Friday, September 27, 2013

The Chili Eaters

My mom's finger chili plant is again starting to turn red with ripe finger chilis and someone's getting to them first!

Bitten-off ripe, red chilis!

My mom's chili plant constantly fruits with small green finger chilis that turn bright red when they are ripe. We usually pick a few of them to cook with or place in dipping sauces but it seems this batch of chilis won't make it to our dinner table!

According to my mom and dad, the birds come early in the morning, noisily perching on the plant before plucking off the reddest, ripest chilis for their breakfast. I was able to sneak up on the "chili eaters" in our backyard --- Yellow-vented Bulbuls!

One of the now-plump chili eaters in our small garden.
It had just eaten the chili on the left =) 

This one's just done with its breakfast of chilis =)

I have yet to photograph them actually eating though. On the weekends, I hear my parents calling me "Mai! The birds are eating the chilis again!" but by the time I get down with my camera, they're done feeding!

I checked on the plant this morning and saw a new batch of green chilis. Like the birds, I'll be waiting for them to ripen so I can watch (and hopefully photograph) the Yellow-Vented Bulbuls enjoying their breakfast.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hairy Caterpillar Attack! (And What To Do About It)

Where are the Pied Trillers when you need them?!? (Pied Trillers are the black and white birds seen in some urban areas which love to feed on small hairy caterpillars, locally known as higad.)

We were in the UP Diliman campus conducting a guided trip for first-time birdwatchers. We were admiring two handsome Collared Kingfishers in the Beta Way when I felt something on my neck. Without looking, I flicked it downwards with my hand and saw a small, fleshy caterpillar clinging to the front of my shirt. I let out a sigh of relief when I saw it didn't have any hairs on it. Whew! I flicked it away from my shirt and that's when the itching started. No wonder the caterpillar didn't have any hairs on it... it was all on my neck! Gah!


Nasty aftermath of the close encounter with a higad

It was my first ever higad attack! I tried to remember all I knew about what to do when this happens, while ignoring the building itchy feeling on my neck. Was there a leaf of some kind I could mash and apply to the area??? All I remembered was: don't scratch so the hairs won't spread! So that's what I did. But my neck was starting to sting a bit and I really wanted to scratch it!

I knew I had some alcohol in my birding belt bag... which I didn't bring since it was only a half day trip in the middle of the city! A fellow birdwatcher who saw the whole thing and my rising panic took pity on me and offered me some wet wipes. I gratefully took a sheet and dabbed it at my neck. It relieved the stinging and itching a bit and took out some of the hairs. The stinging became quite tolerable and I chose to ignore it and wait til we got back to the cars before I did anything about it.

I managed to forget about it the rest of the morning and was able to clean the area around noon. A day after, my neck has a slightly puffy red streak where the hairs came in contact with the skin. It stings a bit when it comes in contact with anything and sometimes gets real itchy! But other than that, nothing intolerable.


One of my students commented with a look of horror:
"Teacher! Your neck is red and spotted!!!"

Having experienced a higad attack made me really curious about the best remedies for it. Being a birdwatcher, you can find yourself in close contact with these hairy cats while in the field and it's good to know what you're supposed to do about it. After reading up on material online and asking my sister who is a doctor, here's what I now know about when a higad attacks:
  • The most important thing when a higad gets on your bare skin is not to touch the area. Touching or scratching will cause the toxic hairs to spread and cause more damage. So no touching! I'm grateful to Trinket for giving me stern looks and reminders not to touch and not to scratch no matter how itchy my neck was getting! Otherwise, my neck would have been striped with red!
  • Some sites advise to remove clothing, accessories, or jewelry that may have come in contact with the higad and may have higad hairs on them too. Disrobing in front of your birding group may not be such a pleasant experience for everyone, so no panicking and putting on a live show for your friends (this step I skipped for very obvious reasons.) The irritation was considerably lessened when I finally removed my shirt later on that day.
  • Next thing to do is to remove the toxic hairs that have become embedded in the skin. How can we do that? Online, I found remedies that suggest applying vinegar, urine, or rock salt to dissolve the hairs. Melted candle wax can also be dripped on to the affected area (ouch!) and allowed to harden then peeled off. My friend Ronald says he does this when a higad gets on him and he says the pain of the hot wax makes him forget about the itchiness. Sticky tape or duct tape was also suggested to peel off the hairs. I imagine the tape to be the least uncomfortable and least painful method but Ronald says it might just break off the hairs. Tweezers and a friend (to pull out the hairs) would be helpful too. However, just like in my situation last weekend (or when one is in the middle of the forest), vinegar, rock salt, a lighted candle, or sticky tape may not always be available. I am in no way suggesting asking for urine from a companion no matter how close you are. What I did was dab gently at my neck with a piece of wet wipes a birder generously gave me. I did see some of the hairs come off but I'm sure it wasn't as effective as the other suggested methods.
  • For medication, my sister recommends applying a topical steroid (like Diprolene or Betnovate) to the area to treat the itchiness and inflammation. Our birder friend Kitty also suggests using Triamcinolone cream for this and other nasty insect bites. If you react severely to the hairs and if the symptoms persist even with medication, it is best to have it checked by a doctor.
Just an update! I've been getting some queries from people who have been "attacked" by hairy caterpillars and would want to share some of the locally available balms I use not only for these incidents but for other insect bites as well. These are products from the Philippines.

ALL ORGANICS PAIN & ITCH BALM: super effective in relieving itchiness!
HUMAN HEART NATURE BALM FOR ALL SEASONS: pretty effective too, and it also helps with my headaches
GIGA TEA TREE CREAM: also pretty effective for relieving itchiness

So there! My curiosity got the better of me and I have read, interviewed, and pestered people for their opinion regarding treatment and remedies. I hope I won't ever need to recall all this information because of another hairy caterpillar attack but I guess the higads are always out there, landing on you when you least expect it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

More Awesome Birds in Coron!

Yes, we saw more birds in Coron! Not only were the people of Coron very friendly, so were the birds! =)

The past three days, together with Sir Chin of Birdwatch Coron and Rommel of Birdwatch Palawan, conducted a birdwatching training for Coron tour guides and brought them out birding in two locations. For the second site, we went to the Capayas area. After a few hours of birding, the participants left while the rest of us (me, Zelyn, Sir Chin, and Rommel) stayed behind to bird some more.

We walked to the home of Kuya Erwin, the resident Capayas guide, and he led us to the Capayas creek where kingfishers frequent. Along the way, we got close-up views of some White-vented Shamas and Hair-crested Drongos (lifer!)


Hair-crested Drongo
White-vented Shama

We passed the area and refocused out attention to the creek. No, no kingfishers yet. We hiked a distance, crossed the creek, but still no kingfishers. We did see a Black-naped Monarch and heard a raptor calling from atop the trees plus more White-vented Shamas.

As Kuya Erwin was leading us deeper into the brush, we decided to head back and try our luck next time. So, our group trudged back toward his house, through the trail, across the creek... and then, a kingfisher! Kuya Erwin excitedly started pointing out a tiny, orangey bird perched partially hidden across the water. A superb Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher! Another of my favorite lifers on this trip!

Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher
aka Rufous-backed Kingfisher

While admiring the beautiful bird, Kuya Erwin suddenly got even more excited and pointed to another kingfisher a few meters downstream. A Blue-eared Kingfisher! Our second sighting for the day!

Our second Blue-eared Kingfisher for the morning!

The kingfisher was focused on some prey in the water and it soon dove and flew out of sight. As Zelyn and I were rejoicing over the kingfisher, a small bird caught our attention as it perched on a banana plant behind us. A very handsome Lovely Sunbird (it was a male =P)! Lifer! It flitted in and out of view and quickly flew away.

Our group trekked back to Kuya Erwin's house and were quickly treated to in-your-face views of some Palawan Flowerpeckers! First, a male flowerpecker landed on a guava tree just outside his house and then quickly perched and fed on some bananas which were hanging on a branch, laid out just for the birds =)

Male Palawan Flowerpecker

The bird, which I think is my favorite flowerpecker (at the moment), soon flew away but was almost immediately replaced with a female. As with all flowerpeckers, the female is more drably-colored compared to the male. The bird soon flew away and just in time too, as our breakfast had just arrived hot and fresh from Darayonan Lodge! As we were enjoying our delicious breakfast of lamayo (a kind of fried dried fish), fried rice, and egg, a male Lovely Sunbird decided to feed on the red flowers just beside our breakfast table. None of us could grab our cameras as our fingers were oily from the fish!

We had to say goodbye soon after breakfast as we had to prepare for the birdwatching activity for kids later that afternoon. No worries, we decided to come back the following day.

And come back we did! We were back in Kuya Erwin's house early the next morning and we were prepped and excited for a full day of birding. We were also joined by Birdwatch Coron member, Michelle. Some of the early birds in the early morning fog were Ashy Drongos, Olive-winged Bulbuls, Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrikes, and Palawan Flowerpeckers.

We heard some Common Flamebacks calling and we decided to go look for them in a higher portion of the area. The race in Busuanga is known as the Spot-throated Flameback and not the Red-headed Flameback (split from Greater Flameback) I mentioned previously. Thank you Paul and Rob for the corrections! Birder friend and blogger Paul has an excellent post about the recent flameback splits here(Maiabird's Note: This is the third version of this paragraph! And I thank my birder friends from the bottom of my heart for the correction and more importantly for the education =) Jops and I weren't able to see the woodpeckers and just heard them so it's impossible for us to positively ID. Rob did share that if we heard it, then it was most probably Spot-throated. Great info to know!) 

So up the steep hill we went in search for the trilling birds. They weren't anywhere to be seen but we got excellent views of a Crested Goshawk having its breakfast! All the smaller birds were making a ruckus due to its presence and it was really amazing to see it with its prey clasped in its talons.

Crested Goshawk eating a... chicken?

After perching for some minutes, the raptor took off, bringing its meal with it. We stayed a while on the slope, looking out for the woodpeckers but saw none. We did feast on a flock of Yellow-throated Leafbirds which fed on a low tree, allowing us to photograph them as they flitted from branch to branch. They would fly as a flock in a brilliant display of bright green! Left me quite breathless =)

Birders, birds, and forest =)

Yellow-throated Leafbird, a Palawan endemic

Our group split up into two, I stayed with Kuya Erwin to look for the woodpeckers while the rest went to the creek to search for the kingfishers. We regrouped after a few minutes with no sightings of our target birds. We had breakfast (again delivered from Darayonan Lodge) before starting a long trek to find more birds.

We ventured into meadows with grazing cows, walked through a path surrounded by dense greenery...



... crossed shallow waters (and Rommel even got stung by a bee!) for the kingfishers. Both the Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher and Blue-eared Kingfisher made appearances again! I got a better shot of the dwarf this time =)

Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher
aka Rufous-backed Kingfisher

We started walking away from the creek and walked and walked... and walked. We searched for the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha and was able to spot one skulking and hiding from us. I was able to catch a glimpse of the bird but not a good enough view to call it a lifer. I guess it'll have to wait til my next trip to Coron. Even if I dipped on some birds, I was able to get eleven lifers on my first birding trip to Coron.

But, quite unexpectedly, as I was reviewing my bird lists in the pre-departure area of the Busuanga Airport, I even got a twelfth lifer! A squadron on Brown-backed Needletails suddenly swooped into view, flying low over the fields and soaring above the airport. It was such a nice way to end my activity-filled trip to Coron!

Many thanks to Sir Chin and Birdwatch Coron for hosting the training, inviting us, and bringing us out birding. Birding in Coron was such an enjoyable adventure that I can't wait to go back and to share this experience with more of our birder friends! Club trip, anyone? =)

Monday, September 9, 2013

More Friends, More Birders, More Lifers in Coron!

After a successful first day training and easy afternoon birding in Coron, the following morning was dedicated to more birding in the field. We met up with the participants from the training in Barangay 6, Capayas. While distributing the binoculars, we were greeted by a small flock of Yellow-throated Leafbirds and Palawan Flowerpeckers.

We divided the group into two and took different directions for our birding morning. Our group decided to check out part of the Mabentangen River to look for kingfishers. Along the way, we heard and saw quite a number of White-vented Shamas, Ashy Drongos, Olive-winged Bulbuls, and Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds. All Palawan birds!

We went off the road and headed closer to the stream where our guide and new friend from Birdwatch Coron, Zelyn, said the kingfishers frequent. We spent some time quietly waiting when a high pitched flash of blue flew in front of us! It was the Blue-eared Kingfisher! I couldn't count it as a lifer though but knowing it was just there made me want to see it all the more!

Birders along the stream, waiting for the kingfishers

We moved to another area of the river when Zelyn pointed out a kingfisher perched a few meters away downstream. It was orange but too big to be the dwarf-kingfisher. As we got a better view, we confirmed it to be a Ruddy Kingfisher!

A documentary shot of the Ruddy Kingfisher. 

Suddenly, the flash of blue crossed in front of our group and very kindly perched very near us! The handsome Blue-eared Kingfisher stayed just a few seconds, but long enough for us to get good views through our binoculars and for me to snap a single photo of one of my favorite lifers on this trip!

Handsome Blue-eared Kingfisher! Definitely one of my favorites!

It soon darted away from us, leaving us all ecstatic at its brief appearance. The Ruddy Kingfisher came into view again and Sir Chin crossed the knee-high waters to get a better photo. After a few minutes, we all made our way out back to the street. On our way back out, we encountered some Black-naped Orioles and a Hooded Pitta, who was friendly but too shy to have its photo taken. We said goodbye to the new birders, fresh with awesome lifers for that morning. The rest of us stayed and went to see Kuya Erwin, the resident guide in the Capayas area. He brought us around the area and showed us more lifers, but I'm saving that story for last =)

Fast forward to later in the afternoon. We were in Villa Khadine Grand Vista Resort in nearby Sitio Jolo where we were going to conduct a birdwatching lecture and activity for kids. The kids started arriving at around 3PM and we gave a short introduction to birding.

Short lecture before heading out to bird

After the lecture, the kids were given binoculars to use for the afternoon and we stepped out to bird in the resort. I guided the group of the girls and was assisted by another new friend and Birdwatch Coron member, Michelle

I lagged behind a bit to get my Kennedy field guide when a loud collective "Ayuuuuun!!!" was heard from the young birdwatchers. Apparently, they had all seen the Yellow-throated Leafbird being pointed out to them! This got them more excited to see more birds! And more birds they saw! 

Michelle pointing out more birds to the enthusiastic young birders

The kids got a great birdlist for their first birding trip: Asian Glossy Starling, Collared Kingfisher, White-bellied Munia, Pied Fantail, White-vented Shama, and Ashy Drongo. We were hoping to see some woodpeckers and maybe the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, as they would be lifers for me too, but they didn't show that afternoon. We got great views of a Hooded Pitta though and the girls were treated to helping "rescue" a Monitor Lizard that got stuck in the empty swimming pool!

Hooded Pitta, another awesome lifer for the first time birders!

We headed back to the lecture area and helped the kids make their very first bird list. We all had a great time and a lot of them were asking if we were going to go birding again the following day and if not, when the next birding trip would be. They also wanted to be members of Birdwatch Coron. =)

We winded down with merienda and cold, refreshing softdrinks. Certificates were awarded to the kids and after them, the participants of the training the previous day were also given their certificates. It was such a fun two days birding with them, gaining new friends, bringing more birders into the field, plus getting more lifers along the way! 

After a scrumptious dinner courtesy of Sir Chin, we said our good nights and rested early because... the following day was dedicated solely for birding!!!

To be continued...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

First Taste of Coron Birding

When I got invited by Sir Chin to conduct a training for tour guides in Coron, Palawan,  I was more than happy to accept. Both for the opportunity to share the adventure and joy of birdwatching and, of course, to bird in Coron for the first time. I had been to Coron before but I wasn't a birder then. I was so excited to be able to get a taste of some Palawan birds!

I arrived in Coron early Thursday afternoon and went directly to the Darayonan Lodge which is owned by Sir Chin's family. Atop a mango tree by the reception area, I heard a familiar swit-swit of an Olive-backed Sunbird. I raised my bins and saw a handsome male of the aurora race which is endemic to Palawan. Beautiful!

The male of the aurora race has an orange tint below its metallic throat
that fades beautifully into its yellow belly

After a short rest, Sir Chin accompanied me to the Maquinit Hot Springs for a couple of hours birding. I was hoping to spot a Stork-billed Kingfisher, but I wasn't so lucky.


Signage near the entrance of the Maquinit Hot Springs
Spotting the Rufous Night-Herons among the large mangroves

We did see a handsome Rufous Night-Heron perched on a tall mangrove, with some more flying half-seen among the mangroves. We birded some more in the area, hearing a Collared Kingfisher calling from deep within the mangroves. Sir Chin soon spotted a Yellow-throated Leafbird! I tried to find it but as soon as I focused on the well-camouflaged bird, it flew away! I missed it!!! But it was ok. We still had a few more days to explore =)

Rufous Night-Heron

We ventured out of the park and followed the melodious calls of some White-vented Shamas singing from the tangles. The songs were so loud and so close but we weren't able to see any of these Palawan endemics. It was getting dark pretty fast, so we packed up our gear and headed back to the lodge. Our training started early the next day and we all had to prepare.

The training started early Friday morning, with twenty participants joining us. Together with Rommel from Birdwatch Palawan and Sir Chin from Birdwatch Coron, we completed the speakers for the training. It was fun sharing what we knew about birdwatching with such an interested and enthusiastic group!

The lectures ended at around 3PM. After merienda, the participants were given binoculars to use for the afternoon, as we were going birding in a nearby area. We walked towards a residential area which still had lots of trees. I was surprised to see my first lifer feeding on a low atis tree! A male Palawan Flowerpecker! I immediately fell in love with the handsomely colored bird =) I wasn't able to take a photo though as the bird was almost always covered with leaves and was quite skittish. We walked around the area and I got more Coron lifers: an adorable Blue Paradise Flycatcher (possibly a juvenile), some White-vented Shamas, and one of my favorites for the trip: Ashy Drongo.

Blue Paradise-Flycatcher
White-vented Shama
Ashy Drongo
I love the fish-tail (hidden in this photo) and color of this bird!

I loved all the lifers I was getting! We were also able to see some Olive-winged Bulbuls, Rufous-tailed TailorbirdsPink-necked Green Pigeons, AND I finally got to see the beautiful Yellow-throated Leafbird! No photo of the leafbird though as they were foraging high up a tree.

Spotting a friendly Rufous-tailed Tailorbird up a tree

It was soon getting dark, so we decided to walk back to Darayonan and call it a day. The same group was set to do more birding in the area of the Mabentangen River early the next morning. I got 6 lifers on my first day in Coron and was raring to see some more!

To be continued...

More stories here and here!