An appointment with the King (of Birds!!)

It has been a long time since the last blog, and I could go on about how busy I am, but at this stage if you read me regularly then you will know how swamped with work I am. So instead I will jump straight in to the amazing trip that Paul and I went on in the beginning of June.

Due to Paul having some more time off, we decided to use the free flights we had (because of our cancelled flight to Cebu in January) to go off and try for the Philippine Eagle at Mt. Kitanglad, in Mindanao. We had a chance in January of this amazing bird but were unlucky with the weather and missed it. This time however, it was not to be missed. There were a few other birds that we wanted to see but the eagle was the star.

After a plane, car, motorbike and then a long hike with horses, we got to camp and our home for the next 4 nights. We were both excited but nervous. It was the beginning of June and no one ever travelled up to see the eagle this late in the season. The last tour group to come through was at the beginning of May and the weather had started to turn, from the drier, to the wetter months. The accommodation is basic, but I loved it. Up the mountain and within throwing distance of the forest, we stayed in what I could best describe as a large barn. No electricity and no running water. It was brilliant. The night we arrived, I picked up a number of lifers by just being at camp. Behind the camp, in a large bamboo bush was a Little Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula westermanni) which was to be a regular bird seen at this particular spot throughout the few days that I was staying there.  At night, you could set your watch, to the time when Bukidnon Woodcocks (Scolopax sp.) started to fly over, making a raspy, rapid sound, like a speeded up sound of a horse. These were also regular, like clockwork, in the morning too. Then, just before bed, on the first night, we heard a call and went rummaging through the forest with our guide. After some torch searching we found another species I was excited to find, a Philippine Frogmouth (Batrachostomus septimus) just sat on a branch looking down on us with its ‘large smiling beak’. I got some great views before it flew off. But nothing was compared to the King of birds…

Day 1

We had three days planned up the mountain at the ‘viewing platform’, which was a number of bamboo tied together to provide a place to sit and some plastic over the top for shade. It was located just over an hours hike away from camp, on top of a grassy hill overlooking a valley, with a ridge, and the side of the mountain which was lush green with vegetation. We could see about a kilometre of the side of this mountain. On the first day, just as we got there, we heard a tree fall in the forest, and the sound was amazing!! It was far away but you could hear this almighty crashing sound which resonated through the valley and trees. Like a large wave crashing on a beach.

We set up the scope and waited…. and waited….. and waited some more. At times the clouds were so thick we couldn’t see that far and it took a long time before we saw the top of the mountain in front of us. I was kept entertained by the White-cheeked Bullfinches (Pyrrhula leucogenis), a great looking bird. Though not as colourful as its European counterpart, that I am more familiar with, the bright white cheeks stands out against its olive brown keel and shoulders, a bright sign you can see as it flies past, and there were many.

But, unfortunately, the weather turned and we had to abandon the day after 5 ½ hours of watching. There was no sign and we had to slog our way back in the rain, similar to January. Paul said that someone had mentioned to him that Mindanao had, oppose to the regular wet and dry season, a wet and wetter season. I could believe that.

Day 2

We got to the platform and within 20 minutes Paul had found the eagle! Perched on a tree, surveying its kingdom. The excitement buzzed in the air as each of us got a quick look through the scope before letting the next person have a look. But as soon as it had appeared, it disappeared. It must have flown off to hunt. Regardless, it was a good view of a stunning bird. We were then at a bit of a loss. We had planned all day here and we had seen it, but not for long. Should we stay or was that the best we would get?? Paul mentioned, which we all agreed with, that we should stay for perhaps another hour, just to see if he popped up again, and then travel further up the mountain. So we sat and we waited again…

We didn’t need the full hour, in half that time the bird reappeared at the closest point of the mountain. Over the ridge, and valley, there it stood, typically on a large dead tree. Our guide tried calling him in by shouting his best impression. I was lucky enough to be on the scope as he took flight. Almost 2 metres of wing shot out and the huge body seemed to command the air to lift it off of the tree as it flew directly towards us! As I watched, I could see its eyes pointing straight towards me, as the entire body followed. It landed on the ridge which was between us and the mountain. Giving perfect views through the scope! I could also see it with the naked eye, it was that close. Our guide and his son, Carlito and Danny, were getting just as excited as we were. You always know it’s something special when the guide, who has been taking out groups for years, gets excited.  But it wasn’t over. The bird took flight again and landed in a tree about 150 metres away, it was close!! We stood, open mouthed, at the closeness we were with this bird. After taking pictures and getting great views, it dived down into the valley and out of sight. We packed up and started up the mountain, with an almighty spring in our step from the brilliant views we had of this amazing bird. In text sent to other birders; stunning, beautiful and the best views ever were sent! Words could not describe how happy we were with the views. We couldn’t have asked for more, BUT the King had other ideas…

Day 3

Having now explored the mountain a bit and seen spectacular views of the eagle, we decided to try some of the lower forest, for a few possible birds that had been seen recently. We navigated our way through the thick undergrowth and through habitat full of vines, trees and shrubs. Half-way through the day, we were surrounded in forest but could see through the canopy. Then, out of nowhere, Carlito shouted


There, on the next ridge over, sat the Philippine Eagle! Again, hunting from a large dead tree and only about 200 metres away. We were in the right area for it, and was not expecting it today, but it had found us. As Paul went back along the path, to try and get a better picture, I started to fight my way through the canopy to get a better view. Out of nowhere I heard

“It’s flying! It’s flying”

So I looked up, just in time to see it glide over my head! I wasn’t directly under the bird, but I could see all of its feathers and body movements as it threw down its wings as it flew. In a split second, all that I could see, hear and think was eagle. Everything else just faded away and I was awe-struck by this magnificent, powerful bird. It then landed in a tree, just down from where I was. I looked up and there he was, staring down at me (or at least in my direction) less than 40 metres away! It bobbed its head, it rolled it around and it scanned the forest around me. Then, out of nowhere, I got an impression of what it was like to be one of the monkeys that this bird hunts. I felt, just for a moment, like I was being hunted. I could see his powerful talons and the razor sharp claws which were at the end of each toe. The HUGE bill for ripping and shredding was pointed towards me a few times and I could see his blue eyes and his iris, pointing in towards me. All this I could see without my binoculars with a slight chill, a mixture of excitement and fear ran through me. In that moment I was in no doubt, if he was hungry, I wouldn’t stand a chance!

The others had arrived around me and started taking pictures. Then, after posing for a short while, it flew off and we didn’t see it again. But what more could I have asked for?! This huge wild bird had flown over, in all its glory, and had caught me in a trance. All of us silently sat down and just had a moment of self-reflection. No one spoke for what seemed like 20 minutes. Each one of us having had great views and were amazed at our luck. Paul showed us his pictures (link at the bottom) which are brilliant. We had used up all the best words in the text the night before, so how we were going to describe the views from this day was a challenge.

 We did see other great birds throughout our time up the mountain, but honestly thinking back, the only bird that I can think of is the eagle and that moment in the forest we were staring at each other. It was a great time away but the end had come. I’m not sure if I will be able to make it back someday, and honestly I’m not sure I want to. Those views were better than any bird in captivity and this individual was wild. If I were to go back and not see it, would it taint my experience and take the edge off of what I had experienced or would it just make me appreciated the first trip more? I don’t know that but what I do know is that if my current level of work stays as it is, I’m going to be lucky if I get any time to look out of my office window for birds!!

As always Paul took some great pictures, of the eagle and other birds, which you can find here


Rice-bite: Sharing Sites

After an exhausting week away collecting data in Isabela again, I have a little time to drop in a quick blog with why this trip was a little different. Since January, I have now been up North 4 times, spending a week with my driver, Mike, collecting data from a number of sites for one of my thesis chapters. Without going into too much detail, there is a large manipulation trial being conducted up there and I was fortunate to get in early and find sites. Because of this I am looking at the effect this has on the avian biodiversity. But this month we had a special quest…

Clare, my long suffering girlfriend, was able to accompany Mike and myself up North to collect data. As she is between contracts at the moment and her current field work has finished, we took this opportunity for her to come up and see where everything is and for me to explain my sites. This is great as it means she now knows how to conduct my work in case I cannot make it one month, thus not losing out on data for my work. It also means I can show her where I spend the week when I am away, including my ‘home-away-from-home’ the hotel Monte Carlo, where I stay each time I go up and even reserve the same room each time. Now known (by me) as my room!

As far as work goes, everything ran like clockwork. The weather held out in the mornings long enough for all my surveys to be conducted. Patiently waiting until mid-afternoon for the tremendous storms it threw at us. We had thunder and lightning every night, often with accompanying power-cuts. My biggest worry, however, was the food…

Clare is a vegetarian and the Philippines isn’t well known for its choice of veggie food. Most of it is meat off the bone. What is a mostly vegetable dish is normally cooked with some kind of shrimp or fish sauce/paste. Plus, in Isabela, the choices of places to eat are very limited to fast food chains, not offering much to a veggie. BUT, I am happy to report that we found a few places that offered a few dishes for her to choose from. Thus a happy Clare!

As far as birds go, there were few species seen, but lots of what there was. With most of the fields having just been harvested, or fallow, the Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) were out in force, hopping their way through the fields searching for some kind of food. It often strikes me, as a UK birder, just how common this species is here and how I will miss them when I am gone. For Clare though, she managed to pick up a small number of birds, not only for a year list (Yep, she keeps one too) but also lifers! The most impressive of which was the Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos), which we managed to see a number of times. A female of which came very close to us, as we were watching, and started hunting. A truly spectacular bird!! I won’t go into too much detail, as I have spoken about them before, but the males colours are amazing and I ove seeing them each month I am there.

After the successful trip we made our way back down to IRRI. It’s a long drive (14 hours) but needs must. With a short amount of free time, we have to unpack, sort and prepare for next week in the office. We don’t have long but I guess there’s no rest for the wicked (Scholars and/or interns!!). With a week of paperwork ahead, who knows what I’ll be able to blog about next week, but I’m sure I’ll find something… 

A Quiet Morning up Makiling

This week, instead of catching up on some of the birding trips that I have still to write up, I have decided to blog about this morning’s trip. That way it is still fresh in my mind and I can use the past blogs on weeks when I don’t get out much….which is often. After a midweek meeting, which Paul also attended, we decided to try for a quick bird this weekend. Due to working commitments it could only be a short trip, so we decided to walk up Mt. Makiling again. However, due to a change in circumstance this year the mountain has not been revealing its usual gems. Here’s why…

In the last few months of last year, two students from UPLB (University of the Philippines, Los Baños), were found dead up the mountain. For security the mountain was closed off and there was no access. The mountain opened again a few months back but with an addition: a heavy duty barrier. You can no longer drive up the mountain until 8am, once a guard has arrived to let you in. Now I’m all for security and if these measures were in place to protect others, then who am I to change their way. The issue for me is that you now cannot gain the altitude needed to get to the ideal forest for the birds early enough in the morning. I have seen a number of stunning birds which I am now going to miss because I just can’t get up there fast enough. So we now park at the bottom and trek as far up as we can before it gets too hot for the birds and for us.

As usual, Paul picked me up at 5 and it wasn’t long before we were walking past the sleeping guards at the barrier. Paul still left our entrance fee on the desk, but they did not stir. We started up the road. The road has also been improved since last year and was easy underfoot, but this is a small blessing when compared to the absolute void of bird life that we could see. We heard some calls further up and slowly made our way forward. The sun was just rising, so we couldn’t see much. Then a large form moved out of the trees and away, being mobbed by a smaller shape but that’s all I got. Most probably a small bird defending itself against a larger bird of prey, but I will never know.

A large butterfly flew out in front of us, which made us both stop and search for it. I guess it was a butterfly as neither one of us got good eyes on it but from the speed it floated by, I think a bird would have stalled! At one point I turned the corner and saw two Emerald doves (Chalcophaps indica) on the road, which then flew up over our heads and then were gone. That was about it going up. We stopped at the Buko stands (the halfway point which we normally drive past) for a rest and then decided to start our descent. It was turning out to be a REALLY slow day.

There were a few more exciting birds as we descended. As we walked I saw a slight flutter and decided to have a look through my bins, and I’m glad I did. A male Spotted Wood-Kingfisher (Actenoides lindsayi) stood on a branch, posing for us for a long time. This is a great bird and I waited as Paul took pictures. A nice little guy, though very hard to see as its green spotted colour blends so easierly into the background. I could tell it was a male from its blue head and cheeks.

Just as we were getting to the end, Paul spotted a Balicassiao (Dicrurur balicassius) on a nest. A tiny little, mossy looking thing, balanced very delicately on the end of a branch. The female was on the nest with her head sticking out one end and the tail out of the other. It didn’t look like the type of nest I imagined it to have, but I am still learning. As we got to the car we found a tree fruiting nearby, so sat to watch that for a while. But, like the rest of the day, there was little bird activity.

Recently I have spotted a pair of Red-rumped Swallows (Hirundo daurica) circling outside our windows at home and I am convinced that they too are nesting nearby. So I asked Paul. He said they probably were and knew of where they did nest to show me. So shortly after leaving the mountain, we were scrambling down a verge to get to the under-side of a bridge on the university campus. It seems that all of the RR Swallows use the underside to nest on. We watched as these amazing birds shot through the archways and back out, chirping as they went. Their nests are similar to those of other swallow species. Paul took some pictures and I’m sure he’ll post them on his blog soon.

After that we returned to IRRI. A quiet morning on the lower slopes of the mountain which, I fear, is something that will start to become the ‘norm’ if we can’t make it to the top in time. Which is a terrible shame, as there are so many beautiful birds up there which we use to see regularly.  

You can find Pauls blog here, where he posts most of his pictures.

Rice-bite: Famous Birder – ‘Feathers in the Field’ at IRRI

Those who are friends with me on FACEBOOK will have seen most of the following links already, but I just wanted to blog them also to get them out there and to also advertise the exhibition.

A few months back, I was approached to help with a photo exhibition that was going to open, in the Rice Museum at IRRI, about the birds that can be found in the rice fields. As this is my area of research, and I’m the only one here working on it, I jumped at the chance. At the time, it seemed a long way off, but with my recent busy workload (see here) the time was soon here. We had meetings and eventually, last Friday (3rd May) it was the grand opening!! How exciting.

At first, all I thought that was needed of me was an article in the internal magazine. Brilliant, I could put my views across and try to educate those that read it about the birds in rice fields, in a ‘myths and facts’ kind of way.

I submitted this back in February and forgot about it. Then I was asked if I would be interviewed!! Amazing, actually being asked for my scientific opinion on film! Though I was nervous, the interviewer (Michael Joyce) was great and put together a great video of myself, Paul and one of the photographers. Though some have claimed it is very ‘cheesy’, I think it’s brilliant. This was also played during the grand opening. Which can be seen here.

Then, finally, the night was upon us. I was asked to speak, but due to incredible nerves, it wasn’t a great speech. You see, they had timed the opening of the exhibition with Ambassadors Day, when all of the Ambassadors of the embassies in Manila are invited to IRRI to have a look at the work that is conducted there. Not only was I talking to the ‘BIG’ bosses of IRRI but also delegates of over 70 countries. It didn’t help the nerves.

A write up, on the IRRI website, of the event can be found here. Also, during writing, I have noticed another blog, called Mommygiay, which was also present at the event can be found here.

But my favorite of all is the picture (from the IRRI website) of us officially opening the event. I am proud that my (little) harvesting experience came in handy and I was able to cut through the ribbon in one smooth movement!!


As you can see, I am slicing through it with a manic look of desperation on my face!!

If you are in, or around, the Los Baños area and have some free time, I highly recommend you swing by IRRI and have a look at the exhibition. Its open until September and is FREE to enter. Many people have commented on how little they knew of the variety that can be found within rice fields, so come and take a look for yourself.

Rice-bite: A VERY busy Birder

Those that read my blog often, and/or those that have been here from the beginning, will realise that I have not been my normal Rice-Birding-Self, for the entirety of 2013, so far. Oppose to supplying you with a weekly bustling blog of both birding and non-birding, this year has been sparse, to say the least. Though I do plan on publishing two short Rice-bites today, this doesn’t explain my apparent absence from the world. Hopefully this blog will explain more AND catch you up with what’s going on here…

The short answer for my absence is I’ve been busy. In fact, VERY busy. Someone once commented that writing a blog a week, whilst working on my PhD, was brave and showed commitment. At the time I thought nothing of it, but as I have been getting busier, I must admit, that as I wake early on a Sunday morning, the idea of sitting at a desk and writing a blog doesn’t always fill me with the joy it once did at the start.

I have always said that I would never talk too much about my work and I stand by that. But from the 5 chapters I have planned, I am currently running 4 of them and waiting for supplies before the 5th starts. This takes a great deal of planning, research and implementation, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in research can understand. It also doesn’t help much when my sites are geographically spread over a large area. I think the distance between my most Northern and Southern sites are over 1000km, requiring a lot of travel, especially during the beginning part of the year. In the following 12 weeks after my trip to Mindanao, I was away for just over 8 weeks. Often spending 3 or 4 days back before shooting off again.

I have managed some other ‘non-work-related’ birding in this time and some of the highlights will be blogged later, but I just wanted to write that I will try and keep up to date with the blogs so you all know what I am up to, what I have seen and all the different experiences out here in the Philippines.

Oh, and I said I would not be a slave to the numbers this year but already, due to the amazing trip in January, I have already beaten my total number of birds seen for 2012, and that was in April!!

All or nothing, the final days birding on Quarry Road, Bislig

This blog is seventh (and final) in a number of blogs from the beginning of January when I went away, with Paul, to see a number of new birds. Sorry it has taken so long. I also experienced some technical difficulties last week, so could not post it then.

The day started the same as all the others recently, an early morning drive to the spot for owls. Similar to the rest of the week, it was raining. The damp start, really being the way of birding, at Bislig, in January. We heard a few calls, but still didn’t manage to see anything, so we jumped back into the Jeepney and drove to the parking spot for the day.

We were going to do the same route as the day before last, but this time try and navigate around the flooded section and join the path further up. By the time we had parked the rain had let up and it was actually dry!! This being our last day, we had a few species on the wish list and the clear weather helped. Before we set off down the trail mind, Paul, Zardo and myself were trying to find the calling birds on the edge of the quarry. The Rufous-lored Kingfisher (Halcyon winchelli) being one of the nosiest and most frequently heard bird, though we didn’t see this until later in the day. Whilst we were off chasing sounds, the photographers were mounting up! Again, carrying their huge scopes and equipment (but neither one of them owning a guide book or a pair of bins!), today was going to be tough on them…

We walked down to the road where we saw the hornbills two days earlier and the water was still high. After a short scramble up the banks, we were up into the forest. No path, just trying to find a way around the lake that had appeared. I was immersed in green again! Readers who have been following my blog from the beginning will have read my early thoughts and feelings on the forest. Even as I spend more time in the country, and more in the forest, these feelings have not changed. I love being in the ‘wild’. As I trek through the forest it seems different from anywhere I have ever been. Sometimes I find it hard to comprehend the size of both the trees, which must be many decades old, as well as the forest size overall. There use to be a wood, close to where I grew up, but you could see from one side to the other and could always appear either by the sports field, lake or close to houses depending on which route you took. But you could never get lost in there! The forests here travel for miles and on a number of days, like this one, we trekked all day and never left this patch of forest. It’s amazing!!

Anyway, the trek was similar to the day before. Zardo, Paul and myself took the lead and stopped every so often for the photographers to catch up. With no path through the forest, it required a lot of ducking and weaving under, or over, fallen trees and other vegetation. With bins around your neck it is a slight challenge, but carrying all their equipment was a nightmare. We came to a clearing, on the edge of a hill, and that is when we got the best views of the day, and possibly the week!!

As we came out of the tree line, we could see a bird of prey perched on a near tree. A Barred Honey-buzzard (Pernis celebensis) was sat surveying the area. Even silhouetted we could make out his crest from where we stood. As everyone was taking pictures an Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus) flew into the tree on the other side of the clearing, its long neck visible and making the identification easy. They both flew off over our heads, giving us great views of their plumage. We wandered further into the clearing when “Hornbill” was shouted by a member of the group. We were still on a lookout for adult Rufous Hornbills and sure enough, as if answering a wish, two adult Rufous Hornbills (Buceros hydrocorax mindanensis) flew over to a tree close by. This gave everyone, with a camera, a chance to get snapping. But it got better.

In a display that Red Arrows would be proud of, these two adults started to fly in a large circle around us. Dotting from tree to tree and very slowly getting closer. In the space of a few minutes they had gone from being flying hornbill shaped birds, a large distance away, to flying directly over our heads. At one point I watched as they flew over, making out the stunning red and yellow of their bills, without my bins. I heard someone complain that they were so close, their camera couldn’t focus on them, a complaint I don’t hear often when it comes to taking a picture of birds!!  The only way they could have got closer was if they were to land on someone!!

I must admit that once they had flown off, the rest of the day becomes a bit of a blur!! The stunning views we had just experienced had us all breathless for the rest of the day! We made it back onto the path, the other side of the flood, and started along the route. At one point it split into two, so we took the one on the right.

These paths were much denser forest and had some birds dotting in and out. We were able to find the Yellowish Bulbul (Hypsipetes everetti) which had been a noisy bird for most of the week but incredibly difficult to see. Whilst walking someone spotted a tree with some fruits high up and after a small flutter of activity, one was spotted. It took me a while to see it myself as a couple of the photographers kept standing in front of me and blocked my view. They seemed like nice guys but if there was a picture to be taken, all manors and friendliness went out the window!!

This is also where we found the Rufous-lored Kingfisher. There were a couple of them calling from the trees, which Paul and I were able to find quickly. We tried to help the photographers as the birds flew around us, but they were just too quick. They had to settle for watching them in the trees.

We reached a path that Zardo informed us had been known to have Mindanao Bleeding-Hearts. So Paul and I took the lead and Zardo kept the others a distance behind, so we could sneak as far as we could in an attempt to see it feeding on the ground. Though we searched for a long time, we were unsuccessful. As we waited for the others to catch up, we could hear Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida) all around us. One of the photographers spotted them and created a small, mad huddle to try and get a picture of it through the trees. As I had no camera, and had seen one previously, I walked down the path a little to give everyone some room. As I did I heard another call, much louder. There was another Pitta close by. Slowly I made my way along the path, not 100 metres from the scrum of cameras. I moved at a snails pace, keeping still between calls. Then, to my right, was a small hole in the bush, at head height. Sat on a branch of a tree, which was only a few inches longer that it actually was, was my own Hooded Pitta, no more than 10 feet away. I spotted it as it was calling and it spotted me. It stopped and looked at this pink thing staring back. We froze like this for want seemed like hours, but must have only been a few seconds. Then it decided I was no threat and continued to call. A small sized blue and green bird, who’s colours shine through the undergrowth, it is named for its black head, which looks a bit like a hood. I stayed perfectly still and watched as it called over and over again, not worried about my presence at all.

At this stage I was mentally screaming for Paul to come and have a look. I thought he could have got a good picture from my little friend. But not wanting to move or make a noise, it was difficult to get his attention. I slowly moved back and, once out of sight, started making my way back to the group. Paul had appeared on the path and I told him what I had found. We both moved up but by the time I saw the branch again, he had gone. We all gathered up our stuff and made it back to the split in the path, where we were going to explore the other way.

The first path (to the right) had been good but the left path was certainly much better. We had barely gone 100 metres when we noticed a large mixed-flock moving through. It was stunning. All the fantails from the previous days, flycatchers, babblers, bulbuls, whistlers, spider-hunters and so many more!! My favorites had to be a short-crested Monarch (Hypothymis helenae), which was one of the targets for the day. A small blue bird with a little crest, as the name suggests. Also a single Mindanao Wattled Broadbill (Eurylaimus steerii) which I had to crash through the vegetation to see as it seemed to be the only one there. These amazing looking birds are only found in the Southern islands of the Philippines and I had missed my chance to see them when I was in Bohol. So being able to catch one here was amazing. They have a blue eye-ring that really emphasizes their eyes. This one was just sat on the top of a tree amongst all the other species which were flicking around like crazy!!!

We started to make our way back to the jeepney once the birds had moved on. The photographers wanted to stalk out the silvery kingfisher, so we drove them to the same spot we had seen them earlier in the week. Whilst they set up their portable hides and cameras, Paul and I disappeared off to a bamboo bus-shelter (well it looked like a bus shelter, bamboo seats covered with more bamboo) and ate our lunch. We chatted for a while and then asked to go on one last jaunt. Several times we had heard an Amethyst Brown-Dove (Phapitreron amethystine) throughout the week, but never actually seeing one. Zardo took us back to the place where we had tried for the owls and we walked along the path. We saw an imperial pigeon and heard many others but there was no Amethyst to be seen. Well, we had to have one that got away….

We left and picked up the others before returning to the hotel. They had not seen the kingfisher either, or at least not well enough to take some pictures. As usual, I showered and changed then grabbed dinner and a few beers, including one for Zardo to express our thanks for the great trip. Our driver was coming back tomorrow and we were travelling back through the damaged areas, to fly home in the early evening. This last day was a real cracker and the rest of the week would probably have been similar had the rain held.

But what about birding in Mindanao?? It was great. We knew where we were going and had contact with people who had been to these places and recommended the guides, and drivers. I felt just as safe travelling around as I do when I’m away for work, on my own. But I had Paul with me, who was able to plan and organize everything, so it was much better. Though I had picked up a lot of birds, as it was my first time to Mindanao, Paul managed to pick up a few lifers too, which is great. It was a great trip, though exhausting.

Even though I said I wasn’t counting ‘ticks’ this year, as I didn’t want to become a slave to the numbers, upon returning to IRRI on the 12th January, I had spotted and/or heard, 146 different birds. By far the most birds I have ever seen in two weeks!!

As usual, Paul took some amazing shots which you can see here.

Wettest Birding EVER – Road 42

Yet again, the alarm went off VERY early. I grabbed my gear and met Paul at the front of the hotel. Today was Road 42, a known birding route and I was excited at the prospect of getting another chance for the Philippine Eagle. The weather, on the other hand, had other ideas. It had rained all night, since it had begun back at the airfield yesterday, and showed no signs of stopping. We had also gained the three guys from Singapore, they would be joining us on our last two days birding. They loaded up an eye-watering amount of photography equipment! They all had lenses which were the length of my arm and had a diameter of, roughly, my face. They were trying to get REALLY close pictures.

By 3:30 we were all in the back of the jeepney and on our way to the owl site again, we were going to try our luck. But with the rain again, we only managed a few minutes actually in the area. We tried to listen out in the rain, but all we heard were the heavy drops falling through the canopy. If there were any owls, they were probably undercover watching a number of us human-things walk up and down, getting very wet.

We sat in the back waiting for the weather to pass, but it didn’t. As the sun was coming up, we decided we should go to the next spot and wait out for a clear moment of sky, it never really came. We parked at the spot where we were going to start on foot. Most people stayed in the vehicle but after a while I decided to pop out. It was light rain, but constant. So I spent a short time walking to where I could hear movement in the heavy canopy and tried to see some birds as they dove for cover. To some extent this worked. I got some great views of a mixed flock of Blue Fantails (Rhipidura superciliaris) and a couple of Rufous Paradise Flycatchers (Terpsiphone cinnamomea), all of them amazing, mid-sized birds, that I saw dotting through the under bush. Much more birds seen than if I had stayed within the vehicle. I went back and informed the others, Paul was straight over, which is no surprise, but the others then took a short time to get their cameras up and going….this would be a reoccurring event over the next few days. They missed the majority of the birds.

As the rain was now lighter and everyone was a little wet, it was decided that we would start the walk. It turned into two small groups; Zardo, Paul and myself in front, whilst the other three photographers (with another guide) brought up the rear. Even in the rain, we still managed a few forest species, including; Coleto (Sarcops calvus), Black-faced Coucal (Centropus melanops) and a few Woodpeckers. The most impressive spot was from Zardo. As we rounded a corner he said ‘Philippine Nightjar’, both Paul and I looked but didn’t see anything. He then pointed to a stick that was protruding from a mud-bank, no more than 3 meters away. Sat on the end was a sleeping nightjar. It was amazing and completely undisturbed by us. We stood and watched, waiting for the others to catch up. Once they did, we waited for them to set up again and try and take a picture. Just as they were ready it moved to another point, a point which Paul and I found within a minute, but again took the photographers a moment to re-position.

By now I was wet, and if at home, would have called it a day. But we were here and a little rain wasn’t going to stop us. As if the rain-god had heard our thoughts, the heavens opened again and the heaviest downpour I have ever birded in started. Everyone scrambled up a mud-bank to hide away, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it (me + wet mud + no grip on boots = Injured birder), so I took shelter under a tree. For a long time they sat and waited whilst I surveyed the path close by. At this point, every layer of clothing I had on, had a layer of water between them. I could feel the rain hitting my raincoat as if I were not wearing any clothes at all. I hid my bins to try and protect them the best I could.

After a while, Paul came down to see me. I was making him nervous as I was watching the path and potentially could see something new, so he couldn’t relax. As he was walking towards me, I thought I had seen some movement up the path, but just that of a large-ish shadow, flying into a bush, low down. Probably just a bird caught in the rain. As Paul and I spoke, the shadow returned and we both got our bins on it for a second. It was a Steere’s Pitta (Pitta steerii).

As regular readers will know, the Pitta’s in the Philippines have a place in my heart. All of them have stunning colours and are shy, ground dwelling birds. This one was sheltering under the bush, but coming out to hunt, so we got some fantastic views as it dotted in and out. This was also my third species of pitta in just over a year, which makes me a very lucky birder indeed! Paul went and told the others as I kept eyes on it walking up the path. Again, we waited as they set up and tried to get a good shot.

I have often spoken about how a birder can be tired, wet, cold, miserable and not see a bird all day until the last 30 minutes and still be over the moon, declaring it the best day ever. Just minutes before you contemplate giving up and never watching birds again, but a special bird makes its presence known and turns it all around. This is what the pitta did for me. Watching as it hopped along the ground it, didn’t matter that I was soaked through or that my hands had wrinkled, like I had been in the bath for hours, as I stood and watched there was nothing else in the world but me and this stunning bird in front of me. It’s a moment I find hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced this.

Once it had vanished for good, we continued up the path. The rain had let up a little, so it gave us a chance to chase a few of the smaller birds through the canopy which had decided that this lighter rain was their best chance for a meal. We got so far but decided to turn back, re-birding the route for those birds that have come out now the rain was lighter. As we were approaching the end, where we could see over the deep, forested valley, we heard a deep bellowing call and knew that somewhere down there were a number of Rufous Hornbills (Buceros hydrocorax), but not just that they were down there. They were getting closer.

The Rufous Hornbill was the main bird of the trip. We have come close before but never had great views of this giant, beautiful bird. There are a number of races within the Philippines, but the one that occurs in Mindanao (mindanensis) is truly the best of them all. Paul wanted a picture of this amazing bird. So we set up, on the edge of the valley and waited. We could hear them close by, and had accidentally disturbed one as we went. We could hear the one that had flew off and it was contact calling with those deeper in the valley. All we had to do was wait…and that we did.

We waited, and waited, as the calls got closer but we never saw them. Out of nowhere a juvenile seemed to appear and fly up to a naked tree. It stood there, a fair distance away, but we got a nice view. Thought the adult mindanensis is a lovely rufous, black and cream, with red and yellow facial colouring, the juvenile is brown. We had seen the target species of the day, but it was a youngster. We waited to see if any adults joined it but it eventually flew off. We made our way back to the jeepney, then back to the hotel. I was still squelching as I sat down in the vehicle.

The week was starting to catch up with me, so I just showered, ate, had a beer or two and then slept all night. It was our final chance for the owls tomorrow, before we left, and I still had everything crossed for the Philippine Eagle. As long as the rain behaved, we were going to attempt clearing up in one extreme day.

As usual, Paul took some amazing shots which you can see here.