Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Coast of Birding

The skies were gloriously gray. A breeze pregnant with cool precipitation blew against our determined faces. In front of us white-crested waves rushed towards the shore. Smashing against the rocks it then exploded into a thousand bits of watery sparks. The sandy beach glimmered as the waves drenched the blanket of plastics and an array of discarded footwear among the various jetsam.

This is the LPPCHEA (Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area) or "Coastal Lagoon" as the local birders/bird photographers call it. This is an area that is in the midst of some current controversy. But that is not the subject of this story.

The story is about a bunch of intrepid people who braved the inclement weather to take photographs of the birds in this critical habitat. 

It was on that Saturday morning that I along with my wife, Cynthia, and friends Peter, Irene and Bong stood there on the shore watching a throng of flying seabirds. A slight drizzle made our photographic endeavors even more of a challenge. It was not easy capturing the image of a bird in flight when a pall of grey clouds hung in the skies and raindrops pelted our barely protected bodies.

Despite these discouraging conditions, rewards were reaped. A Grey-tailed Tattler was kind enough to pose for us when we were almost on the brink of despair.

Then a photographer's dream moment appeared when an immature Black-crowned Night Heron which was flapping its huge wings nonchalantly above the raging waves suddenly braked as it were, paused, grabbed a good-sized fish from the sea then surprisingly dropped that fish back into the churning waters. We all thought that the fish somehow slipped off the heron's grasp. Or was it that this benevolent bird was doing the catch-and-release option that fishermen sometimes do? Reviewing the photographs we took and comparing the results, we realized that the fish in question was actually a dead one floating. It turned out that this particular fish was just too big for an in-flight meal and so it went dropping back to its watery grave.

As we moved to the place where the Terns were sallying within spitting distance (not that we were spitting, you know) heavy rain fell. We scurried to our respective vehicles and decided to sit this downpour out. After about thirty minutes and the deluge not showing any sign of abating, Bong gave up and bade us farewell.

Eventually the rain stopped. We continued our tour of the coast and were soon looking at a couple of friendly Common Sandpipers.

Encouraged by this, Peter suggested we try the lagoon. I was surprised to learn that there was an actual "lagoon" in here, and that one had to go through some sort of forest to see it. Well, we did see that patch of fresh water but all we got along the way were mosquito bites with Cynthia getting the worst. 

Upon our return to the security station, Peter and Irene were whooping as they saw a Collared Kingfisher near the structure. My wife stayed in the car nursing the six swollen spots she got from those pesky mosquitoes. I stayed close to her but still with a good view of the kingfisher.

Once again the threat of a heavy downpour made us reconsider our next move. 

"It's about time we have that lunch in Chinatown that I promised you" Peter said.

To which we all agreed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Shrikes and You're Out!

Tuesday morning and we're out. Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 am Cynthia and I have our usual dancercise routine at the local Community Hall. We both wanted to have a more or less regular workout so we agreed to hike around our village. This exercise is not as easy as it may seem because the streets within our subdivision would put any roller coaster track to shame.

"Bring along your camera" my wife reminded me.

Ooooh, we're doing some birding on the side, I gleefully thought as I slung my Canon 7D with a 300mm lens over my shoulder.

We haven't even began to sweat when we saw our first non-Eurasian-Tree-Sparrow bird - a Brown Shrike! It was to be the first of our many encounters with this species throughout the length of our, um walking exercise. 

Shrike one
Shrike two
Shrike three
There were other birds in the neighborhood, of course such as the ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

We were so lucky that we were not directly underneath this Olive-backed Sunbird.

Then there was this Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker who was eventually chased off by one of the bully Shrikes.

A pleasant surprise was when we heard a pair of Black-naped Orioles calling loudly somewhere in them there trees. However we were only afforded a swift glimpse of them.

As we walked back towards our house, drenched in sweat and panting like a hyperactive dog, we encountered yet another Brown Shrike. 

"You already got photos of three shrikes" Cynthia said, "and you're out.....of breath!"

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Birding as an Excuse?

Friday night. My wife and I were playing word games on our respective computers. Buckets of rain were pouring outside our bedroom window punctuated now and then by apocalyptic roars of thunder and flashes of lightning.

"So, are we going birding tomorrow?" Cynthia asked without looking up from her laptop.

Rain, thunder, lightning were foremost in my mind. And I hate admitting it to myself - even a touch of lassitude sort of dampened the tiny vestiges of birding enthusiasm in me. Then it hit me.

I turned away from my iMac and faced my wife. Somehow she sensed that I have an earth-shaking announcement to make. She set down her laptop and looked at me with eyes that sparkled in anticipation albeit tinged with the slightest amount of suspicion.

"Why don't we go to U.P. Diliman early tomorrow?" I suggested, my own eyes twinkling.

"How early?"

"Oh, about 6 am."

She knew! Our vibes were so much in synch that Cynthia was able to figure out right away that I was just using birding at U.P. as a convenient excuse.

We were at the campus grounds even before six. At the parking area in front of the Marine Science Institute (MSI) building we hoped to see the colorful annual migrant, the Blue Rock Thrush. It probably was still too early in the year for its arrival for we did not see it despite a very thorough search.

What we saw, thanks to its very loud "pi-piyaw" calls, was a Black-naped Oriole raiding the fruits of a ficus tree.

A Collared Kingfisher also presented itself rather loudly.

We then went to the parking area of the Main Library. After a short while we met some members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP): Jops, Maia, Ternel and Tin-tin. They were there to lead the members of the U.P. Mountaineers (UPM) on a bird-watching tour. While waiting for the UPM group to arrive, we were all entertained by Coppersmith Barbets, themselves gorging on the fruits of a nearby tree then perching to enjoy the early morning sun.

At about eight am, we hurriedly bade our friends goodbye. They must have wondered why we were in such a rush. But we were too embarrassed to tell them the truth that our real reason for being at U.P. that morning was not just because of the birds. It was definitely shamefully something else.

It was the mouth-watering crispy adobo flakes and oh so crunchy boneless dilis (small dried fish) that nearby Cafe Via Mare was serving for breakfast.

crispy adobo flakes
crunchy boneless dilis

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ten Reasons Why Bird Photography is Not Always Fun

Bird Photography is an interesting and challenging hobby. Most of the time it is also fun! But sometimes there are certain factors that put a damper to this fascinating pursuit.

Ten Reasons Why Bird Photography is Not Always Fun (not necessarily in this order)

10. Equipment – Bird photography, for obvious reasons, need a better than just-ok camera body and long lenses to go with it (or a spotting scope if you're a digiscoper). Although it’s been said that it’s the photographer and not the equipment that is the one responsible for great photographs, still you would want to get the best camera gear that money can afford, right? Don’t forget the tripod. Did I mention that having a photo processing software is a tremendous help?  And then there’s constant nagging in your mind to get an even better camera model or an even bigger lens…

9. Travel – Although birds can be found in the neighborhood, to really get more species, travel is necessary. Lucky are those that can go at a drop of a hat. For the vast majority of us, planning, logistics, staying at hotels, hiring a local guide are things to be considered especially for places that require extensive travelling. Are you working? Got a family with young children? Good luck!

8. Weather – Getting caught in the rain may be romantic to some, but definitely not for bird photographers. You don’ t want your expensive equipment (see reason #10) getting drenched, do you? Also being slowly cooked by the sweltering heat while waiting for that shy bird to appear sometimes had to be endured.

7. Danger – Being mugged,  getting your car broken into, are some of the dangers that could happen. Losing your precious equipment and/or photographs to robbers, thieves, pirates and acts of God are also possibilities. Then there’s the chance of slippin’ n’ slidin’ on  muddy trails and mossy boulders. A little far-fetched, but still probable, would be being attacked by a predator (Is that a lion creeping behind the bush?).

6. Internet – Or rather, the lack of it. One of the joys of bird photography is being able to share the results of your hard work via the internet. Also without an internet connection it would be difficult to do that research on that unidentified bird you just photographed.

5. Bugs – Why is it that when you are in the midst of photographing that rarity is also the time that thousands of mosquitoes discover how tasty your blood is? Or in my wife’s case, sweet lady that she is, a whole army of ants would invade her legs as soon as she lifts the camera to her eye. Of course, gnats, flies and other creepy crawlies would also do that to you.

4. Physical – The resulting fatigue after standing for half-a-day then carrying your equipment back to your car. The neck pain from forever looking up and the shoulder pain for carrying your cross, I mean camera gear.

3. Dip – You woke up before dawn, travelled a hundred kilometers, skipped breakfast and lunch to wait for that particular bird. And it never showed up!

2. Poof! – You saw the bird but it disappeared before you got the chance to photograph it.

1. Ooops! – You are firing away at that uncommon, sought after bird that showed up for only a few seconds. When you check the results you realized that the camera settings are wrong and all you got was a blur. Or an underexposed image. Or overexposed. Then there are the equipment breakdowns: the shutter won’t click, camera won’t autofocus, the lens would fall off – these are just some the things that could happen. Telling a tripod-carrying bird photographer to “break a leg” is NOT wishing him/her luck, okay?

There you have it. Let me assure you that the "hoorays!" about bird photography far outweigh the "boos!"

Monday, September 10, 2012

Simply IRRIsistible

As irresistible as a cold drink on a hot muggy day - that's how the fields at IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) are to birders at the onset of autumn migration. 

Inasmuch as IRRI is a research facility, access to its premises is strictly regulated. It was through the courtesy of Prof. Tirso Paris whose wife Thelma, works there that all four carloads of bird watchers/photographers were able to get in at that place early Saturday morning.

Thus began several hours of birding that padded our car-mates Peter and Irene's lifelists. 

Indeed the paddyfields were teeming with migrants galore! I have never seen so many Wood Sandpipers before. 

I was surprised and was even able to get a photograph of a lone Intermediate Egret.

And who could resist that cute, fluffy Cisticola that went zitting as it was sitting on top of a pole.

While the Cisticolas we were trying to follow, we noticed another bird on a stick - it was a lovely Barn Swallow.

How could you not write an ode to that Oriental Skylark insouciantly basking on the road?

After passing a corner and we made a turn, out in the open was an immature Cinnamon Bittern.

The stars of IRRI were of course the Greater Painted Snipes clothed in those quaint stripes, sometimes difficult to see with the naked eye for they so much resemble an icky, nasty cow pie.

Another surprise was a Swinhoe's Snipe, a skulking bird that always poses a challenge as to what type. Pintail, Common and Swinhoe's all look so much the same that makes identifying them quite a game. The reason I was certain of this snipe's name was because of Prof. Tirso's photo that showed in such great detail the tiny white feathers at the edge of the tail.

Even good times must come to an end. We bade goodbye to our friends - the birders (Doc Cha, Ruth and Chee-ann) were to meet other colleagues at the Botanic Garden.

The bird photographers (Steve and Paolo) decided to go home so they could see the results of their endeavors.

For us (me, my wife, Peter and Irene) and our host, Tirso, more irresistible goodies awaited ....and they were not just birds....

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Getting Down to Brush Tacks

As far as the Brush Cuckoo is concerned here are the brass tacks: "Solitary and secretive from coastal mangroves to mossy forest to at least 2000m, rarely at forest edge or in clearings. More often heard than seen, perches in the canopy." - A Guide to the Birds of the Philipppines by Robert Kennedy, et al.

Here I was looking at a bird that I'm convinced was a Brush Cuckoo. Solitary? check. Secretive? well I could see it so it must not be secretive. Rarely at forest edge or in clearings? Hmm, I was in a semi-urban subdivision, with a huge house behind me and another one a few meters to my right with a patch of trees in between. More often heard than seen? I definitely did not hear it (what with my semi-impaired auditory sense) and I definitely saw it. Perches in canopy? well at least that was correct. Despite (or because?) of those and even after I have processed my photos I still was not 100% sure that this bird was a Brush Cuckoo. I did not also consider the fact that my wife and I have seen this species here (almost at he same spot) before. (I must be getting old...or maybe getting insecure at my identifying prowess?). Thankfully my Facebook friends, Adri Constantino and Tonji Ramos confirmed that it was so.

I had some personal errands to do in Antipolo City so Cynthia and I decided to drop by our favorite birding place in that area. Palos Verdes is a private subdivision where trees are abundant and houses aren't. Thanks to our friends John and Vivette Webb, we were able to access this avian oasis (we have seen about 30 species from our various visits here).

It was an interesting early morning as we saw a White-breasted Waterhen - the first time we saw that species here. Unfortunately I was not able to get a good photograph of it. We saw couple more "firsts" in this subdivision: an immature Black-crowned Night Heron which was so skittish it took off the moment we arrived, and a Large-billed Crow cawing  from a distant tree.

But the highlight of the day was indeed the Brush Cuckoo. I was standing on the street while Cynthia was paying a visit with the Webbs. Initially I saw a movement in the tree top almost perpendicularly above me, then without so much of a "weep" it showed itself in the open. This was one of those times when I wished I brought along my big lens and tripod. Ah, but we have to make do with what we have, don't we? With my handheld camera I took shots of the bird in the canopy until my arms and my neck could no longer bear the agony.

My appointed time for my errand was fast approaching so we bade farewell to our gracious hosts. 

It was a trying experience that we had to endure for the next three hours - such was the brass tacks of banking here in the Philippines. At least we didn't go cuckoo.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Paradise Regained

"A fairer paradise is founded now" - John Milton, Paradise Regained

I once was lost but now am found. Had I known that Bob and Cynthia and their friend, Peter, were looking for me exactly one week ago, I would have shown myself to them. Especially since they had to come in the afternoon because Bob had to attend a seminar in his church earlier that day.

The three of them came again this Saturday morning to once more look for me. Searching with them were their colleagues and friends, Tonji and Sylvia, Mike, Bong and Eve, Irene and Rob. But they chose to go through the broad and easy trail first.

Thankfully, the Rock* showed them the way. The Rock had been here before and after going through the agony of a narrow and slippery path himself, he found me. Now he was so happy to lead the others to paradise.

For some, seeing me gave them a lifer.

As for me, it gave me joy to bestow happiness to others. And I look up with thanksgiving and praise.

*Rocky Sison