WBCP member Karen Ochavo finds a unique way of combining her work with her passion for birdwatching when she discovers a family of Philippine Eagle Owls right in her office compound.
OT (OWL TIME) AFTER 5!
By Karen Ochavo
The Legend of the Owls
Having a relatively quiet and “green” environment around the Manila Water office in Balara, Quezon City where I’m currently employed is a plus for nature lovers like me. Because of this kind of environment and the stories I heard from several office mates, I’ve been on the prowl for owls around the compound, whatever species they may be. As a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) for two years now, but with no close encounter with a wild owl on my life list yet, I was intent on seeing one. I even brought my copy of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Kennedy et al. (the Philippines’ bird watching “bible”), to show some of the security guards the illustrations of owls found in the Philippines. But they seemed confused as to which ones they have seen, most likely because they see them at night when the owls are active albeit difficult to observe clearly. Sigh.
On the afternoon of December 28, 2011, a senior manager I work with told me that the maintenance staff at an office canteen pointed to him an owl perched at one of the acacia trees seen from the canteen’s veranda. Eager to see it, we hurriedly went to the veranda and… WOWL!!! For a relatively huge bird, it blended well with the surrounding branches and leaves at the canopy. Using my office mate’s tiny binoculars, I took note of its features—huge size, large yellow eyes, big sharp claws, ear tufts, greyish beak, brown face with lighter brown edge, brown wings, reddish brown upper chest becoming lighter down to the belly with dark brown streaks. I didn’t have my Kennedy guide book in the office that day so I couldn’t confirm what species it is, but I was so excited that I called up fellow WBCP member Maia Tañedo and she gave me the idea that it MIGHT be a Philippine Eagle Owl.
Philippine Eagle Owl
The following day in the afternoon, with my own binoculars and zoom point-and-shoot digicam, I was eager to check it again with my officemate and new WBCP member Jayce Japlit who brought his telephoto DSLR. Bird photographer Ding Carpio, who happens to be a Group Director in my office, excitedly joined us sans his camera to confirm its identity. With the Kennedy guide book in hand and close up photographs, we were able to positively identify that the bird is a Philippine Eagle Owl! According to the guide book, the Philippine Eagle Owl (Bubo philippensis) is the largest owl in the Philippines (20 inches) and “lives in forest and forest edge in the lowlands often near rivers and lakes… However, little is known about this secretive owl. No breeding information.” It is uncommon and endemic meaning it only occurs in the Philippines. According to conservationists, its status is already vulnerable because of habitat loss. Not many bird watchers have seen it in the wild so it’s quite intriguing to find such a magnificent bird within the city, not disturbed on its daytime perch by the passing vehicles and employees. But somehow it makes sense because the open water channels at the nearby water treatment plant, plus the big, old trees and patches of secondary forest within the compound seem to be a suitable habitat.
My New Job as an Owling Guide
The news about this easy to see Philippine Eagle Owl spread fast to the bird watching community in Metro Manila, and soon enough my friends from WBCP and Ding Carpio’s friends from the Philippine Bird Photographer’s Forum (PBPF) requested for visits because the area is not open to the public—such a special species to warrant visits even from foreign bird watchers like ornithologist Arne Jensen and Netherlands Ambassador to the Philippines Robert Brinks.
So beginning the New Year’s weekend, and with permission from our security department, small groups came at 5PM to view and photograph the lone adult owl. What a pleasant surprise when the group I accompanied last January 3 saw two other Philippine Eagle Owls! At sunset, the lone adult owl flew into a high balcony/plant box of the adjacent covered courts above the canteen, where a second, smaller owl came out and perched on the ledge. Even with poor lighting, we saw the juvenile flapping its wings as if learning how to fly. After a while, a third owl, an adult, flew in and perched at a nearby branch. The first adult owl then perched next to the other adult owl before they finally flew to different directions to hunt for food. The following day I accompanied a different group and at sunset we saw one of the adults bring in a rat into the plant box for the juvenile owl to feed on. Amazing to observe wild life in action, in the metropolis!
Based on these observations plus photo and video documentation, the adult with the easy-to-see day perch is the female, while the adult that flies in at sunset is the male (other than the paler streaks of the female, it looks almost the same as the male). Another interesting information that I first learned from Ambassador Brinks was about the pellets that the owls regurgitate after digesting the meat of their prey. These pellets were supposed to contain the prey’s undigested bones and fur. True enough when we checked the roadside directly below the day perch, next to the droppings, were pellets that contained broken bones and gray fur of a small rodent. It was probably the remains of the rat that was brought in by the adult earlier that week.
Kids Do Grow Up Fast
The spectacle of the Philippine Eagle Owls didn’t last that long because some employees saw the juvenile finally fly out of the plant box on Saturday January 7, a week after the owl family was first seen and documented by birders. Not losing hope, another batch from WBCP still came to visit the following Tuesday even without a guaranteed sighting. I accompanied them at sunset because there’s still a chance of spotting at least one when they become active and fly out at night. Patience paid off when sharp-eyed Tinggay Cinco spotted them perched high on a tree at the area behind the our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) next to the compound’s mini forest! When it was really dark only the juvenile was left perched, maybe it was still not ready to hunt for food on its own.
The next batch, and last for January, was on the 14th, and we waited around the area behind the MRF. I sensed that Paul Bourdin and the others were slowly losing hope of seeing them as the sky became darker; he was already asking if he can come back later in the year during the next breeding season. At past 6:30PM we suddenly heard a very loud, haunting call of the adult! WUEEEEEEOOOOW!!! It was so near that in a couple of minutes we were able to locate the two adults and the juvenile. We also heard the softer call bu-bu-bu-bu-bu. One adult eventually flew off, while the juvenile remained perched with the other adult, the female, seemingly guarding its young. Afterwards the juvenile flew a long distance to a tree fronting an office building. The juvenile could fly! But its mother followed it and we saw her do a scary looking pose, with eyes glaring and wing spread making herself look larger as if warding off us fans away from her young. It was a sign for us to leave them alone; we already had our owl dose for the day.
A Perfect Bird Sanctuary
I’m glad to know that the Philippine Eagle Owl family found my office compound as a favorable home to raise its young. Since the area is not open to the public, they are safe from hunters and poachers. Our security department head was very supportive in protecting them and other wild life in the area, and has informed all security guards to just keep an eye on them. Based on all the stories I gathered, I’m pretty sure these owls were around for some time now but was not given importance until they were positively identified. But seeing and knowing these owls must be complemented with understanding, so I hope that everyone appreciates their ecological importance, one being natural predators/pest-control for rodents. Maybe it’s about time that the Balara compound be declared a bird sanctuary to encourage the appreciation and protection for these birds and other wildlife, and to further strengthen Manila Water’s commendable advocacies for the environment.