Monday, February 22, 2021

Kalaw Craze

True to the saying that bird photographers are a greedy lot (because they always want something more and better), I was not that happy with my shots last February 18 and wanted to go back. A new site discovered on February 19, that allowed closer captures, made the urge almost unbearable.  Fortunately, I have a loving and understanding wife who puts up with my addiction. So on Feb 21, I headed back to Infanta for another shot at the Kalaws.  

I was to meet up with Ven Rojas and Camote, the local guide, at 6:30am at the latter's house.  But when I passed his house at around 6:45, he was not there.  Thinking that they were already at the new site, I proceeded to the house of Francis, (Camote's son), who brought me to the new site.  As soon as I parked, I saw Camote on his motorcycle with Ven's distinct Miata (Josephine) following close behind.  Behind ven was a pick up who turned out to be Steve Albano.  After quick hello's, we got our gear and walked to the site.  As soon as we arrived, Francis pointed to an open branch where a Hornbill was perched. And of course, before I could bring up my camera, it flew to another tree where we could only see its head.  It stayed there for about thirty minutes. 

Then several of them honked and flew to the opposite cliff  - which is where we were three days prior, (great!).  We settled down to wait, and wait, and wait.  Wins soon arrived with all his gear.  Still we waited.  Soon we were getting bored.  Steve and I were playing on our phones.  Wins and Ven were snoozing. Then we got hungry so we sent Wins' driver to buy lunch.  Other birders arrived and left - first the group of Bimbo Brillo, Raniel Castaneda, and Ed Gapal.  Later it was Edwin Martinez and Romz Lopez.  Still no hornbill. Five hours had already passed and I was getting worried.

Wins' driver came back and we all began to eat. And of course, while we were in the middle of our meal, one hornbill arrived which caused a flurry of movements, lunch boxes were placed on the ground, cameras nothing... because the bird stayed behind the leaves.  Meals were resumed but we kept an eye at the balete tree in front us.  I cannot recall how many minutes passed when the bird flew to another perch within the same tree but it was only visible from a lower part of the slope.  This caused another mad scramble as we all looked for a safe shooting perch.  What followed was about two hours of shooting, manuevering, cursing, repositioning, shooting, adjust, shoot again.  My memory card filled up, (twice!).  During a lull in the shooting, I noticed Ven's Chicken Joy lunch on the ground (di ako yung nakatabig ha!).

Sharing some of the images I was able to create. 

Northern Rufous Hornbill, endemic and endangered.

Thank you Lord for giving us the chance to photograph your beautiful creation.  

When I checked my phone, I saw a message from Ed Santos saying that Djop Tabaranza and Maia Tanedo photographed a Cotton Pygmy Goose at the Total Station along NLEX. Looks like we have a new target. When I got home, Lorna's first question was, did you get it? After I said yes, the next thing she said that Teacher Maia got this rare migrant! Guess am going to NLEX soon.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Chasing Lifers: Ticking off a big one

The Rufous Hornbill has been on my birding bucket list for several years now so when I saw the post of Loel Lamela on February 13 of a photo taken the day before, there was an overwhelming urge to go there. But the following day was Valentine's Day so I was not sure how Lorna would take it.  Luckily, she allowed me to go - her Valentine gift as she put it.  So off I went for a "quickie" birding trip (until 10am only).  I easily found the place as described by Loel and Djop Tabaranza.  I even heard the Hornbills honking on the gorge below.  But I did not see even a shadow of it.  So a little after 10am, I drove back to San Juan.

I put the Hornbills off my mind and concentrated on work and family matters the next few days.  For the weekend of Feb 20-21, I was actually looking at either going with some birding friends to Canarem or with another group of  friends to Subic.  But when photos taken by Edwin Martinez on Feb 17 came out, Win Paler, Ed Santos and I decided to try our luck the following day.  But when we arrived at Infanta, it was foggy and worse, it was raining.  We waited in our cars, and decided to have hot chocolate at Marquez. While sipping our delicious hot drinks, the sky cleared and we hurriedly went back to the site which was a few kilometers away.  By the time we got there, it was raining again.  It finally stopped around 11am. We set up our cameras and tripods and began to wait. By this time, we have been joined by Kamote, a local guide of sorts and his son, Francis.   

A little before 12nn, Francis excitedly called our attention and excitedly pointed at a distant tree below the cliff to our right. The bird was hidden inside the foliage with only its bright red beak showing.  I fired a burst, the bird shifted and I got a slightly better view, fire another burst. Sharing what is probably my best shot of the day.  Rufous Hornbill. Lifer # 3 for 2021, # 452 in my Lifelist. 

Rufous Hornbill, #3 for 2021; #452 in the Lifelist

Then it flew down to the right and disappeared from view.  What followed was several minutes of Kamote and Francis and us craning our necks and looking and hoping for a shot, any shot. Thirty minutes later, Francis, who was standing on a small ledge off the cliff was pointing and saying that it was in the open.  I looked at the precarious ledge, and the long way down, said a quick silent prayer to my patron saint (who happened to be St. Francis), handed my camera to my tocayo, sat down on the ground and sort of edged my way to the edge of the small ledge. When I got there, I had to stand up (knees shaking), to shoot, (handheld because there was no space for the tripod). Saw the bird at a distance and fired a burst, only for my camera to flash "Ful" meaning my XQD card was already full!!! Aaaargh!!! I quickly deleted shots, fire, delete some more, fire again.  And not feeling comfortable with my precarious perch, I handed my camera back to Francis and scrambled up the slope.  Whew!

Sharing my buwis buhay shot...
A distant full body shot of the Rufous Hornbill

The rest of the afternoon was spent waiting for the bird to come nearer but it never did. We could see them on the opposite slope, perhaps half a kilometer away.  At one point they flew high up aamong the trees but I believe only Ed was able to get good photos.  Mine were all blurry. At around 3pm, we went to the Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher site but it was also a no show.  We went back for a final shot at the Hornbills and as soon as we parked, Francis pointed to a pine tree.  One Hornbill was there but covered.  Then it flew down the cliff and was joined by three others and consistent with our luck, they perched hidden from us but we could hear them honking.  Then suddenly they flew towards us and perched on a tree directly below us.  Through a hole in the branches, I was able to see one. 

After a few more minutes, all four of them flew away in the direction of the opposite cliff.  We took this as a sign for us to call it a day.  

Back in the car, I saw a message from Lorna asking me to buy some plants for her, which I did.  And when I got to the Santa Maria area, I was treated to this magnificent sunset.

Sunset along Marilaque Highway

On the way home, Wins treated us to dinner at The Gatherings Cafe. 

Thank you Lord for showing us your magnificent creations (but please make them come nearer next time πŸ˜„).  Thank you for the time spent with friends and nature. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Victoria's Secret

Sometime in October, (or was it November?), while chatting online with fellow birders, Homer Pialda said he wanted to shoot ducks and asked where can we do so since Candaba was not what it used to be. As we discussed the different options, Canarem Lake in Victoria, Tarlac came up.  But none of us knew anything much about it. All we know is that some birders like Edwina Tayag Bandong, have visited the place a couple of years back.  But the craze brought about by the Spoonbill, the Avocet, etc., at Navotas, the presence of the Raptors, Cuckoo Dove, the Spiderhunter, and the Colasisi's at Palo Alto, plus the Rubythroat and the Labuyo at Bangkong Kahoy, put Canarem Lake in the back burner.  

The group led by USec Alain Pascua went to Palo Alto in December and came back from Canarem with great photos of the Rubythroat, a Little Grebe and a few other photos.   But what really got my attention was the video posted by Edwina on January 20.  (you could access the video here:  Because of this video, Ed Santos, Homer Pialda and I began planning our Canarem Sortie.  With the help of Djop Tabaranza, we met (online, of course), Dax Simbol of the Tarlac Provicial Tourism Office, and Nald and Nanette Rigor of LGU Victoria.  Nald is with the Mayor's Office while Nanette is with the Tourism Office. 

As we discussed the details of the trip, our group began to grow - Edwina, WBPP President Win Paler, WBPP VP Steve Albano, Maia Tanedo, Jonet Carpio, Joel Dayao, WBPP Chair Atty Ramon Quisumbing, and Bogs Guevarra were added to the group.  Our menu, which started with silog meals (or drive thru) for breakfast, and Kambing (kaldereta, papaitan and kinilaw), and lechon manok for lunch, was also growing.  Bahn Mi for breakfast (or merienda) plus Puto Lason, were added to the list courtesy of Edwina.  This was immediately followed by a breakfast of Champorado (with tuyo), and Arroz Caldo, to be prepared by Bing (Edwina) as ordered by Wins.  With these changes and the growing size of the group, I changed to name of our group chat to Canarem Picnic!

The final group for the January 29 sortie consisted of:  Ed Santos, Homer Pialda, Steve Albano, Ramon Quisumbing, Joel Dayao, Edwina Tayag Bandong, Bogs Guevarra and myself as birders.  We arrived at the lake before sunrise and was greeted with this spectacular view.

Sunrise at Canarem

After greetings and selfies, we feasted on hot steaming bowls of Champorado and Arroz Caldo.  And after filling our bellies, we boarded two pick-ups and headed for the birding site.  Our first sighting were these Black-headed Stilts - hundreds, maybe more.

Black-winged Stilts

While shooting the Stilts, a group of five Philippine Ducks did a distant fly-by.
Philippine Ducks

We began walking.  The others were ahead of us - Ed, Steve, Dax, and I brought up the rear.  We stopped at another vantage point to shoot the Stilts. 

Black-winged Stilts

We had reached a sort of end of a section of the trail and Dax casually mentioned if we wanted to try for the Siberian Rubythroat. Of course we did!!!  So we set up our tripods and within a few minutes, Mr. Siberian was there.

Siberian Rubythroat

We did not stay there very long because the others were not with us and we wanted them to have the same opportunity.  We walked on, and we came upon two White-browed Crakes in the pond to our right.  They were too far for any FFD captures.  So let me present an in-habitat shot πŸ˜€

White-browed Crake, in-habitat

Walking further on, we saw the group shooting some flying ducks.  But they never really came close.  

Wandering Whistling Ducks

Birds we saw included a Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Moorhen, Purple Heron (juvy), Common Kingfisher, Long-tailed Shrike, Brown Shrike, Striated Grassbird, Yellow-vented Bulbul, and a couple of Blue-tailed Bee Eaters. By 10am, Steve was looking for the Bahn Mi, so we walked back.  The group sort of converged at the Rubythroat site which also afforded views of the Stilts.

Black-winged Stilts

Siberian Rubythroat, male

After the Rubythroat gave its performance, the Stilts entertained us by flying around and landing, and flying again.  Ed Santos put it best when he described their action as "poetry in motion".  Watching these beautiful birds simultaneously take off, fly, then suddenly change direction as one (in mid-flight) and then gently glide and land, was mesmerizing.  

Black-winged Stilts in flight - poetry in motion.

The show put on by the Stilts delayed our Bahn-mi snack.  It was already past 11am when we began feasting on the delicious bahn mi sandwiches by Edwina. washed down by either cold water or soft drinks.  A funny incident happened while Ed was drinking a bottle of sprite. Steve and I spotted an incoming bird and we both blurted, ΓΌy, uy, then Steve, said "harrier, harrier", and Ed whose camera was facing the wrong way did a quick about face, and spilling his sprite and drenching his right sleeve in the process.  Only to find out that it was a Heron.  (The scene was so funny that I am still giggling as I write this). 

Another half an hour or so passed before we walked to the pick ups and went back to the main parking area to take our lunch.  In the long kubo, we found our pre-ordered food individually packed and labelled with the amount we need to pay written on each tag. (How organized! -  noted my tour operator mind).  Again, we feasted on Kambing (Kaldereta, Papaitan, Kilawin), and Lechon Manok with a generous serving of steamed.  There was also sabaw ng sinampalukan for those who wanted (inuwi pa ng iba πŸ˜€).  Then after the meal, Edwina opened a box of her special silvanas!  Imagine having silvanas for dessert in the middle of a fishpond/lake!  Afterwards, she also gave each one of us one box each to take home! 

After lunch, a friendly Common Kingfisher perched on a nearby bamboo pole and we took photos.  I am not really happy with the shots I got so I will not post them here.  But Ramon and Ed got pretty good shots after we left.  (I rode with Homer and we left soon after lunch).

My take on Canarem Lake as a birding destination:  It reminds me of Candaba.  It has potential because of the number of birds recorded.  I understand that in previous trips, the ducks were nearer. For me the biggest plus for the area is the involvement of the Provincial and Municipal Governments.  It makes the trips organized and makes it easier for birders to go there.  It also prevents any potential issues/problems with fees that are not standardized.  Speaking of fees, to make any tourism site sustainable, it has to earn and pay for itself.  Victoria LGU cannot keep on subsidizing the birding sorties (the fact that the LGU and Provincial Govt personnel are not paid when they guide birders is a form of subsidy).  Granted that it is part of their promotional efforts at this time, it is not something they can do indefinitely. However, for birders (and other tourists), to be willing to pay a reasonable entrance fee (or environmental fee), the site must be worth it - in terms of species seen and photographed.  It is my hope and wish that this will happen in the near future.  And I believe that with the efforts of the Provincial and Local Governments, this will come to pass.  And Lake Canarem will not be a secret anymore. 

In closing, I would like to thank our hosts Dax, Nald, Nanette, and their team for the very warm welcome;  Edwina for the Bahn Mi and Silvannas; WBPP President Win Paler for the breakfast; Djop Tabaranza for introducing us to Team Tarlac and giving pointers; and to all my fellow WBPP birders for your trademark wisecracks and jokes that make every birding sortie a fun and memorable occasion! 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Chasing Lifers: The Baihualing Gold Mine Days 4, 5, & 6

January 17, 2018 - a couple of "huge" lifers
For Day 4, January 17, we will again visit two hides.  The morning itinerary was Hide # 9, which was located at an even higher altitude than Hide Malu. The target bird at this hide was the Hill Partridge.  After breakfast, we bade good bye to Ramon and Keith and proceeded to Hide # 9.  When we stepped out of the car at the area of Hide # 9, I immediately felt that it was much colder than Hide Malu.  When we entered the Hide, other photographers were already there and shooting.  We quickly set up our gear and took the remaining seats.  As with the last three days, there were a lot of birds and we took some shots.

The sudden appearance of these bird cause a stir but it turned out to be the more common Rufous-necked Partridge.  Still, I could not resist taking more shots.

Rufous-throated Partridge

The usual suspects...

Large Niltava, male

Chestnut-headed Tessia

A female Sunbird, not sure what species

But we were at this particular hide for one bird, the Hill Partridge. We were told that it was a skittish bird so when it appears we should all be quiet.  At around 10am, someone, probably the hide keeper, pointed at something and a hush momentarily descended over the hide as everyone stopped shooting to adjust their settings then a cacophony of shutter clicks ensued as everyone started firing. 

Hill Partridge quietly ambling towards the open area.  Male in the lead

Within just a few seconds, something spooked the male and it suddenly ran away followed by its mate

The male running away

With our target bird gone, everyone looked at their LCD screens to review their shots.  It's always interesting to watch the reactions of the photographers while doing this.  Smiles and expressions of jubilation or silent curses often tell the story.  At Baihualing, more often than not, its the former. 

We killed time by shooting the other birds, (all the while praying that the target birds come back so we could get better shots - bird photographers are a greedy lot πŸ˜€ ).

A group of Yuhinas bathing

About half an hour later, our target birds came back and all lenses were directed at them again.

Hill Partridge

We stayed in that hide until lunch then we transferred to another hide where the main target was the Greater Yellow-naped Woodpecker.  While waiting, we were entertained by the other avian citizens.

Crested Finchbill

Beautiful Sibia

Long-tailed Sibia

Great Barbet

Long-tailed Sibias

After almost five hours of no sighting, we were ready to call it quits and go back to our "48-room homestay". Then without so much as a warning, it was there in front of us.

Greater Yellow-naped Woodpecker

Day 4 ended with only two lifers but both were somewhat rare by Baihualing standards so that more than made up for the low number.

January 18, 2018 - the last day

For Day 5, we were going to another hide on a higher altitude with the Grey Treepie as the main target.  Being a birder who keeps a list, I was hoping to be able to get 70 lifers from this trip or at the very least, 60. By my informal count (at that time), I was already at 50+ after four days of birding.  Since this would be our last shooting day, I was not very hopeful of reaching 70 lifers.  

Our hide for the day involved a longer hike on a steeper slope so we were quite out of breath by the time we reached it.  One of our first subjects was a Streaked Spiderhunter taking a bath.

Streaked Spider Hunter

And the common birds of Baihualing were also there. Sharing some of the less common ones...
Grey-winged Blackbird, female

Himalayan Blue-tailed Robin, female

A little before 9am, our target bird appeared but at a distance.  It appeared a couple more times during the day but always quite far.  Never really near like the other birds.

Grey Treepie

The Treepie stayed only a short time but it was followed by two new birds, in quick succession, a Mountain Bulbul and a female Chesnut-bellied Rock Thrush

Mountain Bulbul

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, female

After an hour, the male also made an appearance.

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, male

At around 2:45pm, the hide keeper who spoke no english began gesturing towards the trees and after some figuring out and looking, we saw this woodpecker which looked similar to our own Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker.  It was a challenge to shoot as it kept to the trees on our right and was constantly moving.  

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker

An hour later, another newcomer arrived, Brown-breasted Bulbul. 

Brown-breasted Bulbul

This last bird brought my tally to 63 species, although I was not yet sure at that time because I had yet to check all my photos. 

January 19, 2018 - Lifers at the vulcanizing shop

The following morning, we got up a little later than usual because there was no more birding.  After breakfast we loaded our luggage into two cars and started the first leg of our journey home - a two hour car ride from the mountain village of Baihualing to the Baoshan airport.  I cannot recall who decided our seating arrangement but in the first car were Raymond Dan, Alex Ting and Ben Go, all the mandarin speakers.  The late Prof Tirso Paris and I were in car number 2 and we spoke no mandarin at all (or any chinese dialect for that matter). An hour or so into our journey, our driver started acting strangely.  From the main highway, he would go inside small villages obviously looking for something.  But since he spoke no english and Prof Tirso and I spoke no mandarin, we could not really communicate.  When we stopped in a vulcanizing shop (in the third village!), it finally became clear what the problem was.  To make things worse, we were the fourth vehicle in line! Prof Tirso was getting worried that we will miss our flight. And we learned later that Alex Ting's passport was in his bag in our car (!) and they were frantically calling us but the call could not get thru. While waiting for our tire to be vulcanized, I saw some birds on nearby trees so I got my camera and did some roadside birding.  The first birds I saw was a flock of Red-whiskered Bulbuls.

Red-whiskered Bulbul

I was hoping to get a closer shot but these birds stayed on top of the trees.  After a few minutes, I decided to cross the road.  Prof Tirso followed me and began to act as my spotter.  Together, we saw two more birds. A male Purple Sunbird and a Cinerious Tit.  Three lifers by the vulcanizing shop!

Purple Sunbird, male

Cinerious Tit, Baihualing lifer #66

After getting a photo of the Tit, we saw our driver calling us so we boarded the car and resumed our journey.  Our trip going to Baihualing was done late at night so we were not able to see the countryside.  This time we saw how beautiful the rugged countryside was - rivers, mountains, deep gorges, tunnels, bridges.  It would have been nice to stop and take photos but we were already running so late.  At a certain point a text message from Alex got through asking where we were.  I recall sending a reply but I cannot remember anymore if he got it.  Fortunately there was hardly any traffic so we reached the airport just in the nick of time.  

Several hours later, we found ourselves at the vast Hong Kong airport and enjoyed our first non-Baihualing meal in a week.  I swear KFC never tasted so good!  We finally landed at NAIA at around 10:30pm, exhausted but happy with our trip