Low Tide at the Coastal Lagoon

Our morning of the Chinese New Year holiday was spent enjoying views of some really wonderful waders in the Coastal Lagoon. A week before, Jops excitedly told me about the tide schedules for that Monday and its morning promised a really low tide.  

Large portions of the mudflats were left exposed all morning!

It has been some time since we last visited the Coastal Lagoon, officially known as the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA.) Declared a critical habitat in 2007, it is now being threatened with plans of reclamation. As that "battle" rages on, groups including the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines have been spearheading clean-ups along the beach area. Our last trip to this place was way back in October last year and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mountains of trash lining the road have already disappeared. And one can already see the sand on the beach! Well, one can also clearly see a fresh wave of trash coming in from the water... oh well.

No more mountains of trash!

WBCP member Ruben arrived shortly with his cousin and we started scanning the areas for birds. Lots of egrets, Grey Herons, Whiskered Terns and, of course, waders! I was peeping through a gap in the mangroves, spotting some Kentish Plovers, Little Ringed Plovers, and Rufous-necked Stints when suddenly a flock of Black-winged Stilts flew into the same area! I didn't really expect to see the Stilts but there they were in the hundreds!

Digiscoped Black-winged Stilts

Stilts, Egrets and Stints (on the sand)!

Our group moved on towards the DENR station and out onto the beach to view more waders. Along the way, these curious red fruits got my attention...

They looked like smooth, red balimbings!
There were also green unripe fruits which were firm.

The red ones were soft and this one burst open revealing orange, threadlike "innards"!

I tore myself away from the red fruit to catch up with the group. On the other side of the path, I had to shake my head with the amount of trash that gets washed up and caught among the roots of the mangroves and other plants in the lagoon...

Please think twice before grabbing that styrofoam cup and take-out container. And if you HAVE to use them, please dispose of them properly.

When we reached the beach, we were greeted with fantastic close-up views of more egrets, Common Redshanks, and Common Greenshanks. We were also greeted by this creepy sight =P

We scanned further down the beach and saw more terns and some Asian Golden Plovers! I would want to see them in their breeding plumage again soon!

Ruben and Jops scanning the beach for more waders. The Redshanks and Greenshanks were just by the shallows beside us!

I was also hoping to see the Ruddy Turnstones again but we didn't see any on this trip. I spent my time carefully observing the birds just on the beach beside us. Viewing them that close and for that long afforded me time to take down as much notes as could. I decided to make good on one of my New Year's resolutions: to start (or at least try) drawing the birds I see, no matter how fugly they turn out. So, I just drew and took down notes, enjoying the time and long views of the birds just meters from me. Afterwards, I was happy and quite proud of myself. The first drawings started awkwardly but I think I improved even a little as I filled up the page. And at least now my drawings actually look like birds!

Candaba Month

I've been in the Candaba Bird Sanctuary once a week during the past four weeks and it has been wonderful! Two guided trips, one Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) and a trip just for fun... I have fallen in love with the place though there is still much to be hoped for in terms of making it a true bird sanctuary.

Part of the Candaba wetlands with Mt. Arayat in the distance.

My dad is from Tarlac and I grew up going on many road trips along the North Luzon Expressway going to our ancestral home. Riding our family's non-aircon Toyota Tamaraw, I remember riding with my cousins, enjoying the strong wind and views of green ricefields with Mount Arayat in the background. I remember being excited about reaching the Via Duct and seeing the fields dotted with the big, white birds which we would interchangeably call herons or egrets. My dad would explain that that area was the Candaba marsh.

Me and my cousins aboard the family's Toyota Tamaraw. That's me on the left looking bored =P

The word marsh seemed so... strange and interesting to me. I never thought I'd be visiting the area regularly in my adulthood. The route going to the Candaba Bird Sanctuary can be tricky but birders will generously help you when you need directions. =)

The past four trips to Candaba made me experience first hand the changes in the environment and habitat, bird species to be seen and missed and, of course, little surprises along the way. We've encountered a python along the path, paused to inspect feathers on the trails, saw thousands and thousands of ducks take flight, bumped into birder friends and even chanced upon a small egg nestled in a hollow bamboo.

We've counted birds during the Asian Waterbird Census and lazed around for siesta before heading out later in the afternoon to go birding again.

I've seen 15 lifers since first visiting Candaba in January 2011! Some of my favorites are the ducks including the heavily-billed Northern Shoveller and the handsomely "painted" male Green-winged Teal.

A male Green-winged Teal hidden in the grass!

As the month of January ends, the ponds in the Candaba wetlands are starting to dry up making way for the planting of rice and forcing the ducks to move on to find a wetter habitat (we didn't see the huge flock of Philippine Ducks and Northern Pintails anymore.) As we drove away from a pond full of Garganeys, Shovellers, Teals and a few Philippine Ducks, I said a silent but temporary goodbye to this place that has been our constant birding destination the past few weeks. 'Til our next visit!

View from the car window: a pond full of ducks! See you soon again, Candaba!

The 200 Mark

Jops and I got to see our 199th and 200th birds last weekend in Candaba!
Reaching 200 called for cake to be shared with our birder friends!

We were guiding a group of missionaries from Manila and were scanning a pond with some ducks in it. Birder friend Jasmin was able to spot a male Green-winged Teal sitting quietly close to the reeds at the water's edge. Lifer! It looked tiny compared to the Philippine Ducks swimming about! I was happy to see this one since the male Teal has interesting green markings on its head as illustrated in the Kennedy guide. We didn't realize at that point that we were just one bird short of the 200 mark!

We moved on the other, larger pond on the other side of the road. Linda, who brought along her missionary friends, suddenly asked "Who hasn't seen the Eurasian Coot?" At the name of the bird, I straightened up and fell in line to wait for my turn at her scope. I have been wanting to see this bird! It was a bit far, and initially it looked like a Common Moorhen but it suddenly "faced" me and I could clearly see the white plate on its forehead! Wonderful! I called Jops to have a look too. Lifer again!

We then moved on further down the road and met a group of people who were there just to check out what the Candaba Bird Sanctuary looked like. We offered them a chance to look through our scopes (Jasmin and I overhead them say "There aren't any birds here!" because all they could see were the white egrets!) We showed them the huge flock of ducks and it was nice seeing their amazed reactions. They stayed a while, asking genuinely interested questions about the birds and what bird watching was. After a few minutes, and some picture-taking with us, their group left and we headed further down the road.

By the watch tower, we met up with more birder friends. There was a small group of Tufted Ducks in the nearest pond, but they were flushed away when some men came to clear the area. I was staring at a Long-tailed Shrike in front of me when the light switched on in my head: we have 198 birds in our list and we saw 2 lifers today... 200! "Two hundred na tayo!" I suddenly exclaimed. Jops' eyes widened: we did it! We were able to see 200 birds in under two years of birding! Not bad at all =)

We immediately told our friends and it was great sharing our happiness with them. No need for explanations, just the simple mention of "200" was enough to generate big smiles, celebratory "wows", big congratulations and lots of egging for a blowout to celebrate.

And so we did... with fried chicken =)

Post Script: As I updated my life list in my precious notebooks, I started thinking if I would peg another numerical goal this year. I think not. Honest! Of course I would want to see as many birds as I can (I'll start with Olango before the month ends!) but I will be happy enough filling up my little notebooks with notes and lists from my adventures. =)

My First Owl! *Bow*

I was hoping I'd see an owl before 2011 came to a close. I wasn't so lucky... it was a python that closed the year for me! I didn't imagine I'd start 2012 with a family of owls for my lifers though!

It was the day before I left Cebu for the New Year when my birder friend Karen texted me that she had just seen an owl in their office compound in Quezon City. After a couple of text exchanges, she called me and we excitedly discussed her notes of the owl she saw using my Kennedy guide (she left hers in her house.) We had a suspicion it was a Philippine Eagle Owl! She said she would go back the following day and get a photo of it. While I was in Cebu, I got another excited text from her: it was indeed a Philippine Eagle Owl! With a couple more days before I flew home to Manila, I had to sit and wait for my chance to see my first owl.

Here are Karen's notes of the owl.

Same day as I got back, Jops and I met up with fellow birders Jun, Yana, Abby, Mark Jason V. and Mark Jason A. to join Karen to spot the owl. As we left our meeting place, the dark clouds started rolling in above us. I bet we all said silent prayers for the weather to cooperate and not rain on our owling trip.

We picked up Karen and drove to the site. I was amazed that this owl chose a tree just above a quite busy street inside the compound. Lots of human and vehicular traffic going on under its high perch! As soon as we drove past the tree, Karen saw it already perched. We quickly parked, disembarked and marched to a good spot to see this "uncommon, poorly known" owl species (according to the Kennedy guide.)

And there it was: my first owl!

My first lifer for 2012! (Pardon the dark digi-binned photos =) )

I jotted down my field notes, staring at every inch of this gorgeous bird staring down at our party. The streaking on its whitish chest and body was so beautiful! Its ear tufts sticking out the top of its head making it look serious and angry and its huge yellow eyes gave piercing stares at us and other passersby. I didn't want to leave! And apparently so did everyone in our group! 

Even the owl's droppings were documented =P

So we stayed until dark and saw the owl fly further up the tree. That brief aerial display gave us so much excitement, we weren't prepared for what we were about to see next. After staying for a short while on its new perch, it flew further away towards a nearby building and perched on a ledge. We all exclaimed "Dalawa sila!!!" ("There are two of them!!!") There, waiting on the ledge was another owl! Much smaller and with a darker, less streaked chest and body. They sat together for a while as dusk crept in. The bigger owl then returned to the tree, on a higher perch.

At some point, Jops jokingly exclaimed "Uy, tatlo na sila!!!" ("There are three of them!!!") where we all just laughed at the idea. It would be great to have more owls come in but what were the odds, right? Well, we were all in for another surprise. As we all faced the owls on the building, a huge form flew above us! A third owl!!! 

This one was even bigger than the first owl we saw! It perched on the ledge but almost immediately flew and transferred to the tree to sit snugly beside the first owl! They even seemed to "kiss" as the bigger one landed. They sat side by side for a few minutes before, one by one, they flew in opposite directions into the night. 

Sadly, I wasn't able to get a shot of the two owls sitting side by side on this very perch.

We stayed awhile, looking at the smaller (possibly immature Philippine Eagle Owl) still perched on the ledge, sometimes walking from one side to the other. When it was too dark and there was no sign of the two adult birds, we decided to leave. Of course, we all had dinner to celebrate our fantastic encounter with the family of owls!

More photos here Mark Jason Villa Goes Birding