Monday, June 23, 2014

The Disappearing Caterpillars

I have been fascinated with the life cycle of butterflies ever since I read about it when I was a kid. I pored over the colorful pictures in books with a mix of awe and yes, disgust. The close-up photos of the caterpillars, their pupas, and even the butterfly's bodies filled me with wonder and a certain fear. I grew up loving them but afraid of them touching my skin.

When I became a birdwatcher, I was able to get over the fear (I'm maybe 95% cured!) but the fascination has definitely doubled... even tripled! So imagine my joy when I first witnessed a Lime Butterfly laying eggs on my mom's calamansi plant in her pocket garden! It was "Stage 1" come to life!!

Do you see the tiny orb?

The adult butterfly would curve its body and deposit a single egg on a leaf or stem of the host plant. It would flutter around again and would deposit another egg and then another. My mom and I were able to see it lay around 4 eggs that morning.

A few days after, I returned to the plant and found three tiny brown crawlies munching away at their chose leaves! Success! 

One of the "older" ones

I constantly checked on them and tried my best to document all the changes, transformations, and growth of the caterpillars. In the process, I was able to find four caterpillars on the calamansi plant and they were of varying sizes! I was able to observe them eating, staying still, AND I was also able to witness a defensive behavior they are known for!

I accidentally hit the leaf it was on with my finger and out came
those yellow-red "horns" from its head!
The photo is blurred because I was caught off guard seeing its horns!

It really is amazing being able to see first hand things I only once read about or see from other people's photos. I left it alone after that =)

I checked on them every morning as soon as I woke up. They would either be having breakfast or fast asleep.

This was my photo of the largest one from last Sunday. I was able to count all four caterpillars that morning before I heard mass with my family.

They're growing so fast! You can see a smaller one climbing down
the branch under my finger.

When we returned that afternoon, they were all gone. All of them. Disappeared without a trace!!!

I was really sad. There was no trace of them! I checked the neighboring plants but they weren't there. My best guess as to why they all disappeared: a bird had eaten them.

I was so excited for them to complete their metamorphosis! Especially since I haven't seen an actual eclosion! Oh well, I guess I have to wait for another batch of these creepy crawlies to come to life in our garden. In the meantime, I will have to content myself with completing their life cycle through different experiences:

They were supposed to develop into bright green caterpillars until
they were ready to pupate.
This was from a previous batch of Disappearing Caterpillars.

When ready for pupation, it positions itself like this and begins
 the slow process of enveloping itself in a chrysallis.
Again, from another unsuccessful batch.

Its chrysallis is bright green and really alien-like!
This one was unsuccesful... a parasite got inside it =(

Of course, the last stage would have been the best to observe: eclosion or the emergence of the butterfly from its pupa. I have yet to witness that but I did get to see some newly-emerged Lime Butterflies last weekend!

Fresh from the pupa!
Its empty pupa case is on its upper left

We were also able to see them mating just after eclosion!

I have technically seen all the stages in their life cycle although in different places. I'll be on the lookout again for any egg-laying butterflies in our garden and hopefully the next batch will no longer contribute to the increasing number of disappearing caterpillars.

I have a previous blog post about the unsuccessful pupas here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Other Than The Birds...

Our friend Trinket recently organized a bird survey for a portion of one of the bigger and greener universities in Quezon City and Jops and I volunteered together with our friends Adri, Drew, and Luke. Our group met up with Abby, Program Manager for Campus Sustainability, early Saturday morning and were off to the trail.

We saw and heard quite a number of birds but it was a surprisingly quiet trail given that there is a water source and good vegetation. Naturally, when birds are quite scarce, we turn our attention to the wildlife other than the birds =)

Clearing before entering the usually off-limits trail

As we walked towards the trail we would be exploring, we passed by a calamansi plant and Trinket and Adri quickly saw some newly-eclosed Lime Butterflies! It was so cool seeing the fresh, new butterflies perched, unmoving near their discarded chrysalis. [eclosion - the emergence of an insect from the pupa case, or of a larva from the egg]

Look at those pretty colors!
Can you see the discarded chrysalis?

While we enjoyed taking photos of the beautiful, unmoving butterflies, birds began calling from around us: Black-naped Orioles, Collared Kingfishers, and Golden-bellied Flyeaters were coming out to sing.

Abby taking photos of the butterflies

Along the trail, we were joined by more staff and a security guard and they shared their bird observations with us. While talking, we heard the loud calls of Barred Rails and some Philippine Magpie Robins made a quick appearance. High on the canopy, some Olive-backed Sunbirds were flitting with the Eurasian Tree Sparrows and a lone Red-keeled Flowerpecker was also spotted.

Adri and Trinket went with Drew the night before to set up some herp traps to try and collect some specimens as part of the survey. [herpetology - the branch of zoology concerned with reptiles and amphibians] We soon reached the first trap they set up and Drew checked to see if there was anything caught in it. I think we were all hoping for snakes, but alas it was empty.

Drew and Abby checking the herp trap

They dismantled the trap and we headed closer to the stream. Along the way, a small toad was spotted, examined, and documented.

The small toad was examined and found to be an invasive Cane Toad
We set it free 

We moved on to check out the small pond and its surroundings. It was still very quiet along the trail, save for more noisy Collared Kingfishers calling around us. We did see an adult Black-crowned Night Heron in the area.

Waiting for birds... pitta? cuckoo? bush hen?

While we waited, I spotted some mushrooms scattered along the ground.



Abby found a small cluster of delicate mushrooms on a fallen log.



Trinket also found some chunky-looking mushrooms that released their powdery spores when she nudged them!

Fleshy, chunky fungi

Mushrooms weren't the only thing our group spotted on the ground! Trinket soon called me to check out something Luke spotted: a moth caterpillar! Trinket told us it was a kind of sphinx moth caterpillar!

Beautiful creepy crawly!
They are amazing to observe but they kinda creep me out!

We left the caterpillar and moved further along the trail. We exited the trail and saw lots of White-breasted Woodswallows perched on wires. A Coppersmith Barbet also gave us good, long views through the scope as it perched on some leafless branches. We ended our survey by the calamansi plant where we saw the Lime Butterflies and were surprised to see them already paired up and mating!

Mating pair of Lime Butterflies
fresh out from their chrysalis

It was cool to see stages of a butterfly's life cycle come to life that morning. We also spotted some butterfly eggs, still unhatched on the calamansi leaves. I wished my students were there to see it all!

Our group listed 19 species of birds, plus mushrooms, butterflies, and moth caterpillars too. Together with the ants, mosquitoes, and stink bugs we saw, it was a really fun morning exploring with friends =)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Wishful Thinking and Wishes Granted

I got my excitement back for birding at the right time: very close to a national holiday. That meant I had an opportunity to go birding for at least for half a day on Philippine Independence Day (which fell on a Thursday this year)! I wanted to check out a possible birdy site in Antipolo and that's where I drove to early on June 12. I was silently hoping to see a white morph coucal, especially since our friend Mark Jason texted me a few days earlier to say he had just also seen it! I crossed my fingers for it =) I arrived in the subdivision around 6:30AM and drove around some streets with vacant lots.

Just a couple of houses along this road

I rolled the windows down and immediately heard the distinct calls of Tawny Grassbirds coming from the grassy lots. I stopped and tried to stop them but the first birds seen were a couple of Barred Rails on the road. There were two birds out in the open were actually calling! It was the first time I actually SAW Barred Rails making all that noise! Usually, it's either you see them OR you hear them. I was so happy to have been able to see and also get a short video of this behavior.



A passing motorcycle flushed the birds away and so I drove on. Upon reaching a dead end and got out to survey the area. A small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias perched on some tall grasses close to the car while lots of Yellow-vented Bulbuls flew in the area.

Scaly-breasted Munias

The Munias soon flew off and we decided to turn back and explore another area. As I was heading back, I saw a couple of Tawny Grassbirds preening atop some blades of grass. It was nice getting to observe all their field marks out in the open as they are notorious skulkers.

Tawny Grassbird

While watching the grassbirds, a tiny Bright-capped Cisticola suddenly started calling from a very high and exposed perch. Silhouetted against the brightening sky, all I could really see was the shadow of a small, round bird! It flew away, calling noisily as it did. I decided to move to another area and stopped when I heard an Elegant Tit! I didn't see it but I saw some Buzzing Flowerpeckers joining the morning chorus.

I moved to another area and stayed there the longest. The birds seemed to be all coming out to sing and have breakfast. The Black-naped Orioles came out to sun themselves and the Collared Kingfishers started becoming noisy. As I was observing some flowerpeckers above, something white and chicken-like started gliding from one tree to the next! Was it really one of my most-wanted birds??? It was!!! A white-morph Philippine Coucal! It was soon followed by a Philippine Coucal. How exciting!

But, just like any self-respecting coucal, they both just stayed out in the open for a few seconds, just enough for a good, brief view through the bins, before skulking into the leaves to hide.

I FINALLY see the white-morph coucal!!!
Well, this photo shows only its back and tail...
It was followed by this regular Philippine Coucal

The white-morph even glided over the street I was standing in and settled into a mango tree, yes, unseen. I was thrilled at the sighting and I was thankful I had my wish granted! To top off the experience, a Plain Bush-hen also crossed the same street! Another bird I wanted to see, was a pitta. I laughed at the thought and then it started to drizzle.

I got in the car and decided to start driving back down. The rain started to pour but as I neared the exit, it stopped and the sun came out. Birding potential! I decided to explore a much greener part of the area and as I passed a thick clump of vegetation I heard it: Hooded Pitta. Would you believe, I found myself staring at a bright blue Hooded Pitta in the middle of an opening! Wish granted!

Spot the jewel on the forest floor!

I slowly got out of the car but as I did the pitta flew above to perch on some electric wires, giving great views of its bright red bottom =)

Such bright, wonderful colors!

The pitta flew back to the trail but was flushed further into the vegetation when a tricycle passed by. The people in the neighborhood were starting to go about their business and so were the Grey-backed Tailorbirds! One was singing very close to us and I could see it hopping around the low branches. I waited until it perched out in the open and sang!

Grey-backed Tailorbird
Really happy with this pic!!!

It sang and sang and sang until another motorcycle drove past. Two tailorbirds actually just stayed in the area, singing very loudly until I left.

I was starting to spot an Elegant Tit that started singing above when a group of young boys came out to inspect what I was doing. Luckily, we were able to spot the black and yellow tit and showed it to the boys through the scope.

When the bird left, a little birdwatching crash course was due for these curious boys. It was nice to see them genuinely interested in what we were saying. Soon they were calling to point out a bird that was singing (it was the Tailorbird.)

Before we left, I gave the boys the new brochure that friends Adri and Trinket put together for the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines featuring the common birds one can find in the city. Happy with the morning spent birding and with wishes granted, I left the kids with reminders to "just watch and don't catch" the birds. As I drove off, I saw the kids sitting on the sidewalk, seriously studying the birds in the brochures I gave them. =)

I hope they won't ever forget their first birdwatching experience
 and also the "lessons" they got that day =)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Getting My Birding Juju Back

It has been a while since I last blogged mainly because it has been a while since I was out in the field. I guess the horrible experience of seeing a Colasisi die made me a bit hesitant to go out again. I even feared for the pair of Pied Fantails in our front yard when I saw some of the neighborhood kids pay attention to it. They disappeared that afternoon and I could feel a sense of foreboding creeping in. Thankfully, they returned the next morning =)

I have gone out on short trips with Jops and some of our friends, but there was still a sense of negativity and expectation of something bad to happen. I guess due to that bad juju, I didn't get to see much birds on those trips.

Fast forward to last Sunday. The WBCP partnered with the Philippine Eagle Foundation and the Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR) to celebrate the 16th Philippine Eagle Week.

The tent area for the event

Jops and I signed up to be volunteer guides for the bird walks in the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center and for the first time in a long while, I was excited to bird. =)

Spotting some Philippine Pied Fantails

It wasn't as birdy as we would have wanted it to be but I really enjoyed the morning bird walk. Even if we didn't see many species, it was refreshing to see the delighted expressions of the brand new birders as they discover new birds in the city. And since birds were few and far between, even the Yellow-vented Bulbuls were a source of excitement when they did finally show.

After the bird walk, we were able to attend the morning lectures and listen to friends share their experience seeing the Philippine Eagle. It was very nice to hear them reliving their experiences, as if they were bringing us back with them to the time they saw the eagle.

Ixi shared her Philippine Eagle experience in Davao
Arnel shared his Philippine Eagle experience in Zamboanga

Listening to their amazing stories made me think when will Jops and I get to have our own Philippine Eagle experience. Soon, hopefully. GAME! =)

After the lectures, we went outside to help in the activity booths. There was coloring, sticker tattoos, and origami for the kids who dropped by the tents while a tree walk and a tour of the rescue center was ongoing.

Bird origami
The coloring booth with naughty boys and
prim and proper girls =P

As always, I enjoyed chatting with the kids, answering their questions and trying to teach them about caring for birds and the environment. And then it was time for lunch!

The birders had a fun picnic lunch under the trees, chatting and laughing and getting distracted by a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker who decided to perch low and very near us while we were all eating.

Picnic time!
Photo by Jops

The afternoon was also filled with activities: lectures, a raptor tour, and another bird walk. While waiting for the 4pm bird walk, I sat again at the coloring booth and spent some time with a group of kids.

The afternoon bird walk wasn't any birdier than the morning walk but we did see a different set of birds. The Striated Herons and Common Moorhens were out in the pond giving even the kids good views through the scope.

As we ended the day, I was tired but at the same time recharged. It wasn't a hard core birding trip, but it was more than enough to get my birding juju back! On to the next adventure!