Sunday, December 29, 2013

Subic, Day 2 - Oldies and Newbies

Our second day at Subic turned out to be more about birders than birds.

A very early trip to Orica gate was a heartbreaker - hearing but not seeing the hoped for lifer, the White-fronted Tit. We also heard at least two kinds of owls. We could not even identify them! So we decided to take our chances at the Nabasan trail again. At the entrance we saw a foreigner with binoculars and a camera. "Birder!" my wife and I both exclaimed. We approached the guy and introduced ourselves. His name is Jens (pronounced "Yens") Hansen, a Danish guy who had been birding all over the world. Although young - probably in his late thirties - he is an "oldie" when it comes to birdwatching. We asked him to ride with us since we will be going to where he intends to go anyway. 

Along the way we saw some Blue-throated Bee-eaters where there were Treeswifts yesterday. Just like yesterday, Nabasan trail turned out to be a complete dud. However, it was here that met Jorge and Tetch Garcia. Binoculars and camera was a give-away that these couple were also birders. When asked if they saw any birds, "A lot!" Jorge replied. We wanted to know what and he said, "Flycatcher!" and then showed us a photo of a Bee-eater. Obviously, they are still newbies, I thought. We suggested they try the area around Crownpeak Hotel and even offered to take them there. Along the way we stopped to look for the Green Imperial Pigeon. It was still there and this time it was joined by a Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike.

"Minivet!" Jens suddenly blurted.


"I don't know, I just heard it."

It was Cynthia who eventually found the Ashy Minivet peeping from a tree top.

At another stop we encountered first a single Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Eventually two more turned up to join their friend.

Finally we all got some very good looks at the Blue-naped Parrot, much to our new friends' delight.

Having shown Jorge and Tetch the birding place we described to them, my wife and I together with Jens returned to the Botanical Garden road. Nothing there. We need to return to our hotel before 10 am so we can avail of their free breakfast so we dropped off Jens to where we first saw him.

Another foray into Nabasan trail and Botanical Garden after breakfast yielded nothing but a White-throated Kingfisher.

We were about to give up birding Cubi Point, seeing only the Philippine Bulbuls and Large-billed Crows,  when Cynthia heard the unmistakable screech of a Colasisi. Finally after much searching I saw it among the yellow flowers.

And then it was time to go. Our second day was not quite productive bird-wise but we did gain three birder friends. For my wife and myself that is still a plus.

Subic, Day 1 - Hawks and Doves

War-mongers and peace lovers. Hawks and doves. For us it was literally the latter. 

My wife and I did a mid-morning birding foray at Subic. Since it was already around 10 am, our expectations were really not that high. The first birds we saw were the Whiskered Treeswifts lined up on an electric wire. 

Nabasan trail was a complete disappointment. We saw a total of zero birds. There were some feathered flying objects that flew fast across the trail. So fast that identifying them was an exercise in sheer futility. We deemed it prudent to move on. It was on the way out that a serendipitous moment happened. I saw a huge dark bird fly off from the tree we were approaching.

"It's probably just a crow" I told Cynthia.

To our left we saw something on a tree. My wife thought it was just a branch. I thought it was a raptor. I thought right. Ah, the joys of photographing the usually skittish Philippine Hawk-Eagle that obligingly posed for us. 

As we drove towards the exit, we encountered two different doves - ok, make that pigeons - that made the gloomy day a bit promising. The Philippine Green Pigeon and the Green Imperial Pigeon.

At the Botanical Garden road, another member of the family Columbidae gave us some photo ops. Yes, this time it was really a dove. A White-eared Brown Dove.

We took a lunch break by driving all the way to town to savor the culinary delights at Cocolime - our favorite restaurant in Subic.

Back at the Botanical Garden road, we had another hawk encounter. Having just missed a flock of Philippine Hornbills, we were moping inside our car when a raptor flew by and landed at the tree on our right side. This time it was quite high but still gave us good enough looks. An immature Philippine Hawk-Eagle patiently surveyed its surroundings for a potential meal. It was us who got tired of taking its picture and inasmuch as we still have to check-in at our hotel, we reluctantly left the young hawk.

A trip to Cubi point before dusk yielded no good photographs, despite the abundance of birds - Black-naped Orioles, Blue-naped Parrots and Coletos were high up in the pine trees doing their crepuscular dance routines.

Exhausted, we returned to our hotel and almost immediately fell asleep.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Twitch and Shout

Twas the twitch before Christmas. 

Thanks to fellow birders Linda Gocon and Brian Ellis we just learned that there were two (which later on became three) Black-faced Spoonbills at the Candaba Wetlands.

Black-faced Spoonbills! A species whose population in the entire world numbers less than 3,000 individuals! Birds that usually only migrate as far south as Taiwan and Hongkong! Nevermind that one was seen once last November in Olango but never seen again. We thought that was just an abnormality in the ways of nature.

But in Candaba?! An easy two-hour drive from MetroManila? Well now, this had all the qualities and promise of a potential mother of all twitches for 2013.

Like many self-respecting birders, off we went together with our pal, Peter, to where Black-faced birds frolic among the Black-winged Stilts. Not more than ten minutes after we got to the spot described by Linda, we saw them!

"Yes!" and other similar expressions of joy were shouted into the crisp morning air.

A lull. Soon we were joined by birding friends Jops, Maia and Jon. Again it did not take them long to discover the prized twitching object.

Shouts of "Woo-hoo!" floated over the wetlands.

One hour later, the Spoonbills moved to an area that was even farther from their already distant foraging grounds. Our three friends wanted to twitch another bird, the Siberian Rubythroat, so we moved on.

The road to the Mayor's house (near where the Rubythroat hides) was peppered with the avian fauna usually seen in the Candaba Wetlands. We would stop every now and then to photograph them.

Like this Common Kingfisher.

A surprise was a very confident Long-toed Stint. 

While Peter and I were busy photographing this little brown job, Jon told us that there were Snipes, too. Six of them, as a matter-of-fact.

At the junction, we stopped because Peter wanted to take some pictures of the Wandering Whistling Ducks at the pond and the Philippine Ducks that were flying overhead. Jops and company went ahead to the Rubythroat spot.

We joined them later and after getting specific directions (via cellphone) from Mike Anton, who earlier got some very nice photos of this bird, we staked out the area. Unlike before where it was seen perched on a tree branch, this time it behaved in a, shall I say,  "more natural" way. And that was skulking beneath the brushes. Patience eventually paid off. Jops, Maia and Jon got their lifer and even a good photo. I didn't and Peter didn't (the long lens were more of a disadvantage in this situation). My wife, Cynthia, got a not-so-good one.

At around eleven, we all agreed to call it a day. A successful, twitchful, shout-for-joy kind of a day. We bade our friends goodbye and wished them a Merry Christmas. 

As we headed out I encouraged Peter to take the backdoor route. It turned out to be a good decision. We encountered ducks galore!

We went back to the Spoonbill spot hoping to get another view. This time we met another birder friend, Kitty. Cynthia told her where to look and soon we heard the now expected "Yehey!" shout resulting from a successful twitch.

It turned out that the day wasn't really over for us. Leaving Kitty behind to further enjoy the Spoonbills, we encountered a group of waders determined to sleep off the noon day heat. Amongst the Common Greenshanks were at least two Common Redshanks! Really? Redshanks? I thought to myself, wondering why supposedly die-hard shorebirds were in an inland marshy area.

A surprise came much, much later as I was processing my photos at home and I noticed another wader that looked different from the Greenshanks and the Redshanks. I intensely researched my books and the internet.

"Woohoo!" "Yehey!" "Yes!" "Woot-woot!" "Yabba-dabba-doo!"

"Why are you shouting?" my wife was curious.

"Black-tailed Godwit! A lifer for us!" was my enthusiastic reply.

"Woohoo!" "Yehey!" "Yes!" echoed from the other side of our room.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Clone Cleansing

To clone or not to clone - that is the dilemma being faced by bird photographers all over the world. That out-of-focus branch that becomes a distraction from the subject - should it be cloned off or let it remain?

Making "changes" from the original photograph using such tools as Adobe Photoshop has been and continues to be the subject of seemingly endless debates. Cropping, adjusting the saturation, brightness and even sharpness are considered acceptable primarily because they don't alter the "natural" quality of the image. Many adhere to the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) position. After all as a nature photographer, one should present his subject in its natural environment, right?

Then there are those who prefer a more "aesthetic" view - where the photograph must be as clean as possible, removing (or cloning out) any object that will distract the attention from the subject bird.

As to this second group I must confess: 

I. Am. Guilty.

Not always - but only in very, very few occasions. For one thing I am not that good at Photoshop. Clone-oscopy is not my strong point. If the distracting objects are all over the image, then forget it, I'll stick to the wysiwyg principle. 

Below is an example of a photograph of Blue-throated Bee-eater that I took in Subic. The original shot had some branches that touch the bird's belly. After cropping, lightening and adjusting the contrast and saturation, I decided to clone off the obtrusive branch. On the left is the original. On the right is the "photoshopped" version.

So which one is better?

Another change that I also do sometimes is blurring the background. Again, not being an expert in Photoshop, I only do this to my photographs where I can easily separate the bird from the background. For me this is also another way of minimizing the distracting objects from the main subject.  The sample below was a photo of a Lesser Coucal taken by my wife, Cynthia. By blurring the branches and leaves behind the bird, the viewer will tend to focus more towards the subject. Again, on the left is the original and on the right is the cropped and cleaned version.

My stand is that when major changes like these are done on a photograph it must be declared accordingly when publishing or posting it for public viewing. Don't you think so?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Can Do Candaba

I nodded vigorously when my wife asked me if I was really up to it. When we were having breakfast at Jollibee's at the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) our friend, Bong, was amused that my voice sounded very enthusiastic when we talked over the phone the other day when I told him that we would go birding at Candaba. I assured them that I can do Candaba without any problem as far as my health was concerned.

For one thing Candaba is an easy place to bird - no long walks involved while carrying my heavy photography gear. Actually, most of the birding could be done while inside the vehicle - even better that way, as a matter of fact, because the birds were less spooked.

As we slowly drove in towards the wetlands, the photographs we took of the birds that early morning were taken while were inside our cars.

female Pied Bush Chat
Common Kingfisher
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
As we turned a bend we saw the ducks, mostly Philippine and a few Wandering Whistlings.

Philippine Duck

Wandering Whistling Duck
About an hour later, we came upon the highlight of the day. To our surprise, an immature Lesser Coucal flew from right in front of our car and perched on a branch not that far from us and gave plenty of opportunities to take its picture.

Past the mayor's house, we met fellow birders Melanie and Nicky who informed us that the ducks were just beyond the tower. We got off our vehicles when we got to the tower and viewed in awe the hundreds of ducks in front of us - albeit a bit too far to photograph even with our long lenses. At one point the flock took flight and Cynthia was able to capture that spectacle. Reviewing the photo later I was able to identify the various species in that group: Philippine Ducks were the most plentiful, then there were Wandering Whistling Ducks, Garganeys, a few Northern Shovelers, a number of Tufted Ducks and a single Northern Pintail. Unfortunately, the hoped for and would-be lifer Common Pochard was not among them.

At ten in the morning,we bade our friend Bong farewell because he needed to be home by noon for some family matters. Cynthia and I lingered for another thirty minutes trying to get a decent shot of the various White-breasted Waterhens foraging by the roadside. I said "trying" because everytime we could focus our camera on one a vehicle would come roaring by thus sending our quarry hiding behind the bushes. Patience prevailed and I finally got my chance.

Various egrets were also feeding on a fallow field near the road so we also grabbed that opportunity.

Intermediate or Great Egret?
Little Egret
After that as the heat became unbearable we called it a day. As we were having a leisurely lunch at KFC, my wife asked how I was feeling. I replied that I felt great and reminded her that I vowed that I can do Candaba - and I did.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dipping my toe in the waters

It had been close to a month since I was released from the hospital after a minor surgery. I would like to think that I am fully recovered now although I had been taking things via the cautionary route. I thought I would not be able to do any birding until after this year was over - what with the admonition of my doctor not to do some heavy lifting (such as a tripod+camera+long lens) and not to over exert in physical activities (such as walking up and down long narrow trails).

When my wife announced that we would be going to Antipolo because she needed to discuss something with our friends who live there, I thought it might be a good opportunity to see whether I can now return to pursuing my hobby of bird photography. After all, birding at a subdivision would only be merely driving around, stop where a bird was spotted, and take photos oftentimes without even leaving the car. We've birded this place many times before and we discovered that there are quite a number of species in this residential area in the mountains.

We were not disappointed! Long-tailed Shrikes seem to be everywhere!

Scaly-breasted Munias were quite abundant too.

It was early morning and the White-breasted Woodswallows were just beginning to stir from their crowded roost.

There were several surprises that day. Like this Tawny Grassbird.

A Blue-throated Bee-eater was nonchalantly hunting for breakfast right next to the flock of Munias.

The presence of a Grey-streaked Flycatcher was also unexpected.

Interesstingly the Spotted Dove was a bit more skittish and preferred the electric wires instead of its usual foraging on the ground.

We saw other birds too but were just not able to take their photos. One in particular was when we were about to leave. The general shape and size and even coloring indicated that it could be a thrush. Unfortunately it didn't stay long enough for us to get a positive ID. Our birding day ended not unlike one of those movies where the ending left you hanging.

Well, the toe had been dipped. I think it is safe to say that I can now submerge myself in the pool.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Malayan Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron peninsulae)

The Malayan Laughingthrush occurs in southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia. In 2006 it was split from the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush (Trochalpteron erythrocephalum) of Bhutan, Nepal, China and India. They differ from the peninsulae species by having a scaly feather pattern on its neck and breast.

Although more shy than its brazen cousins, the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (Garrulax mitratus), Malayan Laughingthrushes are still quite common at Fraser's Hill in Malaysia. They are part of the wave of birds that come to feed in front of the Jelai Hotel from 6:30 to around 8 am. However, they prefer to stay close to the hedges and would hide in the bushes if approached even from a safe distance. Males and females are similarly plumaged.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Green-faced Parrotfinch (Erythrura viridifacies)

Last January, 2013, word got around the birding community that Green-faced Parrotfinches were seen at a mountainside in Samal, Bataan province. The person who saw them was Stinson, an employee of Dr. Joey Soriano, who in turn informed his co-members at the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP). 

This species is very seldom observed and is classified as uncommon and vulnerable according to Prior to this year, this Philippine endemic was last seen in 2008 at Alcoy Forest in the island of Cebu. Although mainly a resident of Luzon, there were several sightings in the islands of Panay and Negros as well. It has been said that before World War II, these colorful finches were captured by the thousands and sold on the streets of Manila with some even shipped to San Francisco for the caged bird trade. (source:

Scientists concluded that this recent irruption (a sudden increase in number) was due to the flowering bamboo trees in the mountains of Bataan.

About 5 inches (12-13 cm) in length, these birds are entirely green except for bright red upper tail coverts and tails. Females are similarly colored and the only distinguishing characteristic is that they have shorter tails and show some buff on their bellies and vents. The bills of both male and female are thick and dark grey in color.

Needless to say, such rarity brought birders to Bataan with the hope of seeing and even photographing the Green-faced Parrotfinches. Our first attempt on January 21st was a heartbreaker. We saw about seven parrotfinches but they were across a ravine that even with my long lens I still was unable to get a good photo.

However, luck was with us on our second trip five days later. The birds were so near that at times I had to step back to a get full view of them.

For the stories about these two trips to Bataan, please see here and here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Will Always Have Sparrows

She was watching him as he stood looking out of the window deep in thought. She could feel the heaviness he must be harboring inside him. She could see his shoulders heave as he sighed several times.

Slowly she approached him and took one of his hands into hers. He turned to look at her and gave her an assuring smile. Still she could feel that something was not right. Could it be because he just had a surgery a few days ago? she thought to herself.

“Are you OK? Do you feel any pain?”

“I’m fine,” he replied, “just a tiny bit of a pain now and then.”

He then confided to her that he thought he would no longer be able to pursue his passion for bird photography the way he did before.

“You know that the surgery was only to take care of the more immediate problem,” he said. “The rest will preclude me from doing what I used to do – no more lifting of heavy stuff, no more walking for long distances…..” His voice trailed as he looked out of the window once again.

She took both his hands and made him face her. They looked at each other warmly and filled with affection.

“Will you be OK with that?” she wanted to know. “No more chasing after lifers,  no more out-of-town trips that will involve being away for several days.”

He put his hands on her shoulders, looked at her tenderly and softly assured her.

“We will always have sparrows.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Java Java Doo

My year list of birds seen had been quite stagnant for some time now - not seeing any new (for the year) species lately.

The other day, our friend Jops posted his blog wherein he mentioned that they saw a pair of Java Sparrows at the Main Library of the University of the Philippines (U.P.)!

Cynthia and I had the chance to pay a quick visit to U.P. this morning. Unsure if the uncommon sparrows would still be there, I only brought my 300mm lens. Big mistake! We easily found the Javas but they were way up high at the roof of the library. As Jops observed, they were indeed building a nest because my wife and I saw one with some agoho leaves in its beak.

Aside from the Java Sparrows there were the usual avian denizens of the university campus such as a very noisy Black-naped Oriole.

Of course I had to have a gratuitous shot of the migrant bully - the Brown Shrike.

I wasn't feeling that well so we cut short our birding for the day. At least one more species was added to my year list. I'm happy with that.