Text by Bayani U. Barcenas
Photos by Bayani U. Barcenas and Juan Mesquida
Out at dawn, again. The getting up early hasn’t changed, but at least I am not heading to the airport. For weeks I have been departing aboard first flights, but this time I am out to catch the arrivals. Today is October 13, 2018, World Migratory Bird Day. We are off to seei some visitors. Migration is in full swing, or perhaps is starting to peak, so volunteering for this trip should be a fantastic idea.
Juan Mesquida’s assignment is to be our expedition leader and to pick us up in this order: me, Rene Calado, and Romeo “Jun” Galang. Juan apologizes for being late — even the most dedicated birders can have difficulty getting up so early. He’s not late, I’m just 5 minutes early. After collecting us, Juan rendezvous with Linda Gocon and Brian Ellis, and we convert into a 3-vehicle convoy fronted by Rey Aguinaldo’s team from DENR. Daylight begins to glow across the city as we make our way to the coast, cruising through the narrow streets and tight alleys of Malabon and Navotas ahead of the morning traffic jam.
“They used to be one town and Malabon was once a quaint town called Tambobong.” It’s nice of Jun to enlighten us with some history. He is from Malabon by the way. In fact, people used to move around here using the river system, not roads. For a history professor like Juan, the twin towns indeed offer some interesting narration. Incidentally, Rene grew up in the adjacent town of Tondo, which used to be a hamlet (or visita) of Malabon. So, this is turning out to be a cultural tour before the birding tour.
I too remember Tullahan River from an earlier visit. “Tulya” means clam and shorebirds like to eat them. Practically at sea level, there’s the constant flooding in these towns, the never-ending tug-of-war between land and sea. The reclamation projects past and present, trying to control nature, in the end people only manage to impair themselves.
The car comes around the bend on the road then a view of the sea and blue sky breaks the row of houses. “I see some birds already and they are plenty!” At this point everyone just wants to jump out of the car.
We park along a dead-end street of a housing project. A number of birds are flying above the tall embankment that separates the houses from the river. “I see Whiskered Terns! Should we start counting already?” jokes Juan as we start to gear up for the 10-minute banca ride to Isla Pulo. Another migrant is making its presence felt from a power line: a Brown Shrike with its scolding call.
The rising sun starts to wash the parked boats lining Tanza’s sheltered harbor. There is an indefinite flock of terns flying up and down the river searching for food, occasionally dipping down to pick up something from the surface of the water.
In the boat I sit beside Rey and introduce myself. Rey squints in the sunlight, the sun is already well over an hour above the horizon as we move out. “I should not be out here,” said Rey. He lost half of his lungs after a surgery and was advised to take it easy and avoid strenuous activities. But he tells me not to worry. Besides, he loves it here, recalling previous collaborations with WBCP people like Gina Mapua. He is optimistic too that Isla Pulo would go the way of LPPCHEA as a nature reserve.
A handful of terns keeps us company as the boat slices through the calm waters. The tide won’t be coming in until past noon. I make a wide scan of the area — there is no clear boundary between the river and the sea, save perhaps for the floodgate. A few concrete shells have been left derelict from abandoned houses, a reminder that the sea had won the battle here.
As we draw closer to the island, a couple of birds start to materialize. The boat barely touches land when I hear someone say excitedly: “Look over there guys, it could be a Dowitcher! Or a Godwit!” Followed by “Look above you, there’s a raptor!” In no time, half of the group is scrambling in the mud, while the other half are still glued to their seats, concerned that the medium shorebird (a potential lifer) would vanish.
I raise the binoculars up to my eyes without taking my eyes off that bird on the mudflats. The shape begins to shift. Foraging, more probing in the ground, frantic eating. Well, it is indeed a…hmm, let’s see, I saw this bird last night…on the internet. But now, I am totally clueless as to what it is I’m really looking at the far end of the lens.
For beginners, we have to concentrate on these things about what we are seeing: shape and size, defining markings such as bill length, and what it is doing. And if there’s a hundred birds in front of us, which ones to focus on first? Thankfully, Juan and Rene confirm that the first bird is a Bar-tailed Godwit. Aha, my first lifer this morning.
We position near a deserted pipeline that runs across the mudflats and into the island (reclaiming land from the sea?). But wait! Did we not spot a raptor earlier? By the time everyone remembers, it was long gone. And remains unidentified.
Here comes Linda. “What’s that in the distance?” Everybody is after a glimpse of shorebirds pecking along the mudflat. Plovers! “But what kind?” Some birds are easy to tell, but others (such as plovers) can be a part of a group that has lots of similar species. Linda directs us to focus on one bird, describing prominent objects near it (a slanted pole, a colorful piece of trash, a big bump on the ground, and so on). Noticing some movement behind and to the left of the Bar-tailed Godwit, someone exclaims: Pacific Golden Plover!
And yet another guys-you-should-see-this invitation. Staring out over the entire field and off into the distance, we see hundreds of birds lift up, circle and return back to earth, concentrated in one swirling mass. Juan checks on his scope and confirms a flock of egrets over what appears to be a garbage dump. We all agree they easily number to around 500. We focus back to the ones nearby. Juan reminds everyone to double check with the IDs of the plovers, terns, sandpipers, egrets, herons, etc. “And don’t forget to count them, please!”
It’s going to be far too overwhelming to ID everything out here. By now, I am thinking of 3 things important to birding. First, something to identify the birds — a field guide which I don’t have. Rene, Juan, Brian, and the DENR guys brought their books, which I’m sure are just a few additional pounds in their backpack. Second, something to record my observations, like pen and notebook, which I forgot to bring (at least the cellphone is a good alternative). Lastly, something to see them with: they have spotting scopes on tripods, versus my pair of binoculars (this thing called inferiority complex).
We move inland on solid ground and under the canopy of beach flora. But everyone heads for the beach and train their scopes facing Manila Bay. Don’t these people ever get hungry? It’s 8 in the morning and I am starving. I reach for the siopao in my backpack and start eating. I was into my last bite when someone calls out “Sir, you might want to see the Chinese Egret!” There it is, all of a sudden walking in front of me, no longer a flat image in the book or monitor, but a living creature. Siopao and Chinese Egret. Happy coincidence. I’ll tick that off as another lifer!
Shortly after, more birds are added to the list: Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Common Sand Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Common Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Striated Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Egret, and so on. In the water, a big one lands in front of me and Rene asks “What do you think, Bayani?” I zoom in on my picture and answer: Great Egret, sir. He nods and opens his book to the page on egrets. “Aside from the long S-curved neck, look for the gape line that extends behind the eye.” Positive? Yes, Sir!
Rene smiles and says: “One thing I like being out here is the chance to review what you already know.” Wonderful, I am basically getting my own personal birding tutor while gaining hands-on experience.
We spend the remaining hour at the sandbar and mudflats southeast of the island. More discussions about plovers and terns, godwits and whimbrels. Being new in a group, I am not just looking at birds. I am amazed at my companions, traipsing all over Isla Pulo to catch the migrants, still thrilled to see the same birds they have seen last year, or maybe a couple of years ago, as if it is their first glimpse. Maybe each one of us is always in search of new species to tick off our lists, but there is no competition amongst us.
Like everyone else, I want to ID “rare” birds or birds that are hard to identify, like plovers or sandpipers. This is my first shorebird-watching trip and I worry so much about trying to ID them right then and there. It’s a given: newbies have initial learning curves to overcome. What works today is a small group where at least one person is an expert. With Linda, Juan, Rene, Brian, and Jun, (plus Rey, Justine, Matthew, Ella, Vivian, and Noel), birders are a friendly bunch, always happy to help identify what species, or give tips.
Content that enough has been done, we gather our things and exchange notes and goodbyes with the DENR team. We start for the mainland, but just a little offshore, the marine propeller shaft snags at something and gets bent. We go back and wait for the bangkeros to fix it. No one seems to mind — “Additional time to spend with the birds!” A few more godwits, plovers, and whimbrels appear on the sandbar. More terns are on the move — Brian just wishes that the book he ordered (all about terns of the world) would arrive very soon. Meantime, he is being entertained by the fish jumping out of the water and into the boat (he gladly puts them back).
Overall, it was good birding. With a respectable bird list, we are pretty stoked that our efforts paid off. We head back to dock a happy group! And as for me, I bag a bunch of lifers. Some free time and a beautiful day — it just happened to work out wonderfully, on World Migratory Bird Day.