Excellent Valley Birding (Got 3 Lifers Too!)

It was a long overdue return to Bangkong Kahoy Valley for me, Jops, Adri, and Trinket and it was perfect timing that Dave was visiting from Taiwan. The last time we were there, we did a mega-twitch for the Whiskered Pitta but failed to see the bird. We said we'd come back for a more relaxed birding experience =)

We drove up early Saturday morning and were greeted by Dave (who had already spent the night there) and Dion (who owns BK Valley) at the dining area. It started to rain as soon as we parked the car and we had to wait for it to stop before we walked to check if the newly fledged Besras were in the area near their nest. We missed them last time we were in  BK valley and were hoping to see them this time.

Along the way, we encountered the first mixed flock of our trip. We saw Elegant TitsSulphur-billed Nuthatch, Yellowish White-eye, and (lifer #1 for me) Citrine Canary Flycatcher! We were enjoying seeing the birds when a Large-billed Crow scattered them as it perched on the tree. Such a big bully!

We continued our hike up to the community, wove our way through a Baguio bean plantation, and crept slowly beside our guide, Cris, as he gestured that the Besras were up on a tree. We positioned ourselves in a line and viewed two fledgelings sunning themselves on a branch. Lifer #2!

There were three chicks but we only saw these two.
They were calling continuously, sounding like immature Scops-Owls!

They left one by one, flying to perch hidden in a nearby tree and we took that as our cue to leave. Cris told us he saw a nesting Mountain Verditer Flycatcher up the trail (a possible lifer for me) and asked if we wanted to see it. Our first question of course was "Is it near?" We wanted relaxed and effortless birding and Cris said yes it was near, definitely not as far and as difficult as the trail we took last time. So we said yes and followed him up the trail. Of course, near-ness or far-ness can be pretty relative and what was "easy and near" for Cris was "challenging and far" for the rest of us.

This was part of the "trail" going up...
... and this was the "trail" going down.

Once more, I found myself holding on and hoisting myself up on mossy rocks and gnarled roots and branches.  At one point, very near the nest site, Adri decided not to go any further, Trinket too. I was so tempted to stay put also but I pushed myself after the boys. Adri and Trinket also decided to proceed but after a couple of meters up a rockier and steeper incline, I decided I wouldn't be able to come back down without falling or slipping. The Verditer could wait. So Adri, Trinket, and I told the others to go on while we stayed behind.

While waiting, the three of us decided to start going down the rocks and wait in a flatter, less slippery area. It was like a logic puzzle! Well, at least for Trinket and me =P We had to figure out where to place each foot and we ended up sitting on the rocks and scooting down on our behinds. I'm quite amused at how something so difficult  made us laugh quite hard. =)

The last "challenge" before reaching flat land =P

While waiting, we heard Philippine Bulbuls and a White-browed Shortwing calling from the trees but didn't see them. I saw what looked to be an immature Mountain Verditer Flycatcher up a tree but couldn't be positive on the ID. Soon, Dave and Chris started making their way down sadly without seeing the Flycatcher. They did see what looked to be an immature Whiskered Pitta, but just like the Flycatcher, they couldn't be sure.

We took a different route back down and after a bit more incline and steep slopes, found ourselves on the easier ATV trail. On the walk back down, we saw some Chestnut-faced Babblers that darted around us as well as some Mountain White-eyes. We soon found a noisy mixed flock and most of us stayed to spot the birds. We moved further down the trail and got close up views of a Pygmy Flowerpecker, feeding on the fruits of a low tree.

We arrived back at the dining area past noon and we sat down to a delicious lunch with lipote juice. We decided to spend the remainder of the day (and the trip!) on the view deck. We already got permission from Ramon, who owns the deck, to bird there and that's where we spent the rest of the afternoon (and the following day.)

This is definitely one of my favorite dude birding spots, and the trees in front of the deck weren't even fruiting yet! We waited for the birds but they weren't that active til late in the afternoon. We did get entertained by a hungry Brush Cuckoo, snatching hairy caterpillars from the tree in front of us. I really enjoyed seeing this bird as it was my first time to see the adult!

We got really close up views of the cuckoo!

We also spotted a Philippine Coucal, a Scale-feathered Malkoha, and a Red-crested Malkoha raiding a nest! Almost toward sunset, a mixed flock arrived. We saw more Elegant Tits, Citrine Canary Flycatchers, and Blue-headed Fantails. Towards the evening, we were on the lookout for the owls but the guards told us they usually come out and perch near the dining area around 2AM. After dinner, the boys tried their luck spotting the Philippine Hawk-owls that were calling all around but they weren't able to see them.

The following morning, we decided to just stay in the view deck, it was time for relaxed birding =) Dion generously offered to bring our breakfast to us in the deck which made me feel so spoiled aside from the fact that their breakfast was really, really, REALLY delicious! Around 8AM, just as Dion said, the birds started to arrive. An awesome mixed flock came into view from the lower deck and we enjoyed seeing Blue-headed Fantails, Yellowish White-eyes (Lifer #3!), and Citrine Canary Flycatchers flying in and out of view.

I've come to appreciate this fantail because
of the awesome views I got on this trip.

Dave was able to spot three immature Citrine Canary Flycatchers snuggled together on a branch, preening before they flew off to join the mixed flock. They would "regroup" together on a different branch before flying out again.

Fuzzy and cute feldgelings!

Aside from these awesome birds, we also got to see White-throated Kingfishers, Balicassiao, a male Tarictic Hornbill calling from its perch, White-breasted Woodswallows, Grey-backed Tailorbirds, Bicolored Flowerpecker, and a lone Flaming Sunbird.

I would have loved to stay another day, another week, or even another month in the Valley. I love the weather, the people, the food, the birds, everything! I'm already looking forward to our next trip, which hopefully will be 100% relaxed =P I have to see that Mountain Verditer Flycatcher too!

A Red-crested Nest Raider

We usually hear anecdotes and bits of trivia about birds while out birding with friends. This bird species is a bully while this species is a nest parasite, and this species is a nest raider. We've come to know the behavior of some birds even before we "meet" them. I've learned from other birders that the malkohas are notorious nest raiders --they raid the nests of other birds and take away the chicks for their meal. Sounds terrible, and it's even worse when you get to see it first hand.

Jops and I were in Bangkong Kahoy Valley this weekend with our friends Adri and Trinket and our friend Dave, who was visiting from Taiwan. Towards late afternoon of our first day there, Dave went ahead to his room while the rest of us stayed to bird in the view deck. Our guide, Chris, announced that he was seeing a Red-crested Malkoha from the right side of the deck. I walked over to where he was and trained my binoculars on the black and red bird, perched on the side of a tree trunk.

The Red-crested Malkoha was perched on the side of the tree trunk.
It stayed there for a while, shifting positions constantly.

I took some photos and saw it starting to flail around the spot. I thought it was stuck! I snapped another photo and saw that the bird had stuck its head in... a nest!? It was actually raiding a nest!

Sorry for this very blurry photo of the Malkoha with its head in the nest.
I pressed the shutter button too soon because I was quite shocked.

It kept its head inside the bucket-shaped nest as if looking for something. It then popped its head out and it had something round and white and moving (!) in its beak. Yes, it was a chick... I managed to get a short video clip of the moment it plucked the poor chick out of its nest and then fly away with it. Here's the 7-second video clip (sorry for the loud gasp I made...)

Everyone approached me after hearing me (I think) and we all reviewed the clip. We all knew Malkohas are nest raiders but it was still quite shocking to see it happen in "real life." Adri then put the nest on his scope and he saw some broken eggshells on the edge. We figured the Malkoha broke the egg in the nest and took the unhatched chick for its dinner. 

We all exchanged shocked and saddened faces. Adri said that 80% of nests are unsuccessful. We sighed and shrugged our (heavy) shoulders and acknowledged that we had just witnessed a part of that 80%. Trinket and I saw another part of that 80% the next morning when a Philippine Coucal flew a few meters in front of us, carrying what looked very much like another unhatched chick. Another nest raider in action.

We never found out who the owner of the nest was. The following day, I checked on the nest and there was no activity near it.  I guess as bird watchers, we also get to witness the savage side of nature sometimes.

Post Script:
After reading this post, I remembered an almost-raid also by a Red-crested Malkoha up the trails in Bangkong Kahoy Valley when we went a year ago. It skulked around a nest of a Chestnut-faced Babbler! Click here to read about it.

Slow Birding But With Perks!

Jops and I scheduled a quickie birding morning at the La Mesa Ecopark with friends Tito Bob and Tito Chin. It was raining hard the night before but we decided to push through the next day and we were rewarded with a rain-free morning.

It was a bit difficult spotting the birds in the mini-forest. We caught a glimpse of a Red-bellied Pitta but it hopped out of view almost immediately and didn't show itself again. No Hooded Pittas either. An Ashy Ground Thrush would hop around the dark undergrowth, unmindful of a foraging Common Emerald Dove and a group of chickens scratching at the wet soil.

Handsomely speckled Ashy Ground Thrush

We all went our separate ways in the mini-forest, I'm sure with different target birds in mind. I personally wanted to see (and try to) photograph a Grey-backed Tailorbird. They were singing loudly in one patch of trees and I immediately saw some movement. There were three Tailorbirds chasing each other around, but they would not stay put long enough for me to even focus my camera on them. It was a bit frustrating firing some shots and only to find you got a sharp enough photo of the bird's perch... without the bird. Sigh. I just contented myself with superb, in-your-face views of the Tailorbirds instead.

Jops went in search of the Slaty-legged Crake which snuck up behind him the last time we were in the park. I caught up with him but he unfortunately didn't see the bird. We did get our wish to see an immature Mangrove Blue Flycatcher though! Unfortunately, we didn't get any photos as it was continuously hopping from one branch to another and flying from one side of the trail to the other. We did get to see the adult bird and it posed beautifully for a photo.

This adult Mangrove Blue Flycatcher sang a bit on this branch
before flying off into the trees

The Lowland White-eyes were still busy building nests. We observed at least two nests being built, the birds coming and going, trying the nest on to see if it is snug enough (as in the bird would sit in it) before flying off in search of more nesting material.

A blurry photo of a Lowland White-eye "trying on" its nest

Towards mid-morning, we got a text from Tito Chin saying that he and Tito Bob would be leaving already. Jops and I decided to do the same but of course, bird along the way out of the trail. We were sidetracked by a very bold Grey-backed Tailorbird who inspected the nest of the Ashy Thrush. It managed to actually enter the nest before mama (or papa) Thrush landed on the nest and drove it away. The mama (or papa) Thrush then shimmied itself onto the nest before it left again.

Jops and I were really curious about the behavior of the Tailorbird. We decided to wait a bit and see if the small bird would come back to the nest. We positioned ourselves a distance from the nest and waited. The Tailorbird did not come back, but the mama (or papa) Thrush did and with a mouthful of worms! It was feeding time! Immediately, three beaks shot up into view from inside the nest, waiting for the plump worms to be deposited into their mouths.

Breakfast time! Or was it a morning snack?

The parent then suddenly picked up a fecal sac and swallowed it! It was so cool to watch! Actually, if you come to think of it, it is a bit gross. Fecal sacs are whitish mucous membranes which surround the feces of most nestlings. These are produced almost immediately after the chick has been fed. Not all bird species produce fecal sacs, mostly passerines, and not all the time do the parents eat them even though they are believed to have some "nutritional value" for the adult bird. Most of the time, and when the chicks are older, the adult bird picks up the fecal sac and removes it from the nest. This keeps the nest very tidy and ant-free!

We were lucky enough to have the Ashy Thrush come back again for another round of feeding. This time (with a reminder from Jops that my camera had a video function), I was able to video the process including the parent taking away another fecal sac (I guess eating one was enough =P)

When the parent left the nest, so did we. It wasn't a jam-packed birding morning but the clear views of the Tailorbirds and the Ashy Thrush observations were enough perks =)

Dangers on the Trail

Sometimes we are not aware of the hidden dangers that lurk in the forests and trails we find ourselves birding in. Most of the time, these "dangers" aren't really life threatening but they are present and can cause discomfort and even pain. From ant colonies to snakes to monitor lizards to limatic (a kind of leech), we've seen some pretty awesome (and potentially harmful) things on our adventures that can possibly sting, bite, or suck your blood.

We saw a Reticulated Python slythering along
the bamboo walk in Candaba

We saw this Monitor Lizard
sunbathing in La Mesa Ecopark.

Jops and Jun found some limatic attached to their skin
in our mega-twitch in Bangkong Kahoy Valley.

Just this weekend, we discovered another "danger" in the mini-forest of the La Mesa Ecopark. During the guided trip for the Nikon Club Philippines, some of us noticed a beautifully patterned ball, attached to a thin branch. It was obvious that it was a nest of some kind but we weren't sure as to what animal it belonged to.

It was beautifully crafted, with different shades of brown forming a scalloped pattern all over the orb. It looked like it was made from pretty paper! We found another one in a different part of the trail and I was able to photograph it from a safe distance. I had it identified on a Facebook group and the very helpful people there told (and warned) me it was a hornet's nest. And apparently hornets can sting in a really bad way. It got me really interested in hornets and I started reading up on them.

Hornet's nest (possibly Vespa sp.)

I learned that hornets are not bees. Bees are fuzzy and can only sting you once as their stingers get stuck and left behind in your skin (ouch!) leaving the bee to die. Hornets on the other hand can sting you repeatedly  with their straight stingers (a bigger ouch!) and can be pretty aggressive. They may attack at the slightest distrubance, especially when their nest is threatened or disturbed. I also learned that hornets are a kind of wasp. All hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets. (Yes, I had to read that again too =P)

So, here is another danger we may encounter on the trails that we all have to be aware of so we do not get too close to be seen as a threat (and also a subject for stinging practice). The hornet's sting is said to be excruciatingly painful and aside from the resulting pain, itching, and swelling, can even cause fever. Also if you are allergic to their sting, it can be fatal without immediate medical intervention. So, it's always best to stay on the trails to avoid disturbing these hornets! And if you ever see one of these amazing creations, just observe it from a safe distance.

In the unfortunate event that you get stung by a hornet, immediately leave the area and distance yourself from the hornet/s. Inspect the bite and make sure the hornet (or bee) did not leave its sting in your skin. Ice the area and apply a topical antihistamine or steroid (hydrocortisone.) For those who are allergic, seek medical help immediately to get an epinephrine shot. 

Aside from the hornet's nests in LMEP, I had another encounter on the trail and it was sadly of the human kind. I was observing a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker when a photographer walked towards me holding a lighted cigarette. I politely asked him to put it out since the park was a no smoking area. 

Me: Sir, pakipatay po yung yosi nyo. No smoking po sa park. (Sir, please put out your cigarette. There's no smoking in the park.)
Sir: Ay, ganon ba? (Ay, really?) - then he drops the cigarette butt on the trail and steps on it!
Me: O! Tapos dyan nyo pa tinapon? (O! Then you just throw it there?)
Sir: Eh wala akong tatapunan e. (I don't have any where to throw it.)
Me: Kaya nga po bawal diba?! (That's why it's not allowed, right!?)
Sir: <walks away>
Me: <fuming>

Honestly, it wasn't the smoking itself that irked me the most but more the blatant, guiltless littering. And from a "nature photographer" too! I don't think I need to explain when I say that sometimes man is the biggest danger in our trails.

Stones, wild vines, and dried leaves marred
by a newly put out cigarette butt.

Birthday Birding: A Surprise Owl and A Sneaky Crake

Has it been a year already?! It seems like only months since I spent my birthday last year birding in Makiling and here I am celebrating another one. Time flies... and so do the birds =)

Yesterday, Jops and I, together with Joni, Alex, Tere, Trinket, Marites, Brian, and Mang Boy, conducted a guided trip for members of the Nikon Club Philippines (NCP) in the La Mesa Ecopark. I have to say, it was one of the most exciting guided trips... everyone got to see a Philippine Eagle Owl! There haven't been any reports of it being seen in the park although our friends Adri and Nicky have already been hearing it there before in the wee hours of the morning.

We had just started birding in the trail when a huge bird swooped in above us and perched high up an acacia tree. Jops and I didn't have our cameras since we were guiding but NPC member Earl Santos was able to photograph the owl just after it perched! It looked at us briefly, looked around, then flew away. The short and very unexpected encounter with the largest species of owl in the Philippines gave me goosebumps!

Philippine Eagle Owl photo by Earl Santos (Nikon Club Philippines)
Thank you, Earl, for allowing me to post your photo of your amazing lifer!

Everyone in the group also got to see some Ashy Ground Thrush, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, and Emerald Dove. It was a really lucky day because aside from the "LMEP specialties" lots of other birds came out in the open to be observed: Grey-backed Tailorbird (yes, out in the open!), Lowland White-Eye, Black-naped Oriole, Collared Kingfisher, Golden-bellied Flyeaters (with a nest!), and lots (and I mean LOTS) of Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers. One was even observed noisily building a nest! The trip ended towards mid-morning and we all went home happy about such a great morning and an amazing bird list.

Jops and I decided to go back to the Ecopark the following day for my birthday birding. I didn't feel like going anywhere far and La Mesa seemed like the perfect place to bird for my birthday this year. We didn't even get up too early, arriving in the park around 7AM. This time we had our cameras with us. Who knows, we might be lucky enough to see the owl again. Unfortunately, we didn't. We were just really, really lucky yesterday!

Of course, La Mesa did not disappoint. Near the lagoon, we checked out the fruiting ficus tree Joni spotted yesterday and saw a handsome Guaiabero feeding on some of the ripe berries. Lots of Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Lowland White-Eyes were also starting to feast on the fruits. We moved into the mini-forest and saw a nest of an Ashy Ground Thrush very close to the trail. After a few minutes, the parent sat on it allowing me to take a quick photo before leaving it in peace.

Ashy Ground Thrush sitting on its nest.

A few meters away, we saw a Red-bellied Pitta being chased away by a Hooded Pitta! The Hooded Pitta won the battle, driving the Red-bellied Pitta away from the area. We would see both species again foraging in different places in the mini-forest later that morning.

I finally got a photo of the Hooded Pitta showing the red under its tail =)

Further in, we saw a Slaty-legged Crake busy foraging in the scrub. Jops went ahead and waited for it to come out while I checked up on the nesting Common Emerald Dove we saw yesterday. The male dove was still sitting on the nest, so I snapped a couple of photos and left the area to join Jops look for the crake.

The male Emerald Dove sitting on its nest.

I found Jops sitting on the trail, camera ready for the crake if it crossed the path. It did just that yesterday as the group was observing an Ashy Ground Thrush on the path. I won't forget the surprised and happy look on Joni's face as the crake walked right in front of the group as she pointed to the thrush =)

I joined Jops, crouching low, and waited for the bird to cross the trail. I heard some rustling a couple of feet behind me on my right. I slowly turned my head, expecting to see a skink come out. But it wasn't a skink... it was the crake! It was less than two feet behind me... crossing the trail behind our backs! I think I gasped (or squeaked) but didn't move so as not to scare it and announced (quite loudly) to Jops that the bird was behind me. He turned just in time to see the crake disappear into the other side of the trail. It was amazing seeing the bird THAT close! I could clearly see its yellow eye ring with just my glasses on! It didn't allow for any photos though as we were facing the other way. Such a sneaky crake! 

The trail was alive with orioles, kingfishers, white-eyes, and a Large-billed Crow even perched above us. We also got to see the Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker from yesterday, still busy boring a hole for its nest. 

Not yet done with its nest-building!

I didn't get any lifers this year (although who knows what tomorrow brings!) but I did get to meet new friends, we all got to share an unexpected sighting of a Philippine Eagle Owl, and Jops and I had a very close encounter with a Slaty-legged Crake! Happy birthday to me! =)