Thursday, March 27, 2014

Attention to Detail

Being a birdwatcher, I have gotten used to paying attention to details. Often, I am awed at the amount of details on a bird: its color, its spots, its barring. I've also learned to pay closer attention to the not-so-obvious details: its eyebrow, its eye ring, its wing bar. All this I have come to appreciate when birding.

Different birds with different details: colors, spots, barring!

This appreciation has escalated a hundredfold on my last birding trip in Calatagan, Batangas. Aside from the birds, I came to appreciate the flowers, trees, and the overwhelming attention to detail of our hostess.

I went with fellow birders Anna, Manny, Trinket, Anthony, and Lanie to Hacienda Balabatican in Calatagan for a weekend to survey the birds in the property. We arrived way past dinner time but were still welcomed with a very fine dinner table setting indicating they prepared a full dinner for us.

Our dining room for that weekend =)

I loved all the details of the dinner table: from the water and wine goblets to the plate charger! Dinner was awesome (loved the beef and mushroom!) and I knew we were going to have one of the most pampered birding trips ever =)

The boys and girls were housed in two separate houses and Trinket and I shared a room. Oh, what a room it was! Again, the attention to detail (and the attention Trinket and I gave all the details!) was overwhelming. Even the bathrooms were prepared so that guests would not be in need of anything that wasn't there already. Forgot your toothbrush? There's one prepared for you. Feel a bit sick? There's a well-stocked medicine basket complete with instructions. No soap? There are four freshly opened bars to choose from.

This was the bedroom Trinket and I shared.
We picked the room with the smaller beds =)

We woke up refreshed from our canopied beds the following day, ready to bird in the estate. We planned to bird until around 9AM and come back to have breakfast. We weren't able to do that and we ended up birding until around 11!

We made our way around the man-made lake just as the sun was rising
Some Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers perched
low and very close to us
Waiting for the noisy Clamorous Reed Warbler to show
(It didn't...)
But a Philippine Coucal made a brief appearance among the mangroves

We explored more than half the property that morning. There were areas that were more bird-y than others and we even saw some very active Black-naped Monarchs in one spot. Coppersmith Barbets and Collared Kingfishers would be our background music almost the entire time we were birding!

Aside from the bird calls, I loved the colors we were birding in!

Towards mid-morning, Trinket spotted a mistletoe in full bloom! It was the first time I actually saw the flowers of a mistletoe. They looked so unique! I didn't expect their flowers to look like this:


Mistletoe in bloom! Upon closer inspection, they look like matchsticks!

By this time, it was getting quite hot and we decided to move along. Moving past the mistletoe, we spotted a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows perched on a dead tree. They started spreading their wings as if flying, but not leaving their perch. It was as if they were pretending to fly!



In this area we spotted a kalumpang tree, its branches laden with fruits that have burst open. I learned that the fruits have a quite pungent smell, but this one didn't smell at all. Probably because the fruits were all dried up. We also saw a Paddyfield Pipit perched on a low branch of the kalumpang.


Open fruit of the kalumpang tree

Taking a break in the shade

The bird activity started getting slower as the day got hotter but we had lots to see! There were lots of amazing trees in the property and it was interesting to see successful strangler figs and the now-hollow host tree.

Strangler fig success story
This would be a gorgeous inspiration for bonsai =)


We arrived at the houses at 11AM and were still served breakfast. We were reminded that lunch would be served at 1! We took that time to rest from the heat and from all the walking. Lunch was to be served near the pool area and we walked there for another feast for the senses!

A gorgeous view for lunch!

We took a short "siesta" after lunch before heading out to explore the rest of the estate in the afternoon. The kingfishers and barbets weren't as noisy as earlier in the morning but we did see a number of birds. We also heard Asian Koels calling as the sun started to set.




As we approached the lake where we started in the morning, we saw that tents and lounge chairs had been setup for what was supposed to be our afternoon snack! Unfortunately, we were too late for that as dinner time was approaching. That didn't stop us from enjoying the seats as well as the view of the setting sun of over the lake. Once more, our hostess's attention to detail overwhelmed us =)

Tents and lounge chairs for the tired birders!
The lake

So, we kicked off our shoes and relaxed in those comfortable chairs. It was a weekend well-spent with great company. I enjoyed all the details that surrounded us: our beautiful accommodations, the trees, the landscape, and of course, the birds =)


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Daydreaming About Zamboanga

It has been 10 days since I came home from the 9th Philippine Bird Festival in Zamboanga City and I still daydream about the many fun moments we had there.

The annual event spearheaded by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and in partnership with the Department of Tourism Region IX, and the Zamboanga City local government was held last February 28 to March 1 at the Paseo del Mar.

This year, I was able to help out in the lectures in the morning and then do the Bird Quest for the kids in the afternoon. I really enjoyed the lectures, listening to friends and experts share what they know about various topics on Philippine biodiversity. Jops and I were also able to give our own lectures during the festival, which was a lot of fun! Fifteen minutes is quite a short time to talk! =P

That's me giving a lecture to high school students on migrating waterbirds
Photo by Willem Van de Ven
Jops gives a lecture on nature photography for college students

The grade schoolers who attended the Bird Quest in the afternoon were very enthusiastic and participative. I really enjoyed the opportunity to teach and share the joys of birdwatching to them and had fun doing the spiels with Tinggay and Anna =)

Aside from the lectures, another event worth daydreaming about was when Mr. Pedro Gonzales, co-author of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, gave a talk and signed our field guides!

Mr. Pedro Gonzales talking about his bird observations - in taxonomic order!
Photo by Jops
It was such a privilege listening to him
Photo by Jops
Our signed book!

I was able to have a very short chat with him and I told him that we all felt privileged and honored to meet him. His reply: "The feeling is mutual!" He reminded me of my Lolo Boy in Cebu =)

After the excitement of meeting Mr. Gonzales, an opportunity to help guide in the nearby ZSCMST* fishponds opened up! It was a very short walk from the Paseo del Mar and soon Jops, Luke, Jason, and I were at the viewdecks, showing the birds in the area to the students who were there.

Part of the ZSCMST viewdecks (so cool they built this!)
And there were lots to see! Of course, our bins were automatically drawn to the cluster of nesting Great Egrets which makes the fishponds an important birding site. The occurrence of breeding Great Egrets there is a great subject for further study!


There were quite a number of nests with chicks!
With a fluffy chick peeping out the nest!
There was also a number of foraging Black-winged Stilts 
And adult and juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons (this one is a juvenile)

I also got a lifer while guiding! I saw my first dark phase Eastern Reef Egret! Sadly, it didn't go out into the open but flew into the dense mangroves to hide. But I did get a good look at the whole bird as it glided out of sight.

Aside from the the delicious food I ate, the awesome birds I saw, and the good friends I was with, it was all the great people I met during the bird festival that made it all the more memorable. And so, I will continue to day dream about those wonderful days I spent there, until the time I can go back again =)

Posing with the very enthusiastic new birders in the fishponds!
Photo from Van John Tompong
Jops with some of the students who attended his lecture
Photo from Van John Tompong
* Zamboanga State College of Marine Science and Technology

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunrise to Sunset in Subic

Our group left Manila at 3:30AM. Most of us had little or no sleep at all! But our party of 8 - me, Jops, Jon V., Willem and Nikdye, Jayjay, Luke, and Matthew - was on the road that early for a whole day of birding in the forests of Subic.

We arrived at our first stop, near the entrance to the Nabasan Trail, where we were hoping to see some owls before the sun came up. A Chocolate Boobook was calling from deep within the trees as the dawn chorus began. We were soon surrounded by the calls of Asian Koels, Philippine Bulbuls, and Balicassiao, the birds now awake but calling unseen from the trees. We also saw some early Guaiabero and Coletos. We weren't lucky to see the owl so we proceeded to our next stop to try to find the endemic White-fronted Tit.

When we arrived at the spot, it didn't take long for us to hear the loud song of the little bird filling the air. We soon located the singing bird, perched atop a tree. It moved closer to our group a number of times, giving us great views! The encounter had me wide awake even before 7AM!

First lifer for the day: White-fronted Tit!

To add even more excitement to our group (and to wake up those who were still feeling groggy), a pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers also made an appearance while the Tit was busy singing around us. I actually missed seeing the woodpeckers as I was focusing all my early-morning attention on the Tit!

We made our way out slowly of the area, stopping midway to spot a flyfby Blue-naped Parrot as well as some Sooty Woodpeckers, a Green Imperial Pigeon basking in the first rays of daw, and also Luzon Flamebacks. A Philippine Green Pigeon also made a brief appearance. It was such a great start to our birding day: seeing three species of woodpeckers already!

Green Imperial Pigeon

We headed back to our first stop this morning and birded in the Nabasan Trail. Along the road, we stopped when we saw some Whiskered Treeswifts perched on some electric wires, enjoying the early morning sun.

Whiskered Treeswift - such a uniquely-marked bird!

We parked the car near the entrance to the trail where a Philippine Falconet welcomed us. It has been a while since I last saw this bird and it was a nice seeing it in Subic.

Philippine Falconet - looking like the tiny raptor that it is

When the falconet flew away, we moved into the trail where a some Asian Koels were calling loudly. I saw Jayjay pointing at something up in the trees, and next thing I knew, a huge black bird perched on the low tree above me. I focused my binoculars on it, and I finally got to see my first Asian Koel! It flew back towards the other birders and we all got good views of two male Koels and one female! The female looking completely different from the all-black males with its rufous color and heavy streaking. Amazing to see all of them skulking on one tree!

I already got two lifers and the morning had just begun! Along the trail, we saw lots of Blue-throated Bee-eaters, some Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, and more Coleto's. There were quite a number of them flying around the forest. A small group of Rufous Coucals skulked among some trees but refused to come out for clearer views.

I was getting excited to see my next possible lifer. Our friend, Mark Jason, was kind enough to help us out the night before and I did get to see it! After a number of trips to Subic, I finally got to see my first Green Racket-tail! We would see a few more later on during the day and I absolutely loved seeing their tiny, delicate rackets!!!

Green Racket-tail (with one racket)
(Thank you, Mark Jason!)

We moved further along and saw more woodpeckers: a large, male White-bellied Woodpecker landed really close to us on one occasion! We could also hear them loudly hammering away from the forests on both sides of the trail. 

The day was starting to get hot, so we boarded our "school bus" and drove to see the Flying Foxes. It was a treat having Nikdye and Willem join us, being the biologists they are. I learned a lot from them about the huge bats that roost in huge numbers in one area in Subic. Turns out, there are two species of Flying Foxes there: the endemic and endangered Golden-crowned Flying Fox and the resident Giant Flying Fox

Endangered Golden-crowned Flying Foxes
Notice their lighter, golden colored crowns/heads
According to Willem, there are only several hundred left in the wild
Giant Flying Foxes
They have darker, rufous heads

We chatted a bit with the roaming guard and then headed to check out the Blue-throated Bee-eater nest site. The birds were all there, perched on wires and on the slopes on the sidewalks which was dotted with their nesting holes.

One of the many Blue-throated Bee-eaters tending to its nest

We suddenly heard a loud high-pitched call coming from the trees behind us: parrots! We scanned the big tree from which the calls were coming from, which was tough since the leaves would generally be the same shade of green as the parrots we were looking for. After a couple of minutes, Jon finally spotted the parrot! Another Green Racket-tail, busy cleaning out a hole on the tree trunk.

Can you spot the parrot?

The spot was really birdy that morning. We also saw Pygmy Swiftlet, a Purple Needletail, White-breasted Woodswallows, and more Colasisi. 

It was nearing noon and we were getting hungry. We drove to get lunch and finished eating before 1PM. It was too hot to go birding (and besides, the birds wouldn't be out in the heat too) so we drove to a nice, quiet, shady spot. We took our positions, some in the van, others on the grass and side of the road, while others went to do some birding in the area. The group was momentarily disturbed by a flock of noisy and curious Elegant Tits!

One of the noisy Elegant Tits that woke the
sleeping birders

Eventually, the flock moved away and people returned to what they had been doing before they were disturbed by the tiny birds. The forest was not that quiet: Philippine Bulbuls would constantly call and fly among the trees, a Grey-backed Tailorbird would call occasionally from the brush, and Whiskered Treeswifts stayed a while too. 

Soon, the sun relented and the air cooled. We regrouped and birding once more commenced. As we were getting ready to leave, two raptors started thermalling overhead! They raptors caused quite some excitement as to what they were. They turned out to both be Brahminy Kites, which we saw quite a number of during our trip.

We finally boarded the van when Jayjay spotted a chicken on the side of the road! Female Red Junglefowl! We all got out again and observed the bird but it was quickly flushed away by a passing jogger.

As we were heading back towards the van, Jops spotted something quite big in the trees. It was a male Luzon Hornbill! Our first for the trip!

A male Luzon Hornbill having a late lunch

It ate a few large fruits from the tree before flying across the road and disappearing among the trees. We finally boarded the van and headed back to Nabasan for more afternoon birding. When we passed the roosting site of the Flying Foxes, we found many of them flying around, possibly disturbed by something.

Flying Foxes in flight too early in the afternoon

We reached the trail and it was not as noisy as early that morning. The Asian Koels were still calling from the forest, though their calls were not as taunting as before (we've seen it after all!) We waited in an area where we heard a Luzon Hawk-Owl call. While waiting, we studied a curious-looking flycatcher. It looked very similar to a Grey-streaked Flycatcher but had different marking on its chest and flanks. It was grey but definitely not streaked...hmmmm. We discussed our observations and our best ID was that it was a Dark-sided Flycatcher! Good thing it stayed long enough to be observed properly and that a Grey-streaked Flycatcher also made an appearance allowing us to compare the two.

While waiting for dusk, we saw more Green Racket-tails, one more male Luzon Hornbill, Whiskered Treeswifts, Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, and another unexpected lifer for me, a Japanese Sparrowhawk! We bumped into Mark W. and his friends and were able to show them a pair of Sooty Woodpeckers crawling up a tree.

Male Sooty Woodpecker

We tried calling the owl but it refused to show. We decided to head out to the start of the trail where we began our birding that morning. We arrived to find a number of Great-eared Nightjars actively flying about, feeding in the dark sky. I really enjoyed watching them soar above us, observing their long slender wings and rounded tails, silhouetted against the night sky (I think I was giggling and clapping my hands.) It was another awesome lifer for me, bringing my total for the trip to 6 =)

We tried calling the owls, and quite a number were calling from the dark forest, but none came out. We decided to call it a day, aching feet and all. We were all up for at least 16 hours already! We did our bird list after dinner and came up with a total of 57 birds seen and heard! It was really a wonderful day birding. Jon had a better word for it: it was EPIC. =)


Friday, March 7, 2014

Awesome Birding in Pasonanca

It's almost been a week since the 9th Philippine Bird Festival in Zamboanga City and I'm still feeling the residual good vibes from the event. There's so much to write about and rave about the festival, but let me start with the birding (of course!)

Fast forward to our last morning in Zamboanga, just eight hours before our flight. An eager contingent of WBCP members gathered at the Lantaka Hotel lobby, gobbling down their packed breakfast, waiting for the announcement that it was time to board the coaster that would take us to the Pasonanca Natural Park's Intake area for birding.

Off we went, together with our newest "recruits" Steph and Charles from the Department of Tourism office and our security escort. We arrived at the park and the first birds I saw were a pair of White-throated Kingfishers. As I approached, one flew off and I only managed a blurred photo of the other.



Soon, the group was ready to enter the trail. The river here was dry and soon we were surrounded by trees on both sides. It was nice to be enveloped in that lush green, hearing different bird calls from all directions.

Crossing the dry river to the forest trail

We were all birders but it was such an additional bonus to have ornithologists, biologists, and plant experts who would point out endemic plants I would normally not notice and bird calls unknown to me. It was awesome!

Just a few meters in, I saw Rei pointing out a bird to Nikdye and Jasmin. Some of us quickly joined them and located a small singing bird, perched near the trail. I tried to get a documentary shot (and that's all I got, photo-wise.) It was dark blue on its head, back, and wings with a distinct white spot just behind the eye, toward its nape while its underparts were white. The bird sat there for a while, singing, and then suddenly flew off. While I reviewed the photo I got, Nikdye and Jasmin consulted the Kennedy field guide and both let our an excited shriek! Ooooh, it had to be good! They showed us the plate of flycatchers and there I found the exact match to my first lifer of the trip: Little Slaty Flycatcher!

This is a male Little Slaty Flycatcher, endemic to the islands of
Mindanao, Samar, and Leyte

Ecstatic at finding this uncommon bird, we moved on to spot some movement in a tree. I was lucky to have seen my next lifer, since it kept on moving from perch to perch, most of the time covered! It was amazing to see JC "in action", whipping out his notebook and pen and drawing the bird we just saw, complete of course with field marks. After some discussion and consulting the field guide, I confirmed my second lifer: Rusty-crowned Babbler, another Mindanao endemic!

JC (in a cap) shows his drawing to the group to ID the bird we saw

We moved on and spotted another flurry of birds moving through the tops of tall trees. As with skittish mixed flocks, not everybody sees the same bird at the same time. Different descriptions were shared and most of us saw a Rhabdornis (not sure which one) and Yellow-bellied Whistler. We eventually gave up on the flock and trudged forward. A female Little Slaty Flycatcher caught everyone's attention again as it posed for a while in front of us.

Female Little Slaty Flycatcher

When the bird flew off, we moved forward. Soon we reached the river, where a Zamboanga Bulbul made a brief appearance. We were about to cross when Bob N. spotted a bird perched a long way up, silhouetted against the sky. After some minutes making out its field marks, the group ID'd it as a Crested Goshawk. Slowly, our group made its way across the ankle-deep, cool water.

Andrew pointing out the goshawk
Birders crossing the river
Photo by Anthony Arbias

Upon crossing, a trio of Blue-crowned Racquet-tails swooped noisily above us... twice! Moving along the trail, begonias, and horsetails were pointed out as well as frogs and butterflies. Another raptor got the group's attention. It was posed majestically on a tall tree, standing huge, and very white.... Philippine Eagle??? We wished! It was an immature Philippine Honey Buzzard, my third and final lifer that morning.

Turned out our second raptor for the morning was an
immature Philippine Honey Buzzard

As we approached a bend, the Silvery Kingfisher made a brief appearance, long enough for a couple of documentary shots, before it flew away and out of sight.

Seeing this handsomely marked kingfisher was one of my favorite moments

When the kingfisher left, the Black-faced Coucals started calling! Forever the skulkers, the coucals gave us a neck-breaking but fulfilling time spotting them as they crawled their way from one tree to the next.

Black-faced Coucal

The group pushed forward and reached a small dam. We crossed the hanging bridge to try and spot the Philippine Needletails that frequent the area but, unfortunately, they weren't there. 

Approaching the small dam
Birders crossing the hanging bridge
Vertigo alert!

We all took a breather in the pretty landscaped area and even got to see some Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrikes in the trees. We posed for a group photo before we headed back the same way we came. We had to be mindful of the time since we all had flights to catch! Chop-chop!

Happy birders!
Photo by Jops

Of course the walk back was punctuated with more birding! While we were admiring a beautiful Emerald Swallowtail, one of our guards tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out a huge bird perched out in the open, "Ma'am, ayun o." Another raptor! A Grey-headed Fish Eagle was perched on a leafless branch, out in the open.



We were looking  at the eagle through our bins when it suddenly took flight! Another bird swooped in to join the fish eagle, flying just above the raptor! They separated mid-air, the eagle flying out of sight while the smaller bird circled back and perched on a nearby tree. The smaller bird was a Crow! First time I observed that "synchronized flying" behavior.

The crow was flying above the fish eagle
Here you can only see the crow's tail

We left the area and started heading back to the coaster. Along the way, the guards pointed out another pair of Black-faced Coucals. This time the birds were a bit friendlier, allowing us clear glimpses through gaps in the vegetation they were skulking in.



The walk back was quick and we were all happy with the birds we saw that morning. The river crossing was a refreshing break from all the walking and we were momentarily distracted by the pretty butterflies along the riverbanks. 

Appias nero

Vindula dejone

A small frog also kept us from crossing the river! I had to tear myself away from it and make my way to the other side.

Staurois natator

So, I got three lifers in four hours birding in Pasonanca. I was also able to hear the Mindanao Hawk Owl and Everett's Scops Owl when I joined an owling trip a few days earlier in the area too. The Pasonanca Natural Park is such a wonderful place to go birding in. The place and bird life is amazing (and the trails are easy!) I really, really loved the time I spent there. We will definitely be back and spend more time discovering more of the forest. And besides, I've dipped on the White-eared Tailorbird there twice! Another reason to go back =)