Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ending the Year with a Hoot and a Howl

It's the last day of the year. A time when folks frolic and engage in merrymaking. A time to thank the year about to pass and to welcome the coming one with high hopes and joyous hearts.

And to go birding. And while at it, why not even add a new species to our lifelist?

A gazillion thanks to our friend, Ding Carpio, who broke his birding hiatus just at the right time. It all began when an "uncommon, poorly known" (according to the Kennedy Guide) member of the Strigidae family curiously decided to make the tree next to his office its home. Please note that access to Ding's office premises was restricted. When he posted pictures of this most unusual occurence in the internet, we die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, bird photographers begged, cajoled, even threatened our dear, accommodating friend to take us where the action was. He relented, of course. How can he not? 

Early in the morning of the last day of 2011, seven enthusiastic, adrenalin-pumped birdnuts joined Ding in taking photographs of Bubo philippensis. The endemic Philippine Eagle-Owl, the largest owl found in this country, simply sat there giving us that wide-eyed look, occasionally assuming an angry bird stance.

Who are these people?
Angry Owl
An hour passed and it was time to go. Our host still had some errands to do and so did Cynthia and I. As we all bade goodbye to each other and wished each other the best of the coming year, we were all united in our thoughts:

We sure ended the year with a hoot and an owl!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Candaba Trilogy, Part III - Hues Dunnit?

Closing out our half-a-day's birding at the Candaba Bird Sanctuary was our encounters with the various hues that made this place an avian paradise. Let us now take you on a visual trip to the wonderful world of colors....

First off, let us meet the bitterns:



then the Herons:



Finally, a Turtle Dove:


A joyous and colorful NewYear to all from Two Birders to Go, Bob & Cynthia Kaufman.

The Candaba Trilogy, Part II - Far 'n' Near

Never have opposites been more pronounced than that morning at the Candaba Bird Sanctuary. Cynthia and I were standing on a berm gazing at tiny flecks floating on the huge pond seemingly a thousand miles away. These flecks are actually ducks. Thousands of them. Mostly Philippine Ducks, as best as we could tell, not benefitting from the aid of a spotting scope. A smaller group of darker spots were on the right side. My binoculars tell me, even insisted upon me, that they were Tufted Ducks. I, after much persuading from my mesmerized eyes, finally admitted that I got a lifer. I even managed to convince Cynthia that yes, we have an addition to our lifelist.

Trust me those are ducks out there.
Tufted Ducks! Tufted Ducks!
Compare that with our teasingly close encounters with the bird kind - those of the Zebra Doves and Red Turtle Doves. They were so unaffected by our presence that at various times our vehicle almost run over them. They would be inches away from our car before they would take off, land a few meters ahead and repeat their almost suicidal actions.

What was absolutely surprising and really took the cake was that very same derring do routine done by those nonchalant doves was done by, get this, an immature Lesser Coucal! It was casually walking ahead of us that I thought a Roadrunner miraculously appeared in the Philippines. We were so entranced by this impossibility that I barely had time to take its picture  - through the windshield at that - resulting in a frustrating extremely bad photo.

The Philippine version of a Roadrunner :)
Near or far, birding was quite electrifying that cloudy morning in Candaba

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Candaba Trilogy, Part I - Road Railing

It was a very interesting half-day birding in Candaba in the sense that three unique stories were born out of it.

Let's start off with a strange early morning experience with the Rallidae family. We planned to go to the sanctuary via the "backdoor" route - a narrow dirt road bordered here and there with overgrown weeds. It rained the night before and even now the skies were filled with clouds pregnant with rain. As we were parked by the side of the road to Paralaya wavering whether to throw caution to the winds and tackle the very likely rain-soaked, muddy trail or heed good ol' common sense. We were in this state of deep and serious ponderation when a local jogger who probably noticed our dilemma clouded faces, suggested that we take the other route near the school instead. That one is paved most of the way and certainly wouldn't pose a problem for our vehicle he assured us. We thanked our "angel" profusely and promised to heed his advice. And as we would discover later, very grateful that we did.

However, it was during our moments of cogitation that we noticed the rails. Lots of them! By the side of the road. Even crossing to the other side with such bravado when the mood strikes them. So we decided that before going to the sanctuary (via the paved ingress) we should drive a little further along Maharlika Avenue and get intimate with those supposedly skittish marsh birds.

Now imagine a video loop where a piece of action gets repeated over and over but without the ennui of monotony. For in this case the main subject kept changing in a surprising way. We parked the car on the grassy shoulder, got off and prepared our camera gears. A few yards ahead of us a member of the Rallidae family would be feeding by the roadside. In one case it was a White-breasted Waterhen in the company of a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. 

Not far from it another family member, this time a White-browed Crake, would ungainly walk - not run - across the street with its disproportionately huge legs. 

At the other side of the road, the third member, this time pairs of Buff-banded Rails would insouciantly saunter by. 

Switch these three species into those different settings and you get an idea of what we were up against.

Cynthia and I agreed that we would get more coverage if we stationed ourselves away from each other. So we would attempt to get near our subject rail of the moment, stalk it, get a picture until a speeding vehicle or a roaring motorcycle or a bike rider or a curious pedestrian would spook the bird which would then dive into the nearest clump of bushes. We would wait a few minutes and when our subject has determined that the coast was clear, it would reappear and resume its feeding thus beginning the loop once again.

After a while as human and vehicle traffic increased as the morning wore on and resulted in shorter photography sessions, we tried a new tack. We resorted to mobile photography with good results as well. 

To say that it was an exhilarating start of a birding morning was an understatement. We have never seen so many White-browed Crakes, White-breasted Waterhens and Buff-banded Rails ever before. And they were in such close proximity to one another right at the edge of a provincial road! Viva Rallidae!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Looked everywhere for my glass this morning. Couldn't find it. I was worried. Went to the yard. Shocked to find this. A beautiful bird. Dead. Lifeless. Blood oozing from its neck. Brutally murdered. Asked my glass what happened. Feigned innocence. But I knew something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Dum da dum dum....dummmm!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Almost Forgotten Art of Bird Observation

The morning sun was playing hide-and-seek among the clouds...first concealing itself behind the gray curtains then bursting forth in warm bright sunshine like a child in a frolicsome mood. 

Cynthia and I, responding to our birding itch yet not desiring to get trapped in the chaotic traffic that was expected to happen this time of year, decided to go to nearby University of the Philippines' campus in Diliman.

Mesmerized by the changing colors brought about by Phoebus's frivolity, we wanted to see the brilliantly hued Blue Rock Thrush. Like a gift from the sun god we found our bird so impervious to our photographic approaches even displaying a trait heretofore unobserved by us. 

A certain palm tree near the MSI Building was heavily laden with bright red fruits. Our beloved thrush would perch on the concrete ledge of the college structure and from there would sally forth, grab a fruit while on the wing, and fly back to its original perch. Such behavior was certainly interesting to note, considering that we thought that this species was strictly insectivorous. Another thing was the method by which it plucked the fruits while in flight unlike the competing Yellow-vented Bulbuls that alit on the bunch before gobbling its bright red food. 

Having had our birding itch scratched, so to speak, my wife and I decided to pass by the area next to the Vargas Museum to find some icing on our cake. Well, we did find a lifer - a most intriguing one at that. Previous knowledge regarding this kind has now been been disproved. We discovered that it was not really hateful as it remained calm all the while we were observing it. We noted that it peacefully fed among the palm leaves. Moreover, no pigs were harmed nor even threatened at all. 

By being diligent in our observation process, we were able to discover some new characteristics of the birds we saw, perhaps even adding some valuable information to ornithology, both local and...virtual.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good, Better and Bes

Cynthia's cousin, Voltaire "Bes" Yap, was visiting from California. Being a bird photographer himself, he wanted to take some pictures of the local avifauna. Due to the fickle weather, we thought it prudent to take him somewhere close yet birdy enough. The La Mesa Ecopark was the perfect choice.

Early Wednesday morning we were scouring the mini-forest area hoping to see the Red-bellied Pittas, or the Ashy Ground Thrush, or the Common Emerald Dove, or the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher. One hour later and I was hoping that a bird, just any bird, would appear. "Where have all the birds gone?" I thought to myself as embarrassment slowly crept over my entire being. "Bes came all the way from the U.S. for nothing?" as I furtively glanced at our guest afraid that he will get bored and deeply disappointed. If he was, Bes certainly didn't show it as he gamely took photos of leaves and spider webs and..

I breathed a sigh of relief. 

At around eight in the morning, I suggested that we go the spillway to wait for the White Wagtails. On the way out and out of despair, we took photos of the ubiquitous Brown Shrikes and Yellow-vented Bulbuls just so we can satisfy our craving for a picture of a bird. Moving on, we were stopped on our tracks by a very noisy pair of Black-naped Orioles. Not only were they very vocal, they were photographable (normally not easy with these treetop dwelling creatures). 

They eventually flew but not before we have had our fingers numbed from the constant pressing of our camera's shutters. "That was good!", interjected Bes who in his jubilation treated us to a cup of "taho" (sweetened soft tofu with pearl tapioca).

With bouncy steps we proceeded to the viewing deck next to the spillway where we were greeted by a flock of Little Egrets. In the distance a Common Sandpiper was bobbing its behind rhythmically as if dancing to some latin beat. Not far from it a Grey Wagtail was living up to its name. One hour later and still none of Bes's target birds had shown up. I excused myself and went to the Vermiculture area. There I prayed that I may not be put to shame as I watched every tiny movement in the spillway below. Thirty minutes later and still nothing. Soon Cynthia and her cousin came asking for an update. When I shook my head, Bes informed us that he will be going to the Butterfly area to photograph those tiny colorful flitting insects instead. He had barely gone a few steps when I saw something blue alight on the concrete dike.

"Kingfisher!" I yelled.

"Kingfisher!" Cynthia shouted at her cousin.

Faster than you can say kingfisher (again) Bes was next to me propping up his camera gear. Together we took photographs of the Common Kingfisher and I can see my friend grinning from ear to ear. 

As the little blue bird flew off a couple of black-and-white birds took its place. "White Wagtails!" I whispered as a third bird joined them. "The whole family even!"

What followed was a fast and furious clicking of camera shutters. Eventually the wagtail family flew away. "That was better!" said Bes gushing with excitement.

And we all left happily....ever after. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Tail Continues....

Tis the season for wagtails. Everywhere we went there were wagtails. Whites and Greys at the Ecopark spillway, then Yellows at the Agripark in Los Banos. And now the tale continues again with a Grey Wagtail in Antipolo!

It was just a side-birding trip so no bazookas were brought along, only rifles, you know, just in case. Cynthia and I visited our friends, the Webbs, at their home in Palos Verdes and since we had good birding experiences in this small, forested subdivision (remember the Slaty-legged Crakes?) we thought we would just mosey around before we go home and see what birds we would find this time. There were the usual suspects of course: the Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Brown Shrikes, even some Olive-backed Sunbirds! Pied Trillers and Golden-bellied Gerygones were well represented. Zebra and Spotted Doves populated the quiet streets. A White-breasted Waterhen made a brief appearance. The White-throated Kingfisher was as skittish as usual, so unlike a completely insouciant Long-tailed Shrike that modeled for us from just a few feet away.

The real story of the day was when we saw a Grey Wagtail. The first thing that came to mind was, what was it doing here? There isn't a flowing stream anywhere nearby. Although the place was lushly wooded,  we are still inside a subdivision and a house was not that far away. 

Observe. Take notes.

The bird was hunting for insects close to a trickle of water flowing towards a storm drain. Looking at the bird itself we noticed that it was constantly bobbing its tail. It was brownish grey in color with a slight yellow wash underneath. A white stripe runs over its eyes and there were also some white on its wing feathers. The throat was whitish. The vent and rump areas were bright yellow. All contributing to the fact that this bird was a Grey Wagtail.

Make a sketch and show the pertinent details needed for a positive identification.

After fulfilling the duties of a puristic birder, we then turned to photography. 

As bird photographers we observe and take mental notes on our subjects, too, just like any self-respecting birder. Then we document such information with the aid of pictures, showing as much as possible the colors, habits and habitats of the birds we encounter in our birding trips.

Birding and bird photography complement each other and that is an undeniable fact.

Monday, December 05, 2011

I Am Curious, Yellow?

First of all, to some of you "googlers" who got here because of the title:  this has absolutely nothing to do with the 1967 movie of the same name. As a matter of fact, this has everything to do with birds and bird photography. So there.

Now where was I? Oh yes, birds!

The recent arousal of interest in wagtails spawned in part by the appearance of several species at the La Mesa Ecopark brought forth some serious discussions as to the method of identifying them. The White Wagtails were the easy ones, being the only kind that has a black and white color. The similarly hued Forest Wagtail inhabits, as its name implies, wooded areas, unlike the Whites which prefer flowing streams. So it would be impossible to get confused between these two species.

Which brings us to the Grey and Yellow Wagtails. In their non-breeding (winter) plumage, the possibility of mistaken identifications is alarmingly quite common. When we first saw the non-white wagtails at Ecopark, my first  impression was that they were Yellow. After all they do have yellow underparts. It was only when the photos were posted via the internet that the analyses from our birding friends ensued. The yellow rump and white patch on the feathers all pointed to the fact that these birds were Grey Wagtails!

Last Saturday while at the Agripark in Los Banos, Cynthia and I saw lots of wagtails! From a distance they all look the same - brownish upperparts, yellowish below and a white stripe over the eye. They were all frolicking on the fallow fields next to us. 

The Kennedy guide describes the habits of Yellow Wagtails as: "Often encountered in groups ranging from a few to hundreds of individuals in open country, particularly ricefields, marshy areas and parks, on the ground at all elevations." A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Robert S. Kennedy, et al, page 308. (emphasis mine). Whereas Grey Wagtails almost never inhabit open areas but rather on or along stream beds.

some yellow in the underparts
very little yellow underparts

I am curious, Yellow?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Wholly Cropped!

I am not really sure why I decided to bring just my short lens to the La Mesa Ecopark spillway. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the terrain - this will be the first time that we will go there. Or maybe it was the thought of walking from the entrance of the Ecopark to the place where the Thrushes stay - a long, uphill route.

In retrospect, the question still remained a big "why?" inasmuch as we didn't go inside the Ecopark to look for the Thrushes anyway and the terrain next to the spillway was as even as can be. But all that is water under the bridge, or in this case, over the rocks.

What is important is that we got what we came for. For the five of us (my wife, Cynthia, myself, Jun Osano, Mark Jason Argallon and his brother, Paul Kevin) our singular purpose of being there was to look for (and hopefully take some pictures of) the White Wagtails that birding friend, Ruth Francisco, saw two days ago. 

After waiting for about an hour, we saw all three wagtails at around 8:15 am. It was interesting that these birds visited the area with almost clockwork regularity. They would stay for a few minutes, fly off, then return to the same place in just about an hour. Learning from this behavior, we positioned ourselves to the spot closest to where they would always land. At about 10:05, one of the wagtails flew in and for the next ten minutes we took its photograph to our hearts content.

However, as I was saying earlier, because I was using my 300mm lens with a 1.4X extender, my subjects were merely dots in the resulting photographs. To be able to make a presentable image, I had to do an almost 100% crop. 

Thankfully, during the in-between times when we were waiting for the reappearance of the White Wagtails, there were other interesting birds that kept us busy. Once again, because of their distance, I had to do some major cropping in order to fully show the beauty of these feathered creatures.

Barred Rail
Common Kingfisher
Common Sandpiper
Grey Wagtail