Friday, January 31, 2014

Best.Owling.Yet!!!

I love owls. They're awesome birds to see, anywhere, any day. But finding them can be verrrrry challenging. Owling is when birders go out to find an owl really late at night or at ungodly hours in the morning. I've done that on several occasions, finding myself standing in darkness, being eaten alive by seemingly ravenous mosquitoes, and waiting. Waiting for the silent nocturnal hunters to make an appearance.

I think I've been a bit spoiled with most of the owls I've seen: I got the Philippine Scops Owl as a lifer in Jops's backyard and the Philippine Eagle Owl in its day roost near the UP Diliman campus, both minutes away from my home in Quezon City! The Eagle Owl was actually my first owl ever! And honestly, finding those owls didn't really involve any serious owling.

I did get to see my first Luzon Hawk Owls when I did go owling in Mt. Makiling with friends for my birthday a couple of years ago (gosh, has it been that long???) It wasn't that tough though, we just waited a few minutes outside the hostel we were staying at: no hike, not that many mosquitoes, and great owls.

So, this owling trip in Tabunan, Cebu was the real deal: we woke up and picked up our companions, David and Sarah, from their hotel at 3AM, and were on the road to the forest before dawn. I was quite groggy and light headed, having arrived in Cebu from Manila at 11:30PM the night before. The drive up the winding road didn't make me feel better but the cool fresh air that hit my face when I got out of the van helped wash that awful feeling away.

We stopped at the house of 'Nong Oking, the guide and forest warden in Tabunan. After a few minutes preparing our gear, we set off into the darkness with his young daughter, Hazel. We trooped in a neat line: 'Nong Oking leading the way, followed by David, Sarah, and Hazel, with me and Jops taking up the rear. I made a huge mistake forgetting my flashlight (and even the headlamp Jun gave me!) and was mentally kicking myself for forgetting them the whole way.

Through the trails before dawn

It was unnerving trekking in unknown terrain in the darkness but I managed not to stumble. I did get some nasty wounds from an equally nasty looking branch with HUGE nasty thorns. But I ignored the throbbing pain and trudged onwards. The trail wound upwards then downwards. It would open up to a small field that would immediately get swallowed up with thorny brambles and bamboo on both sides. I followed the hazy silhouette of Hazel in front of me and put one foot in front of the other, asking silently: "Why are we doing this again?"

Then, the people ahead of me stopped walking and 'Nong Oking asked Jops for the owl calls. After the first playback, an owl swooped over our heads and perched on a tree behind us. Another call, another owl. 'Nong Oking pointed his flashlight on the area where it perched and there in clear, unobstructed view was my first lifer of the year: Cebu Hawk Owl. It stayed only for a few seconds before flying off into the darkness. Awesome!!!!

The same thing happened again and again: another call, another owl. The owls were calling from everywhere and were very obliging! I tried my best to get photos and started with this:

A lot of shots like this actually =P

... and ended with this:

This was the best I managed in the darkness.
Jops and David got some AWESOME shots though =)

I accepted the fact that I wouldn't be able to take a sharp photo of the owl in the darkness, so I decided to just take some videos of these unexpectedly obliging owls. I was super happy to get this very short but in-your-face video of a Cebu Hawk Owl!

video


It was the best owling yet!!! Sure, the trek was difficult, dark, and literally painful for me, but the views of the owls were more than enough to make it all worth it!

We didn't get fleeting views, we got in-our-face views! We didn't get just a couple of sightings, we got all the sightings we could have wanted! Plus, I got to see the owl spreading its wings downward, behavior which I only got to see in photos before that morning! How cool was that? =)

The owls were still calling from around us but we were all wow-ed out by them that we declared our owling session closed. So, before the sun rose, and energized by the owls, our party trudged forward towards the viewdeck for more birding. I decided to stay behind though (my leg was bothering me) and I enjoyed sitting alone, surrounded by trees, knowing the owls were around me, watching me.

My solo roosting site while I waited for my friends 

The forest was quiet, but I did get to see a Black-naped Monarch and a male Magnificent Sunbird (Crimson Sunbird) in the area where I sat. The others got to see the Black Shama, a Cebu endemic. Meanwhile on my rock, I enjoyed watching the mist slowly creep in, bringing fine rain with it. The rain picked up a bit as did the wind and it got really cold!

The mist slowly came down and eventually enveloped the forest

This was when I got a text message from my mom: "Storm Signal #1 in Cebu." Ah. Bring it on. I got awesome views of owls this morning. =)

The trip back down was easier to traverse now that we could actually see where we were going, but the rain made the trail a lot more slippery and we each had our slips and falls no matter how careful we were. We knew it was all part of the adventure and we all laughed at our muddiness (me being the most muddy for reasons unknown even to me.) We finally reached the concrete road and returned to 'Nong Oking's house to wash up most of the mud we brought with us. As we hosed down the clumps of mud, I knew the owl-induced adrenalin rush will stay with me for the next few days =)

Happy (and muddy!) birders with 'Nong Oking (in blue) and Hazel (in white)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Thrush-y Girls Day Out

With our +1s on their respective tours, Trinket and I made plans for a short trip within the week to La Mesa Ecopark. Just a quick birding fix before we headed to work on a Thursday.

It was girls birding day out!

Trinket and I arrived in the park within minutes of each other. Trinket was able to spot a cuckoo near the park entrance, in the same area Joni and I saw it weeks before, but it hid before I got to the spot. We made a leisurely walk towards the trail, stopping to spot something here and there. The park was almost empty since it was a weekday, and we enjoyed the quiet and isolation as we entered the mini-forest.

The first bird we saw in the trail was a busy Pechora Pipit, hurriedly scurrying around the ground. We laughed about the first time we saw it in the park and we dismissed it as a tiny Ashy Thrush =P We headed towards the area where Jops and I saw the White's Thrush last Sunday. I wasn't able to get good views the last time, and it was actually my main reason for coming back.

We didn't have to wait long before the bird made an appearance! The White's Thrush, formerly known as the Scaly Ground-Thrush, perched atop a clump of palm fruits and started feeding. Unlike our previous encounters with the bird, where it was observed on the ground, this individual preferred high perches and fed on berries instead of worms. I was able to get great views through my binoculars but photographing it was difficult from where I stood.

All I managed was this out of focus photo!

We were still enjoying our views when suddenly an Ashy Thrush swooped in and drove the bigger White's Thrush away. Interestingly, the Ashy perched atop the clump of fruits and started feeding on them as well! We discussed the Ashy's new item on its diet and watched as the bird stood possessively over the cluster of ripe, red berries.

It stayed quite a while as if saying
"This clump is MINE!"

We moved on, managing not to flush the Ashy as we passed by the palm tree. We tried our luck with the Spotted Wood Kingfisher, which Trinket hasn't seen yet in the park. After this morning, she still has yet to see it in the park. The Spotty wasn't on its usual perch. We did get to see another Ashy Thrush, perched very close to us and then it foraged noisily among the dry leaves covering the ground.

Other birds started to make their presence felt: Philippine Pied Fantails, Large-billed Crows, Arctic Warblers, Philippine Magpie Robins, and Red-keeled Flowerpeckers flew among the trees and called noisily from their perches. A scraggly Brown Shrike also showed along the trail as well as some noisy Black-naped Orioles and a Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We found ourselves facing the palm trees again, with the Ashy Thrush still sitting on top! It soon flew away, which gave the Yellow-vented Bulbuls a chance at the fruits.

YVB's turn to eat!

The Bulbul's ate noisily and messily, scattering fruits on the ground as they gobbled up the red berries. I decided to stay and wait for the White's Thrush and Trinket decided to go find herself a lifer in the trail.

I positioned myself in the shade and at the edge of the trail so as not to stick out like a sore birder, er, thumb. The Bulbuls have left the palm trees and I waited. Suddenly, an adult Ashy Thrush perched just a couple of feet beside me. It looked around and then it looked straight at me! It cocked its head one side, then the other and for a moment, I was afraid it would attack me! I raised my hands slowly to my face, ready to shield my eyes lest it did launch an assault on a poor, unarmed birder.

This bird scared me for a moment there! =P

I guess it decided I wasn't a threat (or I was a tree since I was definitely NOT breathing and moving!) and it turned its back to me and diverted its attention to other things in the forest. Suddenly a big bird perched on the palm trees: the White's Thrush was back!!! As soon as I turned my head towards the palms, the Ashy darted towards it, trying to flush the bigger thrush away! I actually let out a loud "Nooooo!"

The White's Thrush held its ground and stayed hidden behind the thin trunk, checking out if the endemic bully was going to attack again. Thankfully, it didn't.

Is the bully there???

When the coast was clear, it proceeded to feed on the berries. After a few second of eating, it stopped. And didn't move. At all. It stayed as if frozen on its perch. I happily took photos and admired the bird through my binoculars. It stayed for a long time, so I sat on the trail and watched.

It stayed still like this for a long time until it was flushed away by a hiker
who greeted my a shouty "Good morning" because she had her
earphones on =P

I got up from my seat (which was a big flat rock) and turned to see Trinket approaching me with a big smile, holding her fingers up in a letter L. Lifer! She was able to see the Slaty-legged Crake! Our excited chatter was interrupted by an ongoing, noisy Ashy versus Ashy fight. We saw the winner plucking out an earthworm from the ground. We continued talking about her lifer and decided to wait for the thrushes to come back.

We began talking about our friend Kitty's recent thrush lifer, and suddenly weren't sure which thrush she saw. We talked about the other possible species including the Brownheaded Thrush and the Eyebrowed Thrush. Just seconds after mentioning them, an Eyebrowed Thrush stealthily perched on the palm trees, plucked a couple of berries, and flew off into the trees. Cool! We thought the Sunda Thrush was worth mentioning aloud, but it didn't show =P

The Yellow-vented Bulbuls were back and after we were seated comfortably on the trail (Trinket on her folding chair and me on my rock), the White's Thrush came back. It gave us good views of its backside this time, before it walked towards the berries and fed.

My official favorite bird!
(for now)

It was the Bulbuls turn to get all territorial of the fruits. They hovered around the Thrush, flying in and out, noisily trying to drive it away, to no avail. Again, the Thrush fed for a while before staying absolutely still. We enjoyed observing it from our seats until it was flushed away by a group of students. A young Black-naped Oriole tried its luck with the fruits but it only stayed a few seconds before it gave up and flew off.

It was almost mid-morning and Trinket and I were more than satisfied with our very productive girls day out. We headed out the trail energized and ready to take on the Thursday that lay ahead of us. =)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

First Birding Trip of The Year!

It was ten days into the new year and Jops and I didn't have any birding trips planned yet. Of course, we had our birding trips wish list at the back of our heads but for now, they were nothing more than dreams.

But! A few minutes after midnight, an impromptu birding trip was decided between Joni, Jops, and me. I was going to be Jaiabird again for a morning and we were going birding in La Mesa.

Yeah, it wasn't a new place to explore, but it has been quite a while since we last birded there and it would great to check out the place again. We got to the park before 8AM, just as some ABS-CBN (a local tv network) vehicles started arriving too. Apparently there was a television shoot somewhere in the park scheduled that morning too. We were happy to learn their set wasn't in the mini-forest. Their cheesy background music made our birding a tiny bit dramatic though and all my videos of the Spotted Wood Kingfisher had a Filipino love song playing in the background.

The entrance road was quiet, with only some movement in the canopy of trees. But Joni, with her sharp forest-trained eyes, spotted a solitary bird perched above us. Upon closer inspection, we found it was an adult Brush Cuckoo! An amazing bird to start our morning with!

Cuckoo early in the morning!

The cuckoo flew off after a few minutes and we moved onwards down the road. We immediately heard high pitched calls which Joni confirmed as Guaiaberos. We moved closer to the trees to try and spot the parrots making all the noise.

Being the plump green birds they are, it was challenging trying to spot them among the trees in front of us. While scanning, we did see some Colasisi, another brightly colored green parrot, as well as some Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers, and Pied Trillers. Lots of Golden-bellied Flyeaters flitted among the branches and some Black-naped Orioles also made an appearance.

The Guaiaberos were calling very loudly and very insistently right in front of us but we couldn't spot them! Once again, Joni's sharp eyes zeroed in on a handsome male Guaiabero, perched (you guessed it) right in front of us.

Such a beautiful, plump Guaiabero!

The parrot stayed for quite a while, allowing us to take its photo and observe it as it called and shifted positions on its perch. Eventually, it flew away prompting us to move on towards the mini-forest. 

It was very quiet when we entered the trail. But we did see some movement on the ground and we quickly spotted an adult Ashy Ground Thrush. It perched on a high branch for a while before disappearing from view. We rounded the trail, hoping for the La Mesa residents but didn't see any. We kept our eyes open for the Scaly Ground Thrush that was reported a while back but it too was absent that morning.

I was hoping for some pittas but we didn't see nor hear any. I tried scratching at the ground with my finger and found it dry, dusty, and hard. I decided that if I were a pitta, I wouldn't risk damaging my tiny toes scratching at such compact earth for food. 

Common Emerald Doves were busy calling and foraging around for food that morning. We spotted one male as it preened while perched on a branch, giving us good views.


Male Common Emerald Dove

Jops went in search of the Spotted Wood Kingfisher while Joni and I took our time in the trail, entertaining ourselves with more Ashy Ground Thrushes that hopped near the trail's edges. We neared the tiny pond and seeing the ripe red fruits of the MacArthur's palms reminded me of the two lifers I saw feeding on them last year: Brown-headed Thrush and Eyebrowed Thrush. I hope to see them again soon! 

Joni and I were spotting another friendly Ashy Ground Thrush when Jops texted saying the Spotted Wood Kingfisher was sitting right in front of him. We carefully made our way to him and once again marveled at the handsome bird in front of us.

Male Spotted Wood Kingfisher
Always a treat seeing this bird. ALWAYS. =)

While observing the bird, the mini forest erupted in bird calls. Calls, not song. The birds all seemed alarmed at something and at first, we thought there might be a raptor nearby. What we found was not a raptor, but resembled something more like a velociraptor!

A big Monitor Lizard, locally called bayawak, was making its way up a big tree, causing panic among the birds in the area. The Pied Fantails made very brave swoops at the huge reptile as it dangled from its perch and the Oriental Magpie Robins were also loudly cursing at the lizard's bold presence in their neighborhood.

At first, all we could clearly see was a
mean-looking claw...
... and then it moved further up the tree,
revealing its dinosaur-like head
Varanus marmoratus

A bold, immature Ashy Ground Thrush flew across the trail, and landed very near us and posed for a while before it was chased by another one. 

I was so surprised by the proximity of the bird, this was the only
shot I was able to take of it before it flew away

It was already 10AM and we had to end our short morning in La Mesa. The birds had quieted down and the Spotted Wood Kingfisher still sat comfortable on its perch. As we headed out, a big flock of bats flew around us, flushed out of their roost, before settling back among the trees.

One of the bats that flew around us and perched
close to where we were standing.

A group of photographers and their forest nymph models decided to have their photo shoot at the entrance of the trail. As we passed them, we politely reminded them to stay on the trails saying there was a huge bayawak, as well as hornets, in the area, and we showed them the photo of the lizard. As their eyes widened, we were pretty sure they wouldn't be disturbing the kingfisher, sitting unseen, just a few meters from them.