Racing for Birds

So, birders have been racing for birds for the longest time. We race against our peers, our partners, our frenemies. But there are organized bird races where birders team up and try to see the most number of birds within a given amount of time. Recently, our friends Adri, Ivan, and Mark represented the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines in the 1st Borneo Bird Race. They went around different sites in Borneo, tried to see as many birds as possible, and they were able to bring home the grand prize!

Recently, the club organized a much smaller bird race for first-time birders in the UP Diliman Campus for the Pledge2Fledge campaign. It was a fun change from the usual guided birdwatching trip, creating friendly competition among the bird guides as well. I had to sit that one out as I had to stay at the parking lot and wait for the teams to come back. Jops was able to guide a small group and they finished second =)

Jops's team got second place with 20 species seen

Our friend Jon J. organized a similar bird race for his 8th grade advisory class and I was excited to participate. It would be my first ever bird race! We would be having the bird race in the La Mesa Ecopark and would be birding for two hours only. Jops and I had to split to lead two teams of 7 students each. I got to lead the Team Earth with our birder friend, Jelaine, Jops led Team Water, Jon led Team Fire, and Fredd and Linda led Team Wind.

We walked towards the mini-forest but immediately spotted some White-breasted Wood-swallows, a Whiskered Tern, some Brown Shrikes, and Coppersmith Barbets even before passing the bridge! The other teams caught up with us so we pushed forward to the trail.

We checked out the area where the Indigo-banded Kingfishers frequent but they weren't there. Instead, our team saw Pied Fantails, Lowland White-eyes, a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, and a noisy Oriental Magpie Robin. A Barred Rail also crossed our path, with the students initially thinking it was a chicken =)

Jon's team arrived at the trail and when they veered towards the right, our team decided to turn left. Jelaine and I asked our team to move very carefully and to watch for ANY movement... and movement they saw! The three boys in front of us abruptly stopped and whispered "Movement!!!" There, a few feet in front of them, was the male Spotted Wood-Kingfisher! I told them to backtrack a bit slowly so as not to flush the bird. I trained the scope on the bird and enjoyed all the stifled gasps, oohs, ahhs, and ohmygods as the kids observed the kingfisher up close.

One of our team members, Larkin, even sketched the
bird as he observed it through the scope!
I didn't bring my camera so all I got was a blurry
digiscoped photo using my phone's camera

Jon's team eventually caught up with us and we backed up the trail to let him and his team see the kingfisher. Jops and his team also arrived and after pointing out the bird to them, Team Earth left the area to find more birds. We bumped into the fourth team led by Fredd and Linda and told them about the Spotty. They told us they just saw the Indigo-banded Kingfisher and our team went to spot it. The female IBKF was perched on a very low broken stump unmindful of its audience. When everyone had their fill of the bird, we ventured into the trail where we saw an immature Red-bellied Pitta hopping around, pulling out worms from the muddy ground.

Our last stop was the spillway where the kids saw a Grey Heron perched atop a tree, as well as some Little Egrets and a Common Sandpiper. As we were leaving the area, we got to add a Black-naped Oriole and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters to our list! We regrouped in the huts that Jon had rented out for the day and made our bird lists.

Announcing the winners!

After tallying and summarizing the bird lists (and psyching out the other teams), Jon announced that our team, the Earth Team, saw the most number of species that morning! We won first place with 24 species seen! Not bad at all for two hours birding.

Earth Team: Jay, Lance, Mik, Ashley, Carlo, Larkin, me, Tricia, and Jelaine

I was pretty amazed at the bird list we ended up with. We didn't even count the Ashy Ground Thrush in our list as not everyone saw it (part of the rules is that everyone in the team should see the bird for it to count.) We also missed out on some usual suspects like the Collared Kingfisher, Golden-bellied Flyeater, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Olive-backed Sunbird, Colasisi, and White-eared Brown-Dove! That would have upped our list to 31!

The birds lists were all quite long too with Jops's team finishing second with 23 species seen, just one bird shy of our team! I had a lot of fun in my first bird race. More than the fun, it made me realize that I have been overlooking all these "common" birds and have been "target birding" for the past few birding trips. Joining the race and guiding the kids made me appreciate all 24 (25) species we saw and it sort of refreshed me as a birder. We ended our morning with Jon and his class with lunch in the park, under the perch of a handsome Grey-streaked Flycatcher. I missed seeing this bird too =)

Happy birthday again, Jon!
Your students are lucky to have you as their adviser
(and this cake they gave you is evidence that they love you!)

They're Guava Eaters Too!

I've been waiting for a chance to video the Yellow-vented Bulbuls (YVB) feeding on my mother's finger chili plant after I was able to photograph them last month.

While working in our living room, I heard the call of the YVB loud and clear! I sneaked up on the window that looks out to my mom's pocket garden and there were two birds on the chili plant, plucking the red chilis. I quickly got my camera to finally take a video. I was aiming my camera at the birds when a car passed by flushing out the birds. Another missed opportunity!

But then I heard the YVB's call again. They just transferred to our neighbor's small guava tree. I waited for them to return to the chili plant but they didn't budge. Upon closer inspection, and to my delight, the birds were feeding on a guava! They're guava eaters too!

All lined up for the partially eaten guava (on the right side of the screen)
But I think, one of them is still interested in the chilis =)

The birds flew away when another car passed through. I was surprised at how they loved the guava though! A few days after that, the birds were back in the guava tree, eating another ripe guava. One YVB even bullied another YVB, snapping at its friend until it backed away. Best part is, I got it on video! Enjoy!


Broiling in the Candaba Sun

We finally got to go birding in Candaba for this year's autumn migration! Jops and I spent last Sunday birding with friends along the concrete road, scanning the empty rice fields for waders. And waders we found!

Birders scanning the fields

Busy foraging in the mud and shallow water were lots of Wood Sandpipers, Little Ringed PloversBlack-winged Stilts, and egrets. Our group of thirteen birders scanned the area in different ways: scopes, bins, cameras. It was a bit challenging trying to id the birds, I honestly did not "review" for the trip! Tsk tsk.

Black-winged Stilt
Great Egret

The fields were not planted with rice, scattering the waders far and wide, making it more difficult to spot those in the farther areas. We did get close up views of other grassland birds though which made the heat considerably more tolerable. We got to see Buff-banded Rails, White-breasted Waterhens, Common Moorhens, Long-tailed Shrikes, and even a snipe that casually walked in front of our group!

A Buff-banded Rail posed for quite some time before being
chased away by HUGE field rats!
There were some Common Moorhens in the water-filled paddies.
No Grebes though...
This snipe entertained our group for a long time! It foraged
on the paddy by the side of the road where we were all positioned.

We moved on further down the concrete road which was slowly getting filled up with palay being spread out to dry. Feasting on the grains were lots of Eurasian Tree Sparrows which were joined by more White-breasted Waterhens and also some Barred Rails. One came out from the reeds beside our van and allowed us to take some photos before a skink (!) drove it away.

Barred Rail

Joining the buffet on the road were Pied Bushchats and Striated Grassbirds. This got most of us birders out of the cars and into the scorching morning sun. Was it noon already?? Why was it so hot?! It was just around 9 in the morning!

Male Pied Bushchat
They got me frustrated first by flying away before I
could take a photo... until this one posed handsomely.

We pushed forward until the end of the newly cemented road but didn't find any more waders. The migratory ducks haven't arrived yet although we did get some fly-by Philippine Ducks and Wandering Whistling Ducks. We also got excited by a very shy Black Bittern as well as some Blue-tailed Bee-eaters.

We decided to go back to the first patch of rice fields and explore further inland where we saw some Common Greenshanks and Marsh Sandpipers busy probing the mud with their beaks. Some of us braved the intensifying heat. I tried spotting the waders but the heat was becoming too much to bear. I joined the other birders in the shade of a small tree. 

That's Jops and Jayce (aka Paddington Bear) attempting the muddy fields.
Spotting more birds under the hot, morning sun!

When we regrouped, we all decided to call it a day. After a few group photos, we piled into our convoy and headed back to Manila. There weren't that many waders that day but birding was still good in the company of birder friends. Oh, and we got to discover Adri's hidden talent for calling just like a particular grassland bird! ;)

The New Kings of La Mesa

It has been weeks of no birding for me and Jops. Save for a couple of guided trips, we haven't been out in the field due to busy schedules at work. So, when Tuesday was declared a regular holiday for the Muslim celebration of Eidul Adha (or Feast of Sacrifice), Jops and I reserved that morning for birding in La Mesa Ecopark.

We haven't birded in the park for quite some time and the timing was perfect as two uncommon endemic kingfishers have been regularly spotted (and photographed) there: the Indigo-banded Kingfisher (IBKF) and Spotted Wood-Kingfisher (SWKF.)

Jops and I have already seen both species but never in the La Mesa Ecopark. I personally wanted to see them again as they are such awesome birds to see, and of course, I wouldn't mind getting a few decent photos of them too. It was also a perfect chance to try out my new tripod!

So, off to the park we went on a Tuesday holiday and trekked to the mini-forest where we saw birders and bird photographers already on the trail. It was nice seeing so many birding friends again (and also seeing Sir Bong back in the field!) =)

After greeting each other and some chit chat, we all turned our attention on the female IBKF perched over the small stream beside the trail. Binoculars and cameras were pointed towards the pretty cobalt blue bird.

Female Indigo-banded Kingfisher
The female has a single disconnected band across its chest

As the bird flew away, the group dispersed. Jops and I went with Anthony to find the SWKF. It didn't take long to spot the Spotty, perched on a semi-exposed branch, preening. The bird flew further down the trail to pluck out some prey on a muddy incline before perching on another low branch.

Handsome Spotted Wood-Kingfisher seen through some branches
The male has a distinct turquoise stripe above the black eye stripe

I was very content with the shots I got, even though leaves were blurring out the birds. I got awesome views of both kingfishers and was ready to just spend the rest of the morning walking around the trail spotting the usual suspects in the park. But the birds weren't done with me yet!

Walking along the trail, I gestured toward the branch where the SWKF perched just a few minutes ago and to my shock.... it.was.there.!!! The bird was perched just a few feet from our group and a few of us had already walked past it! With everyone moving in slow motion, we all faced the bird and started taking photos. Rene C. and Doc Cha even took out their iPhones and snapped a few shots!

The very friendly Spotted Wood-kingfisher
It stayed long enough for me to snap soooo many photos and
get some awesome close-up shots too! =)

The bird was unperturbed by our presence and sat and preened and even called a few notes in front of us. It eventually flew away and our group dispersed again. Jops and I went back to see the IBKF again and after only a few minutes of waiting, the high pitched call of the small kingfisher got everyone's attention.

This time, the male IBKF perched on a broken wood stump poking out of the shallow water. Our new birder friend Sean arrived just in time to see and photograph it with us. Just like with the SWKF, we had a field day taking its photo! 

Male Indigo-banded Kingfisher
The male IBKF has two blue bands on its chest

The bird stayed a long time and I even got to show it to a small group of kids through my binoculars. It dove into the water, ate the fish it caught, and then flew away. Sean then showed the group some shots he took at the spillway - photos of a White Wagtail and a Grey Heron! The White Wagtail was back and it was the first record of a Grey Heron in the park! Cool!

While the others went to the spillway, Jops and I joined Sean into the trail. It was very quiet inside save for the occasional tailorbird singing unseen and the noisy Brown Shrikes. It felt a bit weird though not seeing the Ashy Ground Thrushes and pittas hopping around the trail...

As we rounded the mini-forest, Jops and I said goodbye to Sean and decided to check out the spillway before we left the park. The two endemic kingfishers are great additions to the park's growing bird list. Even for just a holiday morning, it was definitely an awesome birding trip with friends and the two new kings of La Mesa. =)

Postscript: Tito Bob rounds up the other kingfishers that can be seen in La Mesa in his blog post. Happy birding!

Checking Out The Migrants

The migration season has started and it was time to check out the nearest "hotspot" for these wintering visitors - the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area or LPPCHEA.

We scheduled a guided trip to LPPCHEA last Sunday afternoon and from the highway, we could already see lots of terns and egrets in the area. The low tide that afternoon wasn't very low, so the mudflats where waders usually forage in weren't exposed. It was also a windy day that even the chunky Black-crowned Night Herons struggled against the wind.

But, we did get to see lots of Whiskered Terns flying over the water, diving to catch food, and flying around again. In the same area, a big group of Little Egrets flew in to start foraging in the shallow water to the delight of the first-time birders who were peeping through a gap in the mangroves =)

Whiskered Terns 
Little Egrets
We were very near the egrets and terns!

While enjoying the spectacle of white birds, we got distracted by the appearance of a Grey-tailed Tattler on the beach, weaving its way through the trash.

Grey-tailed Tattler

The larger and more solid-colored tattler was much easier to spot among the multi-colored garbage on the beach. We did get to see the larger but well-camouflaged Asian Golden Plovers. When they stood against the sea of garbage, they would actually blend in! The smaller waders were more of a challenge to find but we did get to see Kentish Plovers, Common Sandpipers, and a lone Ruddy Turnstone. A handsome Common Kingfisher also posed for us, giving everyone really good views.

Common Kingfisher
(This shot was actually taken a few weeks ago in LPPCHEA.)

Venturing into the inner pond, we saw a Yellow Bittern, busy preening half-hidden in the brambles, and a lone Common Sandpiper which landed smack in the center of the pond!

Yellow Bittern
Can you spot the Common Sandpiper standing on one foot?

Soon, the Manila Bay sunset was upon us and the Black-crowned Night Herons started flying in, signaling us to start walking back to the cars. We decided to walk along the beach and of course, we saw some interesting stuff. Among the shells, I saw (and picked up) a bleached cat skull (thank you for the identification, Nikdye!) They also saw a dead (and headless) sea snake, already bloated lying among the trash. Our friend Ned was also able to find a dog skull. It pays to watch where you step in that beach!

Bleached cat skull
Dead sea snake

It wasn't such a birdy day, given the not-so-low tide and strong winds, but I was really happy for my friends who got lots of lifers that afternoon. Waders are really the best! And I am really looking forward to our next trip to see more of them! =)