Friday, August 28, 2009

Philippines in the UK

Friday, August 28, 2009
The birding group from my trip last March to the Philippines.

Last March I went on a birding trip to The Philippines, about which I wrote a few posts here on Bill of the Birds. I saw many amazing birds there and made a whole passel of new friends. One of my new friends is Lisa Marie Paguntalan, who is leading a team that is working to save the critically endangered Cebu flowerpecker. I interviewed Lisa for episode 21 of "This Birding Life" my podcast, and people all over the world got to hear her incredible story.
Posing with Lisa Marie Paguntalan, conservation hero, after her Bird Fair talk.

I also got to know some fabulous Filipino birders, like Nicky Icarangal, Ivan Sarenas, Mike Lu, and Adrian Constantino. A nice side benefit was meeting many British bird tour leaders and birders also along on the trip. One of these Brits was Tim Appleton, co-creator of the Bird Fair.
Tim Appleton, co-founder of the British Birdwatching Fair, with a friend on Palawan.

When I realized that most of these fine folks would be at the British Birdwatching Fair, things had reached the tipping point. I HAD to go across the pond for this mammoth birding event held each August.

The large booth of the Philippines at Bird Fair.

Because the theme of this year's Bird Fair was Saving Critically Endangered Species, and because the Philippines is trying to encourage ecotourism to their country as a way to save habitat and grow their economy, it was only natural that this Asian nation of islands would have a strong presence at the Bird Fair. Not only did the Philippines have a large, striking booth, and sponsored signage all over the place, they also brought a live band from home to entertain fair attendees. Throughout the weekend, the band played their traditional instruments—many of which resembled marimbas—on a variety of traditional Filipino songs and modern pop tunes. During one three song segment, they played, in a row, "Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles, "In the Mood" by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and "The Macarena".

The Filipino band rocks out.

Not only did the band play well, they had unusual instruments (see the bamboo pan flutes above) AND intricate choreography. Needless to say it was all really cool.

Most of the folks who were working the Philippines tourism booth at the Bird Fair were kind enough to pose for a photo with me (above). I'm the fifth person from the right.

I'll leave you with a short video clip of the Filipino band, and one small dancing fan.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Scenes from the Bird Fair

Thursday, August 27, 2009
When you arrive at the British Birdwatching Fair, which is as close to a Woodstock for Birders as anything in the world, you are directed into one of several car parks. These fill up quickly, as shown above, just an hour after the gates opened on Friday. Two things amazed me about the car parks at the BirdFair (as it's called for short): One, I couldn't believe how MANY people attend this annual event—more than 25,000 this year! Two: I was astounded that all of these people know how to drive safely on THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!

Just outside the entrance gates, the seed trucks stand by, sides splitting with tons (or tonnes) of seed waiting to be loaded into cars. You can buy your seed inside at one of the seed-selling booths (or stalls), take your receipt out to the seed truck and the jolly seedman will load your purchase into your car.

Once inside the gates, you notice many large white tents (called marquees). Inside, the marquees are teeming with people, like a beehive of bird watchers.

Among the special offerings at the Bird Fair is a quiz-show-style competition called Bird Brain, where some of the UK's leading birders and personalities compete up on stage, like a game show. The Bird Brain tent was filled to capacity for each round.

Over along the water that gives Rutland Water its name is the Optics Marquee, home to displays of the worlds leading binoculars and spotting scopes for birders. This marquee has grown over the years, and spawned some babies: a special marquee for retailers, and another for cameras and digiscoping gear.

Seeing all the new optics was enjoyable, but my favorite thing was getting my Zeiss 8x Victories cleaned by an expert optics technician. These two guys sat there all weekend cleaning Zeiss after Zeiss, inside and out. They did things to binoculars that made me feel light-headed—like taking out the lenses and swabbing out the optical tubes. And they did this while people waited!

I'm thinking that the cleaning did me some good because just two days later I spotted a fairly rare bird—one that got the local rarity hotline jumping. More on that in a future post.

Across the central path from the main marquees is the food court, where everyone ends up sooner or later. In fact, each time I wanted to try to find someone in particular, I went to the food and beverage area and looked around. I usually found them or they found me. And if not, I just waited, like a spider waits for a fly, and before long, here came my friend or colleague.

Over at the food court you could buy a wide variety of food and foodlike things. Shown above is the Traditional English Breakfast: Fried egg, fried whole tomato, fried sausage, fried mushrooms, fried pieces of country-cured bacon, and baked beans (unfried). Next to it is a cup of coffee-like liquid used to wash down the Traditional English Breakfast. I found that this worked better for me than Traditional English Breakfast Tea.

Tomorrow: visiting the Philippines in England.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bird Fair Mural

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

During the Bird Fair many of the artists who are here displaying and selling their work participate in the Great Mural Project. They each paint a bird or something on the giant mural, which has had a background painted in. The mural is reproduced on cards, which are sold to raise money for conservation. When the mural depicts the birds of a specific region, ecosystem, or country, it is donated to that place to be used as a fundraiser and to be displayed to raise awareness.

This year's mural depicted the birds of Rutland Water, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust reserve where the Bird Fair is held each year. Here are a few images of the mural being painted over the weekend.

The first few birds are painted in on the mural.

And then a few more artists add their contributions.

And a few more....

Soon the mural begins to look like a more complete work.

Chris Rose working on his grebe for the mural, mixing colors, adding shadows on the water.

Darren Rees added a peregrine falcon zooming upward over the scene.

It's a nice diversion from the Bird Fair to watch the artists create birds on the mural. At times there are three or four birds being painted by as many artists. The mural is just one of many things that make this event so interesting, successful, and world famous.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

British Bird Fair

Saturday, August 22, 2009
Inside one of the Bird Fair marquees.

I have been in England for a few days, attending the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water. This is the largest event for bird people in the world. There are a half-dozen giant tents filled to bursting with booths (called stands or stalls here) selling and promoting everything a birder could want: clothing, optics, gear, technology, travel info, books, artwork, memberships, feeders, seed, you get the idea.

Nicky Icarangal from the Philippines and Ana Cristina Prem from Guatemala.

My favorite part of Bird Fair is seeing my friends from all over the world. Sometimes I get to introduce people that I know to one another—people that otherwise may never have met. Yesterday afternoon I got to introduce several of my friends from the Philippines to my friend Ana Cristina from Guatemala. What an interesting conversation to listen to between Ana and Nicky, two people from opposite sides of the globe, trying to spread the word about the birding opportunities in their countries. They compared notes, told stories, and shared a lot of laughs.

Oh, and we had a beer in the beer tent.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tree Snag Birds

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hey, what's that up there on the end of the snag? Can you see it?

Let's look more closely... It's a bird—a common potoo, to be specific. Potoos are similar to our North American nightjars—the whip-poor-wills and relatives—in that they are large-mouthed, nocturnal birds that fly around catching and eating large flying moths and other insects.

Part of the common potoo's survival strategy during the day, when it's resting, is to use its cryptic plumage to blend in. It perches on top of a broken tree stub or branch, and points its bill and head upward, looking for all the world like a part of the tree. Look how well this bird blends in!

We were taken to a roosting common potoo by our guide at Asa Wright Nature Centre. The bird was perched on a distant snag, inside the canopy, but we were able to digiscope it. While taking photographs and a bit of video, we saw something remarkable happen.

Here's the video I took, combined with a clip I shot a few days later. I hope you enjoy it.

I am trying to imagine being that fledgling common potoo, roosting in its mother's (presumably its mother, though it could be its father) breast feathers. It was about 90 degrees where we were standing. How hot would it be inside those feathers? I shudder to think.

Anyway, you have now been potoo'd here at Bill of the Birds—not by just one potoo, but by two!

Monday, August 17, 2009

White-bearded Manakins

Monday, August 17, 2009

Here, at last, is the white-bearded manakin video I promised to upload last week. I took these clips in late July on the main forest trail at Asa Wright Nature Centre, just past the giant sign that says White-bearded Manakin Lek.

I used a Leica digiscoping set-up to get the shot, and I was amazed at the quality despite the fact that the video was taken inside the forest with only indirect sunlight. The camera movement is all my fault—the result of my ongoing battle for position with my balky tripod.

In the background of the clip you can hear the following: forest cicadas, bearded bellbirds, white-bearded manakins, beardless Jeff Bouton, bearded Kenn Kaufman, Bill of the Birds (mouche/soul patch only), and unidentifiable whispering (probably from other beardless humans).

Tomorrow (or as soon as I can manage it) I will potoo on you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Asa Wright: Beyond the Verandah

Thursday, August 13, 2009
The verandah view at Asa Wright in Trinidad.

It's really hard to leave the incredible setting of the Asa Wright Nature Centre verandah, but if you want to see certain species of the centre's wonderful forest birds, you've got to hit the forest trails. Our first morning, after breakfast, we met our guide Roodal Ramlal at the foot of the verandah stairs. He took us down the main trail and into the forest. All around us we heard insects droning and birds calling and singing. Lizards scooted across the path. We kept our eyes peeled for snakes, but, sadly, saw none.

Roodal and Julie heading down the forest path.

From the dappled sunlight along the upper path, we entered the forest proper, stopping only to identify birds: a golden-olive woodpecker, a cocoa woodcreeper and a cocoa thrush—birds which prompted smart-aleck comments from nearly everyone ("I'm cuckoo for cocoa thrush!")

Jeff Bouton in full digi-pose.

Jeff Bouton, who works for our trip's sponsor, Leica Sport Optics, contorted his body into all sorts of shapes to get that perfect digiscoped image. This was Jeff's second trip to Asa Wright, so he knew (but only hinted at) what we were about to experience.

The manakin hunters scanning the forest.

Before long we were at one of the spots where manakins could be found. How did we know this? Well, there was a sign...

Actually, there were two signs. One pointing us to the correct spot, the other telling us more about the manakin species we were seeing and hearing: the white-bearded manakin.

A small group of about a dozen male white-bearded manakins was making noise and flitting about a few feet off the ground on the right side of the trail. We stopped and spread out to try to catch some of the action with out eyes, binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras.

Linda and Pete Dunne in manakinland.

Male white-bearded manakin.

Soon one male stopped close by.And he showed us why the species is known as white-bearded manakin, by puffing out his throat feathers in a partial display to a nearby female whom we never saw.

Soon the forest underbrush was alive with male manakins, flashing about in streaks of black and white. Stopping long enough to strike funny poses, puff out their bearded throats, and do a little dance.

And then the birds came even closer. They seemed to be completely oblivious to our gasped exclamations and beeping, whirring cameras.

Then again, we were nowhere near the top of their must-impress list. That skulking female manakin was the object of their attention. And I have to say, even I was impressed with the energy and singing and dancing prowess that was on display that morning.

But this was just one of four separate, mind-blowing birds we would see on this day, on this trail, in this fabulous place. One of them, I've already shared with you prior to today's post. It was the bearded bellbird.

Tomorrow I'm going to throw down a bit of white-bearded manakin video.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Digiscoping at Asa Wright

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Crested oropendola.

I've heard several well-traveled friends say that Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad is an excellent destination for a bird watcher's first tropical birding experience. All of the characteristics of a tropical birding experience are present at Asa Wright: jungle/rainforest, amazing plant and animal life, heat and humidity. But the diversity of bird species present is not overwhelming.

Whereas a first trip to Brazil might place you in a spot with 25 to 30 tanager species and close relatives, (Costa Rica has 45 tanagers, Panama 42) Trinidad has about 15 tanagers and relatives. And this holds true across many of the tropical bird families. So it makes for a less confusing introduction to tropical bird watching.

But I believe that Asa Wright is also ideally set up for digiscoping tropical birds. The feeders at Asa are teeming with visitors. The elevated verandah is surrounded by trees and perches used by the birds coming and going to the feeders. Farther out but in plain view are more distant trees used by toucans, tityras, tanagers, and raptors that don't visit the feeders. And the trails! The local nature trails have lekking manakins and singing bellbirds that are regular as clockwork. More on that tomorrow.

All of the images in this post were digiscoped from the verandah (that's how the locals spell it) at the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad. These are just my "keepers."

Copper-rumped hummingbird.

Male green honeycreeper.

Immature male white-necked jacobin.

Forest elaenia.

Adult male white-necked jacobin.

Swallow tanager.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Martha Stewart Living Radio Today

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

For those among you who have some available eartime this afternoon, I'll be appearing on the Martha Stewart Living Today radio show at 1 pm EST. The show is broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio, channel 112.

Host Mario Bosquez is a bird enthusiast and he's always ready with a series of seasonally appropriate questions for me. We always take listener calls, usually with bird questions (866-675-6675). Today's topic will be "the birds of summer." I am relatively certain the topic of bald cardinals will come up during the interview.

If you want to listen, you can use Sirius' FREE 3-day subscription at

I've been on Mario's show a half-dozen times or so over the past few years, and have even done two of the interviews in the actual Sirius/MSL studio, which was very cool.

Drop me a note here if you hear the show today. I'd like to know if there's "anybody out there."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Morning Walk Redirected

Monday, August 10, 2009
One morning last week I raced the sun
to take a walk whilst day was young

the old orchard path would be my route
the dew-kissed grass would soak my boots

Far reaches reached I turned toward the sun
striding back where I'd begun

Towhee, field sparrow, mourning dove
sweet summer songs filled the air with love

When something glistening caught my eye
A shaking spider web strung head-high

The web weaver shook with all her might
that I might understand her plight

Vibrations from my heavy feet
Had tipped her off that we might meet

Her movement had intent to warn
to keep her precious web from harm

And I, unknowingly, like a deer
could give Miss Spider much to fear

In shaking hard her sun-dappled web
She'd found a place inside my head

Which warned me now to stop my feet
lest face and spider web should meet

Smiling at her clever warning sign
I ducked beneath her lowest line

Thank you, dear, for telling me
of this important thing so I could see

My thoughts, then on the World Wide Web
should have clearly been on yours, here, instead

Your crafty trap, unharmed, may still
snag a juicy fly—one not named Bill

When my two legs trod this path again
I'll look for you, my eight-legged friend.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Irene the Headless Backpacker

Friday, August 7, 2009

One of the casualties of the recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago was my travel guitar. The headstock cracked off my Martin Backpacker guitar (again). About five years ago I slammed it in a van door, snapping off this rather important part, rendering it unplayable. A local luthier glued it back together and it played as good as new. That is, until I got the bright idea to take it along to the tropics on a trip where there would be some musically oriented fellow travelers. This could have been an installment of that Saturday Night Live skit for "Bad Idea Jeans."

This guitar, the Martin Backpacker, was made to travel. Before it lost its head, this guitar looked a bit like a kayak paddle and sounded only a little better. Unless I could plug it into and amp and use some effects to juice up its sound, the Backpacker was mostly just good enough for some casual, quiet picking and playing. Its sound was thin and tinny. But when there was no other guitar available, I was certainly glad to have this one along. I'd played her outside, inside, and in at least eight different U.S. states, plus one foreign country.

And speaking of that foreign country...

The glue in the guitar's head mend hated the hot, hot heat and the heavy humidity of Trinidad and Tobago. Somewhere between Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Speyside, Tobago, she gave up the ghost. I was sad but accepting. She'd been under such strain lately, what with the medium strings I'd put on her, and the sing-along pop songs we'd played in the van on the road from Matura Beach. Ah, she'd lived a good life, but that life was, sadly, now over.

The thought flitted across my mind like a tortoise-shell pick across a newly tuned high E: maybe I should leave her where she died.


She was American-made and her remaining pieces should, by all rights, be returned to her place of birth. So I carted her lifeless, headless, tuneless body back home on a series of jets, her head still attached to her body by the now-silent and flopping A, D, G, and B strings.

Someday I may strip off her useful parts: thinline pick-up, tuners, strap knobs, and commit her body to the flames. But for now, she's resting in a corner of the basement. She shares that cool, dark space with all of her friends—my numerous other guitars. Now that she's gone, I'm sure they'll miss her, too.

The last song I played on my little Backpacker was "Goodnight Irene." So I guess that was her actual name: Irene. Goodnight, old gal. I'll see you in my dreams...