How many birds can you see in a year? A lot, if you signed up for WBCP’s first ever Big Year Philippines contest. This was contest to see the most birds in one year starting on 14 July 2012 and ending on 13 July 2013. Tonji Ramos writes about how he won the amateur division of WBCP’s first ever Big Year Philippines contest.
A Big Year
by Tonji Ramos
My wife went up to me and said, “ Lets join the Big Year contest.”
Thoughts of traveling all over the country looking for every possible bird in the Philippines flashed across my brain for a brief moment. It was logistically impossible, the time and effort would be incredible.
I looked at her and asked, “Why?”
She said, “ It sounds like fun. “
Fun is of course one of the main reasons we do things so it was a good argument. But some common sense kicked in and I started thinking of all the mountains we would have to climb lugging our heavy photography gear and that did not sound like fun. Then I thought about the mud, rain, blood sucking insects, scorching heat with little breaks in between….and suddenly it seemed more like work than fun.
I glanced at my worn copy of Robert Kennedy’s A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines sitting on my desk. I leafed thru the pages glancing at each bird I had not yet photographed or seen. So many beauties I have not seen. Maybe, Sylvia was right. It could be fun. I thought about the concept, one year of crazy traveling to see and photograph birds. It was a seemingly senseless quest made strangely almost purposeful in the context of a Big Year contest.
I told Sylvia, “Ok let’s do it and concentrate on lifers. Let’s try to get a good number and give it a decent effort. I think 200 birds would be good, then we can stop.“ 200 birds in one year would be a great number for birders like us who like to photograph every new species we see. Carrying our heavy gear, spending time to get picture quality views, and being patient enough to get the photo would make us probably the slowest team. But that is the way we like to go birding. We want to see the bird and we want a photo to capture the moment.
On our first few weeks we just went about our usual business. We wanted to count all the birds we saw doing our regular things before we went on a trip. On day one of the contest we joined a farming seminar. It turned our to be some weird moon cult. I realized the the speaker was full of it when he started talking about the cosmic power of the moon and how the moon’s rays during summer solstice makes horse poop and water a great fertilizer. I quietly stepped out and started my big year. I ticked a White throated Kingfisher.
Sylvia and I found all the birds we expected to find around our house after two or three strolls around our village. We have the usual city village suspects, Low land White eyes, Pied Fantails, Savanna Nightjars, White Collared Kingfishers, Pgmy Woodpecker, Coppersmith Barbet, Philippine Magpie Robin, Golden Bellied Flyeater, Long tailed Shrike and even some introduced birds that did not count like the Rose Ringed Parakeet and the Crested Myna. Our village was a good place to begin, because these are our regular birds. Later in the year I also saw my first Purple Needletail for the Big Year in our village and managed to get a few photos.
The next birding spot was our farm. It is a small patch of land with lots of trees and tall grass. It is our own little bird sanctuary. It provided me with a bunch or great birds. Hooded Pitta, Black naped Monarch, Grass Owl, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Barred Button Quail, Spotted Button Quail, and Blue Breasted Quail, Oriental Skylarks, Common Emerald Dove, Ruddy Breasted Crake, Philippine Ducks, and even a nice Pink necked Green Pigeon. Our small farm was a great place to start a big year. We have a list of more than 60 birds in the farm and we hope it will increase over the years.
While the farm has a lot of birds, it was also a big distraction to doing a proper Big Year. I had to build our house in the farm. Initially I hired an architect but the house we designed with him turned out to be too costly. So I decided to build a simple but tasteful little cottage. I was the architect and the contractor. It took time out of our birding trips and made things a bit more hectic, life really does intrude on birding.
Doing farm chores also cut into our birding schedule. One day in July Sylvia insisted that we attend another farming seminar after the failed moon cult seminar. I agreed since I knew what was good for me, so we went to Antipolo, Rizal to attend a Natural Farming seminar. I sneaked out during lunch break and saw a Scale-feathered Malkoha in the parking lot. Cool. I ran back in to get Sylvia so we both got to tick it. I thought the seminar would be a waste of time, but that good sighting made it worth it.
In August we went to Villa Escudero to see the Philippine Scops Owls. They were high up, difficult to get good photos but worth the trip. It was still the peak of the rainy season. We spent most of August in the US. We visited our kids and did some birding on the side.
On September 1, we started in earnest. We went to La Mesa Eco Park to get the Rufous Paradise Flycatcher.
On September 9 we did a drive to Coastal Lagoon then birded around the Cavitex Highway and ended in Mt. Palay Palay. It was a warm up, an official start to the crazy season ahead. We got to see the first migrants and we were so excited for our next trip. Palawan!
A group of Big Year birders went to Palawan together, Leni Sutcliffe, Christian Perez, Cristina Cinco, Carmela, Balcazar, Peter ter Heegde, Sylvia and I had a great haul of birds in Palawan. We went all over, from Puerto Princessa, doing Iwahig, then unto Sabang, and then to Narra to see the Philippine Cockatoo. We were in Palawan from September 10 to 14. We got almost all the usual Palawan birds except for around 10 that I really wanted to see. It was full steam ahead. If my memory is correct our bird count was over 130 birds after Palawan.
On the third week of September we found ourselves birding in Picop, Bislig with photography as the main purpose. We were over the moon when we got photos of all our targets including the Celestial Monarch, the Short Crested Monarch, Steeres Pitta , Rufous Tailed Flycatcher and all the hornbills. We were however stopped by a small patrol of bandits but I think we amused them because we were more interested in photographing the Writhed Hornbills flying by than with their questions. When we were near road 42 I took a leak a little bit away from the group and saw a Mindanao Wattled Broadbill, too bad I could not photograph it as I was busy. I celebrated my birthday in Bislig and my friends Clemn Macasiano, Marester Macasiano and Tito Arbatin had a surprise birthday lechon prepared just for the occasion.
We were asked to conduct a survey of the Pelaez ranch in Malasag. It was 2000 hectares of unbirded land. Well, we had to go. Together with Nicky Icarangal we spent October 9 to 14 going around that ranch/ forest looking at every thing that flew and drinking more beer than we should have every night. We got to give a talk on taking care of the wildlife and the birds. Hopefully we ignited a spark or two in that community. Our star bird for that trip was the Giant Scops Owl.
While the Giant Scops was a great bird, we actually spent more time photographing the beautiful Colasisi.
On the 10th we went to Mt. Polis in the North to get all the Luzon mountain birds, the Luzon Water Redstart, Mountain Shrike, Citrine Canary, Little Pied Flycatcher, Metallic Sunbird, Luzon Bush Warbler but we missed out on seeing the Crossbills.
On the 17th we went to Mt. Makiling to get the Philippine Trogon, Spotted Kingfisher, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Ferruginous Flycatcher and the Narcissus Flycatcher. Too bad I missed photographing both the male and female trogon. I showed them to Mike Anton but Sylvia did not see them, she was upset. I assured her it was a common bird and we would see it again. Strangely we never saw another trogon. She is still upset.
We did a quick trip on the 26th to see the Philippine Eagle Owl in Manila Water.
On October 27 we decided to go to a still muddy Candaba to try to get the White-shouldered Starlings. We also got stuck in a deep mud hole. A carabao tried to pull us out to no avail. The operator of the tractor had too much to drink. A call to our friend Tito Arbatin, the off road expert and long-time birder, was the answer to our prayer. He drove all the way to Candaba from Parañaque to pull us out of the mud. What a guy!
As October came to an end, we felt the weather was nice and we decided to go to Subic. We got the Sooty and White Bellied Woodpeckers and most of the Subic specialties including a flock of Ashy Minivets.
On November 2 we did our craziest trip. We were birding around Makiling and UPLB when our friend Tito Arbatin called and told us to go to Mindoro, ASAP. A fruiting tree was attracting Mindoro Hornbills with great views. Sylvia and I looked at each other, and then I told Tito, Ok expect us to be there early tomorrow morning. We went home from Laguna in the afternoon. Packed. Then drove to Batangas Pier and took the midnight ferry to Abra de Ilog, Mindoro. I then drove 100+ kilometers in total darkness to Sablayan and arrived at 5:30am. Totally wasted, we got our gear out and started looking for Hornbills.
Mindoro, was pretty awesome. Black-hooded Coucal, Mindoro Tarictic Hornbill, Mindoro Raquet-tail, Scarlet-collared Flowerpecker and Changeable Hawk Eagle were the highlights. Our friend Tito took great care of us. We had so much food and we were very comfortable, even if we were sleeping inside the compound of the Sablayan Penal Colony. I certainly want to go back to take more pictures.
In November we went back to Candaba to get the usual duck suspects, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Green Winged Teal there were no surprises that trip. Little did we know we would be going back to Candaba again (Ruff, Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail 12/13) and again ( Dusky warbler) and again (Common Pochard 3/17/13)) and again ( Middendorf’s , Siberian Ruby).
By December construction was quite hectic and our son was home from school. So aside from quick day trips to Candaba and La Mesa Eco Park we spent our time in the farm and at home.
We were well rested when we went on a mini tour of the Visayas in January. We went to Tibsoc to see the amazing number of waders, Mt. Kanlaon to get the Flame-templed Babbler, Tabucol, Negros Occidental to get the Visayan Flowerpecker and the Crimson Sunbird. Then we took the ferry to Siquijor to get the Streak-breasted Bulbul . One night we went to Valencia, Negros Oriental to get the Brown hawk Owls. In Lake Balinsasayaw we got the Visayan Hornbill and White Winged Cuckoo-shrike. Then we took the RORO to Cebu to get the Black Shama and the Cebu Hawk Owl. It was a long and fun tour of Negros and Cebu. We ate lechon almost everyday and did our livers no favors with all the beer we consumed at night.
In February we spent a lot of time in the farm. Sylvia got to see the Grass Owls. I saw them earlier but did not tick them because I forgot. I have seen two together but our workers have seen as many as eight. I would hide and record the time they liked to emerge from the grass.
In March we did some super long distance driving. We went to Laoag and Pagudpud on the 1st. We went to photograph the Yellow Bunting. In the process we saw a Slaty-backed Gull, only the second record in the Philippines. We also passed by Ilocos Sur to check out the mountain passes and look at the mountain birds. We got the Red Crossbills on that drive.
On March 8, we went to Subic with Mike Anton to try to get the White-fronted Tit, we dipped on that bird but got some great photos of a perched Philippine Hawk-Eagle.
We decided to go back to Laoag on the 15th and we got the Green Sandpiper. And in Ilocos Sur we had great views of the Benguet Bush Warbler.
Most of our birding up to this point was mostly self guided, we us getting into a car and looking for birds. But when Nicky Icarangal said he would bring us to Kitanglad, we jumped at the chance. On April 15-20 we found ourselves back in Mindanao with Nicky, Clemn Macasiano, Ixi Mapua, and Ivan Sarenas trying to see all the possible birds. We even went all the way up to get the Apo Sunbird. Sadly we did not see the Philippine Eagle. We were quite disappointed. On all our previous trips we would see the eagle. It was a downer not to tick it for our big year. But we got most of the usual Kitanglad suspects including the Apo Myna, Apo Sunbird, Cinammon Ibon, Black-shouldered Kite and White-browed Shortwing.
We also went back to Cagayan de Oro to take photos of the Giant Scops. All in all it was a very successful trip.
We would find ourselves in Candaba again later in the month to get the Siberian Rubythroat. Needless to say, it was getting out of hand and this Big Year Business was getting crazy.
In May, Nicky invited us again to go to Palawan. We were with Ixi Mapua, Mike Anton, Clemn Macasiano, and Marester Macasiano. It was a fantastic clean up of Palawan. We got all the birds we wanted. Our best birds were the Falcated-Ground Babbler, the Frogmouth, Palawan Tit, Palawan Scops., Mantanani, and the Spotted Wood Owl. We went all over from Puerto Princessa to Sabang. It was fun and we got tons of pictures.
On May 15 to 18 we did one more mega trip with Nicky Icarangal, Ixi Mapua, Ivan Sarenas, and Christian Perez. A 1500km drive from Alabang to Bessang Pass to Cervantes back to Bessang then to Laog to see the Spotted Imperial then around Laoag to check out other birding places. We were able to get pictures of the Luzon Scops and Long tailed Ground Warbler as well as the Flame Breasted Fruit Dove.
We decided to do our chores in June and July and we hardly went birding. The construction needed my attention and Sylvia was training her horses. We could have gone to Zambales, Samar or Bohol. I was thinking we could reach 400 birds but we had some things we had to do so we stopped for around two months.
It was our intention to see a lot of lifers, which we did. I had a target to see 200 species at the start but ended up with 362. I did not join to win. After we achieved our personal goals, we decided to stop with two months left in the contest. I was sure that the others who were not photographing birds would have overtaken us since we stopped for so long. It was a big surprise that we won first and second place. It was just the icing the whole experience was the cake.
It was a year of indulging in my passion with utter abandon. As they always say life is short. The Big Year was great. No excuses, just doing what I wanted to do which is to look for interesting birds. It was a great year, so liberating. In the end was it worth it? Well we had a lot of fun, drank a lot of beer, ate a lot of fatty food, hung out with a lot of cool birders and saw an amazing amount of birds. Worth it indeed, it was the craziest amount of fun a person can do legally.
When we started birding I asked Tim Fisher how many Philippine birds he had seen and he told me 500 plus. It was an astonishing number to me since I was just new to birding. After the contest I realized that yes it is possible to reach those high numbers. You just have to go out there and do it.