Saturday, October 15, 2011

2nd ABF: Scoping Spoonbills in Tainan

[First published in E-Bon, newsletter of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines--pictures to follow]

I distinctly remember the moment I decided to go to the 2nd Asian Bird Fair (ABF) in Tainan, Taiwan. It was halfway through the lion dance that opened the turnover dinner of the 1st ABF in Davao last year. I guess it was the pomp and bizarreness of the performance that got me. I felt there was something mysterious and magical there, and I wanted to be a part of it. By the time Mr. Chang Hung-ho of the Wild Bird Society of Tainan took the stage to invite everyone to the 2nd ABF, my mind was already made up—I was going to Tainan!

And so I booked my tickets as early as June, and by October 14, I was on the bus that ferried foreign delegates from the Taoyuan International Airport to Tainan City, some 4hrs south of Taipei on a virtually traffic-free highway.

Tainan is a coastal city rich in history and culture. But its main draw to birdwatchers is the Black-faced Spoonbill. The wetlands of Tainan is winter haven to about half the remaining population of this nearly extinct species. Just as the 1st ABF was held in Davao City to draw attention to the critically endangered Philippine Eagle, the 2nd ABF was brought to Tainan to train the spotlight on the Black-faced Spoonbill. With just over 2,000 individuals left in the wild, these large migratory birds are among the rarest birds in the world. And I was there to see them.

Team Philippines
With me on the bus were the eight other delegates from the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP)—our president Anna Gonzales, her niece and new member Katrina, former president and now treasurer Mike Lu, Doc Charo Lim who had been in Taiwan since the centennial celebrations the previous week, longtime but rarely seen club members Patty Adversario and Jo Solis, the club's wonder boy and now sought-after bird guide Mark Villa, and Arnel Telesforo who designed the 1st and 2nd ABF logos. I later found out that we were the largest of the foreign delegations, not even counting Je-el and Niki of Haribon-slash-BirdLife Philippines and Niki’s daughter Maxine, who were all technically part of Team Philippines.

Some 2hrs into our trip, Kentish, the English-speaking guide from the Chinese Wild Bird Federation (CWBF) who met us at the airport, took us to a maritime-themed restaurant for lunch. That was my first encounter with what would soon be my favorite part of the 2nd ABF—the food! If there's one thing we Filipinos share with our Taiwanese neighbors, it's our love for huge meals, during which we also do a lot of socializing. So from that first lunch, I gained new friends from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as some 5 pounds around my girth.

I had planned on getting some shuteye on the rest of the trip, but there were so many new things to see and marvel at. Half our group were Taipei bird fair veterans, but all of us were first-time visitors to Tainan. And so we arrived at our hotel tired but giddy with excitement. After we had settled in, Elva Hsu—CWBF's answer to WBCP's Melanie Tan for Miss Logistics—distributed the participant’s kits and shirts with the festival logo.

I unpacked my kit and was immediately amazed at the work that must have gone into putting it together. There were full-color brochures of Taiwan’s natural parks, an artsy city map, and other materials a visitor to Tainan would need. While leafing through one of the brochures, I made a mental note to visit Taiwan again and to stay longer so I could check out the places featured there. When I realized what I just did, I silently congratulated the team behind the tourism campaign because their brochure just made a sale.

Then among the leaflets and booklets, I saw a black box with a silver spoonbill elegantly outlined on the cover. I expected the usual logo pin or keychain, but inside was a 2GB USB drive with a cute spoonbill pendant. I thought it was a lovely touch—very Taiwan, very Tainan, very ABF.

After a couple of hours’ rest, we got ready for the welcome dinner. The venue was within walking distance and Kentish led the way. It turned out to be a wet affair because it rained non-stop since late afternoon. I imagine it must have been a nightmare for the organizers who had prepared a really nice outdoor buffet party, complete with live entertainment. Instead we moved to a nearby auditorium where the organizers set up an impromptu program. We were entertained by a talent showcase from the children of an indigenous community whose outfits reminded us of our own Cordillera people, and from a gentleman we dubbed as the Levi Celerio of Taiwan.

While everyone sat there mesmerized by the haunting melodies “Levi” blew out of his nose flute, the familiar strains of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song slowly filled the auditorium. And before I saw ‘Levi’ move towards our aisle, I knew he was playing for our own Madam President, who was appropriately garbed in birthday red that day. Soon Mr. Chang came over with a pretty birthday cake with Anna’s name, as the whole auditorium sang the birthday song. And just as Anna was blowing her birthday candles, the Tainan City mayor arrived to grace her surprise party. He also later gave a welcome speech for the 2nd ABF.

After the program, we moved out to the buffet tent for dinner. It was still raining, but since birders are used to the outdoor elements, it didn't stop us from feasting and enjoying ourselves. If anything, the standing-room-only setup along the narrow buffet tent made socializing a lot easier, and by the end of the evening everyone had at least one close encounter—literally—with other delegates.

Anping Fisherman’s Wharf
The next morning, two buses picked us up from the hotel to bring us to the Anping Fisherman’s Wharf, venue of the 2nd ABF. The ride was short, and we knew we were there when we saw a huge spoonbill balloon in the sky. The sight of it got me so excited I couldn’t keep still in my seat.

And the view that met us as soon as we got off the bus didn’t disappoint. It was nothing like the fishy-smelling and slimy kind of fisherman’s wharf that I imagined. No, it wasn’t anywhere near our Navotas fish port at all. The wharf didn’t look like it was used for unloading and trading fish. It was more like an open park, obviously designed for strolling, biking, or simply lounging. It had a spacious public square, a number of fountains in the middle of what looked like a shallow, rectangular pond, several rows of docking piers for small boats, and an interestingly designed low-rise building for indoor activities.

The tents were set up around the water feature. The commercial groups—those selling binoculars and scopes and other non-bird-related products—were in green tents by the entrance and near the streets. The visiting and bird-related organizations were in red tents on the side overlooking the sea. The WBCP tent was sandwiched between the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST) and a bird club from another Taiwan city whose representatives spoke only Chinese, so I never got the chance to chat them up.

All throughout the 2-day event, the WBCP representatives took turns manning the tent. We sold merchandise: shirts and tote bags with Robert Alejandro designs, buttons, stickers, mugs, bird books, bamboo bird whistles, and even dried mangoes; distributed bird sticks—those paper bird cutouts taped to spines of coconut leaves; and encouraged kids to color Philippine birds, an activity that is becoming a permanent feature in all bird fairs or festivals WBCP joins. We commandeered the lone bench in front of our tent and turned it into a coloring station.

On my tour of duty, I must have met a hundred kids. Some of them were barely preschoolers, and they endured the noonday sun just to finish their artworks. I hardly ever met a rude or cocky kid. I took that as an indication of the culture of courtesy, discipline and perseverance that Taiwanese parents still instill in their children, something I hoped would be revived in Filipino families as well. I also noted that most kids came with their parents, not in school buses like what we see in our bird festivals. It was the parents themselves who recognized the value and relevance of the fair, and made sure their children experienced it.

Dinners and Tours
The two succeeding dinners more than made up for that first one that got rained on. On our second night, we went to a fancy restaurant that served local cuisine. If I thought our first lunch was an adventure, this one was a trip to space. The video presentation Arnel made about the club did not play as expected, and the acoustics of the place was horrible, but it did not matter—most of the audience were either engrossed with dinner, or were already too stuffed to notice what was going on. We all made an effort to clap politely at the right moment, but I didn’t think anyone was really into the program, especially among us who didn’t understand Chinese.

The closing dinner topped it all. It was a deluge of unfamiliar food—at least to me—and made me wish I had more room in my stomach so I could sample everything. It was held at the grounds of a historic fort, and a live orchestra played what sounded to me like traditional Chinese music. I loved everything, including the overeager emcee who made Doc Charo dance the cha-cha, Arnel sing John Denver’s ‘Country Roads,’ and me do the rabbit dance. I felt like he was picking on the Philippine team—I guess we were the only ones who looked game for it. To my great relief, Victor Yu, the all-around boss of the 2nd ABF, took over the program. Symbolic gifts were exchanged and momentous photos were taken. Then the details of the 3rd ABF, to be hosted by BCST, were announced. The dates to remember are November 10-11, possibly in Bangkok.

It was on the third day, our last day in Tainan, that I finally saw the Black-faced Spoonbill. The organizers brought us to the wetlands where a flock was feeding. I also caught a glimpse of a strange-looking bird that I later found out was a Sacred Ibis that had broken out of a zoo. Then we visited the research and conservation center where we viewed a documentary about efforts to save what remains of the spoonbills.

What impressed me most was how the city of Tainan has adopted the Black-faced Spoonbill, a migrant species, as their own. I don’t think I have met a local who hasn’t heard of the spoonbills and their plight. You see images or outlines of spoonbills decorating their bridges, the billboards, even the light posts. You can’t drive through Tainan and not be aware of the spoonbills.

The view decks did not charge any entrance or maintenance fees—they were put up there to encourage everyone to look at the birds. The students I met at the fair were all aware of the efforts to save the spoonbills, and have all been to the conservation center or the view decks as part of their school activities. It made me wish we had similar facilities to take students to for field trips, rather than a mall, an ice cream factory, or a carbonated drink plant.

Overall, my Tainan experience was an eye-opener. I saw how far behind we are in making our people aware of the rich avian diversity in the Philippines. For a country with almost 200 endemic birds, it is disturbing that most Filipinos are ignorant about birds.

I also saw what ordinary citizens like us can do. I saw how we can be empowered to produce results, far beyond what traditional conservation groups and government entities can do. This, to me, is what makes WBCP special. We are responding to the need to fill the knowledge gap on birds, simply because we truly love them and we enjoy watching them free and healthy. We do not stand to gain anything material from our initiatives, but we carry on because this is a responsibility that came with our choice of a hobby.

Monday, September 26, 2011

All that introspection is just boring

I'm not interested in your personal realizations, or the steamy bits of your private life that you chose to bare for all to see. Sorry, I'm not in your fan base.

Monday, August 29, 2011

This is so depressing

It's a holiday but I have to work. The office is bare but for us and a handful of others. Not even the new wallpaper can lift the gloom.

I don't see color. Food tastes like paper in my mouth. I raise my coffee mug to my nose, inhale a lungful, but I don't get the kick. I go out, but I see nothing but gray sky and smog.

I wonder--did I die and not know it? Why are the days so mirthless? Could it be my cold medication?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Geriatric cat's courage in the face of renal failure

After I got totally shitfaced in Palawan over the weekend, I came home to my cat Banlag puking and not eating. I knew he hated his standard k/d renal formula diet, but we always managed to make it more palatable with Century Tuna Chunks in Water juice mixed in it. But this time not even that was able to crank up his appetite.

We rushed him to the animal clinic at The Fort yesterday noon, and he was recommended for admission. We came by again today to see how he was. In a nutshell, he doesn't look too good. Creatine level is up to 11--the normal is at 5. Because he is immunocompromised, his mouth is full of sores, making eating difficult and painful.

His doc pumped him with hydration fluids, antibiotics, and other medications to support him. By 'support' I think she meant keeping him alive, because his condition is irreversible and very little can be done to improve it. He's 13, and for cats his age renal failure is an uphill battle.

But Banlag is not one to give up. He survived at least four other serious brushes with death before this. And for as long as he is fighting, we will fight along with him. We will not give up, we will not be weak.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

I was so bored at work that I wished I had something challenging to do. And lo and behold, I got pushed into the pool with nothing but my survival instincts to keep me alive. Goodbye lazy weekends, hello eyebags :)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Corregidor’s other heritage--birds!

Corregidor is a tadpole-shaped island located 48km west of Manila. It is about 6km long and 2.4km wide, and has a land area of 900 hectares. It used to be an important defense base during the Spanish and American regimes, and had suffered heavy damage during WWII. Now it is an important tourist site that attracts history buffs, nature lovers, and photography enthusiasts. Recently, word of the diverse bird life on the island started to attract birdwatchers as well.

Corregidor is under the jurisdiction of Cavite province, but the coastline right across it is part of the Bataan Peninsula. The island is accessible via the Sun Cruises fast ferry from the old Hoverferry Terminal in Manila, or the M/B El Corregidor from Mariveles, Bataan. Nearby birding sites are the Mt. Palay Palay National Park and the Caylabne Bay Resort in Cavite, and the Balanga wetlands and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Bataan.

Development and commercial activities on the island are under the administration of the Corregidor Foundation Inc. There are no residential structures in Corregidor. Apart from employees of the tourist establishments, no one else lives there. The forests are relatively lush but mostly secondary-growth. This is because every inch of the island’s original vegetation has been wiped out by fire during the war. Monkeys are common even in areas with high human traffic. Hunting is prohibited on the island.

Corregidor is mostly rocky and there are no major water bodies inland. Geologists say it is a remnant of an inactive volcano, but could still awaken at some point in the future.

Day 1
Our group of 15 birders and bird photographers (including two kids) got to the island a little after 9am on Saturday, Feb. 19. Upon arrival, we got on board a tram that took us around the regular tourist circuit. The tour, which ended shortly before the ferry’s 2:30pm return trip to Manila, gave us the opportunity to recon sites that looked promising for birding. Already we noted that the island was teeming with Asian Glossy Starlings and Black-Naped Orioles. We also saw a family Red Junglefowls foraging on the side of the road.

After the tour, we were brought to McArthur’s Inn and Cafe where we were booked for the night. We were supposed to stay at the Corregidor Inn, but a booking snafu on the part of Star Cruises forced us to go to McArthur’s (although some of us suspected that we were deliberately edged out in favor of a big group of photography students from a Manila university).

McArthur’s is located at the beach front, near the statue of the general after whom it is named. The inn’s facilities and service quality fell below expectations, given the rate they charged us. Thankfully, we were mostly outdoors the whole time we were there. Behind McArthur’s was the Corregidor Hostel, a basic accommodation option for groups of eight or so. There was also a campsite nearby where visitors can put up tents for a fee.

Bottomside birds
We left the inn to go birding around 4:30pm. We followed the road from the Bottomside going uphill. Just a few meters from the inn we spotted Pygmy Woodpeckers. A little further up and we spotted a Common Emerald-Dove, a male Blue Rock-Thrush and our first Pink-Necked Green-Pigeon.

We were about a kilometer uphill when our vehicle arrived. We went to the Battery area, where some of us earlier saw the junglefowls. We birded the vicinity in groups of 3-4. We saw flycatchers, bulbuls, more junglefowls, and a variety of doves and pigeons, including Yellow-Breasted Fruit-Doves, Philippine Cuckoo-Doves and White-Eared Brown-Doves.

Then we decided to walk to the hospital ruins via a lesser-used trail. Some guides had told us earlier that the Brahminy Kites roosted there, and would darken the sky like clouds when they fly out in the morning. By then we had noticed that at least one Brahminy Kite would be seen in flight every time we looked up.

Exotic cockatoos
On the way to the hospital, we saw Pied Trillers, Crows, and more doves. But what excited us the most was the pair of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos that made a lot of noise right above where we were walking.

There have been sightings of cockatoos reported on the island before, and a tourism brochure had mentioned Philippine Cockatoos. It is possible that the reported sightings were of this pair, but they were misidentified as the Philippine variety. If so, it is likely that the pair is either both female or both male, as there was no indication that they had multiplied since they were first sighted several years back.

It was almost dusk when we got to the hospital ruins. No Brahminy Kite was roosting yet, but just as when we were about to leave, we saw about a dozen converging at a distance behind the ruins, and they looked like they were flying in. We stopped to wait for them to roost, but it was like they sensed we were in the area, because they seemed to change direction and sort of retreated.

The sun had already set when we got back to the inn, but there was still an orange sunburst across the horizon. We took advantage of the last light to learn rock balancing at the beach in front of the Kiosk where we had our meals. When it got too dark for that, a birder took out a star map and this time we watched the sky, not for birds but for star formations.

Day 2
The next morning, we were ready to leave the inn at 5:30am, but it was almost 6am when our vehicle picked us up. We proceeded to the Topside grounds where we came upon some tourists waiting for the sunrise. There was already light when we got there, but the sun was not out yet. It was windy and a bit chilly.

We divided into smaller groups and assigned trails for each group to cover. One group took the 300-step trail that went down to the Middleside Barracks (just a few meters below the hospital ruins), another group covered the Battery area road network, and another group took the trail going to the Suicide Cliff.

I was with the group that went down to the Middleside Barracks. We saw more doves and pigeons along the trail, and then on the ruins and behind them. There were Pompadour and Pink-Necked Green-Pigeons perched in the open. Green Imperial-Pigeons were seen mostly in flight. More Emerald Doves were seen all over what remained of the three floors of the barracks.

Brahminy Kites
We were going uphill from the Middleside Barracks on our way to the pickup point, when a few meters away, through gaps in the canopy, we saw a flock of at least 100 Brahminy Kites swooping down the ravine beyond the trees. The noise they made sounded like they were on a feeding frenzy. The spectacle lasted some 30 seconds. Then we saw a few kites flying upwards or in circles just over the ravine. This was a little past 8am.

Our sighting confirmed the guides’ description of the kites. A flock that big could really block the sky like clouds if you were directly under it. A few years ago, birders watching from Ternate, Cavite just across Manila Bay saw a flock just as big. The kites were circling above the area where some illegal fishers had just detonated a dynamite. It looked like the birds were anticipating dead fish to float to the surface. It is likely that it was the same flock that is roosting in Corregidor. The island had earlier been the release site of rehabilitated Brahminy Kites. Some of the birds we saw could have been the same ones that were released there, or their descendants.

Our breakfast back at the Kiosk was supposed to be at 730am, but it was almost 9am when we left the birding areas. After breakfast, a group of six birders decided to go to the tadpole’s tail side. The others decided to stay and explore the Bottomside further. The group that went tail-side reported seeing a Crested-Serpent Eagle. The ones who stayed saw more woodpeckers.

We had lunch at La Playa, a restaurant at Corregidor Inn. It had a nice view of Bataan Peninsula across the bay, and we saw more kites flying about. From the other side of the restaurant, we had a view of a forest canopy where pairs of Black-naped Orioles chased one another.

Our boat left the island 230pm on Sunday, Feb. 20. But the birding did not end for some of us. Bird photographer James Biron went out to the deck and continued taking pictures of sea birds in flight. And halfway between Corregidor and Manila, a Pomerine Jaeger decided to fly by the boat, and into his camera’s cross-hairs (sighting will be submitted in a separate report).

Others notes
On the whole, birding in Corregidor was easy. We chalked up at least 40 species, nine of which were endemics. This is a very conservative count, considering that we did not do any call playback, we birded only from the roadside and existing trails (we did not venture deeper into the forests), we did not do any night birding, and we did not have a dedicated vehicle to take us to the different sites on our own time.

The few vehicles on the island had to be shared with the other tourists, so our arrangement was limited to drop-off and pick-up. Because of this, we were only able to cover the head side of the island’s tadpole shape; the tail side was given only a quick survey on the second day.

Birders who wish to visit the island are advised to arrange for a dedicated vehicle. With your own ride, not only can you cover more sites, but you can also stop anytime you spot a bird on the roadside. Note, too, that cellphone signals could be hard to come by in some birding areas, so it could be a challenge to call someone to pick you up. Also, it is probably best to go on weekdays. Corregidor on weekends is overflowing with tourists. You are likely to come across DSLR-toting people in the trails.

Trip photos:

Alain Pascua’s album

Lydia Robledo’s album

James Biron’s album

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Under the Dome -- what's with the ending?

We were in Iloilo shopping for a nice book for my goddaughter when I came across Stephen King's 2009 novel Under the Dome. It was a brick of a book, around 4 inches thick. I've always been fascinated by King's take on the paranormal, so I got me a copy 'to read during the flight back to Manila,' I told Arnel.

Took me a week to read it, but not because of its length. Let's just say King is no Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series he dissed some years back. Meyer, at least, is a sensitive storyteller, and she managed to retell an old love story in a way that captivated the world. As for this King novel, well, I could have put it aside and forgotten about it, if it were not so huge and heavy.

As with most of his stories, this one was full of interesting characters. But they were mostly either bad or good, with the bad ones really badass, and the good ones almost losers (in fact, some of the good ones made decisions that were so stupid they were unbelievable). The buildup was crawling, and the plot was riddled with a lot of coincidences that influenced how the story went.

I've never been a fan of stories built on coincidences--I think it's a cop-out on the part of the storyteller--but sometimes they can work if they were subtly worked into the plot. But that's not the case here. Coincidences are so common, and they all seemed to work for the bad guy's advantage you would think the universe was in his payroll.

But the thing I can't forgive was the weak ending--it just didn't justify reading through four inches of pulp. I got the ants-under-the-magnifying-glass theme, and the part where (spoiler alert!) one of the main characters tried to convince the alien (who happened to be alone at that moment--its companions having gone out for a snack or something) that humans were thinking beings, their petty lives notwithstanding. It seems the protagonist used a traumatic memory from her childhood to convince the alien that she had feelings, too (remember the 'dogs are people, too' buttons of the 80s?).

All throughout the buildup I got the impression it was another commentary on human behavior in isolation. That disappointed me somewhat--after all I didn't pick a Stephen King book to get Lord of the Flies. I was relieved when I reached the part where the kids had visions right before they had seizures. I thought, wow, we're finally getting some paranormal involvement.

But lo and behold, the prophetic visions were not adequately explained by the ants-under-the-magnifying-glass framework. It was like King ran out of space and didn't bother to stitch up this loose end. Did the aliens know how the show would end--perhaps because they controlled it--and had somehow planted the visions on people? What purpose did the visions serve, apart from holding the attention of readers looking for paranormal involvement?

I intended to surf around for explanations, but that would only waste more of my time. I hope fans of this book who read this blog would be kind enough to enlighten me. I'm waiting.