A Great Crested Lifer

I was really only praying for good weather. The skies weren't looking too good as Jops, Mark Jason, and I drove to Balanga, Bataan yesterday. We were on our way to conduct a guided birdwatching trip for delegates of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) which was organized by CORE, the advocacy arm of the Primer Group of Companies. After a number of rained-out trips, I so wanted the sun to shine on us that day.

That prayer was answered and I guess, even my unsaid prayer for a lifer was heard loud and clear =)

Our trio arrived earlier than the official meeting time, of course to bird a bit before the activities start. We went straight to the Puerto Rivas fishponds to check out what waders were there. Turned out, it was also the site where the group would board the motorized boats that would take us to the Balanga Wetland Park.

One of the boats waiting for the participants.
We were able to get great views of Little Grebes, Little Egrets and Intermediate Egrets, as well as a few Marsh Sandpipers and Common Sandpipers. The other usual subjects were also present despite the overcast skies and occasional drizzle. Lots of Whiskered Terns flew overhead.

We were greeted by the City Administrator Sir Rudy and after a short while, the convoy arrived. After putting on our life jackets, we boarded the bancas and were on our way through the mangroves. We went around the newly planted mangroves and headed towards the Wetland Park. It was a pleasant ride and something new to do in Balanga. Something I want to do again as Jops wasn't able to join us on the boat =(

Headed out to open sea!
The participants were welcomed at the park by no less than Mayor Joet Garcia. We were all treated to a scrumptious lunch at the information center accompanied by the beautiful singing of the Koro Bangkal-Magbikin, an all Aeta children's choir.

The Koro Bangkal-Magbikin. Always a pleasure hearing them sing =)
After lunch, we proceeded with a short introduction to birdwatching and then proceeded to the view decks to spot birds. It was a slow start at first, the Whiskered Terns not generating much reaction from the participants. I had just showed the participants a Striated Heron when Mark Jason called me to look through his scope. He asked me nonchalantly if I had already seen a Great Crested Tern. I shook my head but didn't run to the scope since it was a guided trip and I felt the need to let the participants see birds first. But Mark gave me a look that made me go straight for the scope. 

Then I saw them. I couldn't contain my excitement! I guess my yelp of joy and surprise got the others excited and lining up for their turn at the scope. I had to let them see the birds, there were two of them, perched on the wooden poles together with lots of Whiskered Terns.

I went to my scope and spotted them! Much larger than the Whiskered Tern, with bright yellow bills, and black heads with visible crests! Such beautiful birds! I called Jops to see them too. But when he looked through the scope... they were gone!!! 

After a few minutes, Mark was able to spot more of them on a distant but still scope-able sand bar. This time Jops and the rest of the group were able to see them.

I was able to digiscope two Great Crested Terns! Gorgeous lifers! =)

We had to turn away from the birds to continue with our guided trip. We knew we would still see them later after the activity. The group birded a bit more, spotting a handsome Collared Kingfisher in the area. 

Collared Kingfisher on the roof of the view deck.

After a yummy snack of turon and fresh buko juice, the participants went ahead to go on a city tour and to buy pasalubong from the market. Jops, Mark Jason, and I stayed behind to bird some more in the park. We spent most of our time looking at the Great Crested Terns and also IDing Common Terns which were mixed in confusingly with the other terns. We also saw Greater Sand Plovers, Kentish Plovers, and Rufous-necked Stints running around the terns.

We also checked out the mudflats but only saw Little Egrets, Whiskered Terns, and some Striated Herons. We packed up and headed home to Manila for a celebratory dinner of burgers and burritos: we didn't get rained out! Plus we got a lifer! =)

Return to Balanga

It has been months since I last visited Balanga City in Bataan. Now that the migration season has started, the sites of Balanga are calling for us to return and see their annual avian visitors. Even early on in migration, Balanga did not disappoint.

I was happy to see big flocks of Black-winged Stilts, terns, and Asian Golden Plovers!

Jops, Irene, and I arrived in Balanga earlier than the expected meeting time to drop by some fishponds in Barangay Puerto Rivas. We immediately saw some Little Grebes swimming, diving, and darting over the water in the first pond. I always enjoy observing Little Grebes and this group was very active, some even chasing each other over the water, splashing along the way.

One of the Little Grebes I managed to digiscope before
it disappeared (swam or dove) from view!

We only spent a little more than an hour in the area as we had to meet up with fellow birders for our ocular trip. But it was a great morning already! The Bright-capped Cisticolas were literally everywhere! At one point, there were around 10 of them "surrounding" me and Jops!

The Bright-capped Cisticolas would perch on the reeds very close to us!
I was even able to digiscope one of them noisy, fidgety birds!
We saw a lone Grey Heron looking like a watercolor painting against
the green. It took off just when I pressed the shutter button.
After an hour, we had to leave to meet up with the rest of the group for the ocular trip to the Balanga Wetland Park. At the city hall, we were welcomed by City Administrator Sir Rudy and discussed the game plan for the day. The trip was supposed to include a boat trip through the mangroves. Unfortunately, the low tide meant we couldn't push through with this. No worries, birders will look for birds just the same, on a boat or not.

We convoyed to the Wetland Park (complete with police escort!) and immediately scanned the beach for waders. The front of the view deck was still deep with receding water, complete with people swimming, so we trekked to the mangrove area to the left side where the mudflats were already exposed. Waders!!!

Birders by the mangroves spotting some birds.

With the naked eye, we could only make out the Egrets, white against the brown sand. But with our bins, we could see lots of waders feeding and running around the mudflats! Out came the spotting scopes to better ID the waders!

We saw lots of Little Egrets and a single Great Egret. Lots of Common Redshanks and Common Greenshanks, Little Herons, Common Sandpipers, and the usual Collared Kingfishers perched on the bamboo poles sticking out of the ground.

Out come the scopes and field guides to ID the waders! So much fun!
We scouted the other areas surrounding the wetland park and towards noon, we saw a huge flock of Asian Golden Plovers fly in and settle on a quite distant sand bar. They are definitely one of my favorite waders, especially in their breeding plumage!

We had a delicious lunch in the second floor of the view deck, and cooled down with ice cold, fresh buko juice (coconut water.) After lunch, we dropped by the tapahan, the place where the tinapa (smoked fish) was made. We bought our fill of dried and smoked fish, bottles of smoked fish flakes in oil (yum!) and even shrimp paste or bagoong.

After that, some birders went to check out Mt. Samat in the nearby town of Pilar to check if it is a good site for raptor watching. Our group decided to stay in Balanga and check out more fish ponds for waders.

We ended up back in the Puerto Rivas fish ponds and met up with fellow birders Raul and Riza. The Grebes, Stilts, Egrets, and Cisticolas were still there. The Scaly-breasted Munias were also aplenty, feeding on the wild rice growing along the sides of the road.

I was able to take a semi-clear shot of this Munia
as it landed on a stalk of grass.
We took some time identifying the many terns resting on the shallow waters of the fish pond. They are quite challenging to identify especially if they are not in their distinct breeding plumages. But there were a small number of Whiskered Terns in their breeding plumage which was cool to see.

The objects of our debates! Terns in varying plumage!

At 4PM we packed up and headed for home. I was quite sun burnt (again) but happy with all the waders that we saw. It was an easy Sunday drive back to Manila, plus a stopover for ice cold beer (and Coke for me!)

New Little Birders

As part of a thematic unit on birds, Jops and I were invited by his teacher friend to give a talk to grade schoolers about birdwatching. The multi-age class we visited was composed of 14 very eager 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, raring to share what they have already learned about birds and also to learn something new.

After meeting their Science teacher, we entered the classroom and as we brought in our scope, camera, and binoculars, we already saw their eyes grow big and their mouths go round. As Jops was setting up the laptop, I asked the kids to share what they already know about birds. It was so much fun seeing so many little hands shoot up with matching excited faces saying "Pick me! Pick me!" 

We really enjoyed hearing their excited answers:

"Birds can fly!"

"Birds eat insects!"

"Birds eat fruits and seeds!"

"Birds have feathers!"

We proceeded in giving them a short introduction about what birdwatching is, teaching them the difference of a pet bird versus a wild bird, and why they shouldn't buy wild birds even if they want to set them free.

Jops discussing different habitats with the kids.

We also shared with them the different habitats the birds live in, the things birders use for birding, proper birding behavior, and also asked them to observe and share the "field marks" they see in a couple of bird photos we showed them.

We didn't really expect to do actual bird watching but as the lecture was winding down, a little boy called my attention and started saying "I see a bird! I see a bird!" He was excitedly pointing outside their classroom window to a couple of Yellow-vented Bulbuls perched on top of their school's water tank! We put the birds on the scope and let the kids see them. They were all so excited! 

Everyone gathered by the classroom window to spot the
Yellow-vented Bulbuls.

Jops also let the kids try taking some shots with his camera!

They all wanted to try taking photos!

We also had some time to go out to their small playground and spot a Zebra Dove and some Eurasian Tree Sparrows. 

Falling in line to see the birds in their
It's always a great thing teaching children, especially if it is something you are passionate about. Talking about birding is always fun and even funner with young kids. Their curiosity, honest reactions, and genuine delight is... refreshing! 

We said our goodbyes and exited the school to questions of when and where we will be birdwatching next! I guess, based on that alone, they enjoyed the morning as much as we did =)

Oh, and we got an awesome "bonus" from our morning with the kids: our first Brown Shrike of the season =)

I Dream of Optics

I started my September drooling over dream optics for birdwatching. Jops and I, together with lots of our WBCP birder friends, attended a digiscoping talk conducted by Swarovski Optik France Director Pierre Severy at the La Mesa Ecopark.

A gathering of scopes =)

He showed us amazing photos he took using a digiscoping set-up (camera plus spotting scope.) The highlight was being able to see, hold, and even try out the newest Swarovski spotting scope model!

Pierre demonstrating how to attach a camera to the new scope.

Testing the digiscoping set up at the spillway.

Adri trying out the set up.

Jops' turn to try it out.

A Nikon camera attached to the newest Swarovski scope! Dream setup!

Honestly, I am still very happy with my trustworthy Bushnell binoculars. But of course, I wouldn't mind my own pair of Swaro bins. I've tried out a pair of Swaro bins and looked through their spotting scopes and they REALLY provide brighter and clearer images! After all, the real essential tool in birding is a good pair of binoculars.

Here's a cool infographic from OpticsCentral about binoculars.

Types of Binoculars
by mhars. Browse more infographics.