Sunday, October 20, 2013

Wishes do come true

It's a Foggy Friday morning. It's a short trip to our destination but the thick fog slows down traffic on the highway. At one point, visibility went down to 5 meters that we were forced to stop by a petrol station. It's still too early so we decided to wait out for the fog to lift and had breakfast at one of the food stores there.

Our destination is Al-Mekaines farm or Irkkya farm.  Back in the Philippines, I would scout this place looking at google maps. I called it crop circles because of the shape of the greenery.  These are big circles with diameters of up to 750 meters. This farm is a grass farm. Yes you read it right, it's a grass farm. They plant nothing but grass.

Early morning fog at Irkkya Farm

Entering the gates of the farm, I could already see birds fly across the road. I switched to birding mode and hoped that I would see my target bird, the Eurasian Hoopoe. I've been wishing to see this bird for the longest time. It's been on the top of my most wanted list for many years now. Excited, I prepped my camera and bins and started scanning the horizon.  Birds were singing all around us but all I could see are the birds I regularly see in the city like the Laughing Doves, House Sparrows and the now common Crested Larks. I saw my first lifer after just a few minutes in the area, a Grey Francolin. Then another lifer. A very short glimpse of a Eurasian Golden Oriole and the Namaqua Dove.

There are a lot of birds here. In just under an hour I started racking up lifer after lifer. Western Marsh-Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Eurasian Hobby, Common Kestrel. Saw two species of wagtails, the Yellow and White. There was the Daurian Shrike, the Southern Gray Shrike and a Blue-cheeked Beeeater.

Southern Gray-Shrike

In another section of the farm, waterbirds abound like Terns, Egrets, Plover, Sandpipers and Stints. A Bar-tailed Godwit showed up just 4 meters in front of us. Unmindful of our presence, it just kept on probing the soil for food and looking at us from time to time.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Mercury level started to rise after two hours but still I couldn't find the elusive hoopoe.  I was starting to lose hope and was just contented by watching the aerial dance of the raptors. We were cruising in a rather faster than normal birding speed when suddenly we flushed a bird on my side of the vehicle. I started yelling, Hoopoe! Hoopoe! Hoopoe! And there it was, the Eurasian Hoopoe landed just a few meters in front of us.  I hurriedly grabbed my camera, hands shaking, heartbeat racing, aimed and as soon as focus acquired, I fired away. And as soon as the camera started clicking it flew away.  Seeing the bird on the ground was awesome but seeing it in flight was majestically awesome. It has a very unique feather pattern, a pattern which is so distinguishable even from afar. 

Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

It landed just a few meters away so I decided to put down the camera and just enjoyed the bird with my binoculars.  I was hoping that it would raise its crest but it did not.  Had a very good view of my most wanted bird. I was smiling, I was a happy birder.  With that super lifer, my day was complete.

On our way out, we saw a pair of Cream-coloured Courser, a Greater Hoopoe-Lark and a very obliging Spotted Flycatcher.

Spotted Flycatcher

With all of us satisfied with the number of species seen we exited the gate, thanked the guard and drove back to the city.

My wish came true that day. I am happy!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Birds in "D" City

I've been walking around the city of Doha for quite some time now. The more common birds I always see are the Common Mynahs, House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons and occasionally Eurasian Collared-Doves. I've also seen a few very noisy Alexandrine Parakeets in flight. But in my book I don't tick them as lifers. They have to be perched or walking on the ground to be counted.

Fog descended over the city one Friday morning. First time I've experienced it here and based on what other birders say, it is the right time to start birdwatching for the season.  With the extreme heat two months ago, now is definitely a good time to bird.

With no planned destination and no vehicle to use, me and my friend just opted to ride a taxi and go to the biggest park here in the city. Aspire Park. With it's numerous trees, man-made ponds and many jogging trails, this is a perfect place to go birdwatching in "D" city.  The following are photos of some of the birds we saw that cool morning.

The starbird for this trip was the Crested Lark.

Indian Silverbills

Laughing Dove (center), Male House Sparrow (left) and Female House Sparrow (right)

White-eared Bulbul

White-eared Bulbul feasting on some flowers.

Birds we saw at the park were a lone Crested Lark and Indian Silverbills (both lifers), White-eared Bulbul or the White-cheeked Bulbul, House Sparrows, Common Mynahs and a Laughing Dove. And yes.... a pair of Alexandrine Parakeets again in flight! Not much birds but considering we were only there for less than an hour.

I was hoping to see my most wanted bird that day but it was still a no-show.  Oh well, maybe I will meet Mr. Hoopoe on my next trip. Ciao!

Monday, September 23, 2013

My First Watch.....

It's been 5 months since I did serious birdwatching.  Since my arrival here in Doha, it's been purely work, work, work and more work. I only get to see birds when I go to public parks and gardens. Days and months have passed and seeing the same birds again and again, I started to itch for more.

With the arrival of the early migrants, the time is right for a quick getaway in the nearby industrial ponds. The industrial pond or Abu Nahkla Wetland is a treated wastewater pond that was established in 1982. The wetland is located approximately 12 kilometers in the outskirts of the city of Doha, Qatar.  It lies along the southern borders of Abu Nahkla Village.

The Industrial Pond or the Abu Nahkla Pond. It is the body of water in the lower left corner of the photo.

I invited two of my friends here in Doha to join me in this birdwatching activity. Cecille, my flatmate, is a newbie birder and had long wanted to join me in my trips.  Eric, a marine biologist and a high school buddy, completed the trio. Since the pond was just minutes away, we decided to leave at 6:00 am. A decision we would regret later.

Off we went on a 4x4 vehicle as suggested by a frequent birder in the area. Approaching the area we flushed a raptor from a nearby perch. No ID here as we were all surprised.  We drove all the way up the embankment and upon reaching the top a huge body of water presented itself to us. We parked near a lone tree and prepped up for the trek. Camera, Bins, Guidebook...Check! Good to go!

The pond!

The Perimeter road of the pond. It would have been nice to walk
around the whole length but the heat was just unbearable.

First bird we saw was a lifer for all of us. Great-crested Grebe. I think this was the species with the most number at that time, 38 in all. Other species were Squacco Heron, Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Common Moorhen and a lot more we could not identify.  We also saw a couple of ducks but had a hard time identifying it. We suspect they were Ferruginous Ducks. On the road there were Laughing Doves, Collared Doves and a few waterbirds that cross from time to time.

Great-crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

On the other side of the road, in the reed ponds, we could hear lots of bird calls but we could not find them. Sometimes a bird would perch on top of the reeds but the moment you raise your bins they're gone. It is so frustrating to bird in a foreign land when you hear a call but can't see it and can't find it.

Mercury levels were already rising so we had to cut short our trip. (We were there for only 45 mins). Even before we boarded our vehicle we already planned to come back in a couple of weeks time. Hoping to see more birds deeper into the migration season.

Just as we cleared the embankment, I saw three birds crossing the road. They flew and landed just a few meters away from us giving us good views. LIFER! Common Quail!

....and this my friends is the start of my birdwatching life here in the land of Arabia.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Batrachostomus at last!

It's a bird with a mouth like a frog. This has been on my most wanted list of birds to see for quite some time now. It is an uncommon endemic found all over the Philippines but birders usually see it in the forests of Bohol and Mindanao.

There are lots of factors why after 5 years of birding I still haven't seen the Frogmouth. One of it being the distance from where I live. Most of the sightings are in the southern provinces of the country and I do not have the luxury of time and budget to travel to those places. So after seeing posts by birder-friends that they have seen the bird in a nearby place, I immediately asked around for any group that is going to twitch it.

After a few text messages and a meet up, a Saturday trip was organized by birder-couple Bob and Cynthia. Days prior to the trip, I was already so excited knowing that I will possibly see the Frogmouth.

Saturday, D-day. Me, Bob, Cynthia, Peter, Vincent and Jayce met up at the usual meeting place of birders in Katipunan Road. 5:30am and our group was off to La Mesa Nature Reserve in the outskirts of Quezon City. It was a short ride to the area and as soon as we arrived, a smiling bespectacled guy approached us and introduced himself to us. He was Kuya Efren, a bird-guide trained by Jops, Maia, Adri and Trinket.

After a few minutes of prepping, we hit the trail in a single file with Kuya Efren leading the group and me sweeping the tail.  The trail was alive with bird calls and everywhere you look you could see birds flying from tree to tree and from one branch to another. One minute into the trek the group stopped to check out a lone Grey-streaked Flycatcher and a few Black-naped Orioles.  Further ahead were White-breasted Woodswallows, Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Guaiaberos. These stops built up the excitement in seeing our target bird. I even wanted to tell group that we go straight to the site and do the birding as we head back. But hey we're birders, we stop on our tracks when we see birds.

Birders spots a Guaiabero.

Kuya Efren signaled that we are near the site and are going to get off the dirt road. He entered a foot path and we followed suit. Just a few steps in and there I saw him smiling, showing the bird to the group. It was difficult to see the bird because it was well-camouflaged but soon enough one by one silently shouted that they have seen the bird.  Good for them! Me? I still can't spot the bird. A few twists and turns of the head......LIFER! I saw the Philippine Frogmouth (Batrachostomus septimus microrhynchus)... at last! Adrenaline overload...woohoo!

The beautiful Philippine Frogmouth on its nest. (photo by Vincent Lao)

It was perched on a small curved trunk of a tree just a few feet above ground. Perfect for viewing with binoculars or shooting with a camera. The other birders took different positions in taking photos of the beautiful bird. Some were on supine and prone positions, some squatting, and at other times just standing. I kept moving around transferring from one location to another and just to see the froggie in different angles.

Jayce on prone position
Bob on supine position and Vincent kneeling

Half an hour later and with everyone happy with their lifer we headed back to the information center. We rested for 5 minutes before hitting the trail again. Kuya Efren showed us a Philippine Nightjar. This is not a lifer for me  but it was different from the other PNJ's I've seen because it was roosting on the ground perfectly hidden by the dried leaves around it.

We went back to the Info center after taking document shots of the bird, paid the park fees and thanked Kuya Efren for showing us the Philippine Frogmouth. As it was still 9am, the group decided to go to the La Mesa Eco Park which is just a few kilometers from the reserve.

A lifer awaits me...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Northern Exposure

Last month, me, Jude Sanchez and Adri Constantino went on a mini-expedition to the northern fringes of Luzon to find a place or choke point for migrant raptors before they depart for Taiwan.  Three towns of the province of Cagayan were the target destinations of this trip: Claveria, Sanchez Mira, and Pamplona. A sidetrip to Laoag, Ilocos Norte was also scheduled to visit WBCP member Richard Ruiz who is based there.

We left Manila at 4:30 in the morning with Jude designated as the first driver of the trip. I took over the driver's seat at SCTEX. We had our breakfast at Carmen, Pangasinan. After a long and tiring 11-hour travel, we arrived in Laoag and went straight to Richard's place. Our final destination is only 2-3 hours away but we decided Laoag will be our first night stop for the trip. At 6:00 am the following day, we ordered our take-out breakfast and proceeded to Cagayan.

The team with our lunch host and the incoming mayor of Candon, Ilocos Sur

First stop was at Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte to check out the Kalbario-Patapat National Park.  The park is composed of a few mountain peaks with very good forest cover. This is a place which deserves another trip just for birdwatching. Adri, who was on a vacation in a nearby resort many years ago said they only penetrated the lower slopes of the mountain.

The northern section of the Kalbario-Patapat National Park

After crossing the Ilocos Norte-Cagayan boundary, we accidentally discovered a site that is a candidate for a good raptor observation point.  I got off  first and checked out the area for possible raptors. Less than a minute after stepping out of the vehicle, raptors were heard and seen thermalling. Serpent-Eagles, Buzzards and Falcons to name a few. I recorded the GPS coordinates and then we moved on to the town of Claveria.

A Serpent-Eagle rides a thermal (photo by Adri Constantino)

We have two target sites in the town of Claveria: A promontory and a resort which sits on top of a hill.  We went to the resort first to check out the rates and possible accommodations for future birding trips in the area. As Jude was talking to the caretaker, Adri and I were scanning the area for birds.  This was the time I saw my first lifer for the trip. Adri showed me the bird and it was an Eyebrowed Thrush. LIFER!  I was so happy, I just wanted to seat on the bench and look at the Thrush. Throughout our stay there,  I saw a Scale-feathered Malkoha, Philippine Bulbuls, a Serpent-Eagle, a male Luzon Hornbill, and three Colasisis.

The caretaker of the house was a former resident of Sanchez Mira so we asked him to ride with us and show us where the raptors can be found. It was my turn to drive so I told them that we are heading first to a promontory and check it out for another possible observation point. I saw this when I was reviewing the satellite photo of the area back in Manila. Upon reaching the area or the Bantay Kalbo trail, we decided that all of us are climbing the hill. On top was a 360 degree view of the place. Babuyan group of islands to the north and the towns of Claveria and Sanchez Mira to the south. Took some customary landscape pictures and then we're off to Sanchez Mira.

On our way to the promontory at Bantay Kalbo trail in Claveria, Cagayan

Arriving at the town of Sanchez Mira we immediately went around the area where the caretaker said they see thousands of raptors during the months of March and April. We went there early in the season so we haven't seen kettles of raptors yet. Another trip is needed to confirm the presence of raptors. We decided not to go to the last town as it was already getting late and we still have to go back to Laoag. We have already accomplished our mission objective.

Our last "tourist" stop on our way back to Laoag.
Bangui Windmills, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte

We dropped off the caretaker at the resort and drove back to Laoag where 2 more lifers are waiting for me.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Playground

The outdoors, It is where I find peace and solitude. I call it my playground.

As a kid who grew up in a logging town, I was exposed at a very early age to the wonders of nature. I've seen ginormous trees, butterflies, lizards, big and small mammals, mountains, different shapes and sizes of insects, the sea, waterfalls, snakes, rivers, birds and what-have-you even before I learned about them in the four corners of a classroom. My dad was into road construction so during weekends, he would bring me to his workplace or his project sites. We would be driving, windows down, for many kilometers under the forest canopy. Canopies so thick that sunlight penetrates only when the wind picks up and the trees sway gently. These bonding trips with my dad is what made me enjoy, love and be curious with nature. Surprisingly, it's also the time I discovered I have itchy feet.

Me and my mom in my dad's company-issued Ford F-150 pick-up truck
during one of our road trips.

Moving to the metropolis for higher education, the things I love to see and places I want to go to can no longer be experienced on a frequent basis. Longing for these, I joined outdoor clubs and got involved in outdoor sports so I could go to places where I want to be. I shied away from indoor activities where you are confined in gymnasiums and arenas. I joined a mountaineering club in one of the universities in Manila to satiate my desire for the outdoors. With my interest in photography and the outdoors, my itchy feet were back on its track.

(clockwise from top left) Scuba diving in Anilao, Batangas; Kayaking in Calatagan, Batangas;
Mt. Biking in Benguet; On top of Mt. Apo, Kidapawan, North Cotabato. (Center) Akiki Trail of Mt. Pulag, Kabayan, Benguet.

Through the years, I have engaged in different outdoor activities and traveled to far and distant places. Lately though, I think in the past 10 years, my interest leaned towards our feathered friends. Birdwatching or birding is the observation of wild birds as a recreational activity or as I fondly define it as "a lifetime ticket to the theater of nature". It is the only activity that I know of, where you can do it anywhere in the world, anyplace, any time of the day (and night), and with a group or on your own. Couple that with photography, voila!, an instant love affair.

"A lifetime ticket to the theater of nature"

This blog is about birdwatching or anything related to birds.  Follow me as I immortalize into electronic memory my adventures in my playground.