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How the (Bird) Race was Won

How the (bird) race was won
By Elvira Mata
First Posted 11:33pm (Mla time) 12/16/2007

MANILA, Philippines--THE POET Pablo Neruda wrote, "Bird by bird I've come to know the earth."

Bird Race

I am not a fan of Neruda or of bird watching but I do admire bird watchers because they can go on and on--like Energizer bunnies.

But first a definition of terms: Bird watching is a hobby where you observe birds in their natural habitat. A bird race is where teams of three to four bird watchers compete against each other in spotting, identifying and recording the most number of bird species within a given area. Like in golf, the honor system is used.

The best time to bird watch in Metro Manila is between October and early December because migratory birds from as far away as Siberia fly to the Philippines to escape the cold weather, according to Mike Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) and bird race organizer.

Ten teams, with four members each (two must be WBCP mem bers and one must be a newbie in bird watching) met at the ROX building on Bonifacio High Street, Taguig City, in the afternoon of Dec. 1. Each team was named after a Philippine bird. There was Team Pipit, Labuyo, Kulasisi and so on. Newbie bird watchers were raffled off to each of the teams and the birding site for that day was announced--the National Institute of Geological Sciences and the Hardin ng mga Rosas on the University of the Philippines Diliman campus.

As soon as they finished writing their team name on their banner, they clocked in, ran to the parking lot, jumped into their cars and drove like the wind--traffic allowing.

Group photo at the ROX Fort Bonifacio

Teams were given a list of 165 bird species sighted in Metro Manila. At the end of the day, they were supposed to tick the species they had spotted and how many of each they had seen.

First-timers taking a quiz after the race

Participants were armed with the basic bird watching equipment: binoculars, a field guide ("The Guide to the Birds of the Philippines" by Robert S. Kennedy), paper and pen, hat, water and nuts or a PowerBar for energy. Most wore hiking shoes, cargo pants and long-sleeved shirts for protection from insects, razor-sharp grass and sunburn.

Many of the teams left on or around 3 p.m., arriving at record speed on the UP Diliman campus at 3:30 p.m. This was where some teams spotted the rare Eurasian Krestel. The most common bird species seen was the Eurasian tree swallow popularly known as maya. Birders then called it a day at dusk.

While the first day was a walk in the park, the second day started at 6 a.m. and ended at 1 p.m. It was hot and it turned out to be hell, at least for me, since I didn't get enough sleep and didn't bring enough water.

This time, there were three sites: The Tambo grasslands behind Coastal Mall at the end of Roxas Boulevard, the Freedom Island mudflats off the Cavite Coastal Road and the area behind the Manila Film Center at the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex.

Bird watching is best done in the late afternoon or early morning, because this is when birds feed. So it came as no surprise that one team was at the Tambo grasslands at 5 a.m. waiting for the grass owl. Sorry, the bird was a no show.

Another team took note of the tides, because more birds would come out to feed during low tide.

Judges deliberate on sightings

At the outset, the teams were competitive, but on the second day, everyone was having a good time, birding together as a pack.

Participants on the lookout for birds at the Tambo grasslands

Did you see the Philippine duck? asked one team of the other. No? Well, they flew over that way. And the other team would start scouring the sky and the bushes.

The Philippine duck is a threatened species found only in the country (thus, the name). They have been sighted around Freedom Island, which is why the area was declared by President Macapagal-Arroyo as a Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area in April this year.

The birds I saw using the marshal's spotting scope were: Common sandpiper, Asian golden plover, Common moorhen, Grey herons, Great egrets, Little egrets, Whiskered tern, the Black-crowned Night heron, Yellow bittern and a White-collared kingfisher.

Of course, the bird watchers saw more.

At noon, we all drove to the Manila Film Center, where surprise, surprise--the teams brought food to share. Someone even brought brown rice and adobo. Another brought a carton of Gatorade, which hit the right spot after six hours of birding.

And the winners are Team Lawin with members Melanie Tan, a member of an environmental nongovernment organization; Nielsen Donato, veterinarian of Vets in Practice, and Esteven Toledo, a veterinarian assigned at the environment department's Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau. Their adopted newbie is Jose Maria Paras, a senior UP law student. Collectively, they saw 45 bird species.

How did they do it? Donato said they concentrated on the common species while the other teams were looking for rare birds.

Teams Syokot and Kulasisi tied for best teamwork while the most promising new birders were Carol Donato, Cynthia de Jesus and Ricky Nunez.