Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Lifer Shorebird!

My life bird: a Terek sandpiper.

I had grandiose plans to make this new shorebird's identity a mystery—to make y'all guess about what species it was. I had still images and a short video clip. I had a clever, April-Foolsy write up baking in my tiny mind. Then the problems started....

First of all, I've been under the thumb of a debilitating virus/cold/disease and it's a difficult thing even to think straight. Mind you, I'm not asking for pity. I'm just completely unused to being this mentally and physically out of commission.

Secondly my computer is as full as a June wood tick on a fat puppy. So the programs I normally rely upon to help me post video to my blog (QuickTime, Final Cut) are not cooperating. I think it's a disk-space thing....but who knows. And I can't make the new (frustrating) YouTube work, either....

So this post will be decidedly straight forward.

Here's the rub. The new bird was a really cool, medium-sized shorebird with an upturned bill, called a Terek sandpiper. One of the very first articles I worked on as a cub-assistant-editor the first week I joined the staff of Bird Watcher's Digest, in 1988 (!), was about the discovery of a Terek sandpiper in California, and the mad birding dash that ensued. That bird was North America's first record for the species.

Terek is the name of a river in Russia, and I believe that's where the sandpiper gets its name: it breeds from Finland through Siberia.

So I had a longtime desire to see this bird. Now here I was at a huge expanse of shorebird habitat in Asia, looking for my lifer Terek sandpiper. During our orientation, the local guide showed us a poster with common shorebirds of the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Prominent among the birds shown was the Terek sandpiper. I asked the obvious question: "Are there Terek sandpipers here now?"

The answer came: "Oh yes, we should see them!"
When I replied "Ossum like a possum!" no one understood what I meant.
My friend Steve Rooke, one of the many Brits on this birding trip, said by way of explaining: "Don't mind him. He's American!"
Like that cleared things up....

Mr. Clever, Steve Rooke, scans for a rarity among the shorebirds at Olango.

As mentioned in yesterday's post, I spotted the Terek sandpiper up close to our observation blind, and I drank the view in. Everyone got good looks at it, but those in our party who had Asian birding experience (nearly everyone but me) were more interested in spotting rarer birds among the clouds of waders in the distance.

I focused on the Terek and took some photos and video. In the video you can hear my fellow birders picking through the other distant shorebirds. Then you hear me announce the Terek sandpiper—in semi-dorky fashion. If I could figure out how to edit the sound on videos in iMovie, I'd de-dorkify the clip. Alas, you gets what's there, sans edits.

It's great when you spot your own lifers, especially when it's a bird you've wondered about seeing for a long time. Twenty one years after I first read about the "Terek sand" I finally got to see one!


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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Tricycle Ride to a Birding Hotspot

Boarding the outrigger boats at Mactan for the trip to Olango Island.

At the end of our second day in the Philippines (but just my first full day) we flew to the island of Cebu and spent the night there. The next morning we drove to Mactan and boarded outrigger boats for the short journey to Olango Island. On Olango we were going to be transported to one of the Philippines' finest shorebird-watching spots, the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

Tricycles waiting on the Olango Island wharf.

The short boat ride was pleasant, but we could already feel the power of the South Pacific sun. Bottles of sunscreen went around and wide-brimmed hats were pulled out. As we drew close to the wharf on Olango Island, we could see our transportation waiting for us: a fleet of a dozen or more motorcycles with attached, enclosed sidecars. These are called "tricycles" by the Filipinos. As we disembarked with all of our birding gear, looking more like an invading army than a pack of avid birders, we each chose a tricycle and loaded ourselves and our gear aboard.

I hesitated a moment, taking photos of some of the fancier tricycles and my travel companions grabbed all the well-maintained vehicles.
A tricked-out tricycle.

I was left to get into one that was called Shazam, but might have more accurately been named Rustbucket Tailbone-breaker. But this was an adventure, and there was birding ahead, so I chuckled to myself, slipped my waistpack under my bum and off we went.

Here's a short video of my first tricycle ride:

It would have been a long walk to the sanctuary..

After a tricycle ride of 15 minutes or so, we arrived at the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary. We had a short orientation and then were escorted out to the main blind (called a "hide" by my British birding companions).
Entering the main blind/hide at the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

View from the hide, looking toward the ocean.

In front of us stretched a thousand yards of sand and mudflat. It was low tide and the birds were seen in the heat-hazy distance foraging, running, and moving about. This was scope work, but we'd come prepared for that.
Gray-tailed tattler. This bird came obligingly close to us in the blind. This is a digiscoped shot.

In seconds bird names were called out inside the blind: gray-tailed tattler, ruddy turnstone, whimbrel, little ringed-plover. Then it was my turn to spot a new shorebird. It was a lifer for me—a bird I'd always wanted to see. And I found it for myself!

I'll resume the story here tomorrow.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Forest Birding Around Subic Bay

Coleto, a starling relative, is a common forest edge bird. Its head is covered in bare pink flesh.

On the afternoon of March 3 and the morning of March 4 our group looked for birds in the forested hills around Subic Bay. The birding was somewhat difficult for a few reasons: the birds were not present in large numbers or variety (though a different group visiting later in the week had great birding there), the forest was thick and dark, and the light, after sunrise, made any bird in the canopy appear in silhouette. It may have been a timing thing, or perhaps these trails had been recently hunted (subsistence hunting has a major impact on wildlife in the Philippines). But we saw just a few birds well, but many more birds fleetingly. And we heard far more than we saw.

Most of our group in the forest near Subic Bay, scanning the canopy for small birds.

The main trail we walked along on the morning of March 4 was perfect for group birding—safe footing, and wide enough for all to find a good vantage point. There would be times on this trip when we'd all miss birds along a narrow forest trail. There is a Zen to forest birding. Quiet bird watchers moving slowly always see the most birds.

The Subic forest trail.

A canopy of bamboo.

With few forest birds coming close enough to photograph, I decided to photograph the forest itself.

Some bamboo species are native to the Philippines, others are imported for cultivation.

Lest I give the impression that we saw nothing, let me say that nearly every single bird we encountered was a lifer for me. Not all of them gave me the kind of "bee-eater" looks I'd gotten earlier on March 3: great views, lots of photos taken. But, as is the habit of an addicted bird photographer, I did not let the improbability of capturing a decent image stop me from taking dozens of frames.

A soaring brahminy kite.

Silhouetted against the light: a female tarictic hornbill: the smallest hornbill in the Philippines.

Yellow-vented bulbuls were everywhere.

Slender-billed crow.

White-throated kingfisher.

Soon it was mid-day and we were on the move again to another island: Cebu, via the Manila airport. As we loaded into the mini-bus for the ride back to our hotel to pack up, the cool, air-conditioned comfort laid many of us low. We nodded off with dreams of the Cebu flowerpecker dancing in our heads.

Sleepy birders on the bus.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox

I posted an image a couple of weeks ago of the flying foxes my group saw in the Philippines, but I wanted to share a bit more about them. We encountered this mammal (a lifer for me) in the forest near Subic Bay on the island of Luzon.

The flying foxes (formerly known as fruit bats—they are not foxes, but merely look like foxes) were in their daytime roosts, hanging upside-down. The scene was something I'd only ever seen in nature documentaries or in films set in Southeast Asia. From a distance, it looked as if a whole shipment of dark-brown umbrellas had fallen from a cargo plane and landed in the trees.

These flying foxes are, I believe, giant golden-crowned flying foxes, a species that is endangered in the Philippines. There may have been more than one species present in these roosts. But we only had limited time to see them, scope them, snap a few images or some short video clips, and then we had to split for a lunch date.

A couple of notable things about these animals.
  1. They were BIG! I am not a squeamish person, but seeing a bat this large was pretty gulp-inspiring.
  2. They sleep by day and forage on the wing at night.
  3. They flapped a lot to keep cool in the late-morning sun.
  4. They are fruit-eating bats, not vampire bats (which are native only to the Americas).
  5. As fruit eaters and pollinators, they play an important role in the health of the forests.
  6. Many of the flying fox species are hunted in Asia, mostly for food.
  7. Their faces are dog-like, their eyes surprisingly human.
  8. You could certainly pick out the male bats with no trouble at all.
Here are two short video clips I shot of the giant golden-crowned flying foxes near Subic Bay.



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Thursday, March 19, 2009

One of the World's Smallest Raptors

From a distance, it's hard to tell what this bird is.

On my first full day in the Philippines, our group set out early to go back to the Subic Bay area and Hill 394 to try to find some targeted endemic birds. Endemic birds are birds that are found ONLY in a limited geographic area. Thus a Philippine endemic bird species is—you got it—found only in the Philippines.

One such species was perhaps the world's smallest bird of prey: the Philippine falconet. After some nice birding along a trail, we came back out of the forest and located a falconet, perched just where the field guide said it would be, in the top of a dead tree. This Philippine endemic measures just 6.25 inches in length, with a 10 inch wingspan.

My first digiscoped image of the Philippine falconet.

I took a few digiscoped shots, in spite of the limited light. In between scope views, the falconet took off in a buzz after passing insects. They will also eat birds if they can catch them. And as if to prove that size and feistiness do not always come in equal measure, the Philippine falconet has been observed mobbing the Philippine eagle, a bird that is seven times larger.

Enlarged for a better view.

From a distance, with the unaided eye, the falconet looked like a wood swallow perched in the treetop. But a zoomed-in view shows a more shrikelike or raptorlike shape to the head, bill, and body.

Does it look like a fierce raptor now?

It was quite a treat to see this tiny bird. Even though the field guide lists them as being common, I did not see another one during the entire two week trip. Or perhaps I merely overlooked them, but I'd hate to think I was THAT oblivious!

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bee-eaters of Subic Bay

On the afternoon of March 3rd we spent a few hours bird watching around Hill 394 in the Subic Bay Freeport area. Subic Bay served as the location of a U.S. Naval base from the early 1900s until 1992, at which point the land was turned back over to Filipino control. Because of its years as a military base, there are large areas of undeveloped habitat at Subic Bay, and it's become a well-known destination for local and visiting bird watchers.

In the warm, late-afternoon sun, we enjoyed a nice list of birds, but the highlight for me were the encountered with blur-throated bee-eaters. Bee-eaters are specialists in catching flying insects, as their name suggests. In taxonomic terms, bee-eaters fall between the kingfishers and the hornbills and hoopoes. They are colorful birds with long central tail streamers and finely pointed, decurved bills. And they are often seen perched in the open on a wire or fence, waiting for a hapless insect to pass by.

On our final birding stop at Subic we found a nesting colony of blue-throated bee-eaters along the roadway in a residential neighborhood. They excavate their nests in earthen banks and other locations with dry, sandy soil. There were at least 25 bee-eaters buzzing around. I could have stayed there all afternoon taking pictures. Sadly, our schedule would not permit it, so we all snapped a few images (and I took a short video) and we were off to the hotel and dinner.

Such cool birds! Wish we had them in North America!


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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Candaba Bird Dancers

One of the principal dancers for the Candaba group.

Much of the Philippines' natural habitat and landscape has been greatly altered by human activity. In fact, a number of the areas we visited on our "fam" trip were not as birdy as they might have been due to the effects of subsistence farming and hunting, large-scale agriculture, and logging. There are some areas that are bucking this trend, with the local government and people working together to preserve special places and unique parts of the ecosystem.

One such place in north of Manila, near the large wetlands known as Candaba Swamp. Thanks to my delayed flights I missed most of the birding at Candaba Swamp on the first morning of the trip, but my fellow travelers told me it was a very birdy spot.

As we were leaving the swamp, we passed through the nearby town of Candaba, where we were to meet the first of many mayors we would encounter over the next two weeks. After a quick handshake and photo with Mayor Jerry Pelayo, we were ushered a short distance away to a large, open walled building, for a presentation by the local school kids.

The hardcore birders in our group groaned silently. It was prime birding time, and (nothing against the kids) we were hungry for more new birds.

Boy, were we in for a treat.
This troupe was covered in iridescent spangles, like the local kingfishers.

The local kids—there must have been 200 or more—had created a 30-minute dance performance, accompanied by the school's fantastic drum corps. They had made their own costumes to look like birds and added these to choreography and acrobatics were worthy of a Broadway show. The drums were thumping a groovy beat and the dancer/performers ran and twirled and catapulted in beautiful unison.
This student/bird was lifted skyward by her classmates, flying like a bird.

Two years ago, Candaba initiated its first annual Ibon-Ebon Festival (Birds-Eggs Festival) as a way to honor the rich birdlife that is found in the nearby wetlands and to honor the local patron saint, San Nicholas of Tolentino. This saint is considered the patron saint of the Candaba poultry and egg industry as well as the wild avian riches nearby.

The 2009 festival was held in February, (and now it was March) but we still had the pleasure of watching the dance performance that was created for the Ibon-Ebon Festival. I can just imagine that some of these young Candaba residents might become bird watchers as a result of having such a fine birding spot nearby, and a local birding festival. They'll also have a great bird organization to join, when they're ready, in the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. The WBCP conducts both field trips and bird surveys in Candaba Swamp.

I would like to send my thanks to the performers and organizers in Candaba for this fine experience. Salamat po!

The dancing birds' wingspans were longer than my reach.

Happy kids: They seemed proud of their performance and their town.

Here are some additional images and a short video of the dance performance. Enjoy!

The drum corps ROCKED!

Boys and girls participated equally in the dance performance.

All of the most colorful birds posed for a flock shot.


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Monday, March 16, 2009

Traveling to Asia: First Impressions

An aerial view of the Philippines.

On the morning of March 1, I left my van in the long-term lot at Port Columbus Airport and boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. Later that afternoon I was scheduled to be on a flight flying west over Canada and the Pacific Ocean, to Manila in the Philippines, via Nagoya Japan. Trouble was, my Detroit to Nagoya flight was delayed for nearly 9 hours, so I whiled away the time in the NWA FatCats' lounge (after paying the non-fatcat entrance fee) trying to get some writing done, and taking breaks to try my skills at begging for a legroom seat or an upgrade for the 19 hours of flying ahead of me.

I did eventually get an exit row seat, thank heavens. But not before I was treated to encounters with a bakers' dozen of surly employees of NWA, one at a time. I KNOW it's hard dealing with cranky customers but I try never to be cranky (having held a number of customer-service-oriented jobs in my day) and I think non-cranky customers deserve to be treated better than I was. And don't get me started on the whole frequent-flyer miles rant I'm can earn them, but using them for anything?—fergit it, bro.

Back to the trip....

Before my beard way fully grown in, it was time to fly to Asia. Before we left the airspace over North America, it was already March 2. By the time we crossed the International Dateline, it was March 3—my birthday. No one on the airplane knew this. Still, the meal was one of my birthday meal traditions: barbecued meat. And it wasn't half bad.

My birthday supper was enjoyed somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

Adding to my comfort on the long flight to Nagoya were the following things, in order:
1. My neck-support pillow.
2. My noise-cancelling headphones.
3. My new copy of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines (special thanks to Lauren at Oxford University Press!).
4. All in-flight films were 100% free of Matthew McConaughey (a first for me).
5. Advil PM.
6. Red wine.
7. New music on my iPhone.

Soon enough, and before I had ANOTHER birthday, we were landing in Nagoya, Japan. Glancing outside the plane windows I was dismayed to see that it was dark as pitch outside. It was something like 3 am there. So my list of bird sightings for Japan would remain at zero species.

All passengers had to disembark so the plane could be cleaned and re-supplied with peanuts and air-sickness bags. While passing through security, I spotted my first bird in Asia. It was a cormorant. And it was not countable.
First "bird" seen in Asia.

It was part of an advertisement for the fishing cormorants of GIFU City. I was observed taking pictures of the ad by the airport security people, who seemed puzzled by my behavior. I thought to ask them what GIFU stood for. Was it an acronym, perhaps?

On further reflection and wanting to avoid an international incident, I kept my mouth shut and dodged into the Men's restroom to shave. My beard was taking on ZZ Top-like style and dimension at this point. I cut my neck badly and re-boarded the plane with a stylish piece of Japanese toilet paper stuck on the cut to staunch the bleeding.

The trip was off to a really great start.

I will say this about the Nagoya airport. I'd be happy to eat right off the floor there. I've never seen such a clean and tidy airport. I've been in hospitals that were not this clean. And the NWA staffers there were charming, helpful, and dare I say, happy.

Waiting to re-board in Nagoya.

A mere 4.5 hours later we were touching down in Manila. Shuffling out of the immigration and customs lines with my heavy suitcase, I spotted a sign with my name on it—an airport first for me. It was Vic from the ground-agent's office, sent to pick me up. Stepping out into the street I was greeted by heat, humidity, and the smells of a busy city waking up. I changed in a nearby waiting room, got my binocs out and headed to a small van where Vic and a driver waited. We headed north, driving a few hours to Candaba Swamp to catch up with the rest of the group.

Most obvious on the streets of Manila were the jeepneys: homemade buses originally created from left-behind U.S. Army jeeps after World War II. Today's jeepneys are made in Asia especially for the Philippines transport market. The jeepney owners then customize their vehicles, name them, and drive certain routes through the city or between towns. Each passenger pays for the length of their ride, starting at 8 pesos (about US$.17).

I took a lot of photos of jeepneys and will probably devote an entire post to them here soon.
A Manila jeepney in action.

When we arrived in the area of Candaba Swamp, we began seeing birds: cattle egrets, great egrets, barn swallows. But it wasn't until I saw a water buffalo in a roadside ditch that I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
Water buffalo, the tractor of rural farmers. Filipinos call the water buffalo a carabao.

I met the tour organizers at a farmhouse, gobbled down a bit of breakfast, and headed back out to find the rest of my fellow travelers on this familiarization trip. I caught up to them, greeted my old pals, greeted those new faces among the group, and then it was time to drive back to Manila to our lodging for the night. I joined the group on a mini-bus and we spent the afternoon talking.
Welcome sign at Candaba Swamp.

The trip was made up of a mix of bird tour company leaders, magazine editors, photographers, and a sound recordist—all British. And me, the lone American.

Steve and Duncan, two of the more chatty and vociferous of the Brits in our party, immediately began razzing me about being an American. I gave it right back with enough zing that we all remained on good terms for the next fortnight (that's two weeks in Britspeak).
I caught up with the group at Candaba Swamp.

I'd made it all the way around to the opposite side of the world and I was itching to do some birding. We spotted a few birds before we left Candaba Swamp: Philippine duck, common kingfisher, and white-breasted waterhen, but we had to leave before I could see much more. And we needed to make a stop in the nearby town to meet the mayor and see a short presentation. So the birding would have to wait...

Tomorrow: Tiny Dancers.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Birding Update from the Philippines

Blue-throated bee-eaters near Subic Bay.

It's been good bird watching here in the Philippines, but the bird photography has been quite tough. This image of a pair of blue-throated bee-eaters is one of the few "worth-keeping" images I got while we were birding around Subic Bay outside Manila.

The light conditions range from super bright to near dusk depending on whether you're inside or outside of the forest and inside the forest, many of the birds stick to the canopy, making lovely bird-shaped silhouettes in the viewfinder.

In the subsequent days I've had a bit more luck—some digiscoping, some with the big camera rig. But the landscapes and seascapes and people here are undeniably photogenic. My new 18–55mm lens is capturing some delightful images of the Philippines.
Sunset near Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines.

It's a huge help that we have some brilliant professional photographers along on this trip, including David Tipling, one of the world's best bird photographers, and Alex Robinson, a travel writer/photographer. I have been picking their brains a bit about photography techniques and field craft.

I've also been lucky to have some of the world's leading field birders for Asia on this trip. Next to them I feel like a beginning bird watcher, looking in the wrong end of the binoculars. These guys know many of the bird calls, can spot the birds deep in the dark forest, and can get a piker like me ONTO the birds. Among the experts I'm following around, and the tour companies they work for: Mark Andrews (WildWings and ), Steve Rooke (Sunbird), Duncan Macdonald of Wildsounds, Chris Harbard of Birdwatch Magazine, and Tim Appleton, one of the creators of BirdFair in the UK. I'm the only Yank on a trip full of Brit birders. It's a struggle also keeping up with the witty repartee.

We've had minimal access to the Internet—mostly due to our ambitious schedule of early starts and long days afield. Thus the infrequent posts here.

Must run again now—we're heading out to try again for hooded pitta in the forest above Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan. And it just started to rain...

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Flying Foxes

A lifer mammal for me in the forest near Subic Bay: fruit bats, which are now (I'm told), officially called flying foxes. We saw two species in these large roosts: golden-crowned flying fox and Philippine Island flying fox. Fascinating creatures and something I've always wanted to see. The bats were opening their wings and flapping a bit to cool off in the late morning sun, which was already blazingly hot. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in each roost.

Today we're off to see the Underground River on Palawan Island, and its special birds....

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Friday, March 06, 2009

First Day on a New Continent

I am in the Philippines on a familiarization tour for birders. I am the only U.S. birder along on this trip with a whole mess of British bird watchers. We've had a good time, despite our many cultural, lingual, and intellectual differences.

We spent much of March 3 birding at Subic Bay, the site of the former U.S. Naval base. I'll post in more detail about the trip in the coming weeks, but for now, a few images from my first day on a new continent: Asia.

We were greeted by school-age dancers who performed a show they'd done earlier in the year for the local bird festival. The Candaba Wetlands are an amazing foraging and stopover point for migrant shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl. I arrived in the Philippines a half-day later than expected and only got to Candaba in time to pack up and leave for Subic.

That night we had a welcome dinner at a fancy restaurant on Subic Bay called The Lighthouse. My friends had a surprise for me: they knew about my birthday and the hotel made me a cheesecake! The lounge singers sang Happy Birthday to me, too, which was really fun.

It's great to have the chance to travel to new places to see birds. It's even better to make new friends and enjoy the company of existing friends while you're traveling after birds.

I'm trying to appreciate each moment and to count those many blessings.

I'd share some bird pix here, but have yet to download what I've taken.
More posts soon, I promise!

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