Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Tricycle Ride to a Birding Hotspot

Tuesday, March 31, 2009
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.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mr. Brown is Back in Town

Monday, March 30, 2009

The brown thrasher returned to our ridge-top farm on Sunday morning. Zick heard him first and yelled it to me from the other end of the house. I stuck my head out the window and heard his jumbly sing-song coming from the spring trail.

This is a photo of the same dude (I suspect) from a few years ago. He was singing from the same tree yesterday and I would have gone after him with the camera for some fresh images, but I was simply not able. I've been down with some weird flu-like affliction since Friday night and have not been feeling anywhere close to myself.

Nice to know spring goes on, rolling around on Nature's giant wheel, even when we, ourselves, feel more like roadkill.

I am thankful for brown thrashers. Knowing that Mr. Brown is back in town has me feeling better—I'd say he's done more tom improve my health than a full dose of Biaxin—at least so far.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This Just In: Tree Swallow

Friday, March 27, 2009
This morning when I took Phoebe out to the bus, dawn was barely breaking and there was a heavy dew on the ground. By the time I took out Liam to his bus, just after 8 am, the dew was still there, and it was joined by a heavy, filmy mist, which obscured the sun. As we walked to the garage, the silhouette of a bird sitting on the power line caught my eye.

"Is that a tree swallow?" I asked myself. Liam overheard me and said "Walll, you know what preddy-mush all the birds are Daddy, so, yep, it prolly is!" He was right! It WAS a tree swallow.

Now THAT'S a good sign of spring's arrival.

Bus duties completed, I tossed a handful of dried eggshell bits up onto the dark-shingles of the garage roof. The tree and barn swallows eat these eggshell bits all spring and summer. I know it's early, but it felt good to start yet another spring ritual: The Feeding of the Eggshells.

Also in full song this morning: eastern meadowlarks, eastern bluebirds, house finches, a red-shouldered hawk, and all the usual suspects (cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, song sparrow, wild turkey) joined by some het-up dark-eyed juncos who are getting a head start on their spring concertos.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Forest Birding Around Subic Bay

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
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.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tracking the Timberdoodle

Monday, March 23, 2009
Can't find the woodcock in this photo? It's not there. This was a test shot.

It's the time of year when the male American woodcocks perform their sky-dance courtship displays on our southeast Ohio ridge top. Some nights when it's cold or rainy or both, I wonder how they muster the energy. Lately we've had two or three displaying males each night on various clearings on our farm.

The woodcock is a shorebird that lives in wet woods. One of the folk names of the American woodcock is timberdoodle. 'Timber' is clearly a reference to the species' preferred woodland habitat. And 'doodle?' Perhaps that's a reference to the bird's method of foraging by walking slowly, probing the soil for earthworms. Or maybe it refers to the woodcock's slow, wing-twittering flight? Or maybe it just sounds good to put 'doodle' on the end of 'timber?'


The star performer of our displaying males is a bird who uses the upper portion of our middle meadow path. He starts his display by calling from deep in the woods below the house, down along the spring trail. Peent! Peent! And as soon as he feels the ambient lighting of dusk has reached the preferred number of foot-candles, he flies slowly up out of the woods, taking the stage at a favorite spot in the meadow path.

I'd been watching this dude's show for a few nights when I decided to try to take his photograph. It would be no use trying to sit in the weeds along the path and wait for him. He'd see me and seek a safer stage elsewhere. I'd tried that a few year ago, wanting to get some video of the performance. It was a miserable failure. The woodcocks, with their huge eyes perfectly adapted for seeing well at night, could see me clear as a bell. I could not see them at all, which is a problem when you're trying to videotape something.

But now I had a new stealth-increasing weapon. My Doghouse photo blind, which would (I hoped) permit me to be close to the birds without seeming like a threat to them. I set my blind up in the afternoon, near by the male timberdoodle's favorite peenting spot. That evening, when I heard the male start his warm-ups in the woods, I hurried out to the blind and took up my position.

Now, I know next to nothing about the techniques of good nature photography. I know how to turn my camera on and what peephole to look through—but that's about it. I fiddle with Manual and A/V settings but it's mostly just guesswork. The Auto-Everything setting is my default. Clearly what I need to do it to take a nature photography course.

Anyway, I took a few test photos, prefocusing on the woodcock's favorite spot. I felt ready.

Soon I heard the wing whistle of a flying woodcock and the male settled down on the path. But he was 25 feet farther up the path, not at his favorite spot. The presence of the blind probably made him a bit wary. Craning my body to the left out the blind's shooting hole, I struggled to find the woodcock in my viewfinder. This was manual focus territory and I could not see ANYTHING in the viewfinder. In desperation I pushed the shutter button. Here's what I got:

The ghost of woodcock present.

Then the male took off. He returned, peented, and flew a few more times in the normal course of his evening show, each time taking off before I could managed to take a single frame. I was having a really hard time finding the bird and focusing.

Now the male woodcock was landing and calling from a spot much closer. You'd THINK I'd be able to find the bird and get a decent photo, but the daylight was mostly gone now. It was as if the woodcock knew this and thus felt safer in coming closer to the noisy, cursing human in the dark camo structure tucked off to the side of the path. Finally the camera clicked and I got a few more ridiculously bad images.

If Monet painted an American woodcock, it might look like this.

If I were photographing sasquatch or an ivory-billed woodpecker, the photo would look like this.

And then, for a single frame, it all came together. I have no idea how or why. It must have been the photo gods reaching down to tap me on the head (and tweak my camera settings). He is the result: the only photo I took that night that is worth keeping.

Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! American woodcock male, between peents.

I'm leaving the photo blind up so the woodcock can get used to it. And I am not touching a single button, dial, or switch on my camera until I get another session with the timberdoodle. Who knows? Next time I might even get two keeper images!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Long Live Acoustic Music!

Friday, March 20, 2009
There's a real satisfaction in sharing favorite songs, albums, and artists with and among my music-loving friends. A year or two ago, my friend Debby Kaspari sent a CD she'd burned (legally) of a live performance by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I'd listened to the CD several times, but I'd never made it all the way through, for some reason.

The other night, while driving home, I was reaching for something different in the ear-candy department. I popped in the Telluride CD and hit the random button on the CD player. The first track that came up was one I'd never heard, and it it was so beautiful and mournful that it just killed me!

It's been the song in my head ever since.

It's called Throw Me a Rope and it's not yet been released on any Welch/Rawlings studio album. But you can see them perform it (minus one verse) on this YouTube video.

This song reminds me how much I love acoustic music. Tonight, The Swinging Orangutangs will be playing mostly electrically at The Marietta Brewing Company, but I plan to sneak in an acoustic song or two on the break with our old pal Jimmy Clinton playing along on mandolin.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One of the World's Smallest Raptors

Thursday, March 19, 2009
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!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bee-eaters of Subic Bay

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Candaba Bird Dancers

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Traveling to Asia: First Impressions

Monday, March 16, 2009
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 brewing....you 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.