The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

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Sightings Beyond the Maya

By Maida C. Pineda
December 14 issue of Starweek, the Sunday
magazine of The Philippine Star.

I heard about bird watching in the Philippines from a friend and I was intrigued, imagining exotic destinations around the country. To my surprise, it was bird watching in smoke-choked Metro Manila.

All my life, I assumed we only had the small brown maya birds in the city. Occasionally, I would see bright yellow, red or green birds in cages being sold by vendors in the streets, but these were probably just maya birds soaked in dye. But this group actually spend their weekends spotting more than just mayas around the meropolis.

Curious, I got in touch with Mike Lu, the president of Bird Watch or, formally, the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. Several years back, Mike had the opportunity to experience bird watching with Haribon. Unfortunately, they only offered this once a year. Connecting with other birders in Metro Manila, Mike succeeded in forming a club of amateur birders three months ago. Though still in its infancy, it already boasts of an impressive website (www.birdwatch.ph), a hyperactive e-group of bird enthusiasts firing emails throughout the day, and 25 dedicated members.

The first thing I learned from Mike is that our science teachers were wrong. The small brown bird we were taught to call the maya is actually the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The real maya, once our national bird, is in fact the Chesnut Munia.

As a service to the public, the Wild Bird Club introduces recreational bird watching and nature appreciation walks with the club’s more experienced birders as guides. Limited to a manageable number of 15 participants, I got the last slot in the club’s first bird walk.

Birding is an inexpensive hobby requiring only drab-colored clothing, comfortable walking shoes, a hat, drinking water, a bird guidebook, a notebook to record sightings, and a good pair of 8x40 binoculars. Unlike most hobbies in vogue these days, this one is cheap, safe and does not require much athletic skills. For those without their own pair of binoculars, Mike invested in ten pairs he rents out for only P50 each.

The walk was scheduled one fine Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the American Cemetery in Makati. Beginning with a short introduction on birding, we learn some basics: First use your ears to listen, then seek it out with your eyes before using your binoculars. To identify a bird, first start with the head, followed by the upper parts and tail, then the lower parts and the softer parts (legs, eyes, etc). Use the Tree Sparrow (erroneously known as the maya) as your standard for estimating size. Habitat preference and behavior of the bird also provide clues to the species being observed.

Birding involves watching wild birds in their natural habitat, learning to identify species, and understanding their behavior. Not to be dismissed as a mere hobby, much of what ornithology (the study of birds) knows about birds today comes from the observations of ordinary but dedicated birders.

Familiarity with birdcalls is key in identifying the species. Arne Jensen, a Danish ornithologist, has been in the country studying our birds for the past 14 years. As a professional, he is the most knowledgeable and experienced birder in the group. He can quickly identify a bird based on its call. Arne points out that for some species the males are more colorful than the females. He jokes, "Just like humans, men are more attractive that’s why women need to wear make-up." Every year I sing about them in Christmas carols, but only now do I finally know what a Turtle Dove looks like.

My attention shifts from the birds to the birders when I overhear words such as "bulbuls" and "flowerpeckers". Bird watching can get naughty, I conclude.

Although Mike is not an ornithologist, his knowledge of birds is impressive. Monday to Friday finds Mike running the family’s business, but weekends are spent indulging in this passion. Some weekdays he gives bird walks to college students for their alternative class. Evenings he spends updating the bird list, documenting the species and number of birds spotted by the group.

Jon, a UP Geology professor, is another experienced birder. He is quick to spot birds, aiding neophytes point their binoculars in the right direction. Pia easily spots and identifies birds even though she has been doing this for only been a month. While other people may be avid collectors, this thirty-something interior designer seems to be collecting bird sightings. She declares, "59 species and still counting…" Her love for wildlife does not end with birds; she is responsible for EESP (Endangered, Endemic Species of the Philippines), an awarded website monitoring disappearing species in the country.

The mood is relaxed and cheerful as we walk along the concrete path next to countless rows of white crosses. My first time in this well-manicured cemetery make me appreciate the novelty of this outdoor activity even more. Due to the lack of parks in the country, the birders have found cemeteries to be good sites to watch birds. The neat and orderly setting in the American Cemetery makes it easy to spot birds resting on the immaculate white crosses or perched in trees. But it was also a painful reminder that the natural habitats of the birds are dying in this city.

Between ooohs and ahhs, the friendliness of my fellow birders was tangible. They patiently point out which particular branch of which particular tree I must train my binoculars on to spot the bird. This low impact activity even allows a pregnant woman to keep up with the afternoon’s leisurely stroll. The thrill of spotting a bird keeps Beatrice, a third year high school student, equally excited as the retirees in the group.

Spotting a Brahminy Kite, an Asian raptor, is the highlight of the afternoon. Usually seen near the water, this fellow is having an afternoon snack, unmindful of our watchful eyes. When it soars, we are all in awe as it glides majestically in the sky. Green Ring-necked parakeets are almost camouflaged in the leaves of a tree, but Pia’s sharp eyes immediately spots them.

Whoever coined the adage, "The early bird gets the worm" must have been a birder. Despite only three hours of sleep, I find myself excited to get up for the 5:30 a.m. meeting time at a gas station in Makati. For a surgeon used to early morning procedures, Doc Albert is raring to go on his second bird walk. A photography hobbyist, his attraction to birding is to capture on film his sightings. Several other photography enthusiasts join this second bird walk at Libingan ng Bayani, armed with cameras with varying lengths of lenses.

The National Cemetery, while only a few kilometers away from the American Cemetery, provides a different experience all together. It starts with a refreshing sunrise in the company of joggers. It has more hilly areas, a small lagoon, high grass providing not only an exciting terrain for these adventure seekers but also a setting birds are attracted to.

Near the entrance, we spot Pied Fantails. Heading east meant not only wet pants and muddy shoes but also a great area to see Zebra Doves, Brown Shrikes, Yellow-Vented Bulbuls, Chesnut Munias, Striated Grassbirds and a Zitting Cisticola. Many birds and insect bites later, we head to the west side of the cemetery, cutting through graves toward a small lagoon. There are ducks and chickens and a well-tended vegetable patch thriving amidst the remains of the dead. But the attraction of this area is the Common Kingfisher which migrates to the Philippines in September. There is nothing common about this bird’s appearance, with its plummage of bright blue shades.

Jed, a retired chemist, wonders out loud why birds are colored, then goes on to whether birds see in color. We walk further west to where a Philippine Coucal makes its appearance, embarking on a low and graceful flight.

Those with quick eyes and perfect vision spot the Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker bobbing in a tree, its small size and dark brown color making it difficult to spot. It certainly looked nothing like the red-haired cartoon Woody Woodpecker.

The White-collared Kingfisher is easy to spot, thanks to its deep turquoise color. Mike says a photo of this handsome bird will surely entice many to take up birding. But this group of first-and second-timers need no convincing on the joys of birding. As a fitting farewell, an intermediate egret flies by to bid us farewell. In flight, this pure white bird is a phenomenal sight against the deep blue sky.

I regain hope for our city. In our merely two-hour walk around Libingan, we spot over a hundred birds and a total of 19 species–an astounding number . While many birders focus on the quantity of birds seen with every experience, I am more pleased by the quality of the experience. No doubt the challenge of spotting the birds is exciting, like a stalker lurking quietly at a distance, appreciating the beauty of his obsession.

After every bird walk, my senses seem more heightened, becoming more sensitive even to subtle colors and sounds. My mood becomes brighter. I am thrilled to see birds endemic to the Philippines, plus the transients flying in during the winter months. On a deeper level, I am grateful to see these creatures while they still thrive in our country. There are even little perks like seeing furry gray squirrels in the American cemetery, going to places I’ve never had the opportunity to visit before, and bonding with a diverse group of kind strangers who share my love for nature.

My inbox continues to be filled with email messages on birding. Mike entices me to conquer Manila Bay, La Mesa Dam and even surrounding provinces. I unconsciously find myself flipping through my bird book, acquainting myself with the fine-feathered creatures. With my auditory senses now attuned to birdcalls, I seem to hear them more frequently. But perhaps my new winged friends are just sending me a message– a sweet reminder not to forget our date for the next bird walk adventure.

Wild Bird Club has monthly bird walks. Check out their website www.birdwatch.ph