhere we went but the source of that sound teasingly, mockingly, remained hidden from our views.

We will get you one of these days, Grey-backed Tailorbird!

Just you wait!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Blurred Watching

It was one of those mornings where routine (routine [roo' ten] noun: a sequence of actions regularly followed) had been the norm. It went like this: One of us would yell, "There it is!" Then we would all point our cameras to the subject of the yell. Bursts of shots would be fired. All of us would groan in unison, "Aaargh!"

For almost two hours, Gabs, Edu and myself followed these pathetic attempts to photograph the Red-bellied Pitta at La Mesa Ecopark. (My wife, Cynthia, perhaps gifted with foreknowledge decided not to bring a camera). We only gave up when fellow bird photographer, Jun Osano, informed us that two, count 'em, two Grey-backed Tailorbirds were seen up close (!) just down the road. We hurried to that place only to meet the rest of the Wild Bird Club members just as they were leaving. The tailorbirds were (note the past tense) just there they told us.

We staked a vigil hoping our would-be lifers would return. Then it rained. Thankfully it was just a short downpour. Soon we were chasing after a strange trilling sound. When we finally located the source we saw a long-tailed bird and it was grey... no, wait.... oh, it's a female Philippine Magpie Robin. At this stage, any bird (well, maybe except those ho-hum Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Yellow-vented Bulbuls) would be fair game. So I took some pictures of the Magpie Robin and...."aaargh!"

We joined up with the Wild Bird Club members and noticed they were all looking up. A stance deemed normal for birders, by the way. Which probably explains why they didn't see us until we were standing right next to them.  When asked for the reason for their craned necks, "No, not a crane", was the reply, " but a White-eared Brown Dove!" Sure enough there it was, twenty-thousand feet up on the branch of a tree perched behind several layers of leaves. Looking every bit as bored as a government employee. But like any self-respecting bird photographer, we took obligatory pictures of the dove. "Aaargh!"

Fie on those blurry bird pictures! We three are all "groan" up bird photographers anyway. Besides, we can always blame the rainy, gloomy weather.

Note: For the sake of my dignity I purposely did not post any photograph of any bird taken that day. 

Unless you guys beg me to.

Nah. I still won't.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rail Road

Cynthia and I were sitting in our car peering through the gaps freed from raindrops resulting from the rhythmic left-right movement of the windshield wipers. Ahead a small dark figure contrasted from the virescent grass where it was searching for food, unmindful of the off and on downpour. "Barred Rail", I told my wife as I put down the binoculars.

We were at Hacienda Escudero. It was half past two in the afternoon. We were on our way home after enjoying the hospitality of our friend and fellow birder, Mela Balcazar, who took time off from her busy schedule to welcome us. Cynthia and I decided to visit Villa Escudero after having an almost heartbreaking stint at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. Birds were uncharacteristically sparse particularly near the TREES hostel in Mt. Makiling.  Thankfully a couple of cooperative Lesser Coucals and lots of Wood Sandpipers (early migrants?) at the buttonquail area saved the morning for us.

The primary birding reason for going to Villa Escudero is the resident Indigo-banded Kingfisher. With hopes of seeing that gorgeous bird we stationed ourselves by the river and waited. And waited. Soon the place began to swell with people lining up for the sumptuous buffet. Realizing that our sought-after kingfisher would not show up under such conditions, we joined the lunchtime crowd and enjoyed the luscious food, made even more pleasant by the excellent service of the staff.

After lunch the ominous claps of thunder further enforced the idea that we ought to give up on our kingfisher quest. At first I was perplexed. How can there be such repeated rolls of thunder on a warm, sunny day? But then gray clouds slowly dimmed the skies. That was when my wife and I decided to call it quits. Rain fell and we felt as gloomy as the weather, knowing birds would now be even harder to see. On the way out I thought of using the route via the Hacienda Escudero. Not only is it well paved, but we've seen some birds here during our previous visits.

It was on this road on that rainy afternoon that we encountered several species of the Rallidae family. I was driving very, very slow scanning the roadsides for birds. At that point any bird would have made us happy (well, maybe except the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows). We were in this scanning mode when Cynthia suddenly yelled "Stop!"  So I did. She pointed at a darkish bird perched atop a bush. At first I thought it was an oversized Common Moorhen. I looked at it through my binoculars. "W-w-wa-watercock!" I stuttered in excitement. I have seen this species only once before and it was at such a distance, the photograph that I got then left so much to the imagination. But this time, the bird just perched there unperturbed even when Cynthia and I got off the car, picked up our gear and shot away. Take note that it was drizzling all the time while we were taking advantage of this unusual opportunity.

Allow me to digress for a while. It's just that I think that "Watercock" is an unfortunate way of naming this bird. For one thing, the female is not referred to as "Waterhen" simply because there is already another species, also of the Rail family, having that name. Obviously the male of that species can never be referred to as Watercock as well. Quite confusing, really. What about the young ones of both species? Will they be called "Waterchicks"?

Back on the road again. Our slow driving and scanning the roadside shrubbery produced lots of Barred Rails as I mentioned earlier. There were also sightings of the tiny, and very quick, White-browed Crake. We didn't mind not photographing this little crake inasmuch as Cynthia already got a nice one at the Agripark earlier. 

The biggest thrill, and frustration, however was by a species called Gallirallus striatus. Slaty-breasted Rail.  I saw it furtively lurking by the grass-covered ditch. The chestnut crown and reddish beak was unmistakable. I just notched a new lifer! But it was still too far to be photographed. I inched our car nearer only to witness the rail slowly disappear from view as if swallowed by a verdant quicksand. We waited patiently for it to reappear but then the rain started to pour heavily again. I must say that this time we've been "de-railed" in our quest.

The rails we saw at the Hacienda Escudero road more than compensated for the disappointing scarcity of birds that we hoped to see that day.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Book Review: Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific

First of all, let me say that this book is not a field guide. Princeton University Press has launched a series of books that they aptly classified as "Illustrated Checklists". This book, The Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Central and West Pacific, is actually the 11th publication under that category. Earlier books covered the Birds of Eastern Africa, Southern Africa, Western Africa, Central Africa, Southern South America and Antarctica, South America Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers, Europe, Russia, China and Japan Passerines: Tyrant Flycatchers to Buntings, Europe, Russia, China and Japan Non-Passerines: Loons to Woodpeckers, West Indies, and finally, North America.

Inasmuch as the original intention of the author, Ber van Perlo,  was to provide a handy reference in the field, the Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific is quite handy, measuring only 5" X 7-1/2" making it highly portable. Author Van Perlo's illustrations, though not very detailed, are sufficient enough to be able to assist in field identification. Where there are differences in the plumages between male and female, and in some instances, juvenile birds, those are shown in the illustrations as well. The comments for each species are concise giving emphasis on the distinguishing marks of the the bird, its preferred habitat, its range, and a description of its call/song. 

Taxonomy was based on Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World (2007). There is an Endnote though, updating some of the classifications (i.e. splitting of species/subspecies) based on more recent research and discoveries.

The distribution maps accompanying each species are sadly, rather small, especially when referring to the various island groups, making it quite difficult to pinpoint the exact ranges of the species covered.

Another nit that I have regarding this book was the author's providing information on the tectonics of the area. Personally, I did not think that it was necessary for an "illustrated checklist". A general description of the habitats would have been sufficient.

All in all, this is a very handy, useful book. If you plan on going on that Pacific tropical island birding holiday or  on that exciting New Zealand adventure, the Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific would be indispensable.

This book is available at  Princeton University press or at Amazon