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Surprises in the Manila Bay Reclamation Area Part 1

South Reclamation Area with a side trip to the Manila Film Center
Date: May 25, 2003
6:15 am to 8:30 am
Weather: Overcast skies, scattered drizzles
Mike Lu, Jon Villasper and Ned Liuag

The rain as drumming on the rooftops at 5:00 this morning and I didn't expect the weather would to clear for a quick trip to the South Reclamation Area. Fortunately it did and I hurriedly joined Birdwatch e-group moderator Mike Lu and geographer Jon Villasper at the usual meeting point near Pasay Road.

Most people it seemed were keeping to their beds on this first cool morning after a long stretch of high humidity. Traffic was light on EDSA all the way to the South Reclamation Area where which we reached within 10 minutes. I had not been to the South Reclamation Area since my "guerilla birding trip" in November when public access to the site was limited to 5:00 to 8:00 am.

Past Macapagal Boulevard, we turned right off EDSA (C-4 Extension) onto PEA Road One. This thoroughfare runs behind the SM corporate buildings A to D. On the right side of Road One lies a partly cleared field, bounded to the east by Macapagal Boulevard, south by the C-4 Extension and north by the Libertad Channel. This field is scheduled for development any time soon.

The PEA Roadlots
Seeing some movement across the open space, we stopped the car to satisfy our growing curiosity. The sun had barely risen from behind the Sumitomo construction site as we scanned for activity. We were looking across the field when a brown bird with long wings comes flapping up from the south. Our first impression was that it was a headless heron. Training my binoculars squarely at the dark shape bird I realized we were looking at an owl!

The owl flapped across the field slowly, circling above the low grass,
feathered legs trailing behind and poised to pounce on unsuspecting prey. The owl landed in the scrub close to the Macapagal Boulevard side of the field. We saw the owl again flying north across the Libertad Channel before it disappeared in the thicket on the edge of the GSIS complex. The owl had mottled brown upper parts and rather dark feathers around the facial disk. There also seemed to be faint streaking on the breast but that could have been ash smudges picked up from the burnt section of the field. We heard no calls

A handful of very plump feral ROCK DOVES in the middle of the field and a flock of about ten CHESTNUT MUNIAS in the grass south of our position had caught our attention when the owl returned from the direction of the C-4 Extension Rotunda. Jon and I got to think that we might have been seeing two owls not one.

I'd visited the South Reclamation Area before the restrictions and spent hours walking in the grassland till nightfall searching for owls. Knowing this Mike grinned and said, "Well, Ned you finally got to see your owls!" We would have been happy to identify it as Tyto capensis, the Eurasian Grass Owl, except for one detail.

As the owl flew to the north end of the field, I saw the dark patches at the bend of the light-colored (but not white) under-wings distinctive of Asio flammeus, the Short-Eared Owl. Mike noticed the same dark patches on the second pass. This is rather problematic for us because this day-flying owl is only known from seven records in the Philippines, one being in this same area on 20 November 1981 and most recent 1992 in Olango Island. Though Kennedy et al state this species is more common here than believed, it has only been recorded in the months between November and March. I told Mike later that this morning's owl could have been a straggler on its journey north from Borneo.

We spotted three RUFOUS NIGHT HERONS flying south high above the promenade along Seaside Boulevard West then piled into Mike's car for the short driveto the Promenade Plaza around the next corner.

The View from the Bridge
Mike parked the car at the foot of the half-finished Bay Boulevard Bridge supposed to link the SM Bay City property with the GSIS complex. The bridge is blocked by a 10-foot rampart of slit and gravel dredged from the Bay, a precaution against vehicles accidentally driving off the end into the channel.

The warbling song of one of several TAWNY GRASSBIRDS floated across the field as we followed Mike around the mound onto the bridge. It had become overcast again and the tide was rushing in. Beneath the pylons, the current looked dark and forbidding.

Upstream towards Macapagal Boulevard, we could see the ramshackle remains of the fishing village that had been demolished before Christmas last year. The rusting hulk of a tugboat lay smashed against the breakwater, where a few people were already casting lines into the restless waters. Mike said the last time he visited the site, the tide had retreated allowing him to cross into the GSIS complex.

From the bridge, we counted up to 15 BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS as these arrived individually, in pairs or flocks of five. Some landed in the thickets GSIS complex while a few continued their journey southward, probably around the Asia World City property in Tambo where we'd seen hundreds early this year. A single LITTLE HERON also arrived from the direction of the pond located behind the Manila Film Palace before disappearing in the scrub. We also located a pair of CRESTED MYNAHS that were resident in the vicinity of the Manila Film Palace.

Jon pointed out the first BRIGHT-CAPPED CISTICOLA of the trip. The tiny warbler was skulking among clumps of grass on the water's edge. We would encounter a few of these, which we identified by the bright rufous cap and the nasal calls.

We scrambled up the mound to have a better look at the surrounding area. Here, we encountered a ZITTING CISTICOLA, this one distinguished from the former species by the streaked cap and clicking call. Jon aptly remarked how such a tiny bird could utter a far-carrying call. We would later encounter several of this species making display flights or calling from cover at the far edge of the huge lot where construction of the Mall of Asia had begun.

As I was walking towards the edge of the mound to find a way back down, I saw a dull-colored bird moving quietly in the tangled vegetation. Its
plumage reminded me of a Clamorous Reed Warbler, but I did not get a clear view. Jon followed the bird with his binoculars to the clumps of grass in the heavy equipment yard below us. He said it reminded him of a grassbird that had lost most of its tail feathers.

The Bay City Grassland
Mike led the way into the field that until February was deep grassland and where bittern, kestrel, plovers, red shank and sandpipers had been recorded on various occasions. Tawny Grassbirds were noisy and visible throughout - singing from exposed branches, making display flights or engaged in chases across the grassland.

Several ZEBRA and a few SPOTTED DOVES flushed on our approach. We found up to ten doves retreating into the remaining ipil-ipil and aroma thicket on the mound north of the construction site. Mike reported also seeing a single YELLOW-VENTED BULBUL in the thicket. Besides around a flock of five Rock Doves, EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS were common but closer to the roads.

We went around the edge of the mound, skirting the northern edge of the
construction site as we went. Heavy equipment and some bunkers now stood in what used to be the open area referred as The Pond, a good site for shorebirds. Further on we emerged on what was the Central Access Track, a dirt road that bisected the grassland on a north-south axis.

As we walked towards the bay, Mike noticed the Coucal first. Sunning itself on a clump of grass with chestnut wings outstretched was a PHILIPPINE COUCAL. I'd heard and seen Lesser Coucal in the same area on previous visits. This time I was sure we'd located the endemic Centropus viridis, which lacking the light-colored streaks found on the wings of the Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis. The Coucal allowed us to view it for several minutes before it decided to clamber down from its perch.

We decided to investigate the calls of a CLAMOROUS REED WARBLER leading us to a clump of grass near where the Philippine Coucal was last seen. The bird was calling "chi-wi" repeatedly right in front of us but remained unseen. Then, our movements flushed two mid-sized dark-brown birds from the clump of grass. The birds flew low among the clumps of grass before taking cover further down. The bird closest me had whitish patches midway to the base of dark primaries on its angled wings. Mike mentioned seeing white spots on the scapulars leading from the patches. We thought it might be a small accipiter - the wings did not match - or a marsh harrier, which is larger. My impression was that of a nighthawk, which is not found in the Philippines. After giving much thought to this species, Jon and Mike believe the birds were Savannah Nightjars.

The Film Palace
Since it was already 8:00 am and the area would be closed for the day, we decided to take a quick look behind the Manila Film Palace. The only birds we saw here were a few Tree Sparrows, a single Yellow-Vented Bulbul, one GLOSSY SWIFTLET and the pair of Crested Mynahs seen earlier in the day. The Crested Mynahs earlier seen from the unfinished Bay Boulevard Bridge were found feeding in the garbage dump. We also heard two PIED FANTAILS, one singing in the trees bordering the Philippine Plaza Hotel parking lot and another from inside the overgrown lot where the pond is located. We also heard several Clamorous Reed Warblers calling from the undergrowth.

Driving to the "People's Park" outside the Senate building we decided not to proceed towards the breakwater opposite the Bay Boulevard Bridge because someone was practice-firing in the makeshift pistol range. The only birds seen here were a few Tree Sparrows, a single Bright-Capped Cisticola calling while perched in a leafless tree and one Tawny Grassbird singing from a telephone line.

South Reclamation Area BIRD LIST:
1. Little Heron (1) - Flying above GSIS scrub
2. Black-Crowned Night Heron (15) - Flying in and around vicinity ofLibertad Channel
3. Rufous Night Heron (3) - Flying south over Bay City
4. Spotted Dove - The most counted at any one time was 3, often flushedin the grass
5. Zebra Dove - Several
6. Philippine Coucal (1) - Sunning itself in grass
7. Owl spp (1) - Either Grass Owl or Short-Eared Owl. Seen quartering field opposite SM Buildings 101 to 104
8. Nightjar spp. (2) - Flushed from tall grass area west of the oldCentral Access Track, believed to be Savannah Nightjars.
9. Glossy Swiftlet - 1 seen in flight above Manila Film Palace
10. Yellow-Vented Bulbul - 1
11. Clamorous Reed Warbler - Heard in grass, particularly in scrubbehind Film Palace
12. Tawny Grassbird (5+) - Very vocal and conspicuous
13. Bright-Capped Cisticola (3) - Seen skulking in tangles or perched on grass
14. Zitting Cisticola - Several in the short grass
15. Crested Mynah (2) - Foraging in garbage dump behind Manila FilmPalace
16. Pied Fantails (2) - Heard only in trees in vicinity of Manila FilmPalace
17. Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Common
18. Chestnut Munia - Flock of 10+ in South Reclamation Area
19. Rock Dove - Flock of 10 near Macapagal Boulevard