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I recently turned 65. Such a milestone age should have been reason enough for some grand celebration but sadly, it didn't turn out that way. For the simple reason that I got sick. Somehow my digestive organs picked this day to stage a revolt against my internal constitution. And made me an unwilling participant in the occupy the bathroom movement. Repeatedly. For several days.
By Saturday, October 29th, things were all quiet on the digestive front. Everything seemed as normal as can be. Time to go birding. Inasmuch as I was still leery about my health, I thought it prudent to just go to nearby University of the Philippines' campus.
As I was parking our car at the MSI (Marine Science Institute) grounds, I was thinking aloud whether the annual visitor, the Blue Rock Thrush, would already be there.
"What's that bird on the ground?" Cynthia asked.
"Blue Rock Thrush", I replied in the calmest, most insouciant way.
Unfortunately, it flew away even before I could get my camera gears out of the trunk. Hoping that it would return in the not too distant future, I whiled away my time by photographing the antics of a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker.
"Do you think the Thrush would come back?" my wife was curious.
"I trust it would"
"What's that bird perched on the palm tree?"
"Blue Rock Thrush", I replied in the calmest, most insouciant way.
Unfortunately, it flew away before I could focus on it.
This time a Pied Triller provided me the much appreciated entertainment as we waited for the Thrush to reappear.
Cynthia, on the other hand, was losing in the game of hide-and-seek with a Yellow Wagtail. Several attempts at locating it turned out futile. Soon she gave up and as she approached the tall acacia tree, she started to ask,
"Blue Rock Thrush!" I excitedly interrupted her. And began taking pictures of the bird lest it decide to take a leave once again. Thankfully, it didn't. It was one of those what my wife aptly termed "modeling sessions" where our subject just stood there - facing left, facing right, turning around, moving to an area with a different background, etc.
Having had our fill of the Blue Rock Thrush, I thought I'd push our luck and go for the Philippine Hanging Parrot that hangs out in a nearby gated community. Having obtained our permission from friend Jv Noriega (who lives in that subdivision), we sought the tiny green bird. And found nothing. Unfortunately, some men were clearing the tall grass nearby which probably spooked our target bird.
As in any birding trip, we had some good sightings and there were disappointments. One thing that came out from my sick days was that I had time to reflect on many things. Turning 65 and being under the weather put me in a cogitative state. I resolved that at this age, I need to enjoy life even more. I will not allow disappointments, envy, and other petty stuff to ruin my day. I am blessed with a wife who loves me and shares the same passion I have for birding. Simply being with her as we look at the beautiful feathered creatures, whether common or a lifer, is something that I treasure with all my heart.
Postscript: As I write this, I have once again fallen ill, albeit not as insufferable as the one I had a week ago. Still it cost us a trip to Los Banos. The way my body is behaving right now could affect future birding trips. But I put my health and my life in the hands of God. I know He will be there for me. It's a matter of faith and trust in Him.
What makes birding very exciting is the uncertainty. Sometimes you get to see what you're looking for and sometimes you don't. And sometimes you see what you were not expecting to see. On some rare occasions you see something and you don't know what you just saw - at least not right away.
One such rare occasion happened the other day. Seven intrepid birders (Jv, Jops and Maia, Adri and Trinket, me and Cynthia) were once again at that now famous spot in Quezon City hoping to be honored by the appearance of one of two (preferably both) kinds of kingfishers. After almost two hours of waiting, seven disappointed birders were turning their attention to any feathered creature that flitted among the high branches of the Cupang tree. Soon seven birders were complaining of stiff necks resulting from watching all those Arctic Warblers and Golden-bellied Flyeaters.
Until Maia shouted, "Wait! that one doesn't look like an Arctic Warbler!"
The other six birders said, "What?"
Binoculars and long-lensed cameras were raised in unison.
"Looks like a flycatcher!"
Seven birders thought/whispered/said, "What kind?"
Pictures were taken and the Kennedy Guide was consulted. Asian Brown, maybe? Dark-sided? After much mulling and deliberations still no definitive conclusion was arrived at.
That evening pictures were posted on the internet. Expert opinions were sought. The following day, the announcement was made that the mysterious flycatcher has been identified.
What is it??
Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina), possibly a worn first year male or a young female.
Still a lifer for me and Cynthia.
Note: The flycatcher pictures that I took are so horrendous I decided not to show them here. I still have some dignity you know.
P.S. See Jv Noriega's photos in Facebook. They are so much better!
The three of us exchanged glances. Each one trying to detect some glimmer of hope, an encouraging look from the other. It has been an hour that we have been standing here, eyes flicking to every tiny movement in the trees before us. The pounding noises echoing from the construction nearby not affecting our concentration. However, our expectations were fading with each passing minute. Our glumness enhanced by the ever constant roar of rolling thunder. Dark clouds veiled the afternoon sun.
What made this vigil even more agonizing was that this scene was a rerun of our experiences that morning. Three hours of waiting for a bird that never as much as showed a single feather to three searchers. Add to this the fact that this particular reddish migrant showed itself with maddening ease to others who sought it.
For me and my wife, Cynthia, this was fast becoming a reprise of our heart-breaking un-encounter with the Spotted Wood Kingfisher in Dumaguete. Now this immature Ruddy Kingfisher dares play this taunting game with us. Not that it is a must-see for Cynthia and myself - we have seen it's brightly colored conspecific Palawan counterpart. And got pretty good pictures even.
The skies have started to darken and as the minute hand of my watch approached the hour of four, I sighed, looked up for the umpteenth time at the trees - and noticed a movement! A movement that promised a revival of sagging expectations. With trembling hands, I grabbed my binoculars. "Spotted Wood Kingfisher!" I exclaimed. A fresh shot of vitality brightened the faces of my despondent confreres.
For the next hour-and-a-half, we dwelt in a dream-like photography session with this colorful bird. Our friend and host, Jv Noriega, a noted movie and TV director, was in his element - getting pictures and videos from every conceivable angle and posture. Who needs an unpredictable diva when the real superstar was modeling before us to our very heart's content.
To us, Ruddy became an ex-celebrity. That mark of distinction now belongs to our beloved Spot.
The little boy has never tasted Strawberry Ice Cream all his life. It was so hard to find in the place where he lives. Every time he goes to the neighborhood store to look for it, he would always get the same answer: No strawberry ice cream today, son.
Then one day, when his school visited another town for an outing, he was told by one of his classmates that the local store there was selling his favorite flavor. He rushed to the place only to find out that the strawberry ice cream was all gone. The little boy's heart sank in bitter disappointment. Reluctantly and with sadness he walked away only to gasp in pain as he accidentally bumped a prickly cactus plant on his way out. Bleeding physically and emotionally, he was a picture of dejection.
A few days later he learned that all his classmates who went to the local store right after he left were able to buy his much coveted strawberry ice cream. The poor boy felt as if the world was collapsing all around him. Why was it that everybody got it except me? he wondered silently, grief filling his whole being.
Many days passed. The little boy was gradually getting over his sorrowful experience from the other town. As he was reading his book one rainy day, a classmate informed him that the store near their village now offers Rocky Road ice cream (another hard to find flavor). Even though he had tried Rocky Road before he thought that maybe if he had it again it would ease his misery. He dropped everything that he was doing and hastily went to the store. Only to be met with: "Sorry, son, we just ran out of Rocky Road." Head bowed, he slowly turned to leave when he suddenly heard: "But we have Strawberry Ice Cream, would you like to have that instead?"
Now substitute Ruddy Kingfisher for Rocky Road. And for Strawberry Ice Cream, Spotted Wood Kingfisher.
For a clearer understanding of the above "parable" please see my earlier blog
Call me lazy. Call me unadventurous. Call me whatever. I admit I am one of them pea-shooters. Or to be more technically precise, a "P-shooter". The "P" of course, stands for the Program mode setting of modern DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. In this setting the camera automatically sets everything by itself - the aperture and the shutter speed. With this, a person just basically points the camera at the subject and then takes the shot. That person is a P-shooter. And that's what I am. In other words, I am your typical, albeit a little glorified, point-and-shoot picture taker (at this point, it seems rather inappropriate to refer to myself as a photographer). My rationale for being so is that I wouldn't want to twiddle with the camera settings when my intended subject could disappear at any moment. Despite this amateurish stance on taking pictures of birds, I did get some pretty good results of which I am quite satisfied. I am happy and contented as a P-shooter.
A bird photographer friend of mine posted this on Facebook:
Not surprisingly, this taunting illustration elicited a barrage of comments. One particular comment from another bird photographer friend of mine got my attention. In effect, he said that what's the use of having an expensive camera and lens if they are on P mode all the time. A cellphone camera could have gotten similar results, he said.
I was hurt! I was shocked! I was embarrassed! It was as if a knife had been plunged into my photographic soul. I know for sure that this friend of mine never intended his comment as a personal attack on me (we haven't done any bird photography together yet, so he couldn't have known my camera settings while in the field).
After the pain of self-humiliation subsided, I once again began to think rationally. I recalled the time when I first got started in photography many decades ago. Of course I was using film then. With fixed ISOs. In those days cameras still don't have any automatic settings in them. Which means I knew how to adjust the apertures and shutter speeds in order to obtain decent pictures. But then, I wasn't taking pictures of birds yet. Manual settings were easier to manipulate with my favorite subjects then, which were: People (I can always tell them to stop moving) and Landscapes (I can change aperture openings and shutter speeds and the majestic mountain would still be there in front of me). Now that I'm into birds, I resolved to accept the challenge that presented itself to me. Going back to manual settings - it's just like riding a bike, right?
Saturday, my wife and I decided to go to Antipolo to check on the status of the Slaty-legged Crake family. It was a drizzly morning - a perfect opportunity to once again hone my skills in photography. To make the challenge even more formidable, I opted to bring my aging Canon 40D instead of the better light-responding 5D MkII.
It wasn't very birdy that morning - the Crakes were even a no-show - but I was able to take pictures of some birds, using manual settings, under a dark and gloomy uncooperative weather.
Pied Bush Chat - manual setting and exposure, ambient natural light: 1/125, f5.6, ISO-1250, partial metering
Spotted Dove - manual setting and exposure, ambient natural light: 1/320, f5.6, ISO-400, spot metering
White-throated Kingfisher - manual setting and exposure, ambient natural light: 1/100, f6.3 ISO-400, spot metering
I was pretty happy with the results of my "experimentation", if I may say so myself. Perhaps now I can say that I am no longer just a P shooter. I am into M too!
Finally recovering from the adrenalin rush better known as the Dumaguete trip, Cynthia and I inserted a birding trip in between typhoons.
Our friend Boboy Francisco took us inside the Beverly Hills subdivision in Antipolo and acted as our birding guide. Gray skies and an abbreviated sortie did not yield the species we hoped to find.
We started off by meeting Henry Calilung, a biologist from the University of the Philippines and his band of young volunteers, including Boboy's daughter, Moira. Henry and company were doing a monthly mist netting of the birds found in the subdivision for census and DNA analysis purposes. They haven't caught anything yet when we met them early that morning but when we saw them again after our birding sortie, he informed me that they just caught a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.
Birding the forested areas of Beverly Hills yielded nothing much except Brown Shrikes which can be seen every 500 meters or so. Every so often we would catch glimpses of a large brown birds - at different places. We presumed them to be cuckoos of some sort. One of those was a bigger than most skulker which Boboy concluded to be a Scale-feathered Malkoha. Too bad it didn't show itself even when we waited patiently and motionlessly for a good 15 minutes.
What was rather common were the munias. They were just everywhere! The Scaly-breasteds were feasting on the fruiting grass stalks while the White-bellieds were surprisingly up in the trees.
A puzzle was an active brownish olive bird which was busily hunting for insects. For now, I would say that it was an Arctic Warbler although I hope that it would be one of those less common species.
Finishing the loop in about two hours, we were all sweating from the humidity and from the strain of walking the undulating roads of this subdivision. We bade Boboy goodbye and assured him that we will be back and try our luck once more. Maybe when the rains finally stopped coming.