Sunday, January 27, 2013

Finch me, I must be dreaming

Last Monday's ordeal was still fresh in our minds. Sure we saw the uncommon parrotfinches, but we didn't have any photograph to prove that we did. Yes, we were with friends who saw what we saw, however wouldn't it be nice if we had something to look at many moons from now and say, "Ah yes, the trouble we had to go through to photograph that bird!"

My wife and I were wavering if we still wanted to repeat that not so encouraging experience of traversing a deep ravine not being sure that we would be able to accomplish our ambitious goal. Cynthia even went to the extent of saying that if another trip would be planned then I would have to go alone. To which I heroically (and honestly) replied, "If you won't go then I won't go either."

Yet fate sometimes wants to play with our decisions, teasingly asking, "are you sure about that?" It was most likely fate that prompted our friend, Peter, to offer to drive us to Bataan on Saturday so that "we could take photos of the parrotfinches," he said.

It was a deja vu morning, waking up at 2:30 when everybody in our neighborhood was still snoring, fast asleep after some Friday night carousing or resting from a tiring work week. Followed by a quick breakfast at NLEX, and then driving into the dawn, the three of us exchanging stories to keep awake.

The descent into the ravine was not as intimidating as the first time but still so painfully exhausting. At 7:10 in the morning, Bram (who completed our group, along with Martin, Butch, Chee-ann and her husband, Marco, Irene and Kath) saw the uncommon birds flock to the bamboo grove on our side of the ravine! We got some pictures, albeit dark and still a bit far. A few minutes later and the colorful birds flew to the other side and once again became green dots.

Hours passed and our hopes of seeing them close slowly dwindled. Suggestions on where to go birding next were tossed to the group. Candaba? Subic? nearby Balanga was also considered. Chee-Ann and Marco left at about half-past nine due to prior commitments. By ten o'clock we (Peter, Cynthia and myself) decided to follow suit, giving up any hope of seeing the greenfaced parrotfinches up close again.

As we began our trek back, we saw Chee-ann and Marco taking pictures of some birds high up in a tree. "Parrotfinches!" they exclaimed as they pointed to four silhouettes. Peter and I took some obligatory shots, knowing quite well how they will turn out. Suddenly all four silhouettes flew and landed on a bamboo grove nearby. Stinson, our guide, whose eyes were sharper than any hungry falcon, shouted, "They're here! So close!"

In a flash we were next to him and were soon in a frenzy as we photographed the heaven-sent beauties that were so nonchalantly feeding on the bamboo flowers at such incredible closeness. Cynthia asked Stinson to fetch the others who remained behind and inform them of the good news.

As our friends approached the bamboo grove, the finches decided to take a break and flew off. 

"Don't worry!" we assured them, "they'll be back!"

For the three of us it was now time to give others the chance to experience what we had. As we approached our car after an arduous uphill hike, a new group of birder friends arrived. Among them were Jops and Maia, Adri and Trinket, Marts,  Gina, and Jun. We were updating them on the parrotfinch status when one of them yelled, "Malkoha!" Cynthia called me in a voice that would have been heard a hundred kilometers away but still fell on my deaf ears as I was busy chatting with Jun. Another shout and I finally noticed her and she was pointing to a tree across the road. There in all its glory was a Scale-feathered Malkoha, a bird that I had been wanting to photograph for the past three years! But both our cameras were already lying snug in their respective bags. Hoping and praying that the malkoha would not fly off, I hastily opened my knapsack, withdrew my camera and fired away. The huge bird flew from tree to tree but still very much visible and even photographable. Eventually it flew away and the adrenaline rush slowly dissipated into some form of normalcy.

We were already zooming towards home on the National Highway and we still could not believe our luck. My frustrations from last Monday were replaced by an unbelievable success that Saturday with even a bonus to boot! It was like "was this just a dream?"

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Do Ordeal

I gasped audibly when I saw the trail that we had to traverse to get to our destination. Not a gasp of thrill but that of fear. Our group (Irene, Brian Ellis, Paula, Charlie, Cynthia and I) would be descending into a ravine through a very narrow and slippery path. 

"Was it worth risking our bodies and camera equipment just to see the very uncommon Greenfaced Parrotfinches?" was the thought that I mulled upon as I gazed at the chasm ahead of us.

Well, considering that we woke up at 2:30 in the morning, had  breakfast on the go and travelled for almost  three hours it behooved that we indeed had to go through this physical ordeal.

Stinson, our guide, glided ahead followed by Irene. Next was 75-year old Brian (God bless his fortitude) who slipped not once but twice. Thankfully he was not hurt nor his Nikon with 50-500 zoom lens damaged. Cynthia and I followed inching slowly down and praying every single step of the way. Paula and Charlie brought up the rear.

on the way down (Photo courtesy of Irene Dy)
Upon reaching the bottom, we were alarmed to see Stinson now going up the other side! Sure the climb up would be shorter but we were now panting like dogs. Taking a deep breath we followed our guide. Soon there was a clearing and now we could hear the trilling of different birds as we finally rested our complaining bodies.

Birds, there were! A lot! But they were all so backlit that taking photos of them was an exercise in futility. Elegant Tits, Coppersmith Barbets, Philippine Bulbuls, various Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers, even a Black-naped Monarch competed in a songfest. A silent Grey-streaked Flycatcher joined the early morning crowd. But where are the Parrotfinches?

Stinson said they usually arrive at nine. I thought, "then why in Heaven's name did we have to come so early?" I kept that thought to myself, of course.

We were passing the time in various ways: sitting (Brian and Stinson), sleeping (Paula and Charlie) tinkering with equipment (Irene) staring blankly in the distance (me) and roaming around (Cynthia). Then, all of a sudden:

"They're coming! I can hear them!" my wife cried out loud as she rushed to where the rest of us were. 

Sure enough a flock of…..four Greenfaced Parrotfinches visited the bamboo grove across the ravine. Tiny green dots with tiny red dots behind. Another three individuals joined them flying from the grove closer to us (and we didn't even notice them until they flew). A few minutes later and they were gone. We photographers looked at each other with the unasked but obvious question in our eyes. Answered by the shaking of so many heads.

After about an hour's wait, Stinson was jumping up and down as he pointed two, count 'em, two! Parrotfinches perched on a nearby bamboo stalk. Irene, Charlie and Paula saw them, the older half of the group didn't. Paula was even able to take a quick shot at them.

Inasmuch as Paula and Charlie had some commitments later in the day, they left ahead of us. Another hour passed with no more sightings of the colorful birds. The worries that I have been trying to dispel now had to be acknowledged. We now have to climb the steep ravine on our way back. As before, it was Stinson and Irene leading the way followed by Brian, who slipped once again, but thankfully was not hurt. Cynthia and I came last stopping every so often to catch our breaths.

the way up (Photo courtesy of Irene Dy)
After what seemed like forever we finally overcame our ordeal. We thanked our patient and friendly guide then  drove off into the place of the golden arches. McDonalds never tasted this good.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Buzz Words

I find it rather amusing that the names of the two lifers we saw last Saturday both include the syllable "buzz" in them.

We were back at the Makiling Botanical Garden hoping that the same variety of birds we saw a week ago would still be at the now famous lipote tree. Unfortunately, most of the flowers had already wilted and so the avian visitors were few and far between. Mostly flowerpeckers. As I have observed the last time we were here, these tiny creatures seemed to have fun chasing and bullying the Sunbirds. Except for one particular species - the much bigger Grey-throateds. The colorful Handsome and Flaming varieties were now nowhere to be seen.

However, there was a new kind of Flowerpecker that appeared on the scene. These were unperturbed by the Orange-bellied trouble-makers. And it was our first lifer: The Buzzing Flowerpecker.

Occasionally a Stripe-headed Rhabdornis would venture into the flowering tree but preferred to stay in the darker part of the canopy.

Our group (composed of Irene, Peter, Mr & Mrs. Weefar Wee, my wife and myself) were talking about birds during one of the lulls in bird activity when all of a sudden a raptor flew above us.

"Raptor! Raptor!" I shouted pointing at the obvious.

Thankfully, Cynthia was quick on the draw with her camera gear. When I looked at the images she got, I noticed right away the longish neck of this particular bird of prey. I knew we got another "buzz" for a lifer: The Philippine Honey Buzzard.

At around 10 am it started to drizzle. Inasmuch as we were not seeing anything new anymore, we all decided to call it a day.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I've Got a Thrush On You

Sometimes blessings come when you least expect it.

We were at the La Mesa Ecopark Thursday morning to help a visiting Malaysian birder Weefar Wee and his wife find and photograph the resident Red-bellied Pitta.

Cynthia and I arrived while the lazy sun still hasn't fully risen from the horizon. The very first bird we saw was of course, the Red-bellied Pitta! Inasmuch as we had not seen this bird here for quite sometime now, this sighting definitely augured well.

However, when Weefar Wee and company (Mrs. Wee, Irene, Bram and Kath) arrived about an hour later, there were no more Pittas to be seen.

We spread out to cover more ground. Our diligent search yielded nothing but oh-those-so-very- common Ashy Thrushes. It was a lifer for Weefar so we were relieved from our worries that the morning might end in total disappointment.

Then Bram announced that he spotted the Scaly (now known as White's) Thrush. My heart beat faster. My wife and I have missed this rare skulker three times in a row already. Now there seemed to be hope. As soon as we reached the place where Bram saw the bird it was gone. He and Irene tried to follow it inside the undergrowth but failed to relocate the elusive thrush.

"Were you able to see it?" I asked Irene.

She nodded vigorously.

"Any pictures?"

She shook her head. "It was too dark and the bird was too fast" she reasoned.

Failed four times in a row! My heart had already been calloused by the previous three misses that I merely shrugged this one. No use crying over milk that had been spilled so many times.

It was Bram once again who found the Red-bellied Pitta for Weefar. As had been our lot, by the time Cynthia and I got to where it was, it was no longer there. Nevertheless we were so happy for our guest. He was grinning from ear to ear as he showed the photo of the Pitta that was one of his main purposes for visiting the Philippines.

When the excitement at our friend's success died down a bit, Irene, Bram and Kath excused themselves. 

"We'll look for for the Scaly Thrush again," they declared.

I sighed.

"Let's go with them," I told my wife.

"What for?" was her terse reply. 

I knew that she did not want me to suffer another heartbreak considering our past experiences with this phantom of a bird. But somehow something spurred me on. As I rounded the trail to follow the searching trio I decided to look at the place where the Ashy Thrush loved to display. On the mossy root of a tall tree there stood a Thrush. This one looked paler and bigger though. I raised my camera to my eyes and immediately my finger began pressing on the shutter repeatedly.

I paused momentarily to beckon at my other companions but by the time they arrived the Scaly aka White's Thrush was gone. I showed the images to Cynthia. She hugged me and we both uttered a quick prayer of thanksgiving.

It was time for a celebratory lunch.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


The text message from USec Fred Serrano was very encouraging: We're having clear skies now. My wife and I looked at each other then at the clock. It was not yet ten in the morning. Just like the characters in a fast forward video, we showered, dressed up, packed our gears and jumped into our car.

There was quite a downpour that morning when we texted our dear friend who resides in Los Banos asking him of the weather situation in his neck of the woods. We had been constantly monitoring the weather reports in the internet the whole day Friday. When all the websites we consulted were unanimous in saying that it would definitely rain in Los Banos on Saturday we scrapped our plans of visiting the Makiling Botanical Garden.

The sun was shining brightly while we were having lunch at Burger King in Calamba. Another text from USec Fred: Sun shining here. We informed him that we were already nearby and will be there soon.

When we entered the campus of the University of the Philippines in Los Banos (UPLB) where the Botanic Garden was located, it began to rain. Not a mere drizzle but hard, pouring rain.

"Let's go to APEC first," I told Cynthia, "at least we can do some 'dude' birding there."

(Dude birding = birding while inside a car).

The rice had been recently harvested and the fields were fallow. A bunch of Wood Sandpipers and a solitary Little Ringed Plover, later joined by a Yellow Wagtail, were forlornly enduring the raindrops mercilessly beating on their bodies. The rain eventually eased into a slight drizzle. The Buff-banded Rails popped out from the grasslands while the Pied Bush Chats suddenly burst into insect-hunting activity.

When the first streaks of emerging sunlight appeared, my wife suggested we go to the Botanical Garden. Asap.

The mischievous weather thought it would be fun to drop some more rain at us as I eased our car into the Garden's parking lot. Undaunted and armed with an umbrella and a raincoat we proceeded to the fruiting "lipote" tree. Not an easy task because the road going there was uphill and quite slippery. Add to this the fact that I was  lugging my 500mm lens mounted on a tripod. After several stops to catch our breath we saw the fabled tree. I was still setting up my equipment and wiping the endless sweat off my brow, when my wife approached and showed me a picture she had just taken.

"What bird is this?"

The image was a bit blurred perhaps due to Cynthia's excitement at seeing something she hadn't seen before.

"Handsome Sunbird," was my reply in a most insouciant manner as if this bird was just one of those you see at every tree in your urban neighborhood.

We were actually overjoyed at having seen a lifer and the very reason we came to this place. The skies celebrated with us by clearing up once again. Sunlight brightened the trees around us. And cranked up the humidity a thousandfold it seemed. Bathed in fresh sweat we took up different positions beneath the "lipote" tree. While my wife was trying to figure out what those tiny feathered creatures lurking in the shadows were, I saw a big bird alit on a relatively open branch. As I peered through my lens, the first thought that came to my mind was: What was an American Robin doing here?

A flurry of shots and it finally dawned on me: Of course it has to be a Brown-headed Thrush! I couldn't believe we got lifer number two in a span of about an hour!

This time Cynthia focused her attention to the bunch of Torch Ginger plants across the road. Soon she was signaling to me and pointing to a particular bloom. On top was a Sunbird. As I took several photos I dismissed the bird as one of those ho-hum Olive-backed Sunbirds. But then why is there orange on its breast? It couldn't be the aurorae subspecies which is only found in Palawan, could it? That night as I reviewed the results of our photographic endeavors I learned that that bird on the flower was a Flaming Sunbird! Not really a lifer but this was the first time we saw it in Luzon.

Back at the "lipote" tree, the activity somehow dwindled. Mostly the small but bullying Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers remained, chasing away any unwary newcomer. Except for one species. A kind of Sunbird which I initially thought as an immature Handsome. Again, after reviewing the pictures that night, this unfazed-by-flowerpeckers bird was a Grey-throated Sunbird - a recent split from the Brown/Plain-throated of Palawan and the Visayas-Mindanao areas. A third lifer for us.

Around three in the afternoon the onset of dehydration resulting from an ocean of perspiration was felt. We packed our gears and plodded back to our car.

There was another pluvial outpouring as we entered the Expressway. Despite that, Cynthia and I were happy and thankful at the outpouring of blessings in getting three lifers in a relatively short span of time. This was a redemption from the disappointments at not seeing the Scaly Thrush in spite of several attempts last year. Was it a coincidence that we just finished our prayer and fasting regimen last week?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

At the End of a Rainbow

Eos softly wiped the darkness from the skies as we traversed the newly constructed highway towards Balagtas, Bulacan. Friends recommended this route because it has relatively less vehicular traffic. Well, that was true but what our friends didn't tell us was the abundance of people!  - joggers, runners and even whole families taking a leisurely walk alongside (and dangerously close) to the road.

Nevertheless it was a beautiful dawn and as we approached the turn towards Baliuag, I saw the ends of a double rainbow. 

I parked our car at the shoulder (carefully avoiding the throngs of people passing by) so that my wife and I can better enjoy the view. As I got off the car, lo and behold the rainbow was now a complete arch of colors! I can't remember the last time I saw one like this. I grabbed my cellphone and took pictures determined to capture the image of this wonder of nature.

A rainbow is certainly a good omen and Cynthia and I hoped that we will find what we drove some 80 kms for. 

The road near the "back door" to the Candaba Wetlands were Bittern territory that morning. Typical of the this family, the bitterns would remain hidden from view and would only flush out when we are just a few feet from them. Thankfully some of them settled in full view at not too much of a distance, thus allowing us to take their photographs. 

Near the ricefields a single Common Greenshank did not seem lost nor forsaken.

We entered through the "back door" and immediately saw swarms of Chestnut Munias. The usual Striated Grassbirds were already singing odes to Phoebus.

As we drove towards the Mayor's house we would stop every so often to look for birds. It was during one these stops that I noticed some plain-looking medium-sized birds that were neither turtle doves nor zebra doves cavorting under the leafy canopy of the tree beside our car. I raised my binoculars to my eyes and almost dropped them. White-shouldered Starlings!

"Quick, hand me the camera!" I told my wife who was sitting next to me. First, she handed me her lighter 300mm gear which was sitting on her lap. The starlings remained unperturbed after I had taken several shots so I asked her to get my 500mm which was sitting by itself in the back seat. More photos followed.

We parked near the Mayor's house and proceeded to the spot beyond the goat corral. Almost immediately we saw the bird we came to see. The GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) - not to mention its coloring and skulking habit - definitely said "Dusky Warbler".  Taking a picture of this rare bird was a challenge we were not able to meet. To make things even worse an Arctic Warbler appeared at the same area adding doubts to our earlier sightings.

Our way out was punctuated by sightings of the usual suspects: Ducks (yes, they're still there - mostly Wandering Whistling, Philippine and Tufted), Little Grebes and Zitting Cisticolas.

We had a noontime appointment in Magalang some 30 kms away so we had to cut short our birding activities that morning.

That afternoon as we rode towards the sunset, we saw another rainbow, albeit just a tiny portion of it. 

I pointed it to Cynthia and said, "Confirmed?"

"Confirmed: Dusky," she agreed, "a rainbow will not lie to us."

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Who needs Scales, We're Schrenck to Fit

The Blog I Should Have Not Written

My excitement at seeing a rarity so early in the year prompted me to write about our experience as soon as possible. When news came later that the bittern we saw was not the kind it was purported to be, it was too late. The blog had been published. Birding definitely has its ups and downs and this was one of those that didn't turn out as expected. But that's ok. Life goes on. 


In my previous blog (the one I didn't want to write) I lamented the fact that my wife and I missed the Scaly Thrush at La Mesa Ecopark three times! With the encouragement of our friends, Cynthia and I decided to give it one more try. At first my wife refused to do it, reasoning that she probably would not be able to handle another heartbreak. I actually had the same thoughts. When our friend Irene texted Cynthia telling her that she and Rob would be going to the Ecopark on Friday morning and help us find the now seemingly imaginary bird, how could we refuse.

It was drizzling as we left our house. A dawdling breakfast at Jollibee's and the drizzle hasn't stopped yet. At the Ecopark we walked towards the mini forest under an umbrella. Close to an hour of scouring the leaf litter drenched in rain water not a single creature was seen stirring and our hearts were silently breaking. Then Cynthia's mobile phone tweedled, it was a text message from Irene. Rare bittern at spillway it said. My wife relayed the message to me. Rare bittern? what could be rarer than a Schrencks, I thought to myself.

"Ask her what kind" I told my wife.

A few minutes later, another message.


The news confirmed my suspicion. My wife and I looked at each other. The way our luck had been going lately we feared that the rare bittern will be gone by the time we had negotiated the long uphill walk to the spillway. 

We continued peering into the dripping understory. Still not a creature was stirring, not even those pesky mosquitoes that had been the bane of birders in this dark, melancholic place.

After about thirty minutes, another text: Come now bittern still here.

Heaving a mournful sigh, we began the trek to where our friends were wallowing in the thrill of getting another lifer. Out of breath and out of hope we approached the deck overlooking the spillway. Rob told me to look through his spotting scope. I looked and saw nothing but a rock.

"It's there!" both Irene and Rob insisted. Cynthia and I went to the lower deck and scanned the shrubbery. There were some Barred Rails in the distance and as I used them to console myself, Rob suddenly yelled, "Flying! Flying!" I looked and saw something browny-orangey dive into a clump of tall grass. 

"I saw it!" I replied to one in particular still unconvinced that it was indeed the Schrenck's Bittern that I just saw. Time slowly passed and the skies blew away the rain and welcomed a bright morning sun. When I saw a Little Egret walk towards the place where the flying bittern landed, I told my wife who was standing next to me, "Look, God sent that Little Egret to flush the bittern so we can see it." A few minutes later the rare bird emerged from its hiding and gave all four of us such good looks that there was no denying that this was indeed a Schrenck's Bittern!

Once that fact had been established, text messages were immediately sent to our friends. Soon we were joined by Bram and then Jun and Maia. To their delight the bittern remained visible and so insouciant to its now celebrity status.

Thanks to a bird whose scientific name means harmonious bittern, the heartaches dealt by a scaly creature had been turned to a tuneful melody of joy.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Blog I Didn't Want to Write

As many of you know, I enjoy blogging. I like to write about practically anything but most especially about the bird photography adventures that my wife, Cynthia, and I undertake with some degree of regularity. More often than not my blogs reflect the joys my wife and I experienced in these adventures sometimes even accented with some stout-hearted hilarity. However there come those times when I'd rather not blog. So I write this one with a heaviness of heart. 

It all began on Friday, December 28th. Cynthia and I were at La Mesa Ecopark where we met up with friends Irene, Rob, Bram, Sylvia and Tonji. We were there for a single purpose: to find the very rare Scaly Thrush. It hadn't been five minutes after we arrived that Tonji came running toward us saying that he saw it. We all rushed to where he espied the bird. It wasn't there anymore. Hours passed as we all staked out different places. Then came the report that the trio of Rob, Bram and Irene caught a glimpse of the superbly camouflaged thrush. We rushed to where they were. It wasn't there anymore. Noon time  and we reluctantly had to go. Not only were my wife and I starving, our lower bodies were aching from all the squatting and stooping that we did in waiting for our quarry to appear.

Cynthia and I went back Saturday afternoon - our hearts set on finding the Scaly Thrush. We armed ourselves with the required patience and determination. Our hopes were actually high that we would finally be successful. Then it rained. Hard. We were imprisoned under our umbrella. Eventually the rain abated into a soft drizzle. Under normal circumstances, my wife and I love rain. It has that refreshing quality that seem to bring out the child in us - wanting to dance and frolic in the downpour. But this particular rain on that particular afternoon surprisingly, unexpectedly, dampened our spirits. The skies never showed a promise to clear up so we packed our gears and began the slow agonizing walk back to our car.

The year 2012 ended. 2013 as in any new year carried with it feelings of hope. It was with this newfound hope that Cynthia and I went back to La Mesa  Ecopark on the 2nd day of the year. We came with friends Jo and Doc Cha. As soon as we entered the mini forest, we saw another group of birders composed of Ixi, Mikeli, Gina, Mel, Felix, Trinket and Adri. Yes, they saw the Scaly Thrush they assured us. Three long hours later, the said thrush never showed up again.

Our friend, Irene, who joined our group told us of two more rarities found in Candaba: the Dusky Warbler and the Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler. Do we want to go there and look for them? she asked us. I thought about how we missed the Common Shelduck at that very place and our now third miss on the Scaly Thrush. I thought about how other birders were able to see all these unusual birds. I sighed a deep sigh.