Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nothing but Thrush

I'd been feeling quite trashy these past few days. Runny nose and all those trashy stuff that comes with the common cold kept me housebound. And Cynthia even had it worse!

Saturday morning and my condition was a little better. A quick trip to nearby University of the Philippines' campus would cure me of my birding itch and maybe even my viral ailment. Who knows? The outdoors might be the thing I really needed. My wife preferred to spend her miseries in bed.

Besides I promised our new birding friend, Peter Ting, that I'd meet up with him there. He has not yet seen the annual sweetheart of U.P. birders, the colorful male Blue Rock Thrush. I pretty much guaranteed him that he will definitely, without doubt, get to photograph this bird.


Of course, he did!

Thankfully, just as soon as Peter got off from his car, the Blue Rock Thrush came flying in, as if on cue, and landed on a branch not that far from us. It was quite a satisfying photo session that ensued afterwards. The thrush even granting us opportunities to take its picture while feasting on those red palm fruits.

Even good things had to come to an end. Our search for other birds near the Vargas Museum turned out to  be so fruitless that we had to resort to photographing butterflies. The area by the beltway was even worse.  By the end of our morning birding sortie we had nothing but thrush to show for our efforts.

At least Peter got his lifer!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Return to Dumaguete, Day 3 - Habal-habal in the morning

We heard about it. We knew about it. We just didn't think we would be doing it. "It" refers to the  habal-habal, a unique mode of transportation in the Southern Philippines. First of all the name is derived from the Visayan word "habal" which means "having sex" although the reference is usually to animals in general and to dogs in particular. Basically a habal-habal is a motorcycle with an extended back portion to accommodate more than one passenger. Three adults behind the driver would be squeezed in such a way that they would resemble dogs in the act of procreation.

We made arrangements with renowned bird guide Rene Vendiola that we will visit him at his home early Thursday morning. When he said he will have us picked up from the town of Valencia, we thought all along that a motor tricycle would be sent at our disposal - it being the most common way of getting around in this area. When a guy on a motorbike showed up Cynthia and I looked at each other with trepidation. We've never ridden a motorbike before and now we were about to board not just an ordinary bike - we will be riding a habal-habal. Without helmets even. Taking a deep breath and uttering a short word of prayer we began our trip. After what seemed like an eternity while hanging on for dear life, we arrived at Rene's place. He was smiling naughtily as he witnessed two grinning senior citizens, who apparently had a great time having "sex", trying to dismount from the motorcycle with great effort.

Then came the birding. As expected we saw the martial arts specialist of the birding world, the Black-belted Flowerpecker. This species is a can't-miss here at Rene's backyard. 

Roaming around the patch of woodland that he owned, Rene was able to present me with another lifer, the noisy Philippine Tailorbird. 

The Spotted Wood Kingfisher that he said frequented his place was there momentarily but was chased away by a Collared Kingfisher even before I was able to take a good look at it. The Pygmy Flowerpecker was also quite elusive that I only got a few glimpses. The Purple-throated Sunbird though was more accommodating than its Siquijor cousins.

Rene had other commitments that morning, so we thanked him for his time and hospitality. Inasmuch as it was still early, he suggested that we visit Forest Camp. Although severely damaged by Typhoon Sendong, the place was now accessible, he assured us. And the best way to get there was by, you guessed it, the dreaded habal-habal

The trip to Forest Camp took even longer and negotiated some road undulations. But we were now veterans to this type of transportation. "Bring it on", my wife and I both said with great confidence as we pasted ourselves to the driver's back.

Forest Camp was indeed accessible and some parts had been restored to a degree of normalcy. But the birds were still sparse. The usually brazen Crimson Sunbirds now remained at the tree tops. The Visayan Bulbuls were calling but were unseen. Only the Philippine Magpie Robins gave us good looks. 

After about an hour later, our beloved habal-habal driver, George, came to pick us up per agreement. He volunteered to take us to Dumaguete but we politely refused and asked that we be taken to nearby Valencia instead. After all, at our age, we can only handle so much "sex" in a certain span of time.

A refreshing lunch at Kri somehow brought us back to a sense of reality. Did we really do what we just did? were among the questions that hovered in our minds as we indulged in mahi-mahi and prawns.

Back at the hotel, our birding day ended through the courtesy of a female Olive-backed Sunbird which was building a nest only a few feet above the ground and not far from the laundry room where hotel employees come and go.

Return to Dumaguete, Day 2 - Van for the Road

While we were having breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we were keeping an eye at the tall bare tree next to the hotel grounds. Birds would come, alight on a branch, stay there for a while then fly off.  This happened in such regularity that I could not stand it any longer. I hurried back to our room, grabbed my camera and resumed my breakfast. Only to leave it every now and then to go outside and tried to take pictures of those birds whenever they stopped by (that's right - tried - because they were so small and so high up the tree). All in all my morning repast had been interrupted by Chestnut Munias, a Grey-streaked Flycatcher and (insert fanfare here) Java Sparrows! You read it right - Java Sparrows! I found it interesting, even bordering on funny, to find this species for the first time in the Philippines, here in Dumaguete, right next to a hotel.

After breakfast, Cynthia and I decided to explore the Ang Tay Golf Course grounds across the street from our hotel. We dared not explore the whole area inasmuch as we came in via the back entrance, so to speak. Nevertheless we did find some birds - most of which were perched high up, I mean way high up the only tall tree in the vicinity. With only my 300mm lens at my disposal, photographing these birds can be quite frustrating! Once again Chestnut Munias were there, along with Asian Glossy Starlings, a Collared Kingfisher and Zebra Doves. At least the Barn Swallows gave better opportunities by perching on the electric wires. 

Nine in the morning and we were in a quandary as to what to do next. Cynthia sought the assistance of the hotel concierge in renting a van. One hour later and we were on our way to Tanjay, a coastal town with lots of ponds along the highway. Just like yesterday, we informed our driver, Danny, that we would every so often ask him to stop so we could take pictures of birds along the way. And stop we did on numerous occasions. Shorebirds were simply all over the place - Common Greenshanks, Javan Pond Herons and Whiskered Terns. 

Common Greenshank
Javan Pond Heron
Whiskered Tern
The Sandpiper family was well represented with Wood, Marsh and Common species. 

Wood Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
We were even rewarded with a lifer! A lone Malaysian Plover was forlornly roaming the mudflats.

We were back at the hotel around noon. It was a satisfying couple of hours birding. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Return to Dumaguete, Day 1 - Boat for the Best

We had just landed at Dumaguete airport when out of the blue my wife declared, "Why don't we go to Siquijor today?" Interestingly I was also thinking about the same thing. It was still early - not even 9 am yet - and we didn't have any specific plans to begin with anyway. After a quick check-in at the Royal Suites Inn we rushed to the pier to inquire about the next departure time. Thankfully there was one leaving at 10:15. We bought two round trip tickets and boarded the M/BCA Jaziel. The weather was perfect and the sea as calm as can be.

About an hour later we docked at Siquijor and were immediately mobbed, along with the other passengers, by tricycle and minivan drivers. Not wanting to be taken advantage of, we stopped by the Tourist Information booth for advice. Inasmuch as this was our first time to visit this island, we were completely clueless as to where to go. We told the tourism agent our dilemma. We just want to see birds we explained rather sheepishly. What about Coco Grove? we asked. A bit expensive came the reply. How about Salagdoong? Too far. Then as if a light bulb suddenly switched on, he suggested "Why not Mt. Bandila-an? It has a forest and definitely got some birds in it." Well that definitely got our attention. 

From the throng of drivers that met our group when we disembarked, only one had the tenacity to stick with us. He was there when we were consulting with the tourism guy and so when we finally decided to go to Mt. Bandila-an he was more than willing to take us there. We agreed on a price and off we went. We explained to Ronald that we would be looking out for birds and we would at times ask him to stop so we could get a better view. Which happened quite soon enough. We have started our slow ascent up the mountain road when I saw a Blue Rock Thrush by the roadside. We asked our driver to stop. I jumped out as soon as he did. But the bird flew off before I could even raise my camera to my eyes. Going after the thrush I saw another bird. It was partially hidden from view but I could tell it was brownish with a black crown. Deep in my heart I knew it was the Streak-breasted Bulbul - a bird found nowhere else but here in the island of Siquijor. And I was unable to take its picture! All the while that Cynthia and I were chasing these birds, Ronald was down the road following a bird sound. Soon he was waving at us and pointing to something at the edge of the forest. I quickly ran to where he was and looked at where he was pointing. To my utter delight, two (yes, two!) Streak-breasted Bulbuls were hopping from branch to branch, pausing every now and then to see if this guy with a camera would be a disturbance to their feeding activities. They eventually flew off to the deeper part of the forest and I walked back to where Cynthia was waiting with a huge grin on my face. We have barely started and we already got our target bird!

Our destination was Camp Bandila-an which basically was a patch of forest managed by the DENR. The three of us (by now Ronald the driver was so into birding as well) spread out along the roadside trying to trace where all those bird sounds were coming from. Once again Ronald's sharp ears and eyes were able to locate an Orange-bellied Flowerpecker busily foraging on a mistletoe. I furiously tried to follow the non-stop foraging of this tiny bird. 

A brief pause and our diligent driver told me, "Sir, may ibon pa dito." (Sir, there's another bird here) and pointed me to where a brown bird with a yellow belly was flitting on the low branches. At first I thought it was just one those very common Golden-bellied Gerygones. But then, when I looked through the camera lens, it appeared to be bigger and even had a white-throat. Not only that, it didn't have the hyperactive habit of a gerygone. Whistler! It had to be a Whistler of some kind. Only when we got back to the hotel that I was able to properly identify it as a Yellow-bellied Whistler (well duh! the yellow belly was so prominent I wondered why I didn't think of that right away.)

Soon it was time to go. We had to be at the pier before 3:45 pm for our return trip to Dumaguete City. As we glided down the mountain road, Cynthia and I were both glad at how our first birding adventure in Siquijor turned out. Two lifers in less than three hours was not bad. Not bad at all. Actually it was the best!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bittern than Before

"Let's go to Candaba this Friday", I told my wife with such conviction that she was momentarily taken by surprise. Cynthia has already gotten used to my waffling when it comes to deciding where to go birding. Perhaps it was the disappointment that I and my birding buddies Gabs and Edu experienced last Saturday that altered my decision making demeanor. My wife who opted to stay home that day was of course spared of such misery. When she noticed my unusual firmness she concluded, and rightly so, that I needed a redemption.

They say that you can tell how the rest of the day will go if the morning is started on the right path. Our right path on that cool Friday dawn turned out to be Cafe France. Yes, you read it right. Cafe France. 

Let me elaborate on that for a while: Our prayer and fasting regimen (an annual practice by the Victory Christian Fellowship group of churches of which we are members) ended the night before. So here we are ready to take on a full course breakfast for the first time in seven days. Normally, on any trip to Candaba, Cynthia and I would have our early morning repast at Jollibees in Baliuag. However, on this particular outing my wife remembered seeing a Cafe France (one of our favorite restaurants) along NLEX and decided to splurge a little to commemorate the ending of our weeklong fast. The omelet and ham and bacon and eggs with crispy croissants, believe it or not, paved the way for a fruitful, or shall I say bountiful, day of birding in Candaba.

We entered via the "backdoor" to the Sanctuary. After parking our car, I headed toward the berm but stopped short because there was a bird quietly huddled among the grass. A pipit? It certainly looked like one and I hoped it was not the very common Paddyfield. But for now I'm happy even if it was so. 

From the berm the flotilla of ducks can still be seen. As a matter of fact they are even closer now. The Northern Shovelers can easily be distinguished from the Philippine Ducks without the use of binoculars. The Chestnut Munias were once again quite plentiful only now they were less skittish.

A pleasant surprise was the presence of Common Greenshanks snoozing along with the Black-winged Stilts and Whiskered Terns. But the first "Woo-hoo!" of the day happened when a usually elusive Common Kingfisher alit at eye level thirteen meters away! 

The adrenalin rush had barely dissipated when Cynthia, bless her super sharp vision, pointed a bird to me. I was driving slowly scanning the lily covered pond for Purple Swamphens. Cynthia yelled "Stop!" I stopped.

"Look!" I looked. But couldn't see anything. 

I was waiting for "Listen!" but she was already frantically pointing at something "there!"

Sometimes I am just amazed at how my wife does it. She was sitting on the passenger side of our car and farther away from the pond. My body was even partially blocking her view. But she saw "it". Only after looking intensely at the dense vegetation on my left, where the Black-crowned Night Herons frolic, did I see "it".

"It" was a Black Bittern.

I thought everything would be sort of anti-climactic after these two fabulous photographic opportunities. But Candaba had more in store for us that morning. Maybe not as breathtaking as the Common Kingfisher and the Black Bittern but the additional birds we saw later certainly made up for the dearth of sightings last Saturday.

For one thing, the ducks were much closer now and I was able to get pictures of the Tufted Duck, a Green-winged Teal and a  gorgeously patterned male Garganey!

We ticked off several more birds like Yellow Bittern, Island Collared Dove, several Pied Bush Chats, more calling birds, three Waterhens, two Turtle Doves and a Grassbird in a bare tree.

As we were driving home I was telling Cynthia what a difference birding was today from the last time I was here. Today was definitely better than before. 

A Sinatra song even came to mind:

Birding is birdier, the second time around
Just as wonderful with both Rails on the ground

It's that second time you hear the Doves' song sung
Makes you think perhaps that birding like youth, is wasted on the young

Birding's more comfortable the second time you go
Like a friendly home with your dear wife in tow

Who can say what brought us to this miracle we've found
There are those who bet birding's just time spent
But I'm oh so glad we went 
the second time around

Now who says Friday the 13th is bad luck?

Monday, January 09, 2012

The More the Manyer

I already had misgivings about our upcoming birding trip to Candaba. Although Cynthia and I had a blast last month in photographing those oh so friendly rails, this time around I was having this strange feeling that things would be quite different. And I mean the bad side of different. Nevertheless I acceded to the request of bird photographer friend Gabs Buluran that we go visit Candaba the first Saturday of 2012. Joining us in this sortie was another friend, Edu Lorenzo Jr.

Our primary target was the rail population that were, to put it in a single word, abundant, not more than two weeks ago. As we approached that haven of the Rallidae family we were surprised at the conspicuous absence of birds! Only the Eurasian Tree Sparrows (yeah, who cares about those) were there. Deep inside me I was squirming at the thought that my fears were becoming a reality. Little did I know that even worse was yet to come.

We entered the "backdoor" towards the Sanctuary. Just a few meters in and we three were all excited to see some Wood Sandpipers basking in the early morning sun. 

I thought our luck had drastically changed. Gabs, who was driving, stopped at the first bend. We all got out and looked at the hundreds of dots - I mean ducks - out there snoozing on the huge pond. While Edu was busying himself in chasing after the Chestnut Munias, Gabs and I waited patiently for the White-browed Crake to fully expose itself onto the ricefield. It never did.

We drove on. Munias were plentiful. And skittish. The Pied Bush Chats even more so, if that is even possible. We stopped where farmers were plowing the field thereby attracting hundreds of egrets (both Intermediate and Little) and Whiskered Terns. My desire to take a photograph of an individual Intermediate Egret became a challenge since there were just too many of them feeding close together.

Moving on. Gabs suddenly stopped when he saw a small flock of Black-winged Stilts starting to stir from their slumber. Thankfully these long-legged birds were still groggy from their sleep that we were able to get some good shots without them flying off.

Even the usually nonchalant doves that barely avoided my car's tires the last time I was here were nowhere to be seen. Except for a Red Turtle Dove that flew to a nearby tree when we approached and afforded us a quick shot.

As we approached the Sanctuary we noticed people. Lots of them. This was no surprise though for I knew all along that birders and bird photographers would be here today. And the reason for my trepidation earlier. Not that having all these bird enthusiasts here was bad. It's just that it is possible that our photographic chances might be a little hampered. That would be because of the presence of many vehicles going hither and thither on a very narrow road. 

So we made lemonade from lemons and simply enjoyed a convivial conversation with our kindred spirits. Maia, Jops and Clemence, members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), even allowed us to look through their spotting scopes at the raft of ducks floating lazily in the distance. In the course of our bird talks we learned that they have seen some species that we haven't. Perhaps it was just bad luck on our part. Which, unfortunately, continued even on our way home. Upon my suggestion, we decided to once again look for the Rails by the roadside. A few did show up but as soon as we get the bird in our sights, a motor vehicle would zoom by driving our subject into hiding.

At the end of the day and looking back at what we experienced that morning, I felt a pang knowing that my apprehensions did actually come to fruition. When I told Gabs about it the day before, he said he is determined to get those Buff-banded Rail photos regardless if we encounter a throng of people. To which I jokingly replied, "The more the many-er".