Looking Back at 2013

Three days before the start of the new year, Jops and I, together with Mike L. and Jon J., drove to Canyon Woods in Batangas to help Mike conduct a birdwatching activity for the boy scouts of St. Stephen's High School. It was my first time to go there and was excited to discover what bird life could be found in the place.

We were able to see more or less 10 species in the short time we were there including Pied Bushchats (both male and females), Collared Kingfishesr, Richard's Pipits, and lots of White-breasted Woodswallows. More scouting around yielded a handsome White-throated Kingfisher, some Blue-throated Bee-eaters, and a couple of Large-billed Crows. Jon and I were able to see a small group of Elegant Tits flitting among some tall trees. I was thrilled to see them again! Additional birds we saw were a handsome male Blue Rock Thrush, a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker that perched close and low near our group, and a flyby raptor.

Realizing it would be my last birding trip for the year, it got me thinking about my birding adventures in 2013. Looking back and studying my notes, I discovered that I was able to see 38 lifers (!) this year, some of them MEGA lifers! Not bad, since I know Jops and I slowed down on birding this year. Here's a quick rundown of some of our hightlights:

I never imagined I'd see a Brown Booby in Manila Bay, but I did last August! It was blown in by a storm raging the country at that time. The successful January twitch for the Green-faced Parrotfinches in Bataan was another mega lifer for me, knowing how difficult it already is to see this bird without any flowering bamboos.

Green-faced Parrotfinch
One of our earlier successful twitches!

Seeing two Philippine Frogmouths in two different locations this year was also a surprise for me and Jops, especially seeing one randomly in Timberland Heights last July. I thought we'd see this when we went to Bohol or Mindanao someday.

Philippine Frogmouths
Left photo from Timberland Heights.
Right photo from La Mesa Nature Reserve.

We also got a number of good sightings in nearby La Mesa Ecopark, including the Spotted Wood Kingfisher and Indigo-banded Kingfisher. In March, we also got another successful twitch for the Brown-headed Thrush and even got an unexpected, bonus lifer that same morning: Eye-browed Thrush!

Of course, definitely worth mentioning are my two latest lifers from Candaba. We finally saw the Siberian Rubythroat after dipping on it twice! And we also got to see the Black-faced Spoonbills!

One of the three Black-faced Spoonbills that were spotted in Candaba

Lifers aside, 2013 also brought me to places, old and new. I was able to go to Zamboanga City for the first time last February. I got to meet great and friendly people, bird in the Pasonanca Watershed and in Mt. Baluno, and also enjoy their wonderful food! I also got to see my first Bagras tree there =) In September, we were able to go to Coron, Palawan, share what we know about birdwatching and get lots of amazing lifers as well, it being the first time Jops and I would bird there.

My spark tree: Bagras!

I was also able to revisit a number of great birding sites including: Olango Island, one of my favorite birding destinations ever, and Bangkong Kahoy Valley, another nearby place for awesome birding. 

A rainbow over Olango Island, Cebu

These are just snippets of the past year, with lots of adventures and heartaches in between. I am optimistic that 2014 will be a much better year than 2013. So, I close the year with gratitude for all the blessings which came in so many different forms, and leave behind all the negative things that have happened.

Here's to an amazing year ahead for all of us! 
Happy New Year and wishing you all more lifers and adventures in 2014! =)

Post-Christmas Spoonbills

It was the day after Christmas and Jops and I decided to invite some birder friends to go to Candaba and help them find the Black-faced Spoonbills we twitched last weekend.

We arrived in the site and scanned the rice paddies which were dotted with egrets, stints, and  herons. It was an overcast morning and there weren't as many birds in the spot where we saw the spoonbills last time. There were a lot of Black-winged Stilts clustered together in one area but no spoonbills in sight.

Big group of Black-winged Stilts!

We waited for a couple of hours, entertained by some Yellow Bitterns flying from one clump of vegetation to another, some Pied Bushchats perching on tall grasses, while White-browed Crakes, White-breasted Waterhens, and Barred Rails came to the roadside to feed. While scanning the waders, Jops spotted four Black-tailed Godwits busy probing the shallow water for food. We also saw a Ruff among the many Long-toed Stints. Still no spoonbills.

This young male Pied Bushchat posed handsomely for us =)

Jops and the others decided to check out an inner pond, while Bob N., Leni, and I stayed behind to study the Ruff. Unfortunately, someone lit a firecracker and all the birds in the rice paddy in front of us took flight and left us bird-less. My phone suddenly started ringing and it was Jops calling! We looked at him through our bins and he was gesturing for us to go over to where they were! I answered his call and we knew it: he found the spoonbills!

We trooped over to where the rest of our group were standing and there they were, three sleeping Black-faced Spoonbills, standing together with Grey Herons in a dry pond. When everyone in the group had seen them through the scope, we decided to trek through the tall grasses to get a better vantage point and a closer view of these awesome birds.

We had to walk through tall grasses on very
uneven ground!
The final "challenge" before getting closer looks at
the Black-faced Spoonbills

After the short but challenging trek, we found our places near a hut and started to view the spoonbills when another firecracker startled the birds and they took to the air. They started flying away from us but the birds doubled back and flew back towards us. They flew above us and settled out of sight with a large group of egrets. We made our way back to the cars, happy with seeing the birds although without good photos.

I managed one shot of one spoonbill in flight!

We then decided to head to the mayor's property and try for the Siberian Rubythroats. In the huge pond before the mayor's house, we saw quite a number of Purple Swamphens by the edge of the thigh vegetation. They were very easily flushed though, disappearing quickly into the plants when we stopped for closer looks.

I was lucky this Swamphen turned back for a last look
before disappearing into the greenery.

There were a lot of Zebra Doves and Red Turtle Doves, as usual, and I saw two White-shouldered Starlings fly-by. We tried for the Siberian Rubythroat but unfortunately only heard snippets of the bird's call from deep within the brush. Some of us were able to see the Dusky Warbler too. The pond near the house had lots of (noisy!) Wandering Whistling Ducks in it.

Lots of Wandering Whistling Ducks

We bumped into Brian E. and his wife who came from the other side of the property and he told us he saw loads of ducks in the far ponds. We drove to the area and stopped by the first group of ducks we saw. There weren't that many but we did see lots of Tufted Ducks, Philippine Ducks, and even two Eurasian Coots! I love the coots with their chalk-like bills! Unfortunately they were too far to photograph.

We checked out the next ponds and there were the loads of ducks Brian was referring to! We saw lots of Philippine Ducks, some Garganey, and also Northern Shovellers (just one male though.)

Can you spot the lone male Northern Shoveller?
Northern Shoveller, Philippine Ducks, and a Garganey

It was already noon and the light was getting very harsh, making spotting very difficult. We packed our stuff and said our goodbyes, but of course posed for a group picture to remember another awesome trip to Candaba, especially since everyone in our group (except for me and Jops) got lifers! Merry Christmas everyone!

Twitching Some "Spoons" and "Rubies"

T'was six days before Christmas when our fellow birders Brian E. and Linda G. reported a pair of Black-faced Spoonbills in Candaba, Pampanga. Alas, it was a Thursday and as much as Jops and I wanted to twitch the birds, we had to wait for the weekend to do so. I was very excited to get a chance to see them especially since our birder friend Nilo A. spotted and photographed a single Black-faced Spoonbill in Olango Island in Cebu just a few weeks ago!

Come Saturday, Jops, Jon V., and I headed to Candaba early morning to try our luck with the spoonbills. We made it to the area and immediately saw our birder friends Peter, Tito Bob, and Tita Cynthia. They had spotted the birds and Tito Bob had already gotten a photo! The birds were still there!

Under a pretty Candaba sky, birders old and new, spent part of their
morning birdwatching

We immediately got the scopes out and started scanning the scattered group of egrets, herons, and waders on the ponds in front of us. After a few seconds, Jops said quietly, "I got them on the scope." After he got good views, Jon and I took turns looking at our awesome lifer, making sure to see their black faces and spoon-like bills. Lifer!

We followed the birds as they walked towards the left, then towards the right, busily foraging for food with their heads down. It was challenging enough getting photos with the birds so far away, and their constant movement and foraging made it even more difficult to get a decent picture of their heads!

Here's a shot of the spoonbills preening in between furious foraging
Here's the best shot I got of our awesome lifer!
Grainy, but it shows the features of the bird well enough =)

While trying my luck getting a documentary shot of my awesome lifer, some locals came over curious as to what we were all excited about. Joggers, bikers, and kids, all got to see the pair of Black-faced Spoonbills having breakfast. I guess they didn't realize it, but we tried our best to explain the significance of having the birds in Candaba.

The pair of birds we were looking at were part of the small global population of Black-faced Spoonbills. Listed as endangered, there is an estimated population of more or less 2,000 birds left in the wild. There is a recorded historical population of 10,000 birds but their numbers plunged to 288 individuals in 1988. But with conservation efforts, the population was able to slowly recover to 2,693 birds in 2012.*

After a while, our group decided to move to the area near the Mayor's ponds and try for the Siberian Rubythroat. It would be another lifer for me and Jops, and we were hoping our lucky streak would continue.

The roads to the Mayor's house were dry but there were some portions with very deep potholes. We stopped beside an area with pretty vegetation which also head a small number of waders: Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, and quite a number of snipes were seen.

Long-toed Stint

We then moved on to the huge pond and saw that it was almost completely covered with vegetation! Lots of Wandering Whistling Ducks could be seen landing on the water and disappearing in the plants. A lot of them were perched out in the open too.

Two very handsome-looking Wandering Whistling Ducks

Jon, Jops, and I pushed forward to the Mayor's house but didn't see the Rubythroat after several tries calling it out from the brush. We got some replies but the bird never came out. We regrouped with Tito Bob and getting a helpful tip from Mike A., we positioned ourselves in the area where they saw it last week. After several attempts at calling the bird out, we heard one answer loud and clear. Jon then saw some movement in the brush and there it was, our second amazing lifer for the day: a gorgeous male Siberian Rubythroat.

At first, it had its back turned to us.
Who would have thought this brown bird would have a ruby-red throat?

We think there were at least two individuals in the area we were in but the birds never came out in the open. We did get good views, obstructed here and there by thin twigs and dried leaves. I didn't get a clear photo but these blurry pictures are enough souvenirs of another memorable lifer.

I am still amazed at this perfectly-named bird!
The red on its throat is a deep ruby shade lined with black.
The white stripes add a different accent to an otherwise
all-brown bird.

The bird would skulk in and out of view, making it very hard to get a photo. I was lucky enough to see it calling half-hidden in the dry brambles at one point before it disappeared quickly from view.

It was midday all too soon and we all had to go. Good byes and Merry Christmases were exchanged and we all drove out of Candaba happy. In the car and over lunch, Jon, Jops, and I were still ecstatic over our successful twitch, overwhelmingly happy that we got to see both the Black-faced Spoonbill and the Siberian Rubythroat in one morning. From the looks of our successful Christmas twitch ticking off the "Spoons" and "Rubies", 2014 is having a pretty good start. =)

* Data from BirdLife International's Fact Sheet about the Black-faced Spoonbill.

Post-script: The sighting of the Spoonbills has been featured in an article in local news!

Balanga Mudflats: Sinking Closer to the Waders

After participating in the 4th Ibong Dayo Festival, Jops and I returned the following morning to the Balanga Wetland Park in Barangay Tortugas. The very low tide meant more waders foraging but it also meant that they were scattered farther from the view deck. We decided to rent a boat to take us out to the water and get closer to the gulls and plovers and other waders.

We spoke to some of the fishermen near the entrance to the park and was able to talk to Kuya Zander who, with his father's permission, agreed to take us out to the mudflats for P800.00. We got our gear, boarded our banca, and went out to sea.

That's our boat. It's actually sitting on the mudflats.

We were accompanied by Kuya Zander's
daughter and niece

We reached the edge of the mudflats where it got too shallow for the boat to go any further. Jops got off the boat first and sank! Kuya Zander suggested that we go barefoot which would make it easier for us. Jops was a good boy and obeyed. I, on the other hand, was confident that my Keens would do the job. I got off the boat, with Kuya Zander telling me again to remove my shoes, and I sank... to my knees!!! I tried pulling up my right leg and the soft mud threatened to claim my Keens! I kept telling myself: I wont lose my Keens to the ocean! I won't lose my Keens to the ocean! So with a roar, I pulled one leg and then the other, removing my beloved shoes and depositing them safely in the boat. The disobedient birder learns her lesson =P

Barefoot and muddy

It was an awkward walk to the exposed mudflats and it took me quite a while to get my bearings. The two little girls helped me when I would sink and giggle when I would yelp when I lost my balance. When we got to more "stable" land, Kuya Zander's daughter told me shyly "Ate, may putik ka sa leeg" ("You have mud on your neck") I guess I was a mess =P

I wiped the mud from my neck... and my hands and my arms and then... I saw the birds. My favorites for the day were the Black-headed Gulls. They were resting on  the mudflats in front of us, with other waders running around them. When they took flight, they were beautiful!

Jops photographing the flock of gulls in flight

I was so happy I was able to get a good-enough photo of them in flight =)

The gulls moved further away and joined a huge group of waders. We saw large groups of Common Greenshanks, some Common Redshanks, and Marsh Sandpipers. There were also a few Greater and Lesser Sand-Plovers which I enjoyed observing for quite a while. A small group of Curlew Sandpipers started coming in to forage too. Jops initially just spotted one and we were hopeful it was a Dunlin! But more of the started coming in and we got to observe them more and they were Curlew Sandpipers for sure.

Gulls. Shanks. Plovers.
The first Curlew Sandpiper we saw that morning

An assortment of terns were also resting on the mudflats and it was really challenging for me identifying them! I need a major review of terns!

Terns, terns, terns!
I know they're not all Whiskered!

We tried searching for the huge flock of Asian Golden Plovers but they were quite far from where we were. We decided to get back to the banca and check out another area. We saw lots of terns diving for fish and also saw fishermen catching alamang (small shrimp) with their nets.

Here's where your bagoong (shrimp paste) comes from!

As we reached the end of our trip, we spotted a group of birds perched on bamboo poles. A lone Black-headed Gull stood out from the smaller Whiskered Terns and Jops and I were able to take some shots before they flew off.

Terns perched on poles and nets

A handsome Black-headed Gull.
Can't wait to see this in breeding plumage!

We headed back to the wetland park towards mid-morning. We didn't get any lifers but it was an adventure going out on a boat, walking and sinking in the mudflats, and getting great views of the waders (particularly the gulls!) There is still a lot to discover in Balanga and it remains a wonderful place to bird, especially during migration season. We'll be back!

Balanga Migrants: 4th Ibong Dayo Festival

I was thrilled that my schedule at work allowed me to volunteer for the 4th Ibong Dayo Festival in Balanga, Bataan this year. Ibong Dayo translates literally to "bird migrants" or "migratory birds" and is an annual event organized by the City of Balanga to recognize the different migratory bird species that pass through the city during the winter months.

The Koro Bangkal-Magbikin open the festivities with their
angelic voices

The WBCP contingent of 9 volunteers were at the Balanga Wetland Park early Friday morning to setup and prepare the different activities we would be conducting: coloring activities, bird origami, lectures, and of course, birdwatching. Even with our small group, assisted by the very friendly and ever-helpful people from Balanga, we were able to entertain a lot of people going through the festival activities.

Babie (in brown) help in the bird origami booth

Trisha, from Balanga City Hall, was super helpful
at the coloring booth
The kids really enjoyed the activities!
We got really serious young artists that morning!

We attended part of the opening ceremonies before heading to our different stations: some of us stayed at the origami and coloring stations, the others manned the scopes on the view deck, and Tinggay single-handedly conducted the lectures. After the first "wave" of guests passed through, I decided to help Arnel and Jops at the view deck. Jops had brought a small class from Manila out on the mudflats so Arnel and I took charge of the birdwatching on the deck.

Arnel guiding very interested students on the deck
Jops (with the scope) with the high school students coming
back from their walk on the mudflats

We had a constant stream of "customers" and I was very happy doing what I was doing... showing birds to students, teachers, former senators, city councilors, policemen, shy little girls, and rowdy little boys... I was completely stress-free! =)

This was the group of rowdy boys who, when a group of same-aged girls
arrived, danced on cue when I told them to give way for the girls
and be "gentlemen" =P
That's me talking to a little boy about the Little Egret we were
observing through the scope.
Photo by Jayce Japlit

It was one of the most enjoyable activities I've joined and rediscovered the joy in guiding. Of course, the awesome view deck and low tide also helped make it even more funner to guide, giving us shade from the sun and a perfect position for scanning the birds. I've missed Balanga and it was really great to be back =)

Team Balanga having lunch with Balanga City Mayor Joet Garcia (standing)
and City Administrator Rudy de Mesa (lower left)
Photo by Tinggay Cinco

Coming up next... Balanga mudflat birding!

"Fruitful" Dip in Candaba

We initially planned on going to LPPCHEA (Coastal Lagoon) but when there were reports of a sighting of  a Long-billed Dowitcher in Candaba, we decided to go there (and twitch that) instead.

Candaba looks serene especially in the early hours of the morning

So, we drove early in the morning to Candaba to with our friends Rob, Irene, and Kitty. Our party immediately began scanning the empty rice fields, checking on each wader, looking for the dowitcher. We saw lots of waders... but no dowitcher. We decided to walk closer to the fields where the waders were scattered far and wide. Some of the paddies have already been planted with rice and others had farmers working on them. Some of Candaba's usual suspects gave us great views.

Chestnut Munia,
the former Philippine National Bird

Yellow Bittern foraging out in the open in the early morning sun

Black-winged Stilt, one of the few that foraged
close  to where we were

Barn Swallow doing its early morning stretching
while balanced on a pole

We scanned and scanned and scanned but did not find the lone Long-billed Dowitcher our friends saw the day before. We did see a lot of Marsh Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, egrets, and even some Ruffs and Curlew Sandpipers. As we made our way back to the cars, Kitty nonchalantly pointed out a snake swimming in the shallow water towards us.

Curious birders peeking at the snake in the water
We are waiting for confirmation of the ID:
either an Amphiesma stolatum or Rhabdophis spilogaster

It swam back and forth and also out in the open

It was 9am when we reached the cars and it was time to head back home. We brought out some pastel to share and Rob brought out two cans of ice cold beer, supposed to be for celebrating when we saw the dowitcher. We didn't get to tick it off but it was still a very good morning spent with friends =)