Friday, August 31, 2012

Falls Expectations

So much had been said about Taytay Falls. Many pictures of birds taken from that place had been posted on the internet. Mostly of the Indigo-banded Kingfisher. They were so close one can almost touch them, it had been said. So I wanted to go there. Not that I wanted yet another photo of the said kingfisher - I already had some good ones of those. What then? Nothing but good ol' curiosity. I wanted to know what made that place popular among bird photographers. 

When I learned that new friends Irene Dy and Rob Hutchinson were going there Thursday I asked them if my wife and I could tag along. To my delight they said they'll pick us up at 4:30 in the morning.

The night before there had been concerns that it may be quite a rainy Thursday - based on weather forecasts - and discussions whether we should postpone the trip to Friday. I don't know but I suddenly had a sense of confidence and decided that we should follow the original plan. Guess what? It was sunny the whole time we were at Taytay Falls.

The place itself was beautiful! Were it not for the long walk from the parking area to the falls, I'd probably consider visiting this place again. The waters cascading were so clean and fresh and is actually being used to irrigate the rice fields below. It saddens me however that even the basic amenities are lacking. What was once a structure for restrooms now lie rotting through obvious neglect.

We came here expecting birds. Indigo-banded Kingfishers in particular. According to Irene, who had been here before, the kingfishers perch obligingly and quite close for great photo-ops. We stationed ourselves beside the cool stream. Over an hour has passed and still there was no Indigo-banded in sight.

Thankfully, a Rough-crested Malkoha peered curiously though the dense leaves of a tall tree across the stream.

A White-throated Kingfisher was noisily calling not too far from it.

Rob decided to go downstream to see of our target bird was there. A few minutes later he came huffing back and asked us to follow him. Only to lose it again after just getting a glimpse at it. While waiting for the tiny kingfisher to return, we were delighted to see a Grey Wagtail busily hunting for insects on the mossy boulders.

Once again Rob came and told us that the Indigo-banded has moved upstream close to the falls itself. Once again we hauled our camera gear and trekked back to where Rob saw the bird. For a good hour or so, the male Indigo-banded stayed in that area and we were finally able to take its picture.

At around noontime, the picnickers came. Lots of them. We knew it was time to go. 

We were trudging through the narrow trail when Rob stopped and perked his ear. Soon he was pointing at a tree festooned with mistletoes. Both Orange-bellied and Red-keeled Flowerpeckers were picking the fruits. Nearby a flock of Yellowish White-eyes were congregating on another fruiting tree. 

Immature Red-keeled Flowerpecker

Then came the lull.  We lingered awhile hoping that the Scale-breasted Malkoha would appear - after all it had been seen, and photographed - at this very exact location by everyone and his uncle, it seemed like. It never showed up.

But that's how it is in bird photography - sometimes you get what you don't expect and sometimes you miss what you expected - but in all things I am thankful.

Now it's time for lunch and the barbecue that Irene brought looked so mouth-wateringly delicious!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paradise Lost

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n
      - John Milton, Paradise Lost

The profundity of this piece of verse alleviated the despondency we felt that Saturday afternoon. The heat and humidity put our endurance almost to their limits as we waited for the bird to appear. Two hours-and-a-half being bathed in copious perspiration and not even having a mere glimpse of the brilliantly colored rarity could put any normal birdwatcher into a state of gloom. Add to this the fact that this uncommon creature, the Rufous Paradise Flycatcher, was seen by a whole entourage of birders just that very morning! They found paradise. To the three of us - me, my wife and our friend, Peter, it was paradise lost.

The reason Cynthia and I were not able to join the lucky morning group was that I was at Ortigas Center. Our church was conducting a seminar on  the basic principles of evangelical Christianity. Having been a Christian for over twenty years now, I am already familiar with these teachings. As a matter of fact I have conducted several such classes before at my church in California. But because I am a "newcomer" to Victory Christian Fellowship (having attended here for only about 2 years), this session was required if I were to lead a small group in the future (something that the Pastors were grooming me to do). My wife, although she had undergone this training before, still came with me to give me her support.

Skeptics and naysayers might say: he devoted his time to God earlier and yet later that day God deprived him of seeing a bird that would have been a lifer for him. There are things we may question God about, but He is sovereign. He knows what is good for me. He may put trials and temptations before me to see how deep my faith is in Him. 

John Milton's piece of poetry mentioned above says it is in your mind whether to make heaven or hell of the situation you are faced with. Shall I hate God for our disappointment? Or shall I continue to love Him and worship Him despite the unfavorable circumstances in my life? I chose the latter.

We may have lost the Rufous Paradise Flycatcher that sweltering, mosquito-laden afternoon but I had a consolation - a picture of a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker. Our friend, Peter, was able to photograph a White-breasted Waterhen. Our visit to the La Mesa Ecopark was not completely in vain.

My faith tells me that someday, paradise will be regained.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What's in a name?

In the Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet, the lovelorn young lady asked, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

And indeed, what's in a name?

This seemingly innocent query came to the forefront in a recent discussion I had with some friends in Facebook. Naturally it was about birds. The point of contention had been what would be the English name of a Bulbul found nowhere else in the Philippines except in the island of Palawan. We all agreed on the scientific name: Alophoixus frater (Although even this evolved from Criniger bres). 

The English name though was another matter. Consider these: 

Avibase, the world bird database in the internet calls this species Palawan Bulbul (but they retained the Genus Criniger). Their database's last update was Aug. 14, 2012.

Clements, 6th edition version 6.6 dated 2011 gives it the name Gray-throated Bulbul

Howard and Moore, 3rd edition, still calls it Grey-cheeked Bulbul and considers the Palawan bird a subspecies (Criniger bres frater)

The Handbook of the Birds of the World also considers it a subspecies of Grey-cheeked Bulbul but updated the Genus (Alophoixus bres frater)

Finally, the IOC - International Ornithological Congress World Bird List, in its  version 3:1 dated April 2012, calls it Palawan Bulbul (Alophoixus frater).

Now which one of these is correct? What name shall I call this bird? If I were to be really controversial about this, I'd call it any name I want...for who would question me when even the renowned scientists cannot even agree on one single appellation for this poor creature.

May I then posit the following alternative: Brother's Bulbul.
After all the species name frater, which all scientists agree on, means brother.

Sometimes I am perplexed as to how people arrive at the English names of birds. I once emailed, reputedly the final authority when it comes to establishing the English names of all the birds of the world. I asked them if there had been an unintended switch on the names of the Laughing Gull and the Black-headed Gull. My point was based on the scientific names of both seabirds. Laughing Gull is known as Larus atricilla while the Black-headed Gull is Chroicocephalus ridibundus. I found it strange that ridibundus which is translated as "laughing" was given an English name Black-headed, whereas atricilla which means "black-eyebrowed" was dubbed as Laughing Gull!

The explanation I received was, I must admit, rather disappointing: 

"Interesting. Certainly not a recent mistake. If so, it goes a long way back in history."

It was signed by Frank Gill, the man behind the IOC's efforts to standardize the English names to be used on every single one of the world's birds.

Again, let's go back to the original question: What's in a name?

For now I am following the IOC list (and therefore calling the bird in question Palawan Bulbul). 

Even if they would not (could not?) change what was an apparent mistake in the historical nomenclature regarding the gulls mentioned earlier, I very much appreciate their ongoing efforts to establish a norm for naming birds in English. They are also one of the most up-to-date among the internet bird lists. Their guiding principle says it all:

"Wisdom begins with putting the right name on a thing." - Old Chinese Proverb.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hurry Spotter

"Stop!" Cynthia yelled. 

Peter stepped on the brakes.

"Back! Back! Back!"

Peter slowly backed the car.

"Stop!" Cynthia once again commanded. "There!"

Peter and I looked. I tried to follow the direction of my wife's arm sticking out of the rear passenger window.

"There! Hurry!" she said urgently, fearing that the bird might fly away.

After so much squinting and head tilting I finally saw it.

"Do you see it?" I asked Peter. He nodded and slowly opened his door. With camera in hand he sneaked over to our side and started firing away. I was already shooting with my 500mm lens resting on the car window - not even bothering to get off the car.

That, basically, had been our modus operandi that Saturday morning. We were on the road towards Caylabne Resort in Ternate, Cavite - arguably the best roadside, dude birding site. (Note to the uninitiated: "dude birding" is bird watching or bird photography done with the least amount of effort - usually while riding a vehicle.)

As I was saying, it was pretty much dude birding on that gloomy, sometimes drizzly morning. Thanks to my wife's spotting abilities, we were able to see quite a number of birds. The routine was: Peter would drive at minimal speed while I and Cynthia kept our eyes open for possible bird sightings. In this regard, my wife had a distinct advantage over me. She has acute hearing capabilities. Moi, on the other hand, had lost that sense on the higher pitched sounds (which most bird calls are, unfortunately). This is a big handicap for me when it comes to looking for birds. At times however I use that to my advantage as an excuse to tune people out. Particularly on the boring ones and those that have "I" problems.  

Where was I? Ah yes, spotting those feathered creatures while dude birding. I am truly amazed by my wife's ability to locate birds from a moving vehicle. I was sitting on the front passenger seat thus giving me a more panoramic view ahead and on the right side. Cynthia was behind me and despite her limited view she was always the first to see a bird perched on a branch filled with leaves about 50 meters away! Consider the following instances:

Here is an uncropped shot of the area where she saw the Philippine Cuckoo Dove:

Here's the cropped and final photo:

To his credit Peter Ting also acquired the same capabilities. We were inching along the road, both he and my wife listening for bird song.

"Do you hear that?" he asked Cynthia.

"Yes, it sounds like the beeping of a car going in reverse."

Peter stopped the car and looked at the slope on his side of the road. He turned to us with an incredulous look on his face.

"It's white" he whispered.

I peered through his window and felt my jaw drop to the floor.

"A white-morph Philippine Coucal!" I said excitedly.

Cameras were leveled at the insouciant bird who seemed more focused on drying its feathers than get bothered by some bird photographers.

Again, my wife's spotting abilities came through when she pointed at the trees farther up the slope.

"There's a bird there" she stated with unwavering confidence. "Hurry, look!"

I looked through my long lens and once more my jaw hit the ground. It was a lifer - the lovely Pompadour Green Pigeon.

Viewed through the lens (imagine seeing it with the naked eye)

Cropped version:

Later on as we continued our drive towards the Caylabne Resort, deja vu. We were rounding a curve when Cynthia asked Peter to stop, back up a little and there! This time it was a White-eared Brown Dove. Isn't it uncanny that all the birds we saw via this method were of the family Columbidae?

Initial full view

We had to move back a bit more to get this

Of course, there were birds that would just be impossible to miss (although I almost missed this Luzon Hornbill had it not been for Cynthia's and Peter's "hurry, look!" gestures at me).

And, finally, thanks to the Caylabne Resort's staff who spotted the Philippine Ducks for us.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sweat Indulgences

My wife and I were bathed in sweat. Salty, sticky sweat. The sun was shining brightly and the morning humidity was surprisingly high. It seemed incredible that just a few days ago Metro Manila had experienced a devastating flood and continuous heavy rainfall for about ten days straight.

But this gloriously sunny Friday morning we were able to relieve the birding itch that hounded us during those wet monsoon days. The number of birds we saw made the perspiration that deluged our bodies more bearable.

Aside from the usual suspects like the Golden-bellied Flyeaters and Pied Fantails we also saw both Kingfishers - the White-throated and the Collared. Pied Trillers and Philippine Magpie Robins represented the black-and-white group.

As the hours passed and getting soaked in sweat, Cynthia and I both agreed to just stand still under the shades of the trees along the street and enjoy the refreshing breeze that occasionally blows by. In front of us was a copse where we encountered some interesting species in our previous visits to this place.

"Wait and they will come" I assured my wife as I drank heartily from the bottled water that we brought to alleviate the onset of dehydration while visions of Kevin Costner building a ballpark played before my eyes.

And come they did. A glimpse of orange at first. Then a full frontal view of the colorful female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.

After the adrenaline rush caused by the flycatcher sighting subsided we once again settled into our semi-torpid state as the gentle wind provided a much needed comfort. Then a flash of brown. Question marks popped above our heads. We were going cuckoo trying to figure out what it was. Then..enlightenment! Could it be a cuckoo? Finally we got a better look albeit a little too steep as it chose to perch on a higher branch. As Cynthia was photographing it, I saw another movement farther back. Same size but much lighter in color. An immature methinks. Both disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

ho-hum, these guys are boring
Mom, are those weirdos gone?
The real story however focused on the feeding habits of birds. There was a huge fruiting tree where several species were feasting. My wife and I had the pleasure of observing how different the way one species eat from the other.

The Yellow-vented Bulbul
pick -em up off the street..that's the best way
Lowland White-eye
you have to nibble and savor each bite
Philippine Bulbul
first, grab the fruit in your beak