Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Counting Birds

January is Asian Waterbird Census season for the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. Volunteers from the club team up with personnel from the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and local government units and count the waterbirds in various sites around the country. The count is also conducted in a number of other countries, all happening every January.

The past two years, Jops and I volunteered for the count in Candaba. We also volunteered for this year's count but due to bad weather, the Candaba census was moved to a date where we weren't available. But we still pushed through with birding that day =)

This year, our schedules allowed us to participate in the AWC in Balanga, Bataan. We were looking forward to volunteering for this count for the past year, Balanga having great birding sites. We drove to Bataan early Saturday morning for a birding-filled day and then headed to the City of Balanga to meet with the AWC team and spend the night at the Bataan Peninsula State University.

Sir Rudy (far left) conducts the pre-count meeting attended by WBCP
volunteers and personnel from the LGU, DENR, and media.

The WBCP team was divided into the 4 sites and Jops, Kuya Alan, and I were assigned to count in Bgy. Sibacan. After a 4AM breakfast, the teams rode their assigned vans and headed to our respective sites. We arrived Bgy. Sibacan before dawn. Our guides led us to the drained fishpond where we would begin our count. In the darkness, we could see a huge fishpond devoid of water, leaving wonderful mud perfect for waders! I couldn't wait for sunrise!

When the first rays of the sun began creeping up the sky, we could see big batches of egrets swooping in to land and start their breakfast in front of us.

Our count began as the sun rose

A huge flock of egrets settled in as soon as the day became light

We did our count in the area, seeing Black-winged Stilts, Long-toed Stints, and Little Ringed Plovers among the Great and Little Egrets. Our team then moved further into the fishponds where there were more egrets to be counted plus lots of Marsh Sandpipers.

Leaving the counted egrets behind and walking to another spot

After counting the birds in the fishponds, our very enthusiastic guides from the barangay called in a motor boat to take us "out to sea." Ma'am Opel from the DENR went with me and Jops and headed to the mudflats in the mouth of the river.

Riding the motorized boat, going out to sea =)

Jops scoping out birds from the boat

We were greeted by more egrets, waders, and terns. There were lots of Common Redshanks as well as Asian Golden Plovers. We were also thrilled to see a number of Black-headed Gulls resting on top of bamboo poles or walking around with the waders.

A handsome Black-headed Gull in the shallows

An Asian Golden Plover stands out among sandpipers and plovers

After surveying the area, we rode back to the barangay hall to have our mid-morning snack. Our guides brought us to another nearby site where we added more stilts, egrets, and plovers to our list. 

We regrouped with the rest of the counters at the city hall (we were the last group to finish!), tallied the separate counts, and ended up with a total of 25,935 birds, an amazing number compared to last year's count of 14,899. This significant increase was reported in the local news. Cheers went up from the whole group and we all celebrated with a delicious lunch and refreshing fresh buko juice.

Counting birds IS challenging, especially with big numbers such as this, but it is also the reason why it's so much fun! And that's why we'll be volunteering again for next year's count =)

Volunteers in counting form =)

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Successful Finch Twitch

We were scheduled to be in Bataan this weekend primarily for two things: one, to do a bird survey in the Colegio de San Juan de Letran Abucay campus upon the invitation of Fr. Auckhs and two, to volunteer in the annual Asian Waterbird Census in Balanga. Of course, since we were in the area, we snuck in a short twitching trip too.

WBCP member Doc Joey posted a random sighting mid-January about seeing a flock of Green-faced Parrotfinches passing through his farm in Samal, Bataan. The report of this rare endemic brought out the inner twitcher in most birders!

Jun, Jops, and I drove to the Letran campus to meet up with Tere, Adri, Trinket, and Fr. Auckhs to survey the birds that can be found in the campus. We started as soon as it got light outside and were welcomed by the calls of Philippine Bulbuls. Soon the swiftlets came out as well as a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, some Scaly-breasted Munias, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, and a Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We were also treated to nice views of Guaiaberos though they were too backlit for a good photo.

I like that I can clearly see the outline of these Guaiaberos

We also got to see a couple of Coletos carrying nesting material to a gap in the building and a male Blue Rock-Thrush picking food from the side of the same building. We made our way to the entrance and saw quite a lot of Richard's Pipits running around in the field.

This Richard's Pipit stood still long enough for a photo

Heading back towards the dormitory, Jun saw a huuuuge spider in the middle of its equally huge web! It was quite wonderful to photograph, allowing me a close-up view of an animal I wouldn't dare go too close to.

Scary beautiful spider (Nephila antipodiana) in its golden web

When we were satisfied with our spider shots, we went in to get some snacks (and celebratory softdrinks!) We then decided to proceed to nearby Samal to try our luck with the Parrotfinches.

When we parked our cars by the roadside, we saw birder friends Tito Bob, Tita Cynthia, and Peter.... and they were packing up. Based on their smiles, we guessed they were able to see the parrotfinches! We immediately got our gear read and started chatting when a Scale-feathered Malkoha decided to make an appearance very close to us, disrupting the small talk.

The distracting Scale-feathered Malkoha

Only after it disappeared from view did the talk resume. We said our congratulations and they wished us good luck and our group trooped to the site where the finches were. Tito Bob already described in his blog that the trail was precariously steep. He was spot on.

A portion of the trail.

I managed to get to the area without slipping or falling but my knees were shaking with all the strain and effort. We saw our other birder friends (Butch, Irene, Martin, Bram, and Kat) already photographing, video taping, and observing a small flock of the Green-faced Parrotfinches feeding just above us.

Can you see all 7 Parrotfinches? 

All the while the Parrotfinches were there, all you could hear was the clicking of the cameras. When the flock flew away, passing right above us, out came the big smiles and thumbs ups were exchanged at the successful twitch.

Green-faced Parrotfinch, the object of our twitch!

These rare small seed-eaters are bright green with a flash of red on a pointed tail, males having longer and more brightly colored tails than females. They are considered Vulnerable in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List as its numbers are decreasing mainly due to habitat destruction and hunting.

The area had a ravine to one side and this gave us a great view of a row of flowering dapdap trees where huge flocks of birds were in a feeding frenzy!

Row of flowering dapdap trees became an instant buffet for birds!

There was a steady buzz which was made up of an assortment of bird song the whole time we were there. We saw Philippine Bulbuls, Coletos, Red-keeled Flowerpeckers, Purple-throated Sunbirds, Colasisi, and more all enjoying the red flowers of the dapdap.

We explored the clearing near the bamboo grove where the Parrotfinches fed and saw a couple of Whiskered Treeswifts swooping around, returning to the same perch. Also seen in the area was a Grey-streaked Flycatcher and a Brahminy Kite soaring overhead.

The nearby clearing

Stunning Whiskered Treeswift

I returned to the bamboo area to a hushed group of birders: the Parrotfinches were back! The flock was busily feeding on the bamboo flowers (which have almost completely dried up), unmindful of their audience.

Green-faced Parrotfinches feeding on the bamboo flowers

More photos were taken and when the finches moved deeper into the brush unseen, us birders left as well. We were all happy with the views (and photographs) we got of the Green-faced Parrotfinches with so many bonus birds in the area too =)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Three Very Handsome Birds

Our trio found ourselves in the La Mesa Ecopark early Sunday morning. I was pretty excited at the possibility of seeing the Scaly Ground-Thrush again (it being one of the handsomest birds for me) and maybe even photograph it (I brought my new camera!)

Jun, Jops, and I entered the park surrounded by bird song. Just past the entrance, the tailorbirds were already singing loudly from the undergrowth and the tree tops were bustling with flitting birds. We stopped at certain areas to check out the birds calling around us: Black-naped Orioles, Olive-Backed Sunbirds, flowerpeckers, and Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers were all joining the chorus. We entered the trail and it was refreshingly alive with bird song. It has been a while since we last heard the trails so "noisy."

An hour passed, but aside from the usual suspects, all we saw was a tree frog clinging adamantly to a thin branch.



While we were busy observing and photographing the frog, a Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher decided to have its breakfast beside us. It would perch on different branches, sometimes high and once very close to the ground, snatching a meal, but staying very close to us. After observing the flycatcher and listening to its beautiful song, I realized it is a very strong candidate in becoming my favorite bird!

A very handsome-looking Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.

In the same area, another handsome bird made its appearance. An Ashy Ground-Thrush took its time posing and searching for food on the ground, giving us fantastic unobstructed views.

A handsomely spotted Ashy Ground-Thrush.

When the bird flew away, the three of us explored the trail separately. I found a small flat rock to sit on, facing the inside of the trail, watching out for movement on the ground. Nothing. Bikers and joggers raced past behind me but in front of me, only a rooster with his harem of hens appeared in my chosen area.

And then Jun called me. I knew it at once... the boys spotted the Scaly Ground-Thrush. I trooped to where they were standing: exactly where we saw the Mangrove Blue, Ashy, and the frog (which was still there on its branch!) Jops was photographing the frog again when the thrush landed in the clearing beside him. I scanned the area they were pointing to and there it was... out in the open, busy foraging for food, handsome in its perfect camouflage.

Another handsome bird!  The Scaly Ground-Thrush.

After a while, the birds flew off and we started to head out the trail. We bumped into birder friend Rei and his friend and pointed out the area where we saw the birds. They texted us later on that they saw both thrushes too!

On the drive back home, reviewing my bird list and my photos, I couldn't help but feel really lucky to have practiced using my camera on three extremely handsome birds =)

P.S. On our way out, Jun spotted a Monitor Lizard sunbathing on a tree trunk. It was our first time to see one in the trail!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Rain, Mud, and Birds

Clothes, gear, and food were all set early Friday evening for our trip to Candaba the following day. The Asian Waterbird Census was scheduled for Saturday morning with a number of birders volunteering to count the waterfowl that have made their way to Candaba.

But at 4:21AM, I received a text message from Mike saying that the census was cancelled due to the bad weather and impassable roads going to the site. My heart sank... but only a little. Because I was 100% sure that we would still bird that day -- either in Candaba or some other site.

True enough, when Jops, Jun, and I arrived at the Shell gas station along NLEX, most of the AWC volunteers were there discussing "Plan B." After a while, it was decided that most of us will be checking out Barangay Paralaya, which is all concrete roads (so no danger of the non-4x4 vehicles getting stuck) while Christian in his 4x4 SUV would try to go the usual route through the rice fields all the way to the Mayor's house. They would then inform us whether the roads were passable or not.

So, our convoy drove through rain and dark to Paralaya to find all the fields planted with rice, meaning: no birds. Save for egrets that flew in when the drizzle let up, we saw just a handful of the usual suspects in the area.

Blue-tinted landscape matched the chilly weather in Paralaya.

We contacted Christian's group and they advised us that the roads were passable, muddy but firm. So, we turned our convoy around to drive towards the Mayor's property. We had to take a detour since the shorter route was impassable to vehicles according to the locals. We arrived at the area and found the road's surface slick with mud, but the road itself wasn't mushy and soft. With tires slipping, our convoy managed to navigate all the way to the house.

Slippery and thick mud clung to the tires, and later on to our shoes!

Breathing a sigh of relief that we didn't get stuck, we started to bird. Most of us joined the group to find the warblers that have been recently seen and photographed in the area: Dusky Warbler and Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler. I was able to see the Dusky Warbler and am very happy I was able to compare it with an Arctic Warbler which was flitting in the same tree. Warbler's are tricky to ID!

Looking for the skulking warblers

Some of us went looking for the Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler but I wanted to test out the new camera Jops gave me: a kick-ass Canon SX50 HS!!! =) So I stayed in the vicinity of the Mayor's house with some friends and was able to practice with a pretty Common Kingfisher, who very kindly perched quite a while allowing me lots of shots.




Other species seen were Purple Herons standing still among the reeds, the usual colony of roosting Black-crowned Night Herons, Wandering Whistling Ducks that would take flight noisily only to land completely hidden in the grass, lots of Common Moorhens, easily flushed Yellow Bitterns, and plump Purple Swamphens. There were also some Whiskered Terns and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters flying around looking for food.

Towards noon, the skies began to darken again and a soft rain fell prompting us birders to pack up, pose for a quick group pic, and drive home lest we get stuck in the muddy road. Even though there weren't much birds and I didn't get to take as much photos as I wanted, I did get a lifer and some awesome photos of the kingfisher =)

Friday, January 4, 2013

A New Year's Twitch - Retracted

*sigh*

It does happen, when you see a bird, study its field marks, make an ID, and then later on realize it wasn't the bird after all. This is what happened to the Schrenck's Bittern we thought we saw yesterday but after much scrutiny found it to be a female Cinnamon Bittern. It was still a good twitching trip, with all the excitement and adrenalin involved. But the Schrenck's would have to wait another twitching trip...

Below is my original post from the would-be New Year's lifer =)


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When I woke up this drizzly Friday morning, little did I know I'd be out twitching a rather rare migrant - a Schrenck's Bittern.

I imagined I'd start my birding this 2013 with the annual Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) but an unexpected text from birder friend Rob made me drop my morning plans and twitch instead.

I was driving my sister to the hospital she was working in when I got Rob's text message saying there was a Schrenck's Bittern at the La Mesa Spillway. I was already in the area and thought about driving directly to the site after dropping off my sister. But my attire prodded to me to drive home first and change -- I was driving in my pajamas! 

Jops was unfortunately stuck at work, but he gave me an enthusiastic "green light" to see the bittern even without him. After a quick shower and change into birding clothes, I picked up my bag and bins, drove to pick up Jun, and we headed to the spillway. 

We saw Rob, Bram, Irene, Tito Bob, and Tita Cynthia in the spillway, observing the bird. They immediately pointed out the bittern to us.

Schrenck's Bittern Ixobrychus eurhythmus (female)

It was walking slowly in the water, stalking some prey. It has a dark "cap" over its head and heavy streaks running down its buff-colored throat and chest. When the bird turned its back to us, it had a solid greyish brown color, sprinkled with white dots, making it look like a rock in the water.

Another shot of the Schrenck's Bittern hiding in the reeds. Also known as Von Schrenck's Bittern, it is known to
breed in China and Siberia, and spends its wintering months in the Philippines and other parts of SE Asia.

At first, it looked very much like a Yellow Bittern... but it wasn't a Yellow Bittern. The Yellow Bittern has lighter streaks on its throat and belly and is lighter-colored on its back as compared to the Schrenck's Bittern.

Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Photo taken in Candaba.

It also looked like a female Cinnamon Bittern... but it wasn't quite a Cinnamon Bittern. The Cinnamon Bittern has an all rufous coloring to its back and wings, and the markings on its wings are rather large compared to the white spots of the Schrenck's Bittern.

After observing the bird and taking in all its field marks, Jun and I said goodbye to our birder friends to go to the trails inside the Ecopark where we saw... an Ashy Ground-Thrush. We didn't see the Scaly Ground Thrush nor the pittas though we did hear the Ashy Ground-Thrushes singing =)

The Schrenck's Bittern was a great New Year's Twitch! (Thank you, Rob!) I hope Jops gets to see it too =)

P.S. Birder Paul Bourdin has a great post about the various Bitterns that he has observed in IRRI. Read about it here.