Bird guide Mark Jason Villa shares his tips for successful birding at Coastal Lagoon
photo by Sylvia Ramos
by Mark Jason Villa
One of the nearest and easiest sites to go birding in Manila is the Coastal Lagoon. It is just a good 15 minutes on the way south of Manila. It holds the last remaining mangrove forest of the metro and has an extensive patch of mudflat and tidal flat. This habitat attracts many birds that use the site for roosting and feeding.
The best time to go birding here is during the migratory season. Migratory birds, which are the main feature of the site, start arriving as early as August and stay until as late as May. However, it is at about November to February where the most number of birds can be seen here. It is at these months when bird movements are more stable, when they are not quite traveling as much anymore. During this season and given the ideal tide level, this site is teeming with birds, often numbering thousands of individual birds.
The most conspicuous birds here are the egrets. Little Egrets and Great Egrets are common. They light up the otherwise grey and green surroundings with their bright white plumage. There are also Intermediate Egrets here and if lucky the rare Chinese Egrets can also be found here. The world population of Chinese Egrets is at just about 2 thousand and they come to the Philippines as their main wintering site. Their feeding antics are always a joy to see where they actively chase after prey as if they were dancing. Usually among the egrets is a row of towering Grey Herons. Almost a hundred of these herons winter at this site every year.
photo by Tonji Ramos
Also very visible regardless of tidal levels are the graceful-flying Whiskered Terns. These terns are almost always seen flying just over the water, gleaning or diving to catch small fish. Occasionally, there will be some White-winged Black Terns among them. They are not easy to tell apart in winter plumage but the latter’s summer plumage of bold black and white make it stand out against the much more numerous “whiskereds”. The Whiskered terns are perhaps the most abundant birds at this site where swarms of them can be seen over Manila Bay.
It is very challenging to count these terns, as well as the water birds but the activity of counting them can actually be quite fun. I especially enjoy doing bird counts here during the annual Asian Bird Census in January. Scope on hand and scanning the view from left to right and right to left while hoping the birds won’t move!
Perhaps the easier birds to count are the relatively bigger waders such as Common Greenshanks, Common Redshanks, Pacific Golden Plovers and Black-winged Stilts. The loud calls of the greenshanks often reveal their presence. 1% of their flyway population has been counted in these lagoons. The redshanks are just a bit shorter than the greenshanks and can be told by their red legs. Asian or Pacific Golden Plovers are also one of the easier to spot birds. They are brown and bulky and form big flocks. Another bird with red legs that are great to see here are the Black-winged Stilts. We have seen the number of Black-winged Stilts increase to a couple of thousand birds over the past few years. It is on one of these bird counts where I saw one lone Pied Avocet among the thousands of stilts.
Smaller plovers and stints such as Kentish Plovers and Red-necked Stints are trickier to count because they feed and move fast on the mudflat. Also because of their tiny size and short legs, they are restricted to the presence of mudflats during low tide. They will be scattered all over the site during low tide but will be forced to fly away or stay on the highest remaining flat during high tide. Often a scope is needed just to spot them.
There are other interesting characters that occasionally visit the lagoons. I really like seeing Whimbrels with their long downward-curved bills. They produce a loud trilling “keee keee keee” sound that always make me take notice. I will also never tire of looking at the shining bright blue and orange Common Kingfishers, especially when they are perched and not just darting by.
photo by Sylvia Ramos
One of the star birds of the lagoons is not migratory but rather a resident. There are about a dozen Philippine Ducks that call this site home and can be seen throughout the year. They are usually seen flying very fast in a flock just over the mangroves and can be told by their fast wing beats and long neck with their head extended down and forward.
Another bird that has decided to call the lagoons home are Black-crowned Night-Herons. These birds were in the past migratory but have now naturally colonized the Philippines. They use the mangroves as roosting site during the day and start flying out at dusk. They have grown too big in number that the Rufous Night-Herons have probably lessened in number at this site or have been displaced.
Other residents that are always cool to see are the Barred Rails, White-breasted Waterhen and Common Moorhen. They are much too often too wary and shy and only offer brief glimpses of them as they scurry off to another bush.
Another resident skulker is the aptly named Clamorous Reed-Warbler. It makes quite a bit of noise inside thickets but barely giving a view of itself. It always feels like a bit of a success when I get to see it. I feel much the same emotion as when I see its migratory cousins like the Middendorf’s Reed-Warbler but maybe even more so for the Grasshopper-warblers!
Birding is fun at the Las Pinas-Paranaque Coastal Lagoon. It’s a good place to hone wader id and bird counting skills. Being a migratory bird site there is always the chance to see the odd rarity like a lapwing or perhaps a tropicbird on a stormy day. I want to see one.