Once you start, you can never stop birdwatching!

27 04 2013

As I am on the mend it is progressively getting easier to walk though staying upright for long is still difficult. But I am getting out and about and I can confirm that adage that once you start birdwatching you never stop. On Friday afternoon after a big rain storm I was enjoying looking at the abundant Olive-backed Sunbirds in my mother-in-law’s garden when a Yellow-vented Bulbul perched high up on a tree and hung around for a while, like five minutes or so. I was surprised by how unfazed it was as there was a lot of human activity below. In Thailand I always associate this species with skittishness and it takes off at the slightest disturbance. Also for an area as built up as this, where the human pressure on every  square inch of land is palpable, I don’t really expect to see much more than Euarsian Tree Sparrows and Olive-backed Sunbirds. So while a relatively common bird, it was good to see the Yellow-vented Bulbul here.

On a hunch I decided to accompany my wife and mother-in-law to visit my deceased father-in-law’s grave in The Sacred Heart Cemetery in Sum-ag. Boy Baradero was a decent man sorely missed by his wife, daughters and his five nephews and one niece. I was very fond of him and was sad to see him go at a comparatively young age.

My hunch, bolstered by previous visits to the cemetery, was there might be some good birds to see here – it’s lush and peaceful and there are several “wild” sections. So I said my prayers and took a short stroll. The first bird to get my attention was a Chestnut Munia and as I progressed I could see it was here in very good numbers. I also picked out a couple of Scaly-breasted Munias and also a Java Sparrow, a really delightful looking bird; I am sure there must have been others but I only could pick out one. When I reached one of the wild places I picked out a green pigeon which flew in and parked high up in the canopy of some higher trees. It then disappeared. I really didn’t get enough time on it other than making out a dominant colour of green. Very interesting. A couple of largish Brown Shrikes and an Oriental Magpie Robin were perched on wires and a few Pied Fantails were also busy. I am sure this cemetery warrants further investigation and must give it more time on my next trip.

Saturday morning we flew to Cebu. There were a few Striated Grassbirds perched on wires as we approached the airport at Silay. Of much more interest was the number of Red-rumped Swallows visible from the departure lounge. These were unmistakable with their long forked tails and whitish, rufous rump patches. I think they must be nesting in the eaves below the departure lounge – whatever, a delight to get a grandstand view of these guys darting around. I don’t know their status – if they are nesting as I say then they are in all likelihood residents. So if you are waiting for a flight at Bacolod make sure you have a good look at the swallows.

As I said at the beginning you can never stop looking at birds once you have started – be warned!


Northern Negros Natural Park – Starters

28 03 2013

Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker – male
Dendrocopus maculatus maculatus
Barangay Patag, Silay City, Negros Occidental

More than anything this first trip into Northern Negros Natural Park (“NNNP”) was simply a recce. Errol Gatumbato, of The Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc (“PBCFI”), had recommended the village of Patag, accessible from Silay City by jeepney, as a starting point. Through Godfrey Jakosalem, Errol’s colleague in the Bacolod City branch of PBCFI, I was connected with Ching Ledesma, an Environmental & Natural Resource Officer in Silay City. These connections really worked and made our short trip into NNNP possible.

The NNNP covers a wide area and can be approached from a number of points but the advice I was given was to approach from Patag –  this was good advice. When we showed up at Silay City Hall to meet Ching we thought we would be staying in a small resort and that Ching would arrange connections with rangers/guides in Patag. Well it doesn’t work that way! She started talking about camping and food! If only we had known!

Thanks to Ching we obtained permission from the Mayor to go into the forest and off we went up to the forest – Ching kindly gave us a lift up to Patag, about an hour’s drive from Silay CIty along a pretty rough road, initially through extensive sugar cane fields and then up into higher ground and the village of Patag. This site is actually quite well developed – a former hospital is now used as a kind of visitor centre, the grounds around it being used as a campsite;  there is even a swimming pool plus a few eateries. It is fairly basic but more than adequate.

Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker - female Dendrocopos maculatus Brgy Patag, Silay City, Negros Occidental 27.03.13

Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker – female
Dendrocopos maculatus
Brgy Patag, Silay City, Negros Occidental

We bedded down in the city’s nursery, a large hut in the forest with basic cooking and WC facilities and met up with our guides: Rey, Ricky and Brian, villagers who act as mountain guides/patrol. It was a strange atmosphere however – not the peace and quiet one might expect. A religious retreat was going on in the hospital annexe which meant the amplified ejaculations of the converted were resounding  – “Praise the Lord, Alleluia” and so forth; these were mixed up with the cacophony of a large number of fighting cocks – a villager is rearing these nearby; I couldn’t make any comment on their prowess as fighters but, boy, do they make a racket and a fairly discordant one at that!


Metallic Pigeon
Columba vitiensis
Barangay Patag, Silay City, Negros Occidental

We took a stroll around the nursery and immediately saw Philippine Bulbul which is abundant here according to our guides. In a field on the forest edge, near the Japanese shrine, (this area was the scene of significant bloodshed between Filipino, US and Japanese soldiers during the World War Two ) we saw a Grey-streaked Flycatcher perched on a branch making periodic sorties for prey. In the absence of a Philippine list I presume this was a lifer! Elsewhere in our stroll we had a brief glimpse of a Black-naped Monarch, a fairly common bird.

Ricky, one of our guides, advised that he had a woodpecker nesting in his garden so we headed off into Patag to have a look. Sure enough a beautiful small woodpecker was tending to a nest in a tree about fifteen feet from his house. I pulled up a chair , sat down, set up and took some photographs. I didn’t have the field guide with me so I thought it was probably a Pygmy Woodpecker but couldn’t be sure. Fortunately I  was able to get some good shots of both the male and female so knew I would be able to identify it later. The male has this beautiful loud red “vee” on the back of its head.

Ricky then took us to another house where they were looking after a large pigeon which was unable to fly. I had no idea what this was – about the same size as an ‘imperial” type pigeon but definitely a new bird for me. I was for once able to photograph it with my camera and a standard lens!

Now that I am back home with access to the field guide  I can confirm the woodpecker as a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, of the maculatus sub-species; this is an endemic and the first endemic species of this trip and a lifer as well; the pigeon is a Metallic Pigeon, described in the Kennedy field guide as uncommon, also a lifer but not endemic.

On our way home we saw a White-collared Kingfisher. In Thailand this is a bird I normally associate with mangroves and coastal areas; I don’t expect to see it in open country as I did here but it is fairly common in these parts. On return to the hut Luna said she had seen a Coleto in the trees adjacent to the hut.

After a comfortable night in the hut we started early the next morning at 0500 walking in darkness into the forest. There were plenty of bird calls in the dark as we progressed up into the forest but not a lot to be seen and sadly this situation did not improve once it was light. I caught a glimpse of what I now know was a Metallic Pigeon as it flew off – good to see this for real in the wild and hard to mistake on account of size and dark colour; a Balicassiao of the mirabilis (white belly) sub-species showed very briefly; the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly a large dove which my guides went to considerable pains to put me onto, a process not helped by my inability to speak Ilongo, the local dialect, and the limitations of their English; a retrospective comparison of my notes and the field guide confirms this as a White-eared Brown Dove, a very elegant bird in a subdued sort of way: a lifer and another endemic.

So from a birding perspective this first venture into the forest was a little disappointing. It didn’t quite yield the volume of birds I had hoped for. An additional factor was the terrain is rough, none of the comparative highways you’ll find in Kaeng Krachan and developed Thailand! At times our narrow trail involved some moderate scrambling and at times it skirted steep dropping chasms resounding with the noise of cascading water – the sorts of places from which you wouldn’t come out alive in the event of a trip or fall. So the walking required concentration. Add in that I am no longer in the first flush of youth plus I still have a couple of painful cuts on my feet sustained while wading recently in Punta Taytay – not ideal circumstances, totally unprepared in fact!

Mid-morning we headed back to the hut where I had some lunch and a siesta of sorts – the evangelicals and the cocks appeared to be competing with each other. In the afternoon we sat outside the hut: Coleto, Philippine Bulbul and then two birds appeared which    really grabbed my attention: what looked like a Hill Blue Flycatcher and a Shrike. I simply took notes in the absence of a field guide and on return was surprised to see no mention of Hill Blue Flycatcher in it and also the possibility of a Mountain Shrike on the basis of my field notes. I have subsequently been in touch with Des Allen who knows a thing or too about the birds here, and he has advised that the flycatcher is likely to be a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and that the shrike a variation of the Brown Shrike in its many guises. I simply did not consider Mangrove Blue Flycatcher as we were a distance away from mangroves and coastal habitat. Mountain Shrike as its names suggests, and in contrast to Mangrove Blue,  only occurs at high altitude, from 1500m upwards. Later in the afternoon we took a short walk to the Japanese Shrine and we made out a very furtive Philippine Coucal working its way through some dense trees.

On my last morning a short stroll around the forest edges was interesting: lots of Philippine Bulbul and then a Scarlet Minivet; what I thought was a flowerpecker is likely to have been an Elegant Tit. However I only saw its underside as it was moving through the canopy but I noted all yellow underneath with black throat and bib like a sparrow, black undertail coverts with lighter edges; I didn’t see any of its upperside so in these circumstances, no claims. My guides then managed to locate another White-eared Brown Dove which I digiscoped ….. badly! As we walked we flushed a green-backed pigeon which my guides said was a “Negros pigeon”; now I was thinking “Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon”, one of the most endangered birds in the Philippines but my guides said it was “manatad” which Kennedy confirmed as the Ilonco name for Common Emerald Dove! Phew! There were of course a few additional unidentifieds.

Finally as we headed to the jeepney for our trip back to civilisation, with the evangelicals silenced by an electricity brown-out, some sort of divine consequence for being so intrusive and disruptive I rather fancy, a Brahminy Kite soared nearby. I normally expect to see this bird near the sea so was a little surprised especially as people around me were saying it was a Philippine Eagle! I wasn’t aware that there was a resemblance between the two species but knew it would be easy to sort it out back home. It most certainly wasn’t a Philippine Eagle and Kennedy confirms Brahminy Kite can be seen at higher elevations and around forest edges

So an excellent starter. I now know the lie of the land.  I really hope I can  return for a few more days on this trip.

Barangay Punta Taytay, Bacolod City

21 03 2013

Ruddy Turnstone

This is my local patch in The Philippines, ten minutes from my wife’s family home in Sum-ag, Bacolod City, sitting on the edge of the Sulu Sea. Punta Taytay has changed quite dramtatically since my last visit here two years ago; then there was a sea wall and a few food stalls and little else. It has been developed with the addition of larger sit down restaurants covering the length of the sea wall and there are also a couple of viewing areas too. My initial fear that this might be for the worse was soon allayed: the mangrove is actively being regenerated and within five minutes of arrival I had seen three Chinese Egrets.

I must confess to being surprised by the ease with which I am seeing this species –  I happily own to a litany of identification errors.  I have checked my field guide and what I am seeing can only be Chinese Egret. They cannot be Eastern Reef Egrets, the most likely species with which to confuse them as they have clearly visible nape plumes and I wouldn’t expect to see Reef Egrets in this  mudflat/mangrove habitat but more so in rocks and outcrops. I also had the privilege of watching one of today’s Chinese Egrets feeding in the sea and true to form, it angled its neck to 45 degrees and started to run and flash its bill like a dagger  after prey – an impressive and amusing sight. So I am completely certain these are the real thing. Nine Chinese Egrets in two birding sessions – wow!

Whiskered Tern

Whiskered Tern

On arrival, Chinese Egrets apart, a small, mixed group of Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel took to the air – the white patches on their respective rumps were visible and the Whimbrel could be distinguished by their call and smaller size. I then noticed some biggish birds emerging from the trees at the back of the mangrove and once I got these in my sights it was clear they were Black-crowned Night-heron. These are new birds for this patch;  in fact a check in the Kennedy field guide shows that when this excellent work was published in 2000 this species had not been recorded in Negros and it is in fact classified as “uncommon” for the rest of The Philippines. [see comments for an update on status]. Well these night-heron look as if they are roosting here during the day.

I then noticed a small flock of waders flying in and touching down towards the mangrove edge. A quick scan revealed about 25 Grey-tailed Tattler and a closer look revealed a further 15 or so already settled down. These are not birds I see that often in Thailand but they can be reliably seen here and in good numbers too. A couple were showing breeding pluamge. I decided to try and get in closer and as I walked in a fair few other waders became visible notably Lesser and Greater Sand-plovers but also good numbers of Pacific Golden Plover (40+) and Ruddy Turnstone, a count of six in the end, but like tattlers, not a bird I see often in Thailand.

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

So an excellent session whose only downside was I got my feet cut on sharp rocks as I waded back in to the sea wall. A little bit sore! But Punta Taytay will now be a fixture for me and so long as my feet are not hurting too badly tomorrow I’ll go out for more.