Jason Apolonio enthusiastically tackles new experiences and responsibilities on his first trip abroad as a WBCP representative to the 2014 Malaysian Raptor Watch. Owling, gear shopping, dinners, dancing, counting raptors, and more. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it!
The Whole Trip Was a Lifer! 2014 Malaysian Raptor Watch!
by Jason Apolonio
Ever since I started traveling, I never liked the idea of going abroad without first exploring my own country and I feel that everyone should hold the same belief. This is why it came to me as a surprise when I found myself pleading to be granted one of the two slots available for the Raptorwatch. Mike proposed that we divide the expenses the third person would incur but luckily, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) agreed to sponsor not just 3, but 4 delegates from the WBCP. And so the line up was made: Mike Lu, Jamie Dichaves, Krees Castaneda, and me.
KLIA was a breath of fresh air. To me, it was like an upgraded version of NAIA with either less travelers or wider space. Mike then arranged for a cab to take us to Port Dickson but as soon as everyone was settled in, the driver tells us that we had the wrong ticket! Despite being tired from the flight, Mike volunteered to have the ticket changed. Not long after, we were finally on our way to our destination! The ride was quite pleasant and the driver entertained all our questions and was conversing with us almost throughout the whole ride. The driver said it would take us a longer time to get there because of the traffic. Turns out their traffic looks just like our normal road pace! We saw some monkeys, wild boars, palm plantations, and lots of birds by the side of the highway. By 1930H, we arrived at Ilham Resort which was just in time for us to see the sunset rays beaming against the shore.
Andrew Sebastian was the first to greet our group. Then came the delegates from other groups. He was quite surprised that we had arrived just in time since there were a lot that got stuck in the traffic. He asked if we passed through the highway and I said yes. Later on I found out that we took the service roads instead. As a first-time traveller outside the Philippines, all I could think of was how every road we passed looked like a super highway compared to the ones here!
After settling down, we met at the lobby and went straight to the dinner venue. The night was formally opened by Andrew; with him introducing the different delegates and key partners and players of MNS. That was when we met more of the delegates as well. After dinner, Andrew invited us for an owling activity. Judging from my previous owling with Christian Perez in Zamboanga, I knew it was going to be a long night. We hurriedly got our bins & cameras and headed out. After five minutes of walking, we got our first sighting: a Savanna Nightjar. It was sitting on a post, patiently waiting for an opportunity to catch the insects circling around the streetlight. After that, Andrew went on to talk about how birds would be seen around the area all day, especially on the huge dead tree. All of a sudden, he pulls his torch down and whispers “Guys, cameras ready! There is an owl on that tree!” Excitement and disbelief was evident from our faces owing to the fact that we are already at our 2nd sighting, and it was just at least 10 minutes into our owling! He then raised his torch towards the branch where it was caught by two huge yellow eyes staring into the night. I did not have bins back then but it just hypnotized me from its beauty. After a couple of seconds, it then registered into my mind to use my camera. I slept soundly that night after I confirmed my lifer with my roommate, Gawin Chutima.
Dawn broke which signaled the first day of Raptor Watch. On the way to the breakfast area, I saw Gawin already doing some birdwatching near the dead tree. There were a lot of Mynas around (which, btw, was already a lifer) so I knew it was going to be a good day. After breakfast, we worked our way towards our booth to set up. As we were doing so, our eyes glimmered tat the sight of the Minox, Leica, Manfrotto, Steiner and National Geographic booths right in front of us. If my wallet could react, I surely would’ve heard the Super Mario gameover music.
The field was soon busy with people shuffling from one booth to another, checking out what each of them had in store. Aside from the optics booths, there were different kinds of wildlife organizations: bird groups from other Asian countries, the Turtle Conservation Society, Malaysian Wood, Arts & Crafts, and My Cat to name a few. The variety resonated with this year’s theme of “We’re All in This Together – People, Nature, Birds”.
The first few raptors caught everyone’s attention as they flew out at around 10 in the morning. I felt the pain of not having a pair of bins with me so my gaze immediately turned to the Minox booth where they were showing off some pairs. Still, I persisted to resist. The second batch of raptors came at around 1400H. Jamie and I were having lunch when suddenly, Mike rushes in and says “Come! The raptors are now thermaling above our booths!” We watched in disbelief as batch after batch of raptors flew by. Some were even flying so low, it was as if they were really posing for the camera!
The guys from Minox knew Mike, Jamie and I were interested in buying some bins. They kept coming over to our booth to offer bargains until we could no longer resist. The day ended with 1,029 OHBs, 6GFBs, 3PFs, and three pairs of bins for each of us. We couldn’t be happier.
After dinner, Andrew invited us again for another round of owling. This time we went up to the darker road and saw a Long-Tailed Nightjar fly by, crossing the road just in front of us. I was not able to take a photo of the Savanna Nightjar the night before so I decided to stay longer and brought a tripod. I set up my camera to take night photography shots and that was all it took as it was just patiently waiting for me to take his photo! I took few more night photographs and went to sleep with grin!
Morning came with the new bins on my neck, I spotted 3 Blue-throated Bee Eaters across our resort. It took me some time to find the right capture, as sunrise had not hit the area yet. During our second day Mike suggested for me, Krees, and Jamie go up the lighthouse by 10am. After setting up the booth, Victor Yu came and so we left them to man the booth. On the way up, perhaps even without me carrying my paraphernalia, Krees would still reach the peak earlier than me. I don’t know if it’s her excitement but she’s one heck of a conditioned woman! We had our lectures with the raptor counters while waiting for the raptors to come. All 3 of us learned so much from the lecture and even had a quick exam on how to identify sexes and relative age via photographs posted on the wall.
No raptors crossed the horizon and we were worried that maybe Mike would like to have lunch already. But as we went down, the entrance to the trail seen from the main road was too tempting. Since we did not see any raptors yet, we were convinced to find a lifer somewhere else instead. The trail had cemented steps, which lead all the way to a wonderful beach! After taking a couple of photos at the beach, we decided to head back to have lunch.
All four of us were able to have lunch together, thanks to the volunteers sent by the MNS to man our booth. While having lunch, Mike suggested for the 3 of us to go up the lighthouse again since we were not able to catch the raptors. Upon reaching the top again, we immediately positioned ourselves beside the official counters’ spot. With patience, the OHBs and a few Brahminy Kites crossed our horizon. There were more photographers by this time. It was really difficult to identify and apply what we have learned specially since the raptors did not fly as low as they did the other day. There were also a lot less of them. Still, we were happy! We arrived back at the booth with the news that Mike danced in front of everyone while we were gone. We then concluded that it must have been the reason why he had sent us away almost the whole day! Mike thought he had gotten away so easily but thanks to Bonnie Chan and the wonders of technology, we have a video! Thanks also to Andrew Sebastian for posting this!
The second day ended with 550 OHB, & 15 GFB with a total of 9,636 raptors from the start of the count until that 9th day of March. Everyone was happy for having a successful 2014 Raptorwatch run! It was all evident from the smiles on everyone’s faces and from how easy it was to get everyone on their feet when theme song “Happy” by Pharell Williams was played. After a quick speech from each delegate and some of the MNS members during dinner to formally close the event, Andrew pleaded to not lead another owling activity, but instead offered to bring us to El Cactus for some drinks! We went back to the resort and joined Andrew and MNS members Ellena and Stephenie on their annual tradition of sitting in the middle of the booths, reminiscing all the hard work that everyone gave which made the event a success.
That night, Andrew revealed to us the sad news that we may be experiencing the last few Raptorwatch events. Pulau Upat, the island where these raptors migrate from, is being converted to pave way for modernization. It was then when I truly felt how blessed I was to have been able to participate. While I love my country and still believe that everyone should go around their own backyards first, leaving and visiting different places did not seem like much of a sin to me anymore. The experience made me realize that there is so much beauty in the world that we must protect, conserve, and be accounted for. What happens in one area inevitably affects another and most of the time, you need to see and experience this yourself in order to truly believe it. If we lose Pulau Upat, we risk losing the raptors, which can then lead to problems with different ecosystems because of the life chains it disturbs. The key is to get more involved and to be hand-in-hand in fighting against these disruptions. As the theme goes, “We’re All In This Together – People, Nature, Birds”.