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Surprises in the Manila Bay Reclamation Area Part 3

A Rain-swept Sunday with Herons

South Reclamation Area, Asia World City and Coastal Road
Date: June 1, 2003
Time: 5:30 am to 9:00 am
Weather: Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain
Mike Lu, Jon Villasper and Ned Liuag

Drenched is one way to look at our bird trip. But that was a small price to pay in exchange for a productive morning in the reclamation areas of Manila Bay with 20 species on record. This trip we added three new species to our Metro Manila bird list while confirming the presence of two species recorded on our trip last Sunday.

It was still dark and cold when Mike Lu, Jon Villasper and I drove up to the field where we spotted the owl last Sunday. Indoors, the mercury measured around 26 degrees Celsius. As we turned on PEA Road One off the EDSA (C-4 Extension)Rotunda, we could already hear the dawn chorus of grassbirds just above the hum of the car engine.

Mike eased the car in the small street that runs between SM Buildings B and C, which seemed like a good place to park. We do not however recommend that you park here longer than a few minutes. You run the risk of being questioned by security personnel. The parking lot is further up at the Promenade Plaza beside the equipment yard on Seaside Boulevard.

To reach the site by public transport, take the Airport or Baclaran bus from the MRT or LRT stations on the corner of Taft and EDSA and ask to get off at the SM office bus stop on the rotunda. The owl site is along the road that runs behind the blue SM building.

Owl Spotting Along PEA Road
The field where we spotted the owl last week covers about a hectare of undeveloped land. A barbed wire fence on the eastern boundary of the site separates it from the tall grass and scattered scrub thickets of ipil-ipil and thorn bushes. The grass cover in the Bay City section of the field was probably cleared to minimize the threat of dry season grass fires. The grassland is starting to renew itself as a result of recent monsoon rains.

A sand and gravel track runs through the center of the field on a
north-south axis and is probably used by heavy equipment to lessen the wear and tear on the Bay City roads. This section is a sharp contrast to the brown and deep green hues of the field and proved to be the most productive.

It started to drizzle when we strung out to wait for the owl. It didn't take very long. We were still adjusting our eyes to the pre-dawn gloom, trying to figure out the dark shapes moving on the sandy area when Mike noticed the owl as it came up from the south. The owl had light brown upperparts, pale streaked breast, buff colored (not white) belly, and rather dark feathers around the face and white-feathered legs. Our position did not allow us to get a good view of its under-wings. Its flight pattern consisted of flaps followed by short glides about three meters above the ground.

The bird circled back and I saw the black tips of the wings quite clearly but missed out the detail of the tail because it was moving quite fast. The owl pounced on something on the ground once, apparently missing its prey, flew into the air then dropped a second time a short distance from the first spot. By this time, it was starting to rain, and we lost sight of the owl in the vicinity of the C-4 Extension Rotunda. We still don't have a definite ID on this owl species, but it's still a toss between an immature Grass Owl or the rare migrant Short-Eared Owl.

Before the rain drove us back to the car we added seven feral ROCK DOVES from the Tramo-based flock; a night-heron likely to be a Black-Crowned Night Heron high above flying south and several CHESTNUT MUNIAS foraging in a clump of grass a few meters from our position.

Hoping to catch the owl on a return flight, we drove up PEA Road One and turned right on Seaside Boulevard, putting us square on the northern edge of the field. This put the GSIS -Senate complex, across the Libertad Channel to our left. It wasn't even 6:00 am, and there was the distinct possibility that we could be mistaken for "terrorists". The downpour was enough to keep us from rolling down the windows for a look. So we missed some birds that Mike spotted as they flew into the ipil-ipil thickets in the GSIS grounds. When it did slacken a bit and we whipped out our binoculars, we got some curious looks from passing cyclists and very determined joggers.

The moment the rain slowed to drizzles everyone popped out of the car and had a long look across the field. Jon said there were some Plover-like birds scurrying in the open area. We could see them but they were well camouflaged against the dull ground and the light we had poor light to work with. Then, in the scrub on the eastern section of the field we saw a pair of YELLOW BITTERNS fly from cover, their light-colored bodies and dark-edged wings distinguishing them from the first CINAMMON BITTERN of the trip, a real stand out! As we were getting ready to get into the car to return to our earlier position on PEA Road One, a SPOTTED DOVE shot across the field towards the GSIS complex.

When it Rains, it Pours
It started to rain again when we drove back to the section across from the SM offices so we had to break our the raingear again. There was a bit more concern among us about getting our binoculars soaked than for us to be drenched in the rain. Scanning the eastern horizon, we saw more Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns flying in the scrub beyond the barbed wire fence. Two of the Cinnamon Bitterns flew across Macapagal Boulevard and around the buildings of the Sumitomo construction project, which is east and a little over a kilometer from my flat straight as the bittern flies. We had very good views of both species and counted up to four of each at any one time.

We found the ORIENTAL PRATINCOLES in the sandy, open area in the middle of the field. We counted as many as eight, but there could be more. At half-past 6:00, individuals or pairs started wheeling about on tern-like wings, their white rumps visible. According to Kennedy et al, this species, whose resident numbers are boosted by migrants, is rare from June toSeptember. Among the Pratincoles, we could see two or three plovers hunting for invertebrates in the gravel. The piping pee-yoo, pee-yoo calls clued us to identifying these as resident LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS. We soon added an air of BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS to our count, a CRESTED MYNAH and a LITTLE HERON, which we located walking near the rain-filled depression in the open area.

While we were observing the Oriental Pratincoles, Mike directed our
attention to a dark rail-like bird walking across the track. We would have thought it to be a White-Breasted Waterhen. This species was recorded in the overgrown lot behind the Manila Film Palace last year, but the one we were watching turned out to be almost all-black. Jon mentioned the white edged tail and white on either the wings or flanks. I also saw both marks and like him thought we might be looking at a COMMON MOORHEN, though we were unable to distinguish a frontal shield before it retreated into the undergrowth beyond the wire.

Unable to contain our curiosity, we started to walk across the field. To my relief we did not sink in mud. The wind was in our faces and being the one clad in a raincoat had a hard time keeping my binoculars dry. Mike and Jon, who had umbrellas, fared better. To give an idea how intense the downpour was at times, you could hardly distinguish the Makati Central Business District skyline from this site.

The Pratincoles started to disperse at our approach, some flew above us
before landing in the northern edge of the field. While angling for a better view, we discovered a group of grey and white shorebirds standing on the edge of the rain pool.

These appeared to have wings and backs mottled grey. The grey tended to get lighter at the shoulder. The under parts were all white. One of them was preening its back feathers so the breast was clearly white. Legs and bill appeared dark, but the colors were likely obscured by rain and because the birds were standing against a background of pale sand strewn with shells and black stones. Jon, who was using a 10 x 40 with coated lenses, described the bill on one as slightly upturned.

As long as we stayed on the grassy side of the field, the flock ignored us. The Oriental Pratincoles, realizing that our presence posed no threat, started returning. A single ZITTING CISTICOLA even perched on a leafless bush nearby, watching us intently for a minute or so before leaving the scene. But the moment we advanced a couple of meters on the sandy track, the flock shot into the air, revealing their white rumps, before turning south toward the less disturbed ASEANA Business Park property.

I am confident this flock belonged to the Tringa species of sandpipers. They look similar to the Marsh Sandpipers that Haring Ibon editor Mads Bajarias attempted to photograph during a visit with Mike to the Ital-Thai site on the Coastal Road. Studying the photos in the MacKinnon and Hicks Birds of China guide, the Thailand bird guide by Webster and Chew, and the Morten Strange's volume for the Philippines, I thought the shorebirds closely resembled the COMMON GREENSHANK.

The rain lightened up again. We wanted to find the Coucal and with luck, last Sunday's mystery nightjar too. We heard a couple of grassbirds in the Mall of Asia site but these were hiding because of the rain. Unmindful of the poor weather, a few joggers and cyclists were still in the area.

The Coucal was a no show but the SAVANNAH NIGHTJAR flushed thrice as we walked around the clumps of grass. Under heavy skies, the bird was the grey-brown color as illustrated in the Kennedy Guide. The wing patches on this individual were distinctly broader than on the Philippine Nightjar allowing us to identify the species. It did not have white markings on the under tail so it must be the female of this species.

There were no other birds seen on the hike back to the car other than a single TAWNY GRASSBIRD, a few Chestnut Munias, a solitary Spotted Dove and another Zitting Cisticola. Same thing from the balcony of the Church at the southern end of Bay Boulevard, where the driving rain had forced a dozen EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS to shelter under the eaves of playground equipment.

The Asia World City Heron Colony

Despite the rains the Tambo grassland did not seem to be recovering fast enough. There were hardly any green shoots amidst the black ash and brown stubble.

Having learned of a visit to the Asia World City heron colony by ornithologist Arne Jensen, Mike took a chance and drove towards the entrance. We saw no signs requiring visitors to register and the guards completely ignored us on the way in.

As we approached the condominium towers overlooking Manila Bay, we saw the first of several dozen members of the Black-Crowned Night Heron colony roosting in the scrub near the road. It was truly a sight to behold. The herons were flying only meters from the car and others arriving from the north.

Earlier this year, Mike, Mads and I watched hundreds of these birds flying in from the observation mound at the edge of the Tambo mudflats. In his note to Mike dated 23 May and posted 25 May, ornithologist Arne Jensen mentioned two colonies of about 200 Black-Crowned breeding pairs. Including some 150 to 200 pairs of Rufous Night Herons, this is in his opinion the largest colony in this part of the country. Arne Jensen could not locate the herons last week, but returning to the site Friday, May 30 he discovered a secondary colony, members of which were probably the ones we saw this morning.

Pressed for time, we could not stay long to count the herons. Instead we drove around to explore the property. A large section of the scrub at the far end of the Asia World City property had been cleared, probably as a preventive measure against wildfires or were consumed by fires set off by burning garbage. The road terminates in a field that leads to the water's edge where a number of concrete watchtowers stand. We thought that by year's end, when the winter migrants start coming down the East Asian Flyway, the Asia World City site would be a terrific place to bird in. On the drive back to the gate, Mike and Jon pointed out a ZEBRA DOVE that landed in the grass beside the car.

Luck Holds Up at the Ital-Thai Site

We reached the Ital-Thai site near the Coastal Road toll plaza a little after 8:00 this morning. It was high tide and the clouds continued to pelt us with big fat raindrops.

It did not look hopeful birdwise and we were just about to leave when Mike spotted one of the resident Little Herons flying low over the water. This was enough to motivate us to check out the shallows for more birds.

Listening to the wheezy song of a GOLDEN-BELLIED GERYGONE somewhere in the mangrove nearly, two Yellow Bitterns flushed from hiding down the road. A Cinnamon Bittern followed shortly after and we watched it flying to the island across the shallows. We heard a single CLAMOROUS REED WARBLER in the thicket from where the bitterns emerged but did not find this skulking bird. This species is best observed in the mangrove and aroma thorn thickets in Tambo north of this site. We also spotted four Chestnut Munias flying beside the road on our way out.

From the road our total heron count for the Ital-Thai site included three Black-Crowned Night Herons, four Little Herons, five Yellow Bitterns - including one clambering in the reeds near the car, and two Cinnamon Bitterns.

1. Little Heron (6) - 1 in South Reclamation Area; 5 in wetlands outside Ital-Thai site
2. Black Crowned Night Heron (Dozens) - 3 in Bay City PEA Road site,several dozen in Asia World City scrub, 3 flying in wetlands outside Ital-Thai site
3. Cinnamon Bittern (6) - First record this year for the area. Saw 4 in Bay City PEA Road site; 2 in wetlands outside Ital-Thai site
4. Yellow Bittern (9) - 4 in Bay City PEA Road site; 5 in wetlands outside Ital-Thai site
5. Common Moorhen (1) - A new species for us. Seen near rain pool in sandy track in Bay City PEA Road site
6. Little Ringed Plover (3+) - foraging around sandy track in Bay City PEA Road site
7. Common Greenshank (6) - flock beside rain pool in sandy track of Bay City PEA Road site. New species.
8. Oriental Pratincole (8+) - on ground or flying around sandy track in Bay City PEA Road site. Another new species for our Metro Manila list.
9. Spotted Dove (2) - seen in flight around Bay City PEA Road site
10. Zebra Dove (1) - seen in Asia World Cit
11. Owl (1) - either immature Grass Owl or a Short-Eared Owl. Hunting in field in Bay City PEA Road site just beforeSunrise.
12. Savannah Nightjar (1) - A female flushed from tall grass near Bay City Mall of Asia site
13. Golden-Bellied Gerygone - One heard in mangrove outside Ital-Thai site
14. Clamorous Reed Warbler - One heard in mangrove outside Ital-Thai site
15. Tawny Grassbird - One seen, but several heard in all sites
16. Zitting Cisticola (2) - Seen in Bay City PEA Road site where this species is common
17. Crested Mynah - One seen foraging in field in Bay City PEA Road site
18. Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Common near human habitation
19. Chestnut Munia (12+) - Common in small flocks in grassland
20. Feral Rock Dove (7) - Flying around Bay City PEA Road site