Monday, January 27, 2014

"Mona Lisa" Birding

Simply put, just like Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, there were no eyebrows! 

Two days ago we were at the La Mesa Ecopark to look for the Eyebrowed Thrush (a would be lifer). We dipped. Encouraged by our friend, Sean Melendres' report that he saw that particular species sometime after we left, we came back today with renewed hope. But dipped again.

It was not a total loss though. I got almost full frame shots of the Ashy Thrush - you know, the one without the eyebrow - feeding on the red fruits of the MacArthur palm tree.

Even better, my wife and I and birder friend, Irene Dy, were able to get really good shots of the endemic (and very curious) Guaiabero.

So at the end of the day, even without the eyebrows we still managed to get some smiles - just like Mona Lisa.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Just White's and See

What we wanted to see was the one with the eyebrow but all we saw was white. And we realized that white was actually beautiful! And totally different from almost everyone's perception of it!

When our friend Maia reported seeing an Eyebrowed Thrush in her blog, my wife and I decided to twitch it first thing on Saturday. The sun had barely risen from the horizon and we were already walking towards the MacArthur palm tree where the thrushes feast on the red fruits. As soon as we saw the tree there was a big bird perched on its branch - brownish with a plumage that resembled the scales of a fish.

"White's Thrush!" I whispered to Cynthia as I plunked down my gear and started firing away. My wife did the same. Then "poof" it left without even a whisper. I stationed myself behind the bushes and waited for the bird's return. Minutes went slowly by. My wife's patience ran out and she decided to explore the mini-forest. More minutes slowly went by. The treetops glowed from the brilliant morning sun. Still no thrush - not the scaly, not the ashy and definitely not the one with the eyebrow that I was fervently hoping to see.

I joined my wife in exploring the small patch of forest at La Mesa Ecopark and surprisingly didn't see much. No Ashy Thrushes rushing at my feet nor young Red-bellied Pittas by my tripod. Or anywhere in sight. At all! 

Sounds from the representatives of the Columbidae family filled the air. We even got some distant sightings of a few of them: a Philippine Cuckoo-dove(!), the White-eared Brown Dove, even the skulky Common Emerald Dove and of course,  Zebra Doves.

Then there were those conniving Philippine Coucals who, as soon as we spotted one, would immediately dive into the underbrush and became invisible.

We met fellow birder, Mark Jason Villa, who was leading a group of foreign birders. He told us that they did see the Ashy Thrush and the Red-bellied Pitta right by the entrance into the main trail. This was confirmed by another fellow birder, Sean Melendres, who we met a few minutes later.

My wife and I proceeded to the area mentioned by these two friends. And saw nothing! Perhaps it was because there were several bikers that passed by - grunting as they pedaled up the trail. Sighing, I told Cynthia that we should try the fruiting palm trees again and maybe, you know, an Eyebrowed Thrush might be there.

It was deja vu. As we approached the tree a big bird flew in and perched on its branch - brownish but sadly without an eyebrow. It did have scaly featherings though. Sean, who was already staking out the place started taking the picture of the White's Thrush - as I did. After quite some time, having gorged on the bountiful fruit, the big bird eventually flew away.

It was time to go home. We decided to take the main trail still hoping to encounter the regular denizens of the mini-forest. Cynthia who was walking ahead of me suddenly stopped, pointed at something moving in the dark understory on our left. Finally, we saw the what used to be the immature Red-bellied Pitta now sporting the bright green and red coloring of a mature bird.

It was not that birdy that Saturday morning. We dipped on our target bird. However, we were heavily compensated by the cooperative White's Thrush. The field guides that I consulted both stated that this particular thrush was "somewhat secretive and solitary on the ground or in the understory (Kennedy, et al) and "very shy, often flushed from ground" (Robson). As a matter of fact that's how we saw it last year. So it was a surprise to see it feeding on a palm tree and out in the open even. 

To those who are curious as to how it was called such - this species was recently split from the Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma) and was named after the English naturalist Gilbert White and not because of its color.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I Got Handsome

Not that I was ugly before but I did get handsome. Let me put it another way: what my wife had before wasn't really good looking, but now I've gotten handsome. Before I start getting any movie offers, let me explain that further: Around this time about a year ago we were at the Makiling Botanic Garden. The lipote tree was in full bloom and birds were a-plenty. One such bird was the Handsome Sunbird -at that time a lifer for me and my wife. Cynthia managed to get an awfully blurred shot (I can't blame her, the tiny bird was hyperactive and preferred the darker parts of the tall tree). I did not even get a single shot.

When news that the same lipote tree was back in bloom and once again birds were a-plenty, we returned with high hopes of getting better photos of the Handsome Sunbird.

We did. After almost four hours of looking up - literally - and suffering stiff necks, we did.

Bob's version
Cynthia's version
There were other birds, of course. Thanks to the sharp eyes of our friends, Prof. Tirso Paris and Steve Albano, we were able to see four species of Sunbirds (Handsome, Grey-throated, Purple-throated and Flaming), three kinds of Flowerpeckers (Orange-bellied, Red-keeled and Buzzing) and Balicassiaos. We kept hearing the teasing shrieks of Colasisis but not a single one came out in the open frustrating Steve who came particularly for this tiny green parrot.

Grey-throated Sunbird
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
Red-keeled Flowerpecker
Buzzing Flowerpecker
Back home and looking at our photos I kept murmuring "I got handsome! I got handsome!" like some egotistical mantra. To which my wife commented, "But you've always been!" 

That's why I love her so.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blackish Black

Our mood was stygian as we drove home. It was as if a dark cloud constantly hung over our car as we wended down from Mt. Palay-palay. Very few words were exchanged between us for much of the two-hour travel. Lunch became more of a necessity than a time of relaxation and pleasant enjoyment of food.

The small talk we did were mostly lamentations of our disappointment. The birds were uncharacteristically few. Except early in the morning when we stopped by the bridge somewhere between the road to Caylabne and the newly opened tunnel to Nasugbu. There were bird calls - mostly from the Black-naped Orioles and the Philippine Bulbuls and some other strange trills. A Rough-crested Malkoha peeped briefly from among the hillside trees.

The area immediately before the tunnel again only showed Philippine Bulbuls and a group of Luzon Hornbills way out on the other side of the ravine. We went to the Caylabne Resort gate and on the way only saw Brahminy Kites thermalling above.

It was awfully blustery that morning we reasoned. The winds so strong that the usual Philippine Falconets and Whiskered Treeswifts were nowhere to be found. 

At home that afternoon as I was processing the meager results of what we had photographed (less than 1GB for each of us) there were some shots of a bird that we thought was just oh, one of those Balicassiaos. However, looking closely, I noticed that the tail was not forked and the eyes were not red. I quickly consulted the Kennedy guide and the internet, my heart beating furiously. One of the sites I looked at was our friends Tonji and Sylvia's Smugmug page. Bingo! My suspicions were finally confirmed! They even photographed that bird at Mt. Palay-palay! I eagerly announced to Cynthia that our trip wasn't that fruitless after all.

"We got a lifer!" I told my wife, unable to curb my feeling of ecstasy.

"Really? What?" came the muffled reply (she was under the hands of a competent masseuse at that time).

"Blackish Cuckooshrike!" I said triumphantly.

I didn't know if she smiled or giggled or laughed. I was in a state of euphoria. 

Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. What we thought was an extremely bad day of birding turned out to be otherwise. Behind every dark cloud lies a Blackish Cuckooshrike.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

From Green to Yellow - Our 2013 Birding Year

It seemed like the light turned green at the beginning of 2013. We were on the go! In January we already chalked up eight lifers - foremost of which were the Green-faced Parrotfinches in Samal, Bataan.

February was spent birding at Bukit Tinggi and Fraser's Hill in Peninsular Malaysia. Of course, practically every bird we saw there were lifers. 

We did our annual trip to California in March to visit my children and grandchildren. There were some birding on the side and one of the very first species we saw was our nemesis bird - the Solitary Sandpiper. After eluding us for almost 10 years, we finally got lucky in 2013. On our return trip we stopped over South Korea and spent a day birding in Seoul.

April added two more lifers for us - the Philippine Frogmouth and the Pechora Pipit.

Pechora Pipit
Philippine Frogmouth
Lifers galore as we visited Puerto Princesa in May. We were lucky to be able to visit Pandan Island and see the Mantanani Scops Owl and the Grey Imperial Pigeon before the place was declared off limits to birders.

Grey Imperial Pigeon
Mantanani Scops Owl
The rainy months of June and July limited our birding forays and we only got one lifer, the Philippine Hawk Eagle in Mt. Palay-palay.

We spent eight days in Sepilok and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah in August. Although we did see many birds, we missed some of our targets - Bornean Bristlehead and Black-and-Red Broadbill - just to name a couple. It had been an exhausting trip for us and it was after this that I started not feeling well.

Which made birding in September only few and far between. It was only when Oriental Plovers were sighted at IRRI that we decided to twitch it.

October was mainly spent at the La Mesa Ecopark to photograph the two endemic kingfishers - the Indigo-banded and the Spotted Wood.

Indigo-banded Kingfisher
Spotted Wood Kingfisher
My health finally gave in in November when I was hospitalized for three days to undergo some minor surgery. Because of this we had to cancel two birding trips: to Kuala Lumpur and to Bacolod. I thought that would be the end of my birding forays for the year. But….

Late December and I was feeling better. A trip to Candaba to twitch the Black-faced Spoonbill confirmed that I could do a bit of driving and still feel OK. That was followed a week later by a trip to Subic. To cap the year off, it was a test of endurance as we dared drive to Laoag. We were rewarded by three more lifers - the Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gulls and my target - the Yellow Bunting on the very last day of the year.

Yellow Bunting
All in all, 2013 was not so bad. We had 31 lifers for our Philippine birdlist and many more from South Korea, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. We're now looking forward to 2014.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A-Bunting We Will Go

It was a spur of the moment decision. 

We had our car serviced (oil change, tune up and replaced all four brake pads) so my wife asked, "Shall we go to Candaba tomorrow?" 

"I thought you said you wanted to go to Laoag" I replied half-jokingly.

"Then Laoag, it is." she said - to my surprise.

Preparations were made: hotel room booked, and contacted Richard Ruiz, the local birder of Laoag.

Early morning of December 30, we were off. Eleven hours later we checked in at the Java Hotel. Exhausted from the long, stressful drive - the last six hours even more so because of all those tricycles and motorcyclists hogging the main road - we promptly fell asleep as soon as we checked in. We woke up a couple of hours later just in time for our date with fellow birders Irene, Kitty, Mel and Rob at the La Preciosa restaurant. Dinner was superb (the funny sounding "poqui-poqui" is a must-try) and even made better by great company.

Bright and early on New Year's eve we met up with Richard at McDonalds. Soon we were on our way to Gabu Sur a district of the city of Laoag.

"What are your target birds?" Richard wanted to know.

"Yellow Bunting and Spot-billed Duck," was my reply. 

Perhaps Richard was surprised at our short list, after all there were other unusual birds that had been seen here recently, but he kept that to himself.

The very first of these unusual birds that we saw was the Black-necked Grebe (perhaps only the second sighting record in the Philippines). It was all by its lonesome self in one of the ponds.

A quick look at the flock of ducks only showed a single Northern Pintail and a lone female Eurasian Teal among the Philippine Ducks. The super uncommon Mandarin Duck was nowhere to be found. No Spot-billeds either.

Then Richard took us to where the Yellow Bunting had been seen almost regularly. Of course it was there! However it stayed for only a few minutes and flew off afterwards. We were about to leave when Richard shouted, "They're back!" I thought "they"? True enough there were two, then three. Our final tally was nine Yellow Buntings all in all!

"Let's go see the gulls" Richard suggested. As we were getting back to the car we saw a pair of Brahminy Kites basking in the morning sun.

At the grassy area going to the beach several Paddyfield Pipits and Yellow Wagtails were hunting for insects. Alas, no Red-throated Pipit joined them. The beach itself was quiet and devoid of birdlife, except for a small group of Kentish Plovers on a distant sandbar. Thirty minutes later, Richard proposed that we come back in the afternoon - that was the time Rob and company saw them yesterday, he said. I was about to pick up my gear when I saw a bird flying towards us.

"Gull!" I yelled. Then another very likely of a different species (lighter in color and smaller in size) flew alongside the first one.

The first one eventually landed and Richard told us that it was the Black-tailed Gull. The other one could be the Slaty-backed we surmised.

On our way out there were several Little-ringed Plovers still in breeding plumage scurrying about the grassy area.

A short trip to Paoay Lake was unfruitful only because the birds were about 2 kilometers away. The only consolation was when Cynthia was able to photograph a male Olive-backed Sunbird.

Lunch at Saramsam was splendid. After that we bade goodbye to our friend Richard who had been a great help in finding the birds for us. Three lifers to add to our list before the year ended was all because of his knowledge of the local avifauna.

Cynthia and I returned to the beach that afternoon. Unfortunately it was very windy and no gulls were in sight.

We returned to our hotel, had a light snack and crashed for the night. Tomorrow will be another long, exhausting drive.