Saturday, April 27, 2013

Just a Pitta Thrush

It was like panning for gold and all you got was just a piece of trash. Well, that may be carrying the analogy a bit too far but still….

It appeared that most of the birds at the La Mesa Ecopark took a vacation or were just not in the mood to be photographed this particular Saturday morning. Contrast that with last weeks very cooperative avian fauna.

Very much affected by this dearth of ornithological presence was our friend, Peter. He bemoaned the fact that every bird photographer and his uncle had taken pictures of the local Red-bellied Pitta. Except him! (Honestly neither have I, at least not this year). He also wanted to take better photos of the Hooded Pitta, a species that frustrated his endeavors seven days ago.

In my case, I got a little bit luckier. While Peter was patiently waiting for the Red-bellied to show up, I wandered around hoping to see a bird. Any bird. I was resting after carrying my heavy gear all over the place (made even heavier, it seemed, by the muggy weather) when from the corner of my eye I saw something bright blue-green. Hooded Pitta! I screamed silently as I positioned my camera and prayed that the colorful bird would stay put. It did. I took several shots. I was about to text Peter when "poof!" No more Pitta.

I rejoined my wife who was sitting and fanning herself while intently staring at the understory in front of her. Then she waved at me and pointed at something moving. After much peering and squinting, I saw it. The Pechora Pipit was, of course, moving non-stop in search of morsels.

"Position yourself to where it is headed," Cynthia, my director, told me.

I did. 

As we expected it to do, the Pipit appeared in my line of view. "Aaargh!" My camera couldn't focus on it. Then "poof!" No more Pipit.

Then there were those trilling tailorbirds that preferred to be heard than seen. And the White-eyes that avoided our searching eyes.

Time passed slowly. It was my wife's turn to wander around. Peter and I joined forces and as we were exchanging some juicy gossip, the Trashy Ash, no, I meant the Ashy Thrush popped into view. Right there we got our consolation. 

Satisfied, we all decided to celebrate by taking an early lunch. It was then that friends Adri and Trinket arrived. With them was a British birder, Stuart who wanted to see Ashy Thrush and the Pittas. Cordial salutations were made. We pointed to Peter who was standing at a distance peering through his camera, so Stuart approached him and said in his clipped British accent, "Petah?"

"Hooded" our friend replied.

There were smiles all around, a little clarification and then some small talk. It was getting close to noon so we reluctantly bade our birding buddies goodbye.

On our way out, we met Anthony, the local birder. He explained to us why the Red-bellied was nowhere to be found: they became yellow-bellied after being bullied by the hoods. In other words, the bigger Hoodeds chased the cowardly Red-bellieds away.

Enough of the Pitta trash talk, lunch awaits.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Pose that Refreshes

Six am and I was alone at the mini forest in La Mesa Ecopark. My wife, Cynthia, decided to sit this one out due to family matters. There I was sweating profusely from the intense humidity even that early in the day. A flash of azure wings caught my eye. "Hooded Pitta" I assured myself. But it disappeared like magic. I sighed and walked slowly. Another flash of wings whoosed above me and landed on a twig. For about ten minutes the Common Emerald Dove just sat there posing as I took shot after shot at it. That photo session made me forget, at least for a short period, the inundation of my clothes from the incredibly endless perspiration that flowed from my body.

Eventually the dove flew off and I moved on. Time slowly passed. After about half an hour, my birding friends arrived. First were Bram and Kath, soon followed by Peter and then finally by Irene. It didn't take long for super spotter Bram to find one of the most sought after birds in the Ecopark. We took our positions as the Slaty-legged Crake meandered on the leaf strewn forest floor - too dark to enable good pictures. To our surprise, there were actually two of them.  They even crossed the path right in front of us several times. Even when we already anticipated these crossings we were still unable to get one good shot at them. There was a time that one walked nonchalantly just a couple of feet from Bram's feet! Still no photos! But we were a patient (and sweaty) bunch of birders and that patience finally paid off when one of the Crakes paused from its food hunting and posed for us. It was as if a cool breeze suddenly blew away the warm, suffocating air.

Happy that we got this skulker, we now concentrated on locating the Pittas, either the Red-bellied or Hooded or preferably, both. We spread out to increase the chances of sighting our target birds. It was when I was alone and wiping my wet brow that the friendly neighborhood male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher alit in front of me with an unidentified object in its beak posing beautifully for me. Ok, no sweat there.

I called Peter but the flycatcher left before he could plunk down his tripod. As if to compensate for his disappointment, the other friendly neighborhood denizen of the park decided to model for us up close. The Ashy Thrush (now jokingly referred to as the Thrashy Thrush since it had become so common here) was indeed a welcome respite for both Peter and myself.

Soon local birder Anthony came and announced that he saw the Pechora Pipit. We all followed him and while the rest of the group were trying to get its picture, Anthony and I decided to let this one pass. Our conversation was rudely interrupted by the loud chattering of a Grey-backed Tailorbird. Now this was another hyperactive tiny bird that always poses a challenge to the most imperturbable of bird photographers. For one of their ilk to pose and sing in the open is a welcome refreshment in this sultry weather.

There was even a bonus in the form of a Lowland White-eye.

It was now half past ten, the heat getting more intense. For all of us, it was now Pitta or bust. The Hooded had been teasing us all morning - singing invisibly and tantalizingly close, or offering brief glimpses and then promptly disappearing in the dark understory. But now we were more resolute. Once again it played hide-and-seek with us. Until, thankfully, it ceased its exploration of the forest floor and posed, albeit partly hidden, for the briefest photographic moment. 

We heaved a collective sigh of relief. Now it was time to go back to our own homes and enjoy the refreshing comfort of our airconditioned rooms.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Search and Pants

"Do you see the bird?"

"No, where is it?"

"There! It's right there!"

We squinted, stooped, knelt and finally saw what we thought at first as a stump protruding from the side of a tree. It was the Philippine Frogmouth. Now that we've seen it, comes the next step: photographing it. It was not an easy task as the frogmouth was behind branches and leaves and was actually only on a waist-high level. We stooped, knelt, crouched, were lying supine, or were lying prone just so we could get a good angle at our subject. 

It was an eerie experience with the eye of the unmoving frogmouth following us as we changed positions. It was not unlike those portraits hanging on a wall whose eyes seem to look at you whereever you are in the room.

After about an hour or so, all six of us agreed that we have had our fill of the cooperative bird. We hiked back to the parking lot under the scorching morning sun. We were panting like thirsty dogs when our friendly guide, Efren, told us to rest for a while before we go look for the Savanna Nightjar (we later on discovered that it was actually a Philippine Nightjar).

A few minutes later, Efren beckoned us to follow him. Another trek.

"Do you see the bird?"

"No, where is it?"

"There! It's right there!"

We squinted, looked through binoculars and camera lenses but still failed to locate the nightjar. Efren was almost at the point of exasperation when Jun exclaimed, "There it is!" and proceeded to describe in detail the spot where the effectively camouflaged nocturnal bird lay sleeping. 

Once again, we had our fill of taking pictures of the nightjar.

We were panting from the hike back as we thanked our guide profusely. It was only half past eight so we all decided to go to La Mesa Ecopark for more birding.

I was huffing and puffing when we got to the mini forest. Somehow my camera gear seemed heavier than before.

"Do you see the bird?"

"No, where is it?"

"There! It's right there!"

This time it was our friend, Peter, who was pointing at the Common Emerald Dove placidly sitting on its nest. It was safely located behind a clump of huge leaves. 

Our main targets here at the Ecopark were the two species of Pittas: the Red-bellied and the Hooded. Unfortunately, we dipped on both. There was another bird on our wish list, the Pechora Pipit, but we didn't have much expectations of success on that one, it being a super skulker. 

It was nearing noon and we still hadn't seen a lot of birds, except the Common Emerald Dove mentioned earlier and a pair of very confiding Mangrove Blue Flycatchers. 

We were on our way out when we saw fellow Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) member Anthony Balbin. He looked very excited.

"Do you see the bird?"

"No, where is it?"

"There! It's right there!"

Then we saw the Pechora Pipit! It posed a real challenge in photography as it was constantly moving in the dark understory. Until, surprise of all surprises, it stopped and preened itself. We photographers went into a frenzy.

After it was satisfied that its feathers were in proper place, the Pipit continued in its perambulations. That's when the local bully called Ashy Thrush suddenly flew in and chased the poor little bird away.

We were panting as we got back to our cars. We celebrated our successful searches with a hearty lunch at Chic Boy.

Thanks to Jasmin who told us about the Frogmouth, to Guide Efren for showing us where it was with a bonus Nightjar even. Thanks to our friends, Jun, Jayce, Vincent, and Peter for making our birding enjoyable despite panting from the hot summer weather.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Shooters First, Ask Questions Later

We had a two-fold mission yesterday afternoon. Successful on one, not on the other. 

It was another hot, humid, suffocating day. My wife and I had been cocooning ourselves in our airconditioned room lounging in self-imposed lethargy. The other day, just to break the quotidian monotony of our slothful lives, we went to Conti's to have a halo-halo (a native concoction of various sweets steeped in crushed ice and milk). Just one glass to be shared by both of us.

Liking that break in routine, we thought it would be a good idea to repeat that parsimonious act. This time our goal was Cafe Via Mare. Do you know where that is? At the University of the Philippines in Diliman. Do you know what else is there? Nesting Coppersmith Barbets! Hence our two-fold mission: Enjoy a cold refreshing snack and photograph a specific species. 

As we were driving towards UP we still have no idea where the exact location of the Barbet's nest was. It was our friend, Jasmin, who has that information. I was about to make the left turn toward CP Garcia when Cynthia grabbed my arm. "No, no no. Let's go to Via Mare first!"

"Let's have the Shooters first, and ask Jasmin for the directions to the nest later," she continued.

The Shooters is a Cafe Via Mare specialty. It is composed of three types of cold refreshments: the halo-halo (mentioned earlier), mais con hielo (corn with shaved ice), and guinumis (gelatin and sago in coconut water with shaved ice as well).

Refreshed, we contacted Jasmin and asked for the location of the Barbet's nest. We quickly found it was a hole new world for us. The birds were gone, the young ones probably having already fledged and all that was left was an empty hole.

And so….I just took pictures of whatever bird we saw (except, of course, of those extremely rare and skittish Eurasian Tree Sparrows). All the while being taunted by the loud "pok! pok! pok!" of the invisible Barbets.

Is that an empty hole? 
Is that an empty hole?
Don't know about you guys, but I'm outta here!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Seoul Searching

Frankly, I was a bit surprised when my wife booked a couple of days stay in South Korea. It will be part of our return trip home after visiting family and friends in California. I was surprised because she said that we will spend those two days birding and I know that Korea is not exactly a birders destination. I was proven right when Cynthia tried to contact a couple of birding authorities based in Seoul and absolutely got no response at all. Not even one of those automated replies. So after some intensive googling, she was able to find a possible birding place: the Seoul Grand Park.

It was very cold spring morning and having just warmed ourselves with a breakfast at a local Dunkin' Donuts that we were faced with a dilemma: How to get to the park using public transportation. We pretty much know which Subway Train Lines to take (again thanks to the internet), the problem was how do we get to the station. 

We eventually found it after some meandering. Now we have to figure out how to buy the tickets from an automated vending machine. It turned out that we had to make a transfer to reach our final destination. After getting off the first train we hurried to get aboard the next one and was a tad too late. Which turned out to be for the better because, thanks to an "angel" who looking at our ticket, informed us that the train we just missed was going the opposite direction of where we were supposed to be headed. "Go to the other side," was his advice.

We finally arrived at the Seoul Grand Park station after surviving the rush hour packed train ride. We climbed up several sets of stairs and ended up on a huge, and I mean HUGE parking lot bordered here and there with leafless trees.

"Is this it?" I asked my wife with such incredulity that she was quite taken aback. For the life of me I couldn't imagine finding a lot of birds in a parking lot. 

"Why don't we walk towards the theme parks" Cynthia declared with dogged determination. We scanned every tree that we passed by hoping to see a bird that was not a Eurasian Magpie. Oh sure, the Magpie was a lifer but they were the trash birds of Korea. They even build nests on electric poles in the middle of the city!

Our tree scanning efforts paid off when I saw a brownish bird huddled in a branch. Brown-eared Bulbul! 

To our surprise, the surrounding trees produced even more birds! Most of which had the word "Eurasian" attached to their names:

Eurasian Bullfinch

Eurasian Nuthatch

Eurasian Jay

Further up the road, we noticed a knoll where there seemed to be some bird activity near and on the ground. We walked around the area and added more lifers to our list:


Daurian Redstart


Great Tit

Marsh Tit

Dusky Thrush

Naumann's Thrush

and finally, a Yellow-throated Bunting

Noontime and we were exhausted from all the walking we did searching for the hidden avian treasures of Seoul. 

We plodded back to the subway station hoping we won't get trampled by the tsunami of passengers disembarking and boarding the trains.