Meeting Marikit

I have dreamed of visiting Villa Escudero. So when a birdwatching trip to the Villa was organized by Columbia Sportswear and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, I was more than grateful to have been assigned as one of the guides.

Jops, Jun and I left for the Villa early Saturday morning. We entered through the Hacienda Escudero gate and immediately saw a huge murder of Large-billed Crows flying low over a field. Jun counted 61! We parked the car, got our bins out, scope and cameras and started to bird. I know they are nasty, nasty birds (yes, double nasty!), but seeing crows gives me goosebumps!

Digiscoped image of a Large-billed Crow.
We also spent some time looking at a pair of Richard's Pipits running around the grassy area of a rotunda before heading to the resort.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with refreshing gulaman drinks and some Olive-backed Sunbirds and Oriental Magpie Robins in the reception area. Kuya Ronald and Sir Nestor took care of our registration and check-in. We headed to our cottage before going out to walk through the route of the guided tour later that afternoon.

The beautiful view from our cottage terrace.
From here we could see Pacific Swallows and Blue-tailed Bee-Eaters flying over the water.
I could just laze around there the whole day!

Kuya Ronald took us around the resort, showing us the areas the participants will visit. Of course we birded along the way! We heard Black-naped Orioles, Tailorbirds and even a Common Koel calling loudly! We saw a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and a Coucal as well. And this was just in one area! We wanted to wait and spot the Koel (which would have been a lifer for the three of us), but we had to move on.

We met up with Carmela and proceeded to the waterfalls. Ah, the waterfalls =)

The waterfalls and the dining area before the huge lunch crowd arrived.

Dipping your feet in the ankle-deep, cool, flowing water is just heavenly especially in the heat we have been experiencing. Add to that wonderful feeling some cold drinks, wonderful food and great company. Perfect!

Our cold drinks to make the experience even better! But that's not all...

I guess for most guests, the sights, sounds and food in the waterfalls are wonderful altogether. But of course for birders, the sprinkles, to top the cherry, to top the whipped cream, to top the wonderful sundae that is Villa Escudero is Marikit, the resident Indigo-banded Kingfisher and her mate.

Meet Marikit.
The single blue band across the chest indicates this is a female kingfisher. Two bands tell us it is a male.
Won't you fall in love with this beauty? I did!

Seeing the pair of kingfishers perch, dive, fly, bob up and down made me fall in love with them. Jops and I recently ranked our favorite kingfishers. After observing Marikit and her hubby, they made it as my top 2 favorite kingfishers (my top 1 kingfisher is the Silvery Kingfisher while Jops' is the White-throated Kingfisher, which we also saw in the same area!) The waterfalls was already filled up with people and some of them got curious about what we were doing. Some people approached us and we showed them Marikit through the spotting scopes.

Jops and Jun point out Marikit and her hubby to curious people.

Carmela shows some seminarians the photographic field guide of birds in the Philippines.

One of the best reactions we got was from a man who tried digiscoping Marikit. When his camera screen showed the resulting shot, he was really shocked! Carmela and I could see the amazed look on his face and he couldn't stop laughing while staring at his shot of the kingfisher. Seeing his reaction, Mela and I were probably as happy as he was at that moment =)

After a while, we headed back to the reception area to await the arrival of the participants. While waiting, Mela and Kuya Ronald showed us the recently-vacated nest of a Yellow-vented Bulbul.

Mela, Jops, Jun and Kuya Ronald waiting for the participants.
See the plants behind them? That's where the YVB's nest is!
The YVB nest.

The Muslim dance singkil performed before a full audience.
When the participants arrived, we handed out the binoculars to them and rode the carabao cart to watch the cultural show. I thoroughly enjoyed it, seeing traditional Filipino folk dances, some of which I danced for PE class in high school. I found myself smiling and as I looked around at the huge crowd, so were they =)

 I think Filipinos need to be reminded of our culture and how colorful and beautiful and diverse it is. Villa Escudero does just that through its cultural show, making people realize once more just how nice it feels to be proud of our heritage. When familiar dances were introduced like the tinikling (dance with bamboo poles), pandanggo sa ilaw (balancing candles while dancing) and maglalatik (dance with coconut shell halves strapped to the body), the crowd would react excitedly... I assume from the sudden fond recognition of what they were seeing.

At the Indigo Cafe.
After the cultural show, our group headed to the Indigo Cafe (named after the Indigo-banded Kingfishers) to have some halo-halo for snacks while spotting a Black-naped Oriole nest.

Birding at the waterfalls area.
Next stop was the waterfalls! Not only were we able to see the IBKFs, but the group was also able to see the Oriental Magpie Robin, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and a Purple-throated Sunbird!

Birding in the grasslands area.
Our last stop was at the grasslands/wetlands area near the parking lot. The group saw Pied Bushchats, Crows, Cattle Egrets, Blue-tailed Bee Eaters, Crested Myna, and Richard's Pipits.

Birding in the afternoon sun.
Walking back to the reception area, the group saw a White-collared Kingfisher, Pied Trillers, Lowland White-eyes, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker and the newest addition to the Villa Escudero birds: a Coppersmith Barbet.

I think the whole group enjoyed the trip. Even though it was really hot, the birds really make up for it. We all posed for a group shot before the participants headed back home to Manila.

Team Villa Escudero with big smiles on their faces after a fun birding afternoon.

Walking back to the cottage just as it was getting dark, we could hear a Common Koel calling LOUDLY from the trees, as if tempting us to stay longer in the Villa to look for it. But with other plans for the following day, we decided we will just have to go back to Villa Escudero to find the Koel. =)

Thank you again Carmela for EVERYTHING =)

Jops' Owls

The birds in my backyard are the usual suspects in most urban homes: the Eurasian Tree Sparrows (aka Maya), Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Pied Fantails, Zebra Doves and Olive-backed Sunbirds. We also have a resident Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker and the occasional White-collared Kingfisher and Black-naped Orioles. During the fruiting season of the mango trees, we have lots of Colasisis hanging out too. But that's about it.

I bet the list is pretty much the same (plus-minus a couple of other species) in urban backyards throughout Manila so imagine our surprise when we heard an immature Philippine Scops Owl (PSO) calling in Jops' backyard! He'd been hearing an adult owl calling a few months back but never got to spot it. Just last April 9 (our second bird day!) we came home to an immature PSO calling and sounding very close. Its call  is completely different from the adult's, having a more high pitched "pssssst - pssssst" sound. After a bit of searching, we finally saw the fluffy bird perched not too high up a mango tree. It stayed a while for a couple of nights in the same tree, perched quite low.

This is one of the two immature Philippine Scops Owls in his backyard. PHOTO BY JOPS.

It took me a couple of days before I was able to see the adult owls. Seeing them was an amazing experience in itself but the fact that it was in Jops' backyard made it even more fantastic. Who would have thought?! We've been hearing stories from other birders about seeing PSOs in the UP Diliman campus but we haven't been able to see them.

This is one of the adult owls in his backyard. Much harder to spot! PHOTO BY JOPS.

As the days progressed, the owls have been a bit more difficult to spot. Their calls would be heard coming from the trees in the adjacent houses. Some nights they would come back to Jops' garden and some nights they would stay further away. I guess with the young ones learning to fly and hunt, they needed lots of "practice area" as they got better and better at it =)

A few afternoons ago, Jops and I tried looking for their day roost. We scanned the trees in their backyard but the owls weren't there. We politely asked his neighbors if we could enter and scan the trees in their gardens for the owls. The neighbors were pleasantly surprised when we told them they had owls in their backyard, and seeing their amazed reactions when we told them we weren't joking was priceless. Their house help confirmed seeing the owls and even told us matter-of-factly, "Ay oo, may anak yung mga kuwago. Dalawa." ("Oh yes, the owls have babies. Two.") which confirmed our earlier speculation that we were hearing two individuals. We scanned the trees and the area beneath them. No owls but we saw splotches of poo on the ground under a low perch in their mango tree....

We first saw white splotches of poo in an area
under their mango tree.

... and also some feathers...

We saw one big feather and lots of the tiny, baby feathers too!

... we also found one pellet!!!

Can you see the round pellet in the middle of the photo?

Here's a better look at the single pellet we collected. We have yet to
examine its contents! 
The PSO's pellet looks completely different from that of the pellets of the Philippine Eagle Owl, but that's another blog =)

So, the story continues with Jops' Philippine Scops Owl family, each night yielding a different experience. Some nights they call early, some nights quite late. There are nights they pass through Jops' backyard, other nights they spend in the neighbors trees. I feel lucky enough to have seen the immature owls and the adult owls, hear them calling nearby while having dinner and conversation with good friends (Trinket writes about it in her blog), see the baby owl slurp down a lizard, and even find a pellet. It is a lucky break and a HUGE blessing to have such wonderful backyard birds!

Black Bittern Surprise

I didn't imagine seeing so much Black Bitterns based on a "third-party" birding tip for an owl.

I checked the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines Facebook page and chanced upon such an ecstatic post from Joey (I do not know him personally) sharing his experience seeing his very first wild owl in flight. He also shared seeing herons and what looked to him to be mallards. I also learned a new word from his post, as he described seeing "crepuscular" birds in the site. After looking it up (as one should when encountering an unknown word), I learned that crepuscular is an adjective meaning "active or occurring during twilight." Cool new word for me! He ended his post recommending this site to birdwatchers.

The site he was talking about is the Acacia Estates in Taguig. This is quite a large area being developed into clusters of medium-rise condominiums. Part of this development however faces a fenced "grassland/wetland" area. When Jops needed to bring his Tita to the airport early Sunday morning, we decided to make a birding side-trip to the area on our way back to Quezon City.

We entered the Acacia Estates main gate with a salute to the guard (thanks Tonji for the tip!) and drove slowly along the main road. At first, it was just buildings but the left side soon cleared up to reveal an open area with lots of grass. This was fenced all the way to where it ended in a small creek and then some residential houses. Before we parked the car, we already saw herons flying in to land among the reeds!

We were able to ask a guard about the birds he noticed in the area and he told us about a white "kuwago" (owl) that comes out flying towards night time. We crossed our fingers for this but knew that with the early sunrise (the sun was out and shining before 6AM!), our chances of seeing a Grass Owl were slim.

We got out our bins and scope and started to scan the area. We saw almost a hundred Black-crowned Night-Herons roosting, almost hidden in the grass. LOTS of Clamorous Reed Warblers, clinging on to stalks of grass, calling loudly and chasing each other.

Clamorous Reed Warbler singing its heart out!

We also saw some Common MoorhensWhite-browed CrakesYellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, and Bright-capped Cisticolas.

I was enjoying the warblers' cuteness when we saw a big black bird flying across the field. It was beating its wings more powerfully compared to a Black-crowned Night Heron and when I focused my bins on the bird,  I almost shouted "Black Bittern!" Jops confirmed my ID and when I put down my bins to look at him, he said "Meron pa!" (There's more!") I looked back up at the sky there were 5 of them flying!

We walked down the road to a small creek, and as we approached flushed a Black Bittern hiding in the floating vegetation! TSK! We were able to follow it to where it perched, semi-hidden in the grass. After a few minutes, it came back! I was able to digiscope it with my phone cam (so pardon the quality.) It stayed awhile, stretching its neck to reveal a thick beautiful cream streak plus thinner rufous, white and black streaks making it look almost like a snake!

We were amazed being able to see a Black Bittern up close, exposed and for quite a long period of time! Usually we just see this bird in flight and disappearing into the vegetation. When the bird finally flew into the reeds, we decided to call it a morning and get some breakfast. No Grass Owl yet but the Black Bitterns made my morning =)

Thank you again, Joey H.! =)

But Wait! There's More!

April 9 is a three-occasion date for me. It is the Philippines' Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) which commemorates the bravery of Filipino soldiers who fought to defend Bataan against the Japanese during World War II. It is also my good friend Sharon's birthday AND it  marks our birding birthday! 

Last year, Jops and I went with a group of friends to Nuvali and saw the Chinese Francolin for our bird day lifer. This year, we found ourselves with family in Canyon Cove Resort in Nasugbu, Batangas. The resort is a three-hour drive from Manila, and we arrived towards 8 in the morning. Having no background as to the "birdy-ness" of the site, we were set on exploring without any expectations. As soon as we parked, we saw a female Blue Rock Thrush running around the parking lot! 

I've seen the male BRT more often, and although it is more colorful (and consistent with it's name), seeing the female BRT is always a treat.

This is the male BRT, photographed in the UP campus in Quezon City.

There were already lots of people on the beach and in the pool when we arrived and settled in a cabana. There were lots of Striated Swallows (Jops' lifer!) flying overhead as well as White-breasted Woodswallows (some nesting in the coconut trees) and Olive-backed Sunbirds. We decided to walk along the shore and scan the huge rocks out at sea for any waders. I imagined some sandpipers and maybe a whimbrel if we were lucky but the beach and rocks yielded zero birds. We headed towards the end of the cove where there was a thick patch of trees.

At first it was mainly Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Yellow-vented Bulbuls we saw. But as we waited, we saw two more female Blue Rock-Thrushes perched atop one of the residential units. We could hear some Tailorbirds calling from the brush (one flew just in front of Jops!) and a White-collared Kingfisher called and flew around the taller trees. While standing in that small portion, we also saw a lone Chinese Goshawk fly overhead and another raptor which we could not identify because it was flying too high up.

We were also treated to good views of a female Pink-necked Green Pigeon. I was silently hoping a male Pink-neck would appear since I've only seen the female, but the bird flew deeper into the trees and disappeared. We were preparing to leave our spot when suddenly a plump green bird perched on the branches above us! I focused my binoculars on the bird and voila! A handsome male Pink-necked Green Pigeon just above us!

Here's a photo of the female Pink-necked Green Pigeon, which lacks the beautiful coloration of the male:

Photographed also in the UP campus in Quezon City a few years back.

We finally packed our things and walked back to the cabana in time for lunch. Before leaving, we scanned the rocky shores at the other end of the cove and spotted a lone Common Sandpiper. Sadly for me, that was the only wader seen.

On the ride back to Manila, I thought about the birds we saw. I was happy Jops was able to see the Striated Swallows and I was contented with being able to see the male Pink-neck and the female thrushes. I dozed off resigned, but not sad at all, that I would have no lifers on our second bird day.

But wait! There's more!

We reached Manila before night settled in. We were already on our way out to get long overdue massages  when we heard an immature Philippine Scops Owl calling loudly! We have been hearing it for the past couple of days but were never able to spot it. Out came our bins and a flashlight. We positioned ourselves under a mango tree where the calls were coming from. We scanned the branches with the flashlight but couldn't see it. I borrowed the flashlight and for the first time tried my luck at spotting an owl in the dark. I didn't have my glasses on (I wasn't expecting we'd see the owl) and am actually quite blind at night BUT almost immediately I saw two red dots staring back at me! I found it!!! I whispered harshly for Jops to come closer and pointed out the bird to him. Unbelievably, we still got a LIFER! I didn't expect it at all, but we still got an awesome lifer on our second bird day! Yay!

This immature Philippine Scops Owl is soooo tiny and fluffy-looking and absolutely ADORABLE!