Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Last Post - My farewell to the Philippines

Between July 2008 and June 2014 I lived in Los Banos, Laguna, on the slopes of Mount Makiling. My wife worked for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and I used the farms at IRRI as my local patch. I started this blog in 2010 as a place to deposit my sightings, and it has grown into a resource that birders have found useful. This is the last post on this blog. 

In June 2014 I moved to New York, as my wife had started a new job. For those who are interested my new blog is at

 In the 6 years I was in the Philippines I saw 424 species of birds, of which 160 are endemic. This doesn’t seem to me to be a huge total. Certainly other birders have surpassed this in a shorter time period, however it is reasonable enough given the constraints of time, family and work. 

Highlights have been many and varied. The Palawan Peacock Pheasant at St Paul’s underground river is an extraordinary bird. Beautiful, rare, secretive, range restricted, it has all the hallmarks of a true great. The Philippine Eagle I saw at Kitanglad in 2013 ranks as one of my greatest bird sightings ever, 40m away from the largest eagle in the world. I thought of the famous quote from Alfred Wallace, even though he was talking about butterflies at the time...

"my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death".  

My first sighting of Steere’s Pitta was also a heart-stopping moment, as was my first Philippine Frogmouth. The list of great birds is long here!

On my patch the highlights were mainly migrants. Star of the show has to be the Pectoral Sandpiper on 10th Oct 2013, a country first. Close on its heels were the Black Drongos 15th Nov 2009 to 20th March 2010 and 9th Nov 2013, and the 9 Oriental Plovers 15th - 24th Sep 2013. Other local rarities included Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope, Green Sandpiper, Pied Wagtail, Pechora Pipit, Schrenk’s Bittern. 

My garden list has also got some stunners on it. Great endemics such as Spotted Buttonquail, Philippine Falconet, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Philippine Scops, Luzon Hawk-Owl, Philippine Nightjar, Philippine Green Pigeon, Philipine Cuckoo-Dove, Guiabero, Colasisi, Philippine Pgymy Woodpecker, Brown-breasted Kingfisher, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, Red-crested Malkoha, Philippine Coucal, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Balicassiao, Red-keeled, Striped and Pygmy Flowerpeckers, Elegant Tit, Grey-backed Tailorbird and Sulphur-billed Nuthatch. 

Some nice migrants also passed through (or over) the garden, such as Oriental Honey Buzzard, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Grey-faced Buzzard, Chinese Goshawk, Ashy Minivet, Brown Shrike, Brown-headed and Eye-browed Thrushes and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.

Elsewhere in the Philippines I birded many of the larger islands, notably Mindoro, Boracay, Bohol, Negros, Cebu, Siquijor, Palawan, Mindanao, Siargao and Camiguin Sur. Some of the best birding is on the smallest islands, the best I visited were Pandan (Mindoro Occidental), Pandan (Palawan) and Apo Reef. 

On Luzon I focussed most of my attention on the rice fields at IRRI, and the nearby Mount Makiling but also got to Subic, Mt Banahaw, Laoag, Candaba Marsh, La Meza Eco-Park and San Juan.

There are a few key areas I planned to visit, but failed for one reason or another;
  • Hamut Camp in the Cordilleras is a very important site, and the best/ only place to find a range of key lowland Luzon endemics, including Whiskered Pitta, Isabela Oriole, Grand Rhabdornis and Cream-bellied Fruit Dove among others.
  • Mt Halcon on Mindoro, the only known site for Mindoro Scops and Mindoro Imperial Pigeon. It has been closed to visitors for several years, though rumours circulate that the ban will be lifted 'soon'.
  • Tablas has a selection of small island endemics including Tablas Drongo, Tablas Bulbul and the fischeri race of Romblon Scops, named after Tim Fisher. It would have been great to see Tim's bird, I just never got round to it.
  • Batanes Islands in the far north with Ryukyu Scops, Calayan Rail, Chestnut-eared Bulbul etc. Lots of migrants as well, with huge rarity potential, a sort of Filipino Fair Isle.
In addition, I got to a few areas only once (Bislig, Negros, Rajah Sikatuna, Davao, Zamboanga), multiple visits are usually required if you want to clean up.

New spots continually come to prominence as well. There are several keen local and expat birders who regularly explore new areas, and make new discoveries. The first regular site for Isabela Oriole has recently been publicised (see this article in ebon), and a new species of Ground Warbler has been identified in the far north. Doubtless there is plenty more to discover.
As time passes, this blog will lose its currency, and its value as a source for up-to-date information. However, for longer-term visitors, trying to get a handle on what to expect from a posting to the Philippines it may be useful for some time to come.

Paalam Pilipinas

5th June - IRRI

My last ever trip down to the fields at IRRI. Lots of Oriental Patincoles, some with fledglings in tow. Also many Cattle Egrets, mostly out of breeding plumage. Not a tern in sight, or in fact any other migrants but plenty of other regulars.

  Fledgling Oriental Pratincole.
Female Painted Snipe
Buff-banded Rail
White-browed Crake

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Unlucky lizard - ISH 30th May.

While wandering about the ISH compound this afternoon with a couple of friends this dropped down from a nearby branch...
Over the next 15 minutes we watched this beautiful Paradise Tree Snake, Chrysopelea paradisi variabilis (Thanks to Emerson Sy for the ID), slowly, very slowly, devour an even more beautiful Emerald Tree Skink, Lamprolepis smaragdina. Its first grip was on the belly, at about the midpoint. The coils had the skink completely motionless within a fraction of a second. This snake is one of the very small number of 'flying snakes' from SE Asia.
After a while it released its grip on the belly, and slowly moved towards the head end...
Almost caressing the helpless prey...
The snake became aware of us, about 3m away, and paused briefly to make sure it was safe to eat...
which it then started to do...
...incredibly slowly, but with a terrible inevitability... you go...
With the skink now dead it was safe to release the death grip and get into an easier swallowing position...
 ...extraordinary to watch...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Week ending 20th April - IRRI

The past few weeks have been very quiet with little movement of migrants through the fields, possibly due to the lack of flooded paddies to entice the waders. In addition I have been away (in New York, getting ready for The Big Move), hence the lack of recent posts.

The Cattle Egrets are coming into breeding plumage now, and are looking very smart...

Lots of Oriental Pratincoles in the fields, looking like they're getting ready to breed.
Female Painted Snipe, with a male peeking out from behind the bund too...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Week ending 16th March - IRRI

A more interesting week with a second Peregrine (this time a juvenile) present on the upland farm all week. The dry fields in the same area continue to provide brief glimpses of Blue-breasted Quail mixed in about 50/50 with the Barred Buttonquails.

At staff housing a Pink-necked Green Pigeon gave great views in my back garden, and a Luzon Hawk-Owl visited Fiona's goodbye party on Saturday night.

Female Pink-necked Green Pigeon perched in a small tree in my back garden. The is the first I've seen of this species in the Makiling area, though they are common enough elsewhere, especially at San Juan.

Another female Barred Buttonquail in flight, showing the broad buff upperwing coverts.
Blue-breasted Quail, fairly uniform dark upperparts in flight. Clearly different from the buttonquail!
Juvenile calidus Peregrine on a pylon in the upland farm. This is the first time I've seen two different birds on the farm at the same time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

5th March - IRRI

Very little change in the fields this week. The temperature is increasing and there are a lot of very dry fields, but as yet few birds are stirring themselves to move. The main birds in the fields are Wood Sandpipers, Whiskered Terns and Brown Shrikes.

Nocturnal birds are becoming more vocal and I hear Philippine Scops, Luzon Hawk-Owl and Philippine Nightjar nightly from my house, and the Philippine Hawk Cuckoos have started up as well.

A flock of Purple Needletails have been haunting the staff housing complex for the last few days.

I have been trying to photograph Buttonquails in flight recently. This is the best effort of the week, a female Barred Buttonquail.
House Swift. Regularly come to drink on the farm ponds.
The Whiskered Terns are ever-present at this time of year.
A very obliging Striated Grassbird.
And of course the Peregrine is still here. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Philippine Hawk Cuckoo at IRRI - 18 Feb

A very strange record this afternoon of a juvenile Philippine Hawk Cuckoo at IRRI. It was in trees next to the Open University building at the northeast gate. Initially I'd assumed it was a small accipiter as it took off from the ground and flew up into the trees. It perched nicely however, and I was amazed to see what I'd always been led to believe was a true forest bird in what was essentially farmland/ parkland. My first ever sighting of this species was outside my house at IRRI staff housing, a garden type environment, so maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised but since then I've got used to brief flybys in a variety of forest habitats. Kennedy says "Lowland to high elevation virgin and second growth forest... shy and secretive foraging in all forest levels from near the ground to the canopy". To which can clearly be added "Sometimes sits around in the open in farms and gardens"

Juvenile Philippine Hawk Cuckoo

Common Kingfishers still in the fields.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Week ending 16th Feb - IRRI

Not much to report this week. Few chances for midweek birding as planning for school camps is taking up a lot of spare time. A small flock of Oriental Pratincoles were present on the farms early in the week and a small flock of Ashy Minivets were at the staff housing complex.

One moment of excitement came via Fred Serrano who emailed me about Blue-breasted Quail he'd seen on the upland farms. They were close to where I normally walk the dogs, so on Sunday I varied the dogs' route slightly, taking them through some dry fields, lo and behold two Blue-breasted Quail flushed in 2 minutes! Long overdue. Hopefully I'll get some pictures soon.

Owl activity is on the increase, with Philippine Scops and Philippine Hawk Owl calling regularly outside my house. A Philippine Nightjar has also taken up residence in one of the coconut trees in the garden, waking us regularly with its gorgeous churr at about 3am. Fiona is less impressed however!

Zebra Dove. A really good looking dove, a pity they're so common!
Oriental Pratincole. A small flock arrived during the week.

Swinhoe's/ Pintail Snipe.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Week ending 2nd Feb - IRRI

A quiet week on the farms in general, though numbers of Wood Sandpiper and Whiskered Tern are both high. A Peregrine and a Common Kestrel had a mid-air tussle on the upland farms on Friday, the Common Kestrel was still present on the main farm on Saturday. Two Little Grebes were displaying to each other on one of the farm ponds on Sunday.

In the botanical gardens an Asian Brown Flycatcher provided a diversion.

At staff housing two Striped Flowerpeckers were present on Sunday.

Wood Sandpiper. Plenty about at the moment.
Buff-banded Rail
Little Grebe.
Striped Flowerpecker at IRRI staff housing

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Week ending 19th Jan - IRRI

A quiet week at IRRI with very few waders about apart from a few Wood Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers. The winter flock of Whiskered Terns is now at about 100. An adult calidus Peregrine was present all week, and on Saturday a Brahminy Kite and a Common Kestrel were on the main farm. The kite eventually spent most of the day quartering the fields, though I only saw the kestrel very briefly.

Adult Brahminy Kite which spent most of Saturday hunting in the fields
An adult calidus Peregrine, on the same pylons on the experimental farm as all the others. Present all week.

White-collared Kingfisher which appears to be eating a snail. An interesting choice of food for a kingfisher, there's plenty of it at least!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mt. Polis and Banaue - 9 Jan

From Laoag we drove over the Bessang Pass to Banaue to spend a day birding the Mt. Polis area. The drive up was spectacular, and birdy. A Mountain Shrike was perched on roadside wires near the top, and the pines just after the pass held several parties of Red Crossbill. A Philippine Hawk-Eagle was hunting this area too.

Our only full birding day was Thursday 9th Jan. We started with a quick stop at the top where I heard (and got a glimpse of) what must have been Luzon Montane Racquet-tail. Then we split up, with me looking for Benguet Bush-Warbler while the others went to find the Luzon Water Redstart. Neither of us were successful, though I did get a lot of the usual Mt Polis birds including; Chestnut-faced babbler, Mountain Leaf-Warbler, Mountain Tailorbird, Luzon Bush-Warbler, Long-tailed Ground-Warbler (heard), Metallic-winged Sunbird, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Mountain White-eye.

A short walk into to forest at the pass added Island Thrush to the list.

Banaue Hotel grounds was also nice, with Mountain Verditer and Yellowish White-eye. We eventually caught up with the Luzon Water Redstart near Banaue, at a bridge called Guihob Bridge.

Mountain Shrike ssp. validirostris. What a smart bird!
 Red Crossbill ssp. luzoniensis.
 Mountain Leaf Warbler ssp. benguetensis.
Luzon Water Redstart
Mountain Verditer ssp. nigrimentalis.
We bumped into this giant stripey worm in the forest above the police post at Mt Polis. Apparently its burrowing has been responsible for weakening the walls of the famous Banaue rice terraces.