Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dumaguete, Day 4 - Way there waders

This was going to be our last day in Dumaguete. But before we leave, there is one more birding foray we will be having with our birding buddies. As had been the case in our earlier sorties, we will be aboard Doc Clemn Macasiano's huge pick-up truck. Joining Cynthia and myself would be Marester, Clemn's better half, Tonji and Sylvia and Nilo Arribas Jr. 

Today our destination was the mangrove forest located in the town of Tanjay. It was a cool breezy morning and the drive along the seaside boulevard was invigorating. While passing by some muddy fields by the road, we noticed some waders and so Clemn decided to pull over to check out what birds can be found here. Tonji and Sylvia saw a Javan Pond Heron still in breeding plumage and positioned themselves to take its photograph. Nilo scanned the fields hoping for some unusual migrant. When I asked him what he was seeing, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "oh, just some common greenshanks, common redshanks, marsh sandpipers, stilts, common sandpipers..."

"Wait, wait, wait," I interrupted. "Did you say, 'marsh sandpipers'?" 

He nodded. 

"Which one?"

"Those with long yellow legs and long dark bills and whitish heads."

I looked and voila! I just ticked another lifer.

And then it rained. Thankfully it was just a short downpour. When it ended we continued on with our journey, stopping once in a while when more Javan Pond Herons were seen along the way.

Finally we reached our destination after negotiating a long and unpaved road. The boardwalk at the mangrove forest was, sad to say, a bit disappointing bird-wise. So we turned our attention to the mudflats across the trail which looked a bit more promising. Promising in the sense that there were birds there. Birds like Little Egrets and an array of waders. The problem was they were just too far away. Sure we can distinguish individual birds through our binoculars, but camera-wise, despite our long lenses, they just appeared to be just a tad larger than specks on our viewers. Simply put, they were waaay over there.

On the plus side, I got two more lifers here: Lesser Sand Plover and Red-necked Stint (and maybe, just maybe, a Greater Sand Plover also).

We were back at the hotel in time for an early lunch. Inasmuch as this will be our last meal in this wonderful city, we decided to splurge. To say that the Sizzling Bulalo and Sizzling Seafood was delicious would be a huge understatement. Add to that a Hawaiian Pork Chop whose taste was so heavenly that it would make you forget your own name. The leche flan for dessert was to die for! As superb as the quality of our lunch was, it was even made more memorable by the people who shared our table with us: to Dr. Clemn & Marester,  our deepest thanks for being our hosts - booking our hotel rooms and taking us to the birding places in Dumaguete; to Tonji and Sylvia, for being our constant birding companions throughout our stay - thank you both for the fun and camaraderie (and thank you, birthday boy Tonji, for the lunch!); to Nilo - although we were together for a short time only, thanks for your expertise and knowledge on local avifauna.

As I terminate this series of Dumaguete stories, let me quote from the Terminator: "I'll be back!"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dumaguete, Day 3 - Spotted

Today is the opening day of the 7th Philippine Bird Festival organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP). After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we proceeded to the Silliman University grounds where the festival was being held. It was nice meeting old friends and making new ones. 

Throughout the day though, our constant companion was Nestor Dolina. We visited the booths together, shared the joy of meeting our idol, Cedde Prudente, le photographe par excellence of Sabah, Borneo, and attending the seminars together. But most of all, Nestor was with me and Cynthia when we chased after the Spotted Wood Kingfisher at Centrops (aka Silliman Zoo). 

Here was what happened: We were sitting in one of the classrooms giving rapt attention to our friend, Marester Bas Macasiano as she spoke of her renowned grandfather, Dr. Dioscoro Rabor (whom I admired since I was a young man). 

She then introduced her uncle, Valfredo, Dr. Rabor's son, who in turn recounted stories about his father. 

Time went quickly by and after Valfredo had finished sharing memories of his Dad with us, there was a "quiz" wherein a prize would be given to anyone in the audience who can tell what species of bird was named after Dr. Rabor. To which I promptly replied, "Napothera rabori!" which was a kind of Babbler (somehow I forgot the English name at that very moment). Nevertheless, I still got the prize - a set of bird stickers.

While we were enjoying a buffet lunch hosted by the WBCP, we were informed by Adri Constantino that a Spotted Wood Kingfisher had been seen really close (!!) at the Centrops area. Now this bird had been, and continues to be, my nemesis bird ever since I started birding here in the Philippines. To have one that "close" is an opportunity we would never want to miss. And so right after lunch, Nestor, my wife, Cynthia, and I boarded a tricycle and headed to the kingfisher site. 

Centrops is a place where local endangered animals are being kept for captive breeding purposes. Housed in this small forested patch in the middle of the city were Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeons, Visayan Tarictics, Spotted Deers, Wart Hogs, and Crocodiles. The person in charge led us to the trail in between the deer and wild boar pens and pointed to a tree. "That's where they saw the kingfisher two hours ago", he said. We looked and there was none. We told him that we will wait for it to return. "OK", he replied, and left.

I waited at the spot. Cynthia roamed the area. Nestor roamed the area. I still waited at the spot. Then it drizzled. We all rushed under a shed just in the nick of time as heavy rain soon fell. Thirty minutes later it stopped. I took one more look at the kingfisher tree and still could not spot the Spotted Wood Kingfisher. Hearts laden with bitter disappointment we left.

What made this story even more pathetic was when we got back to the hotel and I was about to take a shower, I discovered, to my utter dismay, that my mid-section was full of red spots. Chigger bites! Perhaps my proximity to the deers and hogs enabled those microscopic savages to invade my epidermis. Ah, the irony of it all - not getting the Spotted but getting spotted instead.

That night we attended the dinner hosted by the Governor of Negros Oriental Province. Along with the lavish buffet were performances by the local talents, including some cha-cha numbers and a fashion show. After the program, the music went on and some of us started swaying to the latin numbers. Cynthia and I even danced an impromptu rumba. Little did the spectators know that the reason I was swaying my hips quite vigorously was that I wanted to relieve the itch that had been bothering me so much without being too obvious about it.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dumaguete, Day 2 - Flaming Desire

Up at the crack o'dawn. Sleepy-eyed Cynthia and I filed into Doc Clemn's pick-up. Sitting beside Doc is his lovely wife, Marester. Joining us at the back seat was our birder friend from Singapore, Jimmy Chew. The other vehicle in the caravan was Christian Perez's SUV. With him was his buddy Ruben, Tonji and Sylvia and Ju Lin. Our destination was the Twin Lakes Resort.

Somehow the trip seemed a lot shorter today than when we drove to this place yesterday. Perhaps the difference was that now I am inside the vehicle whereas yesterday along with Tonji and Alex we were shaken - and stirred - at the back of Doc Clemn's pick-up.

We have barely stepped out of our vehicles when a huge raptor flew just a few feet above us. It was "just" a Philippine Crested Eagle. Nothing to get too excited about. We were all lined up at the viewing deck as the morning sun bathed the whole place in glorious light. Flashes of green before us and shouts of "Blue-naped Parrots!" broke the sylvan serenity.

Soon we (and Christian Perez, most especially) were all agog as species after species started flying in towards the trees in front of us. First came the Bar-bellied Cuckooshrikes, followed a bunch of the white-bellied susbspecies of the Balicassiao. Then came the Coletos with their quaint fleshy heads. We were following some cuckooshrikes which we thought at first to be those oh so ordinary bar-bellied types when Sylvia yelled, "White-winged Cuckooshrikes!" Which sent everyone into a euphoric state as this bird was a lifer for all of us.

Then came the calm. The wave of birds had passed and now we had time to indulge in having breakfast (which the hotel had kindly packed for us, thanks to Marester's forethought and arrangement). It was while having breakfast that we noticed some movements within the hibiscus grove surrounding the trash dumpsite behind the pavillion. Sunbirds, most likely, and our primary suspect was Crimson which we saw almost close-up yesterday. So we didn't give that place much concern and instead concentrated on the nearby bamboo clump after we have finished our morning repast.

That bamboo trees hosted a flock of Yellowish White-eyes which was another surprise. What made it more interesting was this particular group had some orange tinge on its lores (something that the Kennedy Guide did not mention regarding the nigrorum subspecies).

Back at the deck, Jack, the tourism representative who just arrived together with Alex Tiongco, Marts Cervero and a Japanese birder, was pointing to a family of Elegant Tits feeding close by.

Meanwhile, at the trail covered with huge stone slabs, Tonji and the Macasianos were getting shots of the Philippine Tailorbird (which Cynthia and I unfortunately missed). When we joined them, they were chasing after another wave of birds that were frolicking in the tree branches just above a pig pen. Here we saw Black-naped Monarchs and Blue-headed Fantails going after the insects attracted to the sty. Lemon-throated Leaf-warblers (a lifer!) joined the White-winged Cuckooshrikes in the feeding frenzy. As in any bird waves, they all eventually moved on and everything was quiet once again. Except for the incessant chirping from those invisible tailorbirds.

Lunch was "tinolang manok" (a kind of chicken stew) which was not exactly my favorite. It was during lunch that all of us once again noticed some activity at the hibiscus area. Paying closer attention, we were all elated to discover that such activities were coming from no other than Flaming Sunbirds! It has been our desire to see this species not only because of its gorgeous beauty but also because it would be another lifer for us. For the next couple of hours we were entertained by these tiny avian jewels that glowed with a whole spectrum of colors shining brightly under the noonday sun.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dumaguete, Day 1 - Crimson Tide

Arrived at Dumaguete, met by the Tourism representatives, checked-in at the Royal Suites Inn and went birding. That pretty much summarized our early morning activities last September 21st. Jack, the tourism guy and great birder, took us to Forest Camp, a small resort just outside the city of Dumaguete. With us were friends Tonji and Sylvia Ramos,  Alex Tiongco and two birder friends from Singapore, Jimmy Chew and Ju Lin Tan.

As soon as we got off the van, Alex was already pointing at a bird. The photographers in the group frantically assembled their gear and simultaneously pointed them at....a Philippine Magpie Robin. Oh, ho-hum, whatever! 

It was then that Jack pointed at a tiny bird perched on a nearby tree looking at the strange amalgam of non-native Negrenses. And it was then that our ho-hums turned into woo-hoos. That tiny bird was a Visayan aka Black-belted  (judo expert, maybe?) Flowerpecker. Lifer number one barely 20 minutes into our birding sortie!

Forest Camp isn't a big place and after we've made the rounds and not seeing anything interesting we all sat under the huge canopy of a mini-stage. A rustling among the leaves grabbed our attention. That rustling was followed by an array of gaudy colors as three different kinds of sunbirds flowed like an incoming tide before us not unlike an avian fashion show. First was an immature Purple-throated - not yet attaining its very colorful full plumage but lovely nonetheless. 

Then a male Olive-backed Sunbird flashed its colorful throat hues enhanced by the morning sun. 

And for the finale, the piece de resistance, ladies and gentlemen, behold the Crimson Sunbird!

That would have made my day. Although not a lifer, seeing the Crimson Sunbird this close was, quite honestly, completely unexpected. After chasing after an unknown bird that Jack said he saw near the hanging bridge but sadly disappeared because a romantic couple decided that a view of some trees from a swaying span would bring magic to their already syrupy relationship, I returned to the resting area. At least I got a Philippine Bulbul to alleviate the disappointment.

I was wiping my sweaty brow when I happened to look up and saw a.. Cuckoo! I didn't know what kind, but it definitely looked like a cuckoo. I waved at Tonji and pointed to the bird silhouetted above us. Later on, he confirmed that what we saw was a Plaintive Cuckoo and my second lifer of the day.

After another rest period, our attention was aroused this time by a raptor that flew swiftly overhead. Apparently it caught something and decided to have its lunch on a tree branch some 45 meters away from us. Several identities were postulated from within our group until the bird gracefully turned around to face us and thereby settling the issue. It was a Chinese Goshawk. Lifer number three for me.

It was now way past lunchtime and the growling of our stomachs could no longer be ignored. Jack brought us back to the city of Dumaguete, and per request from Sylvia, who had been informed that some birders were already there, took us to the Kri restaurant. If there is anything that Dumaguete is known for (aside from being a great birding place) is its excellent restaurant food! Kri is among the best of the best.

After lunch we all went back to the hotel where Clemn and Marester Macasiano, our hosts, were already waiting for us. A brief breather and we were off again. This time to the Twin Lakes resort. This late in the afternoon, we were not expecting much, and this trip was more of a "casing the joint" foray. Thirteen kilometers from the main highway over a paved, not, paved, not, paved, not........road, Lake Balinsasayao was a sight to behold. It was here that we first saw the local subspecies of the Balicassiao, differing from the all-black birds found in Luzon by having a white belly.

At the end of the day and back at our hotel, exhausted and exhilarated, we just settled for a club sandwich and salad for dinner at the hotel restaurant. Cynthia and I then crashed into bed knowing we will have to wake up early (again) tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Empty Nest - the Epilogue

We went back to the Slaty-legged Crake nest this morning. The adult was still sitting on it. But then we noticed tiny black heads pop-up every now and then. The chicks, it seemed, were getting restless. The hen (we presumed it was the Mom) however, was not budging. Neon set up his gear and waited. Meanwhile, Cynthia and I took her 7 year old grandson to look for the reported "bayawak" (monitor lizard) that had been seen in the neighborhood. Just as we were about to reach the site of the lizard sighting, Neon called and excitedly announced that the chicks had jumped the nest. I hurried back. Panting and gasping for air I looked and saw an already empty nest.

Neon informed me that the family was still nearby skulking among the greenery surrounding the nest area.   So we decided to stake out the place - Neon standing close to the pond and me near the nest. We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Occasionally we would catch glimpses of the adult and one or two chicks. But that was it. At half past eleven, I approached Neon to tell him that I would be calling it a day. He was bargaining for a few more minutes when we saw BOTH adults escorting their brood towards our direction. With bated breaths we waited for them to reappear. Several minutes passed and the Crake family still remained unseen.

Leaving Neon behind, I proceeded to walk back to get ready to go home. It was then that I saw all four chicks across the street frantically trying to hurdle the 5 inches of cement to get over to the sidewalk and go where their Mom was constantly urging them on. 

"Neon, the chicks are here!" I yelled waving like crazy at him to get his attention. When I looked back, there were only 3 chicks left. I assumed one of them made it safely over the "wall". The mother crake was "tuk-tuk"ing at the embankment next to the sidewalk encouraging her babies to follow her. When Neon joined me, one of the chicks got through some vegetation over the sidewalk. We couldn't see it after that. Neon placed some ramps and asked me to shoo the chicks towards them so that they could use it to climb. One chick made it. The last one, which we assumed to be the weakest, missed the ramp. Looking at it closely, we noticed that it had been swarmed by vicious ants. At first we were afraid to touch the chick lest the human smell would cause the parent to abandon it. But we couldn't let ants torture the poor, day-old crake. Neon gingerly picked it up and patiently removed every ant from its legs and body. Having been assured that no ant was left behind, Neon then placed the chick on the ground where the Mom was pacing back and forth still calling for her babies.

Notice the ants on the feet (above photo) and thigh (below photo)

Neon and I could not leave the place. We were worried about what happened to the first three chicks that were able to get on the sidewalk on their own. Were they able to rejoin their parents? Or were they themselves attacked by ants? 

It was only after we could no longer hear the "tuk-tuk" of the adult that we decided to leave. But then another thought bothered us. What if the parents decided to bring their brood to the pond, which means they have to cross the street again. And encounter the elevated sidewalk once more. 

With heavy hearts we left the nesting place. We both agreed to just let nature take its course. I was in near tears when I told Cynthia about this totally unexpected event (she was in our host's house while all this was happening).

I just hope and pray that this episode will not end tragically.

Now for further observations on the nesting habits of the Slaty-legged Crake:

1) The empty nest does not have eggshells left on it. The adults presumably ate them after the chicks have hatched.

2) The chicks leave the nest on the 21st day. They are precocial. They are black all over including legs and beak. The tip of the beak is lighter though.

Monday, September 19, 2011

And the nest, they say, is history

"Today, we are witnessing a Philippine ornithology historical event!", I proudly declared to my wife, Cynthia, and to our birding buddy, Neon.

When we first heard the news a couple of weeks ago from John and Vivette, our friends from church, that an unusual bird has laid some eggs in their neighbor's garden, we were very intrigued. Our curiosity was even more stoked when Vivette sent photos of the bird and the eggs through her cellphone. First and foremost in our minds was, what bird was it? Inasmuch as the nest was found in a gated subdivision in Antipolo City, we had to arrange for the our friends to inform the gate guards to let us in. As soon as we arrived at their house, Vivette immediately took us to the residence of Leoncio and Linda. Linda was very excited as she ushered us to where the nest was, which surprisingly, was on one of her flower pots located about a meter from the ground and about two meters away from the street!

We peered into it and were dumbfounded to see a dark-colored bird with a bright rufous head, neck and breast. I quickly pulled out my Kennedy guide. Leafing through the pages, we narrowed down the identity of the mysterious bird to three possibilities: Red-legged Crake, Ruddy-breasted Crake and Slaty-legged Crake. Since the crake in question is sitting on the nest, we couldn't see the color of the legs. Red-legged Crake is  very rare, so that couldn't be it. The book says the Ruddy-breasted is about 7 1/2 inches in length. The bird we're looking at is definitely bigger than that. We concluded that our nesting waterbird was a Slaty-legged Crake. Continuing my perusal of the description of this species, I was suddenly speechless as I repeatedly pointed to my wife the line that says "Nest and eggs not described from Philippines"!

That was the start of our regular pilgrimage to this reverent place as we monitored the progress of the nesting habits of Rallina eurizonoides, now that we have become aware of the importance of what was happening right before our very eyes. This was Philippine ornithological history in the making.

And today, 20 days after the hen started sitting on her four eggs, they hatched. Mom and chicks were all doing well. Dad was nearby, waiting for his brood to join him as they forage for food.

Based on our observations, here are some data that describes the nesting behavior of the Slaty-legged Crake:

1) The nest was about a meter above ground and consisted of dried grass, dried leaves and pine needles. It was quite shallow, only about two inches deep.

2) There were a total of four eggs which were plain white in color (no spots nor streaks). They were laid one egg per day. On the fourth day, after all the eggs had been laid, the crake started sitting on them.

3) Total incubation period was 20 days. There were times when the eggs were left unattended while the parent(s) hunted for food. We were not 100% sure if both parents took turns at sitting on the eggs.

4) The newly-hatched chicks were blackish in color. We expect them to be out of the nest by tomorrow (the 21st day).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hidden Eden

A mountainside covered with lush greenery just a few minutes from where we live. A mere dot in the map yet hosting quite a number of bird species. In the few mornings that we spent there we were serenaded by Black-naped Orioles and Olive-backed sunbirds. White-breasted Woodswallows put on such breathtaking aerial displays. Flocks of between ten and twenty Lowland White-eyes would pass through the treetops sometimes followed by a group of Golden-bellied Flyeaters. Long-tailed Shrikes seemed to be everywhere while Pied Fantails and Pied Trillers would occasionally drop by. Early migrants Brown Shrikes and Arctic Warblers were welcome sights. Glimpses of an Elegant Tit and a Philippine Magpie Robin gave us a thrill. Both Collared and White-throated Kingfishers played hide-and-seek with us.

Surprises were Barred Rails and White-breasted Waterhens walking along the road (isn't this supposed to be a mountain? so what are waterbirds doing here?). Even more surprising were the sightings of the uncommon immature Philippine Hawk Cuckoo and immature Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.

All in all we counted 23 species in three days of leisurely birding. To say that these birds inhabit the wooded areas of a private subdivision in Antipolo borders on incredibility. It was a pleasant surprise to discover this hidden eden not too far from home. Ah, but paradise would not be paradise if it does not harbor some deep secret. A secret that had been shared with us by the local residents. A secret that could further advance Philippine ornithology. A secret that for now shall remain hidden in eden.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

MMM, Good!

Back in the 1930s, Campbell's first came into the market with their Chicken Noodle Soup. Since then it had become the proverbial "comfort food" for people who were not feeling well or those who were suffering from dour moods. Their slogan was "Mmm mm good!"

Dour moods were what we were beginning to have on that hot and humid Tuesday morning. Despite the precise instructions from Maia, Jops and Adri, we still could not locate the area where they all saw the Ashy Ground Thrush. I have already mentioned in my earlier blog how I was a complete dud when it comes to finding directions. Left to myself, even with the aid of the most accurate map, I would still be lost. The purple ribbon that Jops tied to a tree as a "signpost" I'm sure would benefit any normal birder looking for that thrush. But not to me. No, sir.  Not with where-the-heck-is-east? Bob trying to get a reckoning.

We were getting worried because Cynthia and I had an appointment in Greenhills at 11 am. Considering that we still needed to stop by our home to ditch our camera equipment and get rid of the stink emanating from our sweaty bodies, our time was definitely running out. Fast. 

At times like these, we pray. We had barely said our "amens" when we were greeted by three birding friends and fellow Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) co-members, Mel (Tan), Mai (Yangco) and Mark Jason (Villa). We were pouring out our grief and sorrow at not having seen any of the birds we were hoping to see, when Mai exclaimed, "There it is!" What followed was a frenzied chase of the Ashy Ground Thrush which was moving quickly within the dark understory. We all gave a collective gasp when an alley cat came running in and gave our prized bird a predatory chase. Thankfully it was able to fly away from the feline danger. After a frantic search we could not locate the Thrush anymore. Visions of a cat with a bird in its mouth emerging from the bushes haunted our imaginations for a while.

It was then that a family of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers flew noisily by. They even stopped briefly and allowed us some pretty good looks. We moved on when the flycatchers continued with their journey. Rounding the trail, Mai once again pointed to a brown thing probing the wet ground with its beak. We inched closer. When it moved, we moved. We stopped when it stopped. And took pictures. Sometimes the Thrush would pause just a couple of meters away, eyeing us as we were all eyeing it. As I paused between the Ashy Ground Thrush's poses, Mel pointed to a group of Grey-backed Tailorbirds who announced their presence by their seemingly incessant twittering. Even if I wasn't able to photograph these tiny birds, it was still a thrill to finally see them. What with my frustrations  over them just last month.

In a span of maybe an hour, the trio of Ms were able to help us tick off three more lifers. Mel, Mai and Mark, you guys have been our Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup that morning. The comfort food for our gloomy demeanor. MMM, Good!

As a bonus, after we have bade our three friends goodbye, Cynthia and I saw, on our way out, a White-eared Brown Dove perched at eye level less than 8 meters away!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Serrano the Birder Rock

We were in a state of despondency. We came to Los Banos to bird and the birds just were not there! Where were the Buttonquails? the Swallows that gathered mud for their nests? the Pipits and Skylarks that frolicked in the middle of the road? even those plentiful as dirt Eurasian Tree Sparrows were now as scarce as a Floyd Mayweather fan in the Philippines.

Oh sure it wasn't a complete bust at all. At least we enjoyed the tweeting of a Zitting Cisticola while sitting and sipping Pepsi Cola. Other than that it was just a case of being cooked by the sun or soaked by the rain and on several occasions being stewed by both sun and rain occurring simultaneously.

And there we were in a very despondent state. We were like Christian de Neuvillette birders longing for the attention of a lovely avian Roxanne. But misfortune, or perhaps even incompetence, hampered our wooing efforts. We needed the help of an eloquent, master charmer of birds. 

It was then that a white van suddenly stopped in front of us. Out came Serrano the Birder Rock sans grand nez. We have met before and then as he is now our knight in shining armor. When it comes to birding Los Banos he rocks!

He led us unto green ricefields and instructed us to wait, for the objects of our desire will appear albeit fleetingly but long enough to enthrall our throbbing hearts. In just a few minutes we were grinning ear-to-ear as visions of Slaty-breasted Rail and a Snipe were firmly etched in our minds and compact flash cards.

Department of Agriculture UnderSecretary Fred Serrano, our heartfelt gratitude to you, sir!