Monday, November 30, 2015

Driving me Mad

My wife and I are quite passive when encountering life's inconveniences. At our age we've gone through so much vicissitudes that we normally would not allow such things to bother us. But, and this is a big BUT, there are those occasions that get us fuming mad. So please allow me to vent out some of the frustrations we experienced in our latest birding trip.

The Candaba Wetlands is one of the prime birding areas in the Philippines. Or I should now say, "used to be".  Whereas before hundreds, if not thousands, of migrant waders and ducks can easily be seen here, now there was an obvious disparity since the birds we saw yesterday were much lower in number. Sure, there were hundreds of Black-winged Stilts but that's just about it. A few Wood Sandpipers here and there, fewer Long-toed Stints and a couple of Grey and Purple Herons. We did not even see a single Common Kingfisher! There were ducks, mostly the endemic Philippine, but they were too far off for a decent photograph. Good thing some Wandering Whistling Ducks found a place to settle that was within photographic range.

The primary reason for this, I believe, was because the watery area where these migrants settle are now rice fields, newly planted even. The local Black-crowned Night Heron colony population seemed to have dwindled as well.

Thankfully, the local avifauna was thriving well. The most ubiquitous among these were the Pied Bush Chat, Striated Grassbird, Chestnut Munia and Long-tailed Shrike.

Pied Bush Chat
Chestnut Munia
Long-tailed Shrike 
Striated Grassbird
The Rallidae family was well represented with the Barred Rail, Buff-baded Rail, Philippine Swamphen, White-breasted Waterhen and White-browed Crake.

Barred Rail
Buff-banded Rail
Philippine Swamphen
White-browed Crake
White-breasted Waterhen
Now let me tell you about the Bitterns. It was as if they were in connivance with each other because all three species - Yellow, Cinnamon, and Black - teased us in exactly the same way. While we are focusing on some other species, one of these sly birds would suddenly leap from where were looking, fly a short distance then dive into a clump of vegetation and completely vanish. That this happened about 10 times left us bitter. It was only when we were already on the way out and while enjoying the cooperativeness of some Blue-tailed Bee-eaters that one Yellow Bittern finally obliged to be photographed. It was a Bittern end to our birding in Candaba.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Yellow Bittern
What made Cynthia and I upset was the traffic we encountered on our trip home. We've birded Candaba many times for the past five years but this was the first time that we got stuck in such a horrendous jam. Candaba is some 60 kilometers from our home in Quezon City. It took us only one-and-a-half hours that morning to get to the wetlands whereas it was a maddening three-and-a-half hours on the return trip! I mean where did all these trucks come from? They were everywhere! - from the narrow two-lane roads in Bulacan to the streets from Mindanao Avenue to Katipunan Avenue. Trucks! 

When we finally arrived home my wife was so exasperated. She told me that this could be our last birding trip because we don't want to go through this nightmare again. "It's for your own sake," she said, "because you're the one driving." I'm afraid I had to agree with her. At my age - a year less than 70 - my physical endurance is no longer what it used to be. Considering that we had to wake up early, go birding (which involves standing for long periods, walking while carrying my heavy camera equipment, and sometimes even trudging over uneven trails) then having to sit for seemingly countless hours inside our vehicle waiting for the traffic to move inch-by-inch towards home, I don't think I can handle that on a regular basis. And that drives me mad.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Violet Shown

It seemed like everybody and his uncle had seen - and photographed - the male and female Violet Cuckoos at the La Mesa Ecopark. We tried a couple of weeks ago and totally bombed. Since the recent sightings had been more frequent, I asked our friend, Mike Anton, when and where would be the best time and place to go. "Near the paintball area", he replied, "around 7:30 to 8:00 in the morning."

Six-thirty the following day, my wife and I were already at the Paintball area. It didn't take long when Cynthia started pointing to some movement on the tree in front us. My heart was jumping for joy because it was the male - my target bird! (I've seen and photographed the female several years ago in U.P.). For the next couple of hours the pair of cuckoos gave us lots of opportunities to take their pictures.

We were thankful that we got what we had hoped for, quite easily at that, and also because of bonus shots of two raptors: the Philippine Serpent Eagle and three Ospreys hovering over the spillway.

Philippine Serpent Eagle
During one of those pauses when the cuckoos were inactive and hidden from view, we were joined by a group of foreign birders guided by members of the Haribon Foundation. They were so excited to see the Violet Cuckoos, the Serpent Eagle and the Ospreys and later on by a small flock of Lowland White-eyes.

Around 9:30 two newbie bird photographers came. Tim Calumpong and Fidel Sy also enjoyed the Cuckoos showing up just as they arrived. A little after ten and we all (including the foreigners) called it a day.

For Cynthia and myself this was one those hallelujah birding moments when everything just fell into place.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Stalking the Flames

Our friend, Anthony Balbin, gave us precise directions: As you enter the road to Nabasan, on the right side there is a dead tree about twelve feet high near the fence. The birds will come almost at eye level.

Armed with and encouraged by this information, we travelled to Subic early Tuesday morning. We proceeded directly to the place that Anthony described. Just as we made the right turn, we saw it! The male Luzon Flameback was digging a hole in the dead tree trunk! Cynthia and I both fired away. 

My wife got some some good shots while I had a few……oh wait! are those Sooty Woodpeckers?

Luzon Flameback
Sooty Woodpecker
Actually there was a mixed flock frolicking on the trees on both sides of the road. Black-naped Orioles were calling incessantly while the Rufous Coucals were doing their own vocalizations. 

The Balicassiaos were darting back and forth and then a solitary White-throated Kingfisher dropped by to say hello.

White-throated Kingfisher
Since I was um, er… "distracted" by the Sooty Woodpeckers earlier, we decided to stay across the dead tree trunk and stalk the Flamebacks. This time I got my share of Luzon Flameback photographs.

By 9 am, everything quieted down. We made another trip around the Nabasan trail loop and didn't see any birds. Birders, yes. We noticed a couple carrying cameras and looking up at the trees.  Birds photographers, Cynthia and I agreed. George and Manette Inocencio are still new into this hobby and are both very enthusiastic! It is interesting to note that every year since 2013 we've met birders (who became our friends) here at Nabasan. Last year it was Rannie Aguilar and his family. The year before that was Jens Hansen a Dane who had been travelling all over the world to watch birds. After some shop talk with the Inocencios we bade them goodbye because we will be checking in at Mango Valley, our hotel of choice for this trip. We later had lunch at our favorite restaurant, Cocolime. 

A few kilometers after we left our house that morning I already heard a noise coming from our left front tire. Cynthia thought it was just because of the road we were travelling on. However after lunch, the noise seemed louder. I told my wife that I'm getting worried about it and I will feel a lot better if we have it checked. We drove to  Yokohama Tire where they also had a repair shop. My worst fears had been confirmed - the wheel bearing of the left tire was damaged. The manager sort of hemmed and hawed with regards to getting the replacement part. We were adamant that we need to have it fixed asap because we will be returning to Manila the following day. After about 4 hours, the manager told us that the bearing had been replaced and that it was now ok. We left hurriedly so that we can still do some birding before it got dark.

A little before 5 pm, we were at Cubi Point. There it was mob rule by  a huge flock of Black-naped Orioles harassing the smaller Pied Trillers and the bigger Large-billed Crows. At the safer part of the community a lone Philippine Hanging Parrot tried to catch the last rays of the setting sun.

The times when we were here at this time of day, groups of Blue-naped Parrots would usually come and roost among the pine branches. However, this day we only saw one, peeping out of its home one last time before calling it a day.

Then came the Black-throated Bee-eaters, hundreds of them, flying from all directions and all settling down on the pine trees. It was a sight to behold but sadly the crepuscular light was not good enough for photography.

Early the following day we were at the area near the Jest Camp. A horde of Coletos were basking in the dawn. When the sun shone brightly a little later, that sort of signaled them to start their breakfast. The Coletos flew to a tree to gorge on the fruits. 

It was then that we noticed that one bird didn't seem to belong to the group. It was definitely bigger and was all black without the Coleto's distinctive fleshy part on the head. When I finally realized what it was, I was thrilled! Not only will this be the first time I will see this species in the Philippines, it is also the first time I am looking at (and photographing) the male Asian Koel!

From there we proceeded to the Nabasan Trail. Once again, the Sooty Woodpeckers were there. An angry looking male Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike made a brief appearance.

Here the Psittidae family was represented by the Blue-naped Parrot and the Green Racquet-tail.

Blue-naped Parrot
Green Racquet-tail
Of course, because this was really our main target in coming here, we started stalking the Flamebacks again. Like clockwork, the male came and began working on the hole while the female patiently waited nearby.

We made one more trip around the loop and this time we got the Blue-throated Bee-eater and the Whiskered Treeswift.

Blue-throated Bee-eater
Whiskered Treeswift
Then it drizzled. A White-throated Kingfisher was so indifferent to the raindrops as we got our last bird photo of the day. 

It was time to check out of our hotel and start the long trip home. After parking at the hotel grounds I noticed that our left rear tire has gone flat! As in totally flat! Thankfully the hotel driver was around to help replace it with our spare tire.

It was such a sad closing to our wonderful two-day birding in Subic. So affected were we that we both decided to bypass lunch and head straight home.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Shoes to Blame

With the recent spate of birding bad luck still haunting me, I was a little worried about our upcoming trip to Mt. Palay-palay in Cavite. More so because we will have our new friend from the U.S., Zach DuFran, joining us. Since this will be Zach's first time to bird in the Philippines, I was afraid that my misfortunes would continue to plague us and thus deprive our American friend of seeing a lot of local birds.

As we drove towards our destination, Peter (who was driving), my wife, Cynthia, and I were amused because Zach was so excited at seeing even the most common birds such as Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Striated Grassbirds and Cattle Egrets. And yes, he wanted to take photos of those.

Near the gate of Puerto Azul, Peter parked his vehicle and we locals unloaded our cameras while Zach was in high heavens photographing the cooperative Brown Shrike. Now armed and ready, we got back into the car and began the ascent. It wasn't long after that we saw a male Luzon Hornbill! Unfortunately, it flew off before we could take photos. We parked once again and waited, hoping it would reappear - but it didn't. It's still probably my bad luck I thought to myself woefully. 

Then there was some commotion in the nearby trees. "Yellow-vented Bulbuls," I half murmured. But somehow I had an urge to look at them through my camera. "Stripe-headed Rhabdornises!" I exclaimed. (Note the plural). 

Next came our first encounter of another endemic, the Philippine Falconet, perched on a wire.

As expected a Brahminy Kite soon came soaring overhead. Then the kite started harassing another raptor. An Oriental Honey Buzzard flew by totally ignoring the bullying of the smaller Brahminy. We were so surprised by the appearance of the Honey Buzzard that I only got a silhouette.

Eventually we saw the Luzon Hornbill again, this time the female, but it was too far off for a satisfactory shot. A small flock of Pygmy Flowerpeckers foraged on a tree not too far away but they were so active and preferred the inside of the foliage that once again we failed to obtain any respectable picture. While my companions were still looking at the distant hornbill, I noticed another raptor flying overhead. It was smaller and had a different color from the usual Brahminy Kites. I blame my excitement for the blurred photos but at least they were good enough for me to identify it as a Grey-faced Buzzard.

It was also while we were waiting for better views of the Hornbill that Cynthia and I noticed a bird behind the electrical post. 

"It's a woodpecker!" my wife said. I slowly crossed the road so I could get a better view but, as my luck (the bad one) would have it, all I saw was a flash of bright red that zipped from the pole to a tall tree where it instantly became invisible. There were a couple more red flashes after that but that's all there was to it.

Frustrated by the uncooperative Hornbill (not to mention the Luzon Flameback), we continued on our way. I saw something and asked Peter to stop and do a reverse. There, perched on a bare branch was another Philippine Falconet. We all got out of the car, took pictures to our heart's content, and was even given a bonus when another Falconet, presumably its mate, joined the other one.

Next sightings along the way were a White-breasted Wood Swallow and more than thirty Striated Swallows all perched on the electric wire.

White-breasted Woodswallow
Striated Swallow - one of about 30 on the wire
We parked by the gate of the Caylabne Resort. Perhaps half an hour passed and not even the resident Brahminy Kites showed up. With nothing much to photograph, we decided to take a group picture. Luckily, an ice cream vendor was around so we politely asked him the favor of taking the group shot. 

To show our gratitude we bought some chocolate crunch popsicle from him. We were finishing the refreshing ice cream when I saw a bird flying swiftly and then landed on the tall communication tower behind the Resort's gate. 

"I'm pretty convinced that is a Peregrine Falcon," I told my skeptical friends. It was Cynthia's sharp eyes that confirmed that I was not just imagining things. Unfortunately, the raptor stayed at the back side of the tower not allowing for any good photographic shots. Until it decided to fly off. Again, it was my wife that provided photographic confirmation of my identifying skills.

Inasmuch as all of us got good looks and photos of the Peregrine and an apparent turn-around from our heretofore not too good luck in getting images of the birds we saw, we all agreed that it's time to continue with our journey. I was already seated in the car when I saw a bird alight on a branch of the tree across from me. "Philippine Bulbul!" I announced to my companions. "No, wait! Blue Rock Thrush! Blue Rock Thrush!" I couldn't control my excitement. I really did not expect to see this species in this kind of environment since it usually prefers the concrete ledges of buildings.

After the Thrush left, we were all smiling at the bonus that we were just given. That is until I saw another raptor thermalling above us. It was huge, bigger than the Brahminy. It soared slowly, sometimes even stopping in mid-air, allowing us such unusual photographic opportunities. It was only during our lunch at Puerto Azul that we were able to confirm its identity: a juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagle. A lifer for all us.

Everything was anti-climactic after that. It was almost noon, the weather had become unbearably hot, so it was time for lunch. The only species added to our list were the Pacific Swallow and Asian Glossy Starling.

As we endured the terrible traffic on the way back to Zach's hotel, many things came to my mind. First, we were so glad that Zach was not disappointed even for just half-a-day's birding. My initial fears, thankfully, never materialized. Then, of course, was the obvious change in my birding luck. Cynthia said it's because we bought popsicles from the ice-cream vendor. Maybe that's true, since kindness and generosity has its rewards. Personally I think it's my shoes. Allow me to explain: I had been using my Columbia hiking shoes whenever we go birding until a few months ago. That was when the upper right section of the sole of the right shoe became loose. So I retired the Columbias and in its place I used a new pair that we bought in the U.S. (Realtree brand). Call it coincidence but since I started using that new pair of shoes I did not do well in my birding trips (please read my previous blogs). Last week, using an epoxy, I fixed my old Columbia shoe and that was what I wore when we went to Palay-palay. Let the bird sightings we had there provide the proof to my claim. Need I say more?

Saturday, November 07, 2015

None of the above

....and the bad luck continues...

In my last blog I mentioned our heartache at not seeing our target bird - the migrant Blue Rock Thrush at the University of the Philippines' campus. On my birthday even! Little did I know that such bad luck would still be with us three weeks later.

Bright and early this morning my wife and I were at the La Mesa Ecopark hoping to see the Violet Cuckoo and maybe even the Grey-faced Buzzard. Our friend, Maia, saw the cuckoo yesterday and happily posted her sighting in her blog. I contacted her for the directions and she said the bird usually frequents the trees near the fishing pond. "It usually perches above the balete tree," Maia said. Almost four hours later and the only birds that perched on the balete tree were the Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

Early on we were joined by another friend, Bong Nabong. He just came from the spillway looking for the Grey-faced Buzzard which was seen yesterday as well by another friend and neighbor, Chin Fernandez. "Never showed up," Bong informed us about the buzzard.

Cynthia and I eventually gave up on the cuckoo. The only consolation we got was me being able to photograph a Common Kingfisher and my wife a Pygmy Flowerpecker. 

Common Kingfisher
Pygmy Flowerpecker
A short foray into the mini-forest yielded a total of zero sightings. You read that right: zero! as in nada! zilch!

We tried the spillway and got the exact same statistics: zero! nada! zilch! We asked the Security Guard in the area if he had seen the raptor. "It was here yesterday," he said, "up above those trees across the spillway." "Did not see it today though," he continued.

A Violet Cuckoo above the balete tree and a Grey-faced Buzzard above the trees across the spillway - and yet none showed up today. Not that they were lifers to be for us (although we have not seen a male Violet Cuckoo yet) but still the disappointment of lucking out on both species was quite hard to bear.

As I was reviewing our CF cards at home I was shocked to discover that we only took a total of 38 shots - 18 for Cynthia and 20 for me. Thirty eight shots in a span of four hours! This could be our worst birding day! Ever!