Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sta. Cruz Island Birding

I've never visited an island just to bird. So it was a double treat for me when our Zambonga itinerary included a visit to the Great Sta. Cruz Island to try and see the Tabon Scrubfowl that has been reported there. Our group boarded two boats at the Paseo del Mar that would take us to the nearby island.

One of our boats with Sta. Cruz Island in the background.

I didn't realize I missed the beach so much until my bare feet touched the wet sand of Sta. Cruz Island. It was a nice and warm morning so it was extra refreshing to dip my feet into the cool water. Gina and I wished we brought swim wear... the water was so inviting! And the beach itself was so clean and relaxing to look at.

The stretch of Grand Sta. Cruz Island's beach with its pink-speckled sand

The Great Sta. Cruz Island is also known as the "pink beach" because its sand is finely dotted with pink. The pink speckles are bits and pieces from the red organ pipe corals which can be found in the area.

Small pieces of the red organ pipe coral

We left the boats and went straight to look for the Tabon Scrubfowls that have been seen on the island. We peered into the brush, focusing on the ground where the birds would forage for food. The birds would usually be seen foraging close to the beach early in the morning, sometimes accompanied by chicks. Since it was already a bit late in the morning, we decided to go in the trail to look for the birds. We didn't see them but we were shown their nest: a huge mound of soil with numerous holes. 

The large, communal nest of the Tabon Scrubfowls
The nest was dotted with holes like this where the Tabon Scrubfowl
lay their eggs. The chicks dig their way out when they are hatched.

After a short viewing of the nest, we made our way out to the beach again. Our guides decided to take us to another part of the island where the birds have also been seen. We rode our boats again and the high tide took us through the mangroves. We disembarked and found our way into a trail. The ground was covered by a thick layer of dry, crispy leaves which crunched loudly under our feet.

The "trail" we entered, perfect for the scrubfowl

Jops saw one Tabon Scrubfowl foraging in an open area but it quickly disappeared in the vegetation. Gina went on ahead with our guide, Richard, and they were able to see two individuals who were flushed into flight. I was silently praying I would be able to see one bird, but I wasn't keeping my hopes up... I felt each step I made was so noisy with all the crackling leaves. 

Then I saw some movement... I trained my binoculars on the area on the ground and I saw them: two Tabon Scrubfowls, busy foraging beside each other. They were big, gray birds with small heads and fleshy faces... a bit turkey-like to me. I can't really say they were beautiful birds but it was great seeing them just the same.

The pair walked deeper into the thick brush, disappearing from sight. No photos of these shy birds. They used to be hunted and their eggs collected and sold, so they have sadly become wary of humans. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources have intervened and now they are no longer bothered by the people living on the island. The Tabon Scrubfowls are now reported to be breeding and more numbers have been reported.

We soon left and boarded our boats again to return to the main beach. We dropped by the bat area where over a thousand Malayan Flying Foxes roost during the day.

Some of the Malayan Flying Foxes Pteropus vampyrus

We headed back to the beach and had a snack of steamed crabs. We birded some more in the immediate area seeing Oriental Magpie-Robins, Olive-backed Sunbirds, Pied Fantails, Pied Trillers, Golden-bellied Flyeaters, and Jops got better views of another Tabon Scrubfowl.

I wish we had more than a few hours to relax and enjoy the island but we had to say goodbye. Sta. Cruz Island is such a quiet and beautiful place (plus it has Tabon Scrubfowls!) I'd love for a chance to go back and just swim, lie on the beach, and find the scrubfowls again.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Egret Nursery

After a tiring but super fun morning in the Baluno forest, our group headed back to Zamboanga City to check out the wetlands inside the Zamboanga State College of Marine Science and Technology. We parked inside the campus right beside a huge mound of soil. Ma'am June told us that there was actually a buried Sperm Whale there which was found beached in the area.

Buried Sperm Whale

We immediately checked out the nearest mangroves where we saw a lone Common Sandpiper and some Barn Swallows perched on top of bamboo poles. We walked back down the road where we were joined by Dr. Tenorio, the Executive Director for Research and Extension of the ZSCMST. We peeped through the gaps in the mangroves and there were all the birds!

This "island" had lots of night-herons and some egrets.

There were waders foraging in the shallow water, mostly Common Redshanks and Black-winged Stilts plus quite a number of Common Moorhens. On the "island" we saw Black-crowned Night-Herons and some Rufous Night-Herons too. Barn Swallows were perched on bare branches looking like fruits.

One of the three Rufous Night-Herons we saw that afternoon.
Lots of perched Barn Swallows

Then Mike noticed a Great Egret walking in the water. It had peculiar pink legs making it look like a flamingo! We noticed all the other Great Egrets sporting the same pink legs PLUS bright blue-green lores!  Lores are the surfaces on both sides of the birds face between its beak and its eye.

Great Egret with pink legs

Usually Great Egrets have yellowish green lores but most, if not all, of the birds we saw that afternoon had the same bright bluish-green lores. We were scanning the top of the mangroves for more of these beautifully colored Egrets when I saw three of them, clustered together looking fluffy. Fluffy? Chicks? Chicks!!!

Fluffy Great Egret chicks extending their necks, awaiting food.
There are actually three chicks in this nest.

I began to take notice of all the birds surrounding the nest with chicks. They were all Great Egrets sitting on nests! It was a nursery! It was really great being able to observe the egrets in a different setting -- Great Egrets are not known to breed in the Philippines! Usually, we get to see them hunting for food or standing still in a rice field. These breeding egrets looked so different, some of them had back plumes that had thick quills and very fine feathers which they were sort of draped over their backs and wings. It sure felt like seeing a lifer!

Here's one of the lovely couples in their "breeding best" =)
Here's another one showing its back plumes
while it readjusts itself in its nest.

We had to leave the egrets to walk to another portion of the wetlands. Most of the ponds were filled with water so the egrets were farther away. In the immediate area though, I saw an immature Rufous-night Heron which was very focused on catching prey. It was nice knowing that they are also successfully breeding even with the presence of the Black-crowned Night-Herons.

Immature Rufous Night-Heron

Before it got dark, we were invited by Dr. Tenorio to have merienda prepared by some of their students. Over suman, brownies, and refreshing pineapple juice, we gushed over the birds and the wetlands. The  faculty members who joined us were very interested in bringing their students go birdwatching and discover a wonderful part of the own campus. For us birders, we were happy enough with seeing a new side of the Great Egret.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bird Lifer, Tree Lifer, Frog Lifer

We woke up early Saturday morning excited to explore more of Zamboanga. Our first day was chock-full of activities but there was still much to see. We were picked up at our hotel by Ma'am June and the rest of the team plus staff from the water district, whose 4x4 jeep we were going to need to go up to our site for the morning, Baluno which is within the Pasonanca protected area. We switched from the van to the truck near the Baluno barangay hall.

Our group posing behind the
water district's 4x4 jeep

Along the way to the Baluno Ecological Training Center, some of us saw a flash of red fly into the trees: trogon! The jeep was immediately asked to stop and out came the binoculars, cameras, and scope. We were able to spot a male and female Philippine Trogon, flying among the trees on the side of the road.

The male Philippine Trogon perched long enough for me to snap a few
photos. The female was more difficult to spot, always hiding in the foliage.

After the trogons flew away, we all climbed aboard the jeep and headed to the training center. We were welcomed by a beautiful bagras tree just by the turn from the main road. It was the first time I saw this Mindanao native and I was ecstatic!

One of the four (or five?) bagras trees in the
immediate area of the training center.

I pulled myself away from the tree and followed the group headed towards the trail. It was a very easy walk along the unpaved road with greenery on both sides. However, that morning, not much birds were in the area (we did see a Philippine Falconet) so I found myself busy chasing and stalking after butterflies flying around us. At first, it was challenging trying to "catch" them sitting still on a flower or leaf but I managed to get a few decent shots =)


I was chasing a pretty black butterfly when the guard accompanying us asked if I was going to go in the trail. Apparently, Jops and Sir Joel were already in the trail and radioed the guard to ask if I was going to join them. I said yes and the guard and I left the road and entered the Baluno forest.

The "entrance" to the inner trails

The trail was very steep in some parts... both going up and going down. The one-sided wooden railings helped A LOT and I didn't feel afraid of slipping and falling too much. There were lots of "challenges" along the trails, but there was always something to hang on to for balance and support.


An example of a "challenge" along the trial.
Thank God they put rails!

It took us two hours to get through the trail, our stops were very brief as there wasn't any bird activity most of the time we were in the forest. The cicadas were singing so loudly they drowned out any other sound with their steady buzz. Evidence of their numbers were scattered along the trail in the form of cast-off skins still clinging to trunks and branches.

This trunk has three cast-off skins!
I had to look where I put my hands =P

Now, back to the two hours in the trail... 

We would stop at certain areas, sometimes hearing the faint song of a drongo or see some movement high up in the trees. We did see some birds - Blue Fantail, Pied Triller, a fly-by Philippine Trogon, Yellow-bellied Whistler, and Brahminy Kites and Crested Serpent Eagles soaring above us. But that was about it for the trail. 

The trail was lush with trees but sadly, not
much birds that morning we were there.
Another reason to go back! =)

We exited the trail but not before spotting some curious looking frogs, very well camouflaged on the forest floor. One was the Mindanao Horned Frog which Sir Joel pointed out to us. It was amazing seeing it "pop out" from the ground once my eyes focused on it. So cool to observe!

I felt lucky to see the Mindanao Horned Frog Megophrys stejnegeri
classified as a vulnerable species (IUCN Red List)

The trail opened up to the road and the rest of our group was there having lunch. It was a nice place to sit and rest, being near a quiet body of water. They even saw a Silvery Kingfisher earlier! We ate our lunch with   a noisy Bicolored Flowerpecker perched right above us. After eating, we kept watch for the Silvery Kingfisher. It didn't show up anymore but we were able to get great views of another lifer: a Philippine Needletail. It kept circling above us and diving close to the water. We didn't leave the area until everyone saw its identifying marks of white under each wing and under its chin. It flew so fast it was impossible to keep track with it on our bins!

Where they spotted the Silvery Kingfisher and also where we saw
the superfast Philippine Needletail.

We decided to walk a bit back to the van (before having the truck pick us up) and try to spot the Zamboanga Bulbul. The other group was able to see them along the road, as well as a pair of, um, randy Philippine Falconets. It was a bit challenging to spot the bulbuls as they would fly from one perch to the next very quickly, making them very difficult to photograph. But even so, we did get good views of a couple of them, allowing us to observe the stark contrast between their rust-colored head, neck, and throat and their whitish bellies. Further down the road, we saw some Black-faced Coucals skulking in the thick canopy of trees, calling in a deep, whooping voice.

Birding along the Baluno road

The truck then picked us up and we drove to the barangay hall where the van was waiting to take us back to the city. Our next stop was to see the mudflats in the Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology campus.

We didn't get to see that many birds with a halfday of birding in Baluno, but that's ok. We did get to see the Zamboanga Bulbul and Philippine Needletail (bird lifers), the bagras trees (tree lifer), and the Mindanao Horned Frog (frog lifer)! And we were sure we'd get to go exploring more on our next trip =)

Coming up next.... breeding Great Egrets!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My First Taste of Zamboanga

We were invited to do an ocular inspection of some sites in Zamboanga by Ma'am June, the Regional Director of the Department of Tourism, as a possible venue for the upcoming 9th Philippine Bird Festival. I have never been to Zamboanga before and the idea of mixing business with pleasure (which is almost always the case with birding "business") in this interesting city was impossible to say no to.

We arrived in Zamboanga early Friday morning and were welcomed by Ma'am Ludy who whisked us to the Garden Orchid Hotel... a very quick 5-minute drive from the airport!

The Zamboanga airport against a pink morning sky.

After checking in, we grabbed breakfast at the hotel and met up with Ma'am June and the rest of the group that would accompany us around Zamboanga. Our first stop was the water intake portion in the Pasonanca Natural Park.

We got off the van and walked through a small neighborhood in
Sitio Canucutan towards the intake.
The landscape opened up to this picturesque view complete with
a bamboo bridge over a small stream

At the end of the bridge was a small briefing area where Sir Mike gave us an overview of the park and the efforts done to protect it. The main threat is from people illegally cutting rattan in the forest.

Briefing area with a map of the birding sites in the park.

After the briefing, it was off into the trails! The trail was an easy, narrow walk through trees and shrubs. It rained a bit while we were on the trail but that didn't stop us! There were lots of movements in the canopy of the huge trees where we saw Red-keeled Flowerpeckers, Yellow-wattled Bulbuls, and Olive-backed Sunbirds.

The trail was dotted with tall trees.

Further down the trail, we could hear a number of White-eared Tailorbirds calling from the brush. We also heard Hooded Pittas calling but unfortunately, we didn't get to see them. BUT! That dip was made up for by a very unexpected lifer! I was watching some movement in the canopy of a huge tree when I focused in on a pale cuckoo... I took in all the fieldmarks: pale, golden color, horizontal barring on its underparts extending to its tail, red eyes, white on the face.... Gould's Bronze Cuckoo! For that bird alone, I was good for the whole trip! But of course, there was so much more in store for us =)

We found ourselves in the intake area and took a break with a snack of bayo-bayo, a round banana and coconut snack, tamal, a rice cake with noodles, and fresh coconut juice.

Our yummy snack!

Mike and I were walking around the area when Sir Joel, our guide, called me to say that he and Jops were able to spot the Silvery Kingfisher. I immediately followed him into the trail and there it was, stark black with white spots and bright red legs... the Mindanao subspecies of the Silvery Kingfisher.

Silvery Kingfisher Alcedo argentata
The flumenicola race, which can be found in Bohol, Leyte, and Samar,
has a purplish color to its underparts compared to the blackish coloring
of the Mindanao subspecies.

With the kingfisher ticked off, we piled in our van headed to city hall and meet the mayor. Mayor Celso Lobregat welcomed us into his office and after a brief chat gifted us with our own Chabacano dictionaries! Cool!

It was now time for lunch! Ma'am June treated us to Lantaka for lunch where we filled our tummies with delicious food and met the City Tourism Officer and members from the Zamboanga Camera Club who were interested in bird photography.

After lunch, we checked out three more possible birding sites in the city. We first went to the Bog Lake in the golf course which was like a "small" Candaba... complete with terns and Philippine Ducks. Our next stop was the Zamboanga Ecozone which was a good place for relaxed birding, with pretty boat "houses" lining a small lake.  Our last stop was the NJB Farm where we met the owner who generously treated us to some of the flavored fresh milk from his dairy farm.

Birding at the Bog Lake
The lake lined with boat houses also housed Philippine Ducks and
Wandering Whistling Ducks.

The sun was setting when we left the farm and we headed straight to Paseo del Mar for our dinner. Ma'am June ordered a Tausug dish called tiula itum. Black and suspiciously looking like dinuguan, I asked her what it was... it was actually beef nilaga with toasted coconut which gives it its black color. It was very delicious!

The tiula itum is in the bowl surrounded by our other yummy food.

After a very good dinner, we checked out the site and facilities as a possible venue for the bird fest. The paseo was bustling with families and students in their formal wear as they were coming from their prom. 

Of course, our trip wouldn't be complete without checking the now-popular population of Barn Swallows that come to rest on electric wires along the city streets at night. Hundreds and thousands of swallows could be seen perched evenly spaced from each other on the wires lining the street! 

A portion of the swallows' city roost

Mike also pointed out the two races of Barn Swallows in the flock. We were able to spot a number of birds from the saturata race (those with cinnamon-colored underparts) and the more plentiful gutturalis race (with white-colored underparts.)

Pardon the seemingly "headless" birds in the photo =P
But this shows the two races of Barn Swallows.

After getting over our amazement and getting our fill viewing the swallows, we called it a night and headed back to our hotel. After such a busy day going around many sites plus filling our stomachs with yummy food, we went to bed early, getting enough rest for another activity-filled day two.

To be continued...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Well-Done in Olango Part 2: Dowitcher Adventure

At the breakfast table on our third and last day in Olango, everyone was discussing the heavy downpour during the night and, apparently, Trinket and I slept through it. But because of that night of rain, our morning was bright and sunny, allowing us to go exploring and continue our search for the Asian Dowitchers.

The day before, our guide from the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Sir Boy, advised us to try accessing the sanctuary from the "other side"... which happened to be where our inn was located. Perfect! We waited for him to arrive at the inn but he didn't show up. That of course, didn't stop us from exploring on our own. We picked up our gear, asked the people around for directions and found ourselves crossing a "river" into the mangroves.

The explorers crossing the "river" into mangroves unknown

There were other people walking the same direction we were headed (although they were walking much faster in the ankle-deep water.) We followed our feet and the general direction we thought was the right one. At one point, the "road" forked and we had to make a decision whether to turn left (where the other people were going) or right (where the GPS showed the sanctuary to be but looked unused and untrodden by humans.)

We didn't want to get lost in the mangroves! Think "The River"!

We backtracked a bit but decided that we should follow the usual route and so we turned left. It seemed like a very long walk into the mangroves when the landscape opened up into a wide, white flatness. With a tricycle terminal right smack in the middle.

Ta-da! A tricycle stand at your service!

We asked the tricycle and motorcycle drivers about the sanctuary and they said they could drop us off in that area. Perfect! We rode two tricycles and two motorbikes and headed to our last chance for the Dowitchers.

An unexpected part of our Dowitcher adventure!

We "raced" through the dry mud/sand (but a little boy on a bike overtook us easily =P) and disembarked at the water's edge. We arranged to be picked up and our signal was a raising of hands. We could see waders far away and trained our spotting scopes on them. Godwit. Plover. Stint. Curlew. Long bill! Godwit again.

All out effort to spot the Asian Dowitchers.
We would see birds with long bills probing the shallows but
they would turn out to be Godwits, with their two-toned bills.

More waders were coming in and we decided to move closer to them. Trinket spotted an octopus camouflaged in the shallow water very near us! It was so cool watching it uncoil its tentacles, slowly making its way to its hole nearby. It even changed its shade of beige when a shadow was cast on it! So cool!


The octopus slowly uncoiling its tentacles...
... then darting to the safety of its hole in the sand!

I was silently convincing myself that it was ok if we didn't see the Dowitchers, we saw an octopus anyway. But then Adri nonchalantly said, "Eto, straight black bill" then gestured to his scope. I peered into the scope, saw a small flock of birds foraging and zeroed in on two paler ones with long, black, straight bills: Asian Dowitchers!

Small flock of Asian Dowitchers Limnodrommus semipalmatus walking around (in circles, as if to confuse us birders!) with other waders. The birds we saw were in non-breeding plumage but their distinct bills were very evident.

Finally, we got to see our last target bird on our last morning in Olango! We spent time observing the birds and taking photos before we headed back to the banks to signal for our rides. But we didn't have to, as we approached the bank, our rides were pulling up already, as if reading our minds. We rode back to their terminal and walked happily back to the inn. We celebrated with a yummy lunch and mango shakes before we said goodbye to Olango.

Our celebratory lunch spread!

I was really happy and grateful we got to see the Dowitchers (a species we all missed on our previous trips) and all the other lifers and birds as well. Olango is such a wonderful place to bird in. It's so relaxing being there and the birds are simply amazing! Aside from the lifers, Olango allowed me to study the field marks of many waders and comparing them with each other, providing good practice in ID-ing skills!

In Olango, you get to see birds side by side, not flying away so easily,
allowing you to study their field marks leisurely.
I had a great time studying the Great Knots (foreground) and their
pretty spots and comparing them to the Grey Plovers (background.)

Of course, the biggest plus was the great company, stories exchanged, and laughter shared.
'Til next time, Olango =)

Part of the evidence of two fun nights in Olango =)