Saturday, February 21, 2015

Drongo There

We know that summer comes early in the Philippines, usually around mid-March. However, we are only in the third week of February and the doldrums of the hot weather are already being felt. And negatively affecting our birding plans, like waking up late on a Saturday morning. Saturday morning! - the time when we were usually already on the road by 5 am!

"Where do you want to go birding today?" my wife half-mumbled as she cuddled her pillow and with her eyes still closed.

I glanced at the clock. Almost seven. Getting up, doing the necessary ablutions, having breakfast….I did a quick calculation in my head.

"Let's just go the U.P." I told her. "We have at least one target bird to look for."

"Oh yeah? What bird?"

"There's an Ashy Drongo there!" I replied.

"But we've already taken photos of that in Coron, Palawan, even in Sabah!"

"Ah, but this one is of a different subspecies! It's a migrant!" was my convincing explanation.

Off to U.P. we went. Despite the incentive of seeing a new subspecies, our mood had been uncharacteristically lackadaisical. So much so that I only brought one camera set-up - the one with the shorter lens!

Our first half-hearted attempt was to look for the Scops Owls at the "frogs" area. It was while I was enduring a literal pain in the neck looking up a tall tree that I saw something that piqued my curiosity. It was small - about the size of a Brown Shrike - but the color was deep purple and with faint stripes on its belly. Cynthia and I tried vainly to relocate it after it flew behind some leaves but failed to see it again. Two guys who wer hiking in the trail apparently also saw the bird. One of them, very likely a professor in the university who knows birds, confirmed my suspicion that it was a cuckoo - a Violet Cuckoo! We wanted to stay and wait for the uncommon bird to reappear but the battalion that the local mosquito community ordered to attack us had already started their mission.

We proceeded to the main library. The constant "pok! pok! pok!" of the invisible Coppersmith Barbet filled the air. My wife texted our friend, Maia, who saw the Ashy Drongo last week, to ask her where the fabled bird hangs around. "The tall tree right in front of the building," was her reply, "from 8:30 to 9". I looked at the time. It was 8:30. I looked up at the tall tree. As if on cue, our target bird flew in. Now came the hard part - taking its picture. Somehow it preferred the other side of the tree, where a branch or a leaf would partially cover its head or its body. Once in a while it would perch on the limb of the dead tree, next to the tall one, where it then becomes a silhouette. There were times when I would get so frustrated that Cynthia would grab the camera and took the shots herself. When at last we got a passable photo, we agreed to go look for the Crested Mynahs along Magsaysay Avenue.  

A half-hearted drive around and all we got was glimpse of a pair. "Let's go home," I told my wife. Not surprisingly, she concurred. Thoughts of spending the weekend in Subic were quickly dismissed due to lack of enthusiasm.

Summer - air conditioned room, nice comfortable bed, wi-fi. What could be better than that?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Frustrating Black Heads

Notice those dark spots on your skin? They're blackheads and they are quite frustrating. Thankfully, the internet offers some remedies to restore your skin to its regular smoothness. 

Now if you're a birder and you are looking for a bird - a single bird - with a black head among thousands in a pond more than a hundred meters away, that can be really frustrating! That is why I relegated that task to my very patient, sharp-eyed wife, Cynthia. So with commendable tenacity she scoured the pond looking through my long lens at each individual bird present to see which one had that distinctive black-head that would identify it as the uber-rare Baer's Pochard.

"I got it!" she called my attention. I peeped and sighed.

"But it's a Eurasian Coot," I stated with extreme caution, "It is still an uncommon migrant here in the Philippines, but sadly, it's not the Baer's"

She resumed looking at the pond going through it with a fine-tooth comb.

"There it is!" she said as she pulled me over to my camera.

"Ummm, errrrr,  I think that is a Tufted Duck. See the white body? And the other one is a female." She gave me a look that made me regret the day I was born. I wanted to remind her that it was Valentine's Day and love should be the prevailing mood but a mouth kept shut, I believe, would be the better option.

Then came the heroes who saved our day (and possibly my life). Alex and Cel, using a pair of super binoculars, were able to see a different kind of black head - one with bluish eyes and a dark body. It was there all along but was slumbering peacefully (and unseen) behind some broad-leafed plants. Only when an inconsiderate Philippine Duck flew over it splashing the sleeping rare migrant with water that it lifted up its black head in full view. My wife was now able to put the Pochard in our camera's crosshairs and of course took a shot.

But wait! Having been rudely awakened by an unwelcome splashing, our beloved Baer's started shaking off the moisture from its body. Indeed back is black.

During those times that Cynthia was dealing with black heads I was focused on (and trying to focus on - photography wise) the Eastern Marsh Harrier that kept flying over, occasionally spooking the more jittery kind among the hundreds of birds on the ponds. I have not gotten a satisfactory shot of this raptor in the last three times we visited Candaba. So it is kind of all-or-nothing now because the probability of us returning here in the near future is quite slim. Well, the photo I got may not be the harriest, but it definitely is harrier than the ones I had before.

At around 10:30 we agreed to call it a day. Somehow my wife got sleepy after peering through my camera for what seemed like an eternity. And oh, we did something strange for lunch. Bypassing our normal choices of restaurants we unexplainably settled for the place of the golden arches. Ah, what black heads had done to us!

Monday, February 09, 2015

Pot Shards

Imagine a dedicated archaeologist digging through some ancient ruins in Greece searching for some piece of pottery which the civilization of that era was known for. Imagine his feelings of disappointment when he discovered only shards - tiny fragments of what he hoped to be a perfect relic. 

Even when he found the more common and less artful pots, they were all cracked and smudged beyond redemption. Imagine how he felt when his discoveries all fell short of his expectations.

Now imagine an ornithographer (a portmanteau term combining ornithology and photographer - which means one who takes pictures of birds) hoping to get a photograph of the extremely rare and critically endangered (there are less than 700 mature individuals in the wild according to Birdlife International) Baer's Pochard (thanks to our friend, Adri, who spotted the bird) but getting only a head shot. Imagine his feelings of disappointment then.

Even when he saw another lifer, a pair of Common Pochards, but only managing a less-than-decent shot due to the ducks' extreme distance from where he was standing. And this despite using a 2X extender on his 500mm lens that his kind-hearted friend Tina lent to him. Imagine how he felt when his photographs of his lifers all fell short of his expectations.

But like any self-respecting archaeologist, this ornithographer is not about to give up. He will return to the site and will keep on digging until the pot shards will be made complete.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Birds and the Beach

Cynthia made a commitment to join her high school batch mates for a Monday mini-reunion at a beachfront residence in Nasugbu, Batangas. Inasmuch as that would be a ladies only affair, we agreed that I would do some bird photography to pass away the time while waiting for their gathering to be over. That would take about half a day, she told me.

Not knowing if there would be any birding places nearby, we decided to "case the joint" by going to Nasugbu on Sunday afternoon. Our original plan was for me to go back to Mt. Palay-palay (a favorite birding place of ours - which was along the way to Nasugbu). When we realized how far that was from our final destination, Cynthia was a bit worried as to where I will spend my time alone.

Another thing was we don't know exactly where the house of her friend was. After checking in at our hotel, we inquired the locals as the where the compound of Cynthia's classmate was. "It's up the road going to Ternate", was the unanimous reply. Thankfully, a tricycle driver volunteered to show us the way since he was going that route anyway.

As soon as we entered the compound we were amazed to see a pond and a bit of forest along the unpaved road. "Kingfisher!" I yelled and pointed the bird to my wife. It was on her side of the car so I hurriedly unpacked the gear and handed it over to her. She got a shot of the Common Kingfisher.

A few minutes later, "kingfisher!" yelled Cynthia. This time a White-throated one was perched on a tree. It was already quite late in the afternoon and the bird was in a shade so her photos were not sharp. Farther down the road Pied Bush Chats were hunting before the onset of darkness.

We were both smiling as we drove back to our hotel. Now we know where I would be spending the morning of the next day. And in case my bird photography would not be as fruitful, there's always the beautiful, serene, and uncrowded beach where I could spend time lolling and basking in the morning sun.

Monday morning, after a sumptuous breakfast prepared by the host, I left the ladies on their own and started walking around the area. Just behind the house was a tall tree where bird activity was starting to pick up. It was a surprise to see a Coppersmith Barbet peek through the leaves as I was aiming my camera at some noisy Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

I returned to the pond but the Common Kingfisher was a no-show. What showed up was the White-throated and this time I was able to get some good shots at it.

A Pied Triller even joined in.

Soon I got a text message from Cynthia asking me to return to where they were. On the way there I saw my third kingfisher - the Collared one. Surprisingly, it was more skittish than the other two species, thus I only got a so-so picture.

It was almost noon when I arrived at her friend's residence. Once again lunch was a feast. 

And oh, I did spend some time at the beach. It's not very often that one will find a lovely seashore devoid of tourists such as this one. The sunset was absolutely gorgeous!

The sunrise was equally enthralling and having breakfast while looking at the calm seas was an unforgettable experience.

I even managed to do some wading photography.

By two o'clock my wife and I were already on our way home. She had a grand time with her schoolmates and I was glad I came along. The birds and the beach were fabulous.