Friday, May 29, 2020

The Olive-backed Sunbird: Nectar Feeder of the Philippines

Olive-backed Sunbird (note the long tongue for feeding on nectar)

The Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarinia jugulars) is one of the more common sunbirds seen at low elevations in the Philippines.  I first spotted these small nectar feeding birds on a silk Acacia tree on the Brent International School Campus. Later, I started spotting them at different locations in the Brent Subdivision where I live.  They are fast moving birds that tend to stick to the tops of the trees. As is common in the tropics, certain trees will shed their leaves at different times during the year. These small birds will stop at the tops of these trees to sun usually early in the mornings but also in the late afternoon.

Male Olive-backed Sunbird

As mentioned earlier, these are nectar feeding birds.  I have spotted them gleaning small insects and also feeding on the nectar from the silk acacia trees. They will perch right on or in the flowers or on occasion they will hover briefly and feed while in the air.

Immature Olive-backed Sunbird
Immature Olive-backed Sunbird

Immature male Olive-backed Sunbird
Sunbirds fill a similar niche in Asia to the hummingbirds of the Americas.  They are small, quick and can hover above the flowers when feeding. They are not quite the flyers as the hummingbirds though they also can have that metallic iridescent coloration similar to hummingbirds.

Olive-backed Sunbirds in silhouette photographed from my front yard.

Olive-backed Sunbirds in silhouette photographed from my front yard.

Olive-backed Sunbirds in silhouette photographed from my front yard.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Reflections on Birding During the Lockdown in the Philippines

I was first a naturalist before I was a birder.  By that I mean, when I was a child, my father would take me on hikes. He liked catching snakes, so we were always turning over stumps and looking in old wells to see what we could find. He also was a prairie enthusiast. That is to say, he was interested in anything remotely associated with prairies. That includes the wildlife, the grasses, the streams that run through them, and the woods and the valleys in the middle of them.

He taught me a lot about the wilderness. Later, I had friends that were birders, and since l knew most of the birds by their names, and also by their habits, and their silhouettes, I found this a great pastime. Comparing the looks, habitats, and behaviors of birds from different places is always a good thing to do when in the woods or field.  So, over the years, I have drifted in and out of birding. You see, I like anything that gets me out. Be it birding, hiking, trail running or just sitting on a hill.

So now with the lockdown here in the Philippines and my ability to get to the wilderness limited, I have found solace in bird watching. We live in a gated community that has some fields surrounding it. It also has a few areas that haven't been developed. These half filled subdivisions have been cleared, but have become untidy. These spaces are now my wilderness. They have revealed themselves to have much more wildlife than I anticipated.

For example, there was this place in one subdivisions where the road curves around a corner and meanders about 250 meters to a dead end. Along one side is an artificial pond full of water lilies, and a few large trees. On the other side of the road, there is a grassy area containing snipe and quail and at the end of the road is a large grassy field with grass and scattered acacia trees. This was my favorite spot, until it was discovered by everyone in Brentville. 

I used to go down at sunrise and sit in this remote corner at the end of the road waiting for the birds to appear in the tree tops, but now there is a never ending parade of walkers and runners looking for that same solace...and they probably find it. If you are walking you probably didn't see the couple that came five minutes before you or the older gentleman that was jogging after you left. Unfortunately the birds see you and so do I. I see the birds look for someplace else to feed. Now some stay, but the ones that aren't afraid are the ones I've already seen. I've seen them so many times. I've seen the shrikes, the bulbols, collared kingfishers, and the pied trillers. Less common but visible between runners are the orioles, mynah birds, and bee-eaters. 

Less common but visible between runners are the orioles, mynah birds, and bee-eaters. 

Once in a while though, I have those great moments when I see something I haven't seen before. As you become more accustomed to birds, you start to know them by so many things. For example, I know many of their colors, their silhouette, their call, the way they fly, or maybe a certain way they cock their head. A good naturalist immediately notices something different. Though, sometimes we get fooled. Sometimes we classify something based on a familiar pattern when really it is something we've never seen before. 

At the end of my favorite road is a field.  I have walked it, but haven’t been too enthusiastic about hiking into on a regular basis. You see, it isn’t that large. It is full of a nonnative grass and since it was originally planned as a subdivision, the field is full of old drainage ditches full of cement rocks.  The field has some short acacia trees that are similar to the south Texas mesquite. They provide some shade, but they didn’t seem to attract too many birds. I really don’t want to hike there or sit in it partially because maybe there could be cobras in the grass, but more so there definitely would be ants. Probably ten or more different kinds waiting to chew on my ankles and crawl up my legs.  I don’t mind this terribly, but sometimes it isn’t worth it when I don't see much and this field didn’t seem worth it.  The thing is though, I saw something.

At the end of the road, where I always sit. It has become very busy with the quarantine. Everybody seems to be looking for a place to walk or run. There’s this one guy with a cell phone playing music that walks up and down this street for about an hour most days at sunrise.  Between him and everyone else, the birds have become more scarce.  I did see something in the field though.

You see a couple of days ago, I got some nice photos of he blue-tailed bee-eater.  They are the kind of beautiful bird that I would imagine people would make documentaries about. They are beautiful. They have interesting habits, and each time they move and from every angle you see something worth looking at and maybe even filming.  So looking out at this last uninhabited piece of the subdivision, I saw a flash of blue. It could have been a collared-kingfisher. They like this area and they might do something like that. The blue was so bright though. I thought it might be a bee-eater. They also fly out to forage for insects. When they catch them, they fly to a low perch and beat the poor to death before eating it. It is cool behavior, and like I said, probably worth making a documentary. But,,,I wasn’t sure if that is what I saw. It seemed larger and the blue was very intense.

Today, dismayed by the amount of people walking my favorite birding spot, I decided to walk out into the field. I would brave the ants to find a spot to sit. My plan was to wait for an hour at sunrise and see what shows up. The thing is, I have walked this field a couple of times. Besides the flash of blue the other day, it hasn’t revealed much. Nevertheless, places with few birds, may have one or two surprises. 

Well, I found a spot to sit and the good thing is I knew no one else would bother me. The field is not the place you want to walk. After an hour, I discovered quite a few ants; lots of ants. My first spot on a log was quickly overrun so I moved to a rock. The rock was not as bad. I saw quite a few of the usual birds and one tiny bird that might have been a sunbird. It didn’t stay long enough.

But just as I was about to leave, I had that experience that every adventurer lives for.  I saw something new. First, I saw the flash of blue. But this time there was a large white patch on the wing. I stared intently where it disappeared. And then it flew up and I saw red…but no, it was more intense in the sun; more of a crimson color and the bill was thick and huge. It had to be a kingfisher…maybe. It was very big and maybe it was some new kind of bird I had never seen before.

I watched the bird from a good distance for quite some time. It stayed in the low branches and would fly out into the grass for large insects. It was a larger bird about twice or three times the size of a collared-kingfisher. When it would sit facing me through the trees, I could see the reddish parts underneath.  From the sides, when it was sitting, the blue settled into a couple of bands along the wings with a blue tail. The blue is much lighter looking when the bird is sitting. The large thick reddish bill looks much lighter where it meets the face. It is definitely a kingfisher. When I get home, I identify it as the White-throated kingfisher.

Here in the Philippines, kingfishers are not just found along streams. This is the third species I have seen in fields or forests some distance from water. This particular kingfisher is suppose to be fairly common. 

This was my first siting and the experience was wonderful. As I took in the new species, my brain was overwhelmed with new data. The way it flew, the way the colors were iridescent and so bright in the sun and drab in the shade except for those blue bands that shined like neon lights. It’s always fun to see something for the first time and every living thing has its own beauty when you look close. 

It is especially interesting when the bird is this colorful, and in a place I wasn’t expecting.  My experience is that when you put yourself out there something will happen.   It took an hour to see. I was giving up. My legs were coated in at least two different kinds of biting ants. Just when I was ready to leave, I found this beautiful bird. Not only did I see it, but I learned from it. I watched it feed. I saw how it was able always keep a tree between us.  It was one of those birds that you have to sit for. It required a certain amount of patience and persistence. My Palm Sunday adventure turned out perfect. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Lumban Falls Challenge Trail Run Review

I just ran the Lumban Falls Callenge trail race this weekend. I am really liking the promoter Trail Mania's trail selection. I often select the longer distances as the shorter runs sometimes lack the challenges and scenery of the longer races. Not so for the Lumban Falls Challenge trail race. The 8 kilometer run was very technical with lots of scrambling and river running.  At the midpoint, the Lumban waterfalls were awe inspiring.

One reason I got into trail running was because it was a great opportunity to experience nature in the Philippines. By picking races in different locations, I have been able to explore different sights around the islands. I live in Laguna, so I am partial to races in this area. I love Rizal, but if I can arrive at the race location in a couple of hours, that is an added bonus.  The Trail Mania people are doing a great job of locating great race venues in my area.  In my opinion, their races have been getting more challenging and technical over the last year.  My first Trail Mania race was the Trails 2 Cave Challenge in Cavinti.  I enjoyed the race, but everything about their recent races, from the finisher shirts to the trail selection has improved. The Lumban Falls Challenge was technical, had great views, and the waterfall was the perfect destination for the 8K and 16K races.

Last year I ran the Conquer Ascend 42K trail race in Maragondon Cavite. It went well, but I didn't feel like I was in my best condition.  Running long races in the 21K to 30K range about every three weeks prior to the 42K race was not a good strategy.  Therefore this year I will use shorter races to get my trail sense but run longer training sets to build up the distance. The Lumban Falls Challenge 8K race seemed like the perfect race to start this new year.

The Lumban Falls Challenge started at the Lumban Covered Court in the center of Lumban Laguna.
I arrived early  Saturday afternoon so I could explore the town and get a valentines gift for my wife.  I was able to purchase a hand-embroidered scarf for 750.00 pesos and I also bought myself a great work barong for the same price.  After shopping, I found a parking place in front of the church next to the covered court and took a sight-seeing walk around the town. The Lumban Church is a beautiful historic church next to the race venue. I could hear the hymns of the Saturday afternoon mass as I walked past. From there I walked for about 2 kilometers until I reached the Lumban city market. I was checking out the produce when I heard someone calling out my name "Hey Mike".  The gentleman was looking right at me but I was thinking "Who knows me in Lumban?" It was the race sponsor who recognized me from the Liliw Eco-run in December.  He confirmed that I could pitch my tent in the covered court and said that the Trail Mania team would be arriving at about 12 am to set up for registration. Being recognized and greeted by the sponsor in the middle of Lumban; kilometers from the race venue was very welcoming.

After a great sizzling pork chop at La Parilla restaurant, I returned to the covered court. It was about 7 am and the place was almost empty with just a few kids hanging out and a couple of guys welding some scaffolding so I decided to set up my tent.  A guy walks over and asks what I am doing.  I tell him about the race and he asks me a few friendly questions. He then tells me that there is a musical practice for teenagers that will be taking place.  I ask him if I should leave but he tells me that is not necessary although it may get a little loud. I see only about  5 kids so I decide to stay and get some rest. It is probably about 8 p.m. by this time.  My tent is at the far end of the basketball court and in dark so I don't think I will be noticed.  I fall asleep.

At about 9:30 or 10:00 pm I woke up and there were probably about 300 middle school age kids sitting on the floor listening to instructions and loosening up for some kind of mega-production. Now that the lights were turned on I realize that my tent was actually right at the edge of this massive musical.  I really need to go to the bathroom but since they were in the middle of practice I felt I would cause a distraction if I left my tent. The show was really complex with moving props, dancing, feathered costumes, and singing. It felt like Rio at Carnival time and my tent was right on the edge of the stage. The practice continues until about 12:30 am when I can finally left to go to the bathroom. At this time other runners were allowed to enter and several start pitching their own tents.  I only had a few hours till I could claim my race kit.

Gun start for the 8K race was at 6 am so I had plenty of time to get ready.  Like all good trail races, the first part of the race is on paved streets that are wide enough for the racers to pass and runners to get spaced. On my first trail race, the start was a narrow steep downhill single track. There were many first-time runners who walked down the hill making it impossible to pass. The going was way to slow even for me. When I finally had a chance to pass, I had to run through some thorny bushes; scratching up my legs. Since then I always try to start strong enough so that I don't get held up by people walking up or down those first hills.  I am older so I tend to slow down on the technical stuff, I need to make up the time when it is possible to run.

After a nice start on pavement, the trail became a pleasant scenic single track through rice fields and
then up a decent slope. After a few easy stream crossings the trail became quite technical.  At first we were scrambling along the steep bank along the river, traversing a narrow rocky inclines, and finally scrambling the rocks right in the river itself. The last 700 meters to the falls were straight up the mountain in one of those gut busting climbs with ropes and rock to rock scrambling.  If all you do is run on pavement, a slope like this will have you wondering why you ever started in the first place. For us trail runners, we only smile because we know that this is the moment we've been waiting for; there's no runners high for us; we've gotta pay attention to the trail, grab that root, tighten the stomach muscles, lift those legs and push to the top. If were lucky we'll only lose a few toenails, slip but not fall, and finish with no debilitating injuries.

I could tell that I was in a serious race because there were very few people at the waterfall when I
arrived.  I expected to see a few swimmers and people soaking their feet but after a 30 second photo everybody was gone.  By the time I left the falls I was running solo.  As I took off up the mountain I saw a few of those beautiful trees that have almost disappeared. The tall straight Philippine mahogany and those fig trees with the buttress roots so tall you can stand behind them and not be seen were at least a 50 to a 100 years old.  Any time I find a patch of rain forest that has old trees I feel like I am in an ancient church. Those trees just make me feel good.

The Trail Mania people had done a great hop of clearing and marking the trail. A couple of years ago I ran a different race where the organizers had cut a narrow steep path through a patch of young bamboo. They had left a narrow slippery trail lined with foot tall bamboo spikes. At that race, I slipped like three times going down the trail; each time I thought I would be impaled.

I was reminded of this experience on the Lumban Falls race. Along a narrow steep  cliff, I noticed a few small trees cut off a foot above the ground leaving three sharp spikes.  Momentarily distracted, I placed my foot on a loose stone which gave way. I pitched forward towards the spikes. I landed on my knee and threw my elbow forward, stopping with one of the spikes barely missing my stomach and the other poking into my pectoral muscle right next to my armpit.  It just barely pierced my t-shirt; slightly breaking the skin under my arm.  I got up and test my knee and made sure my ankle wasn't twisted.  Since everything seemed to be working, I started running again.  I couldn't help but think how lucky I am. You just don't get experiences like these at road races.

The Lumban Falls Challenge 8k race was the very definition of adventure.  I loved this race; from the musical show the night before, the technical trails, the beautiful old church, to the slippery rocks and river running.  It doesn't get much better than this.  Every day that I can get up and run a trail race is a great day to be alive!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review of the Kreycik Elk and Buffalo Tours of Niobrara Nebraska

I found the Kreycik Elk and Buffalo Tours very interesting.  Having grown up on a ranch, I experienced a time when my Uncle tried raising beefalo (A cross between a bison and a cow).  The Bison could pretty much jump any fence, so my uncle had to discontinue the experiment because he spent all his time traveling around the country trying to round up his two bison bulls. Visiting the Kreycik ranch added to my knowledge of both elk and bison.

The Kreycik's confirmed that bison can jump any fence that they can get there nose over.  They do it from a standing jump with no run or warning.  Also they informed us that we could feed them but you shouldn't try and touch their head as they would attack the bus (which was good to know). Also, I was reminded that they were bison and not buffalo; a fact that I often forget.

The Krecik Ranch also raises elk which they sell for meat and for hunting, but they get most of their money from selling the elk antler velvet which cures most diseases and discomforts including high blood pressure and sexual disfunction.  The more interesting part of the story was the information on trophy hunting.  Although the Kreycik family no longer does outfitting, they used to and were able to provide insight on the sport.

Evidently they raise the elk bucks in one place but then they bring them to a hunting pasture for the kill.  Since the pasture is smallish and the animals are farm raised there isn't much danger in not finding an elk.  In fact one hunter had never fired a gun before and had to be shown how to load and shoot before he was able to kill his elk. Another hunter showed up with only one bullet.  I admire his confidence but what would have happened if he had wounded the elk? I suppose someone would have had to go find another bullet? The more interesting fact was that since these elk were farm raised and possibly not as wild as they should be; there was a real danger that they might chase you up a tree- a situation that happened on more than one occasion.  It is interesting because I have spent a lot of time out in the wilderness and I have seen my share of elk. Nevertheless, I have never been chased up a tree by one.  Guess I haven't been in the right place?

My Trip Advisor Review for the Denny's attached to the Quality Inn in Ardmore Texas

If you enjoy traveling and are looking for a surreal experience, the Denny's in Ardmore is the place to start.  First, the room at the Quality Inn was like traveling back in time to the 1960's.  I would have thought I had except that the smell of mold was so great. The creepy room though was totally compensated by my experience at the attached Denny's.  The food was just OK, but the service from three waitresses was an experience to be remembered. (You get a free breakfast coupon with the room.)

The first waitress I had was supernaturally sexy and spooky at the same time.  I ordered my supper and while I was eating she came up behind me and asked in the most sultry voice imaginable: "Would you like some more coffee, my little cupcake?" Startled, I looked up quickly, but she looked bored and raised her eyebrows and said "well?". Flustered I said I was fine.  I went back to eating but she snuck up on me again and asked in a tone that would melt ice: "Is everything OK, my sweet cherry pie? Startled, I rapidly raised my head to observe  the uninterested waitress looking at her phone.  Nervously, I finished my meal, but again she startled me by asking "Would you like some desert, my darling honey bunch? I stuttered that I was fine and and backed away from the uninterested waitress towards the cash register.

At the cash register was a small and overly excited blonde young woman.  She seemed unusually happy and asked how I was in a super cheery voice. At ten PM in the evening after driving 12 hours, I said I was tired but enjoyed the meal and would be back for breakfast.  She then told me that she was hoping that she might see me in the morning.  She said that if they got a few more customers her boss might let her work all night and the next morning also. I have met a few enthusiastic workers in my life, but I have never met a waitress who was hoping she could work extra all night and then into the next day. Disoriented, I returned to my room for a fitful rest.

The next morning I awoke and returned to the restaurant to use my free coupon for breakfast.   I had stayed at that same Quality Inn about ten to fifteen years earlier and I was marveling at how the room seemed identical except for the overpowering smell of mold. The food was OK and the service was excellent at the Denny's restaurant.  As I payed my check the waitress asked me: How are you I haven't seen you in awhile?" I turned white and looked into the watery eyes of the elderly waitress. I must have looked rattled because she continued: "Its just that it has been so long, I was hoping everything was OK?" I ran to my truck and quickly drove away...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Taong Bundok Charity Climb May 13, 2017

On May 13, 2017, we joined the Taong Bundok Mountaineering Club to provide school supplies to students from the Dumagat Tribe in Sitio Kabuoan, Brgy Puray, Montalban Rizal.  This is one of the several small communities of this tribe in the mountains of Rizal in the Philippines.  Our purpose is to connect with the people in the communities where we hike.  We want to give back to the communities who have allowed us to enjoy their beautiful surroundings.

To get to Kabuoan from our home in Binan, Laguna, we left at 2:00 a.m. and arrived at 3:00 a.m. to meet our fellow mountaineers at the Jollibee in Cubao.  This is a fast food restaurant in a huge wet market in Manila about an hour from our house.  There are several Jollibees in this complex, so I roamed through the market in the middle of the night as trucks full of giant tuna, other fish and vegetables were being delivered. The butchers were busy slicing up whole pigs in preparation for the big market day.  After checking out one Jollibee, I finally found the right one in an adjacent building.  After rounding up my family, we quickly ate breakfast, bought some chicken for lunch and joined the group.

From Cubao we drove about 1.5 hours to where most of the group abandoned the hired vans and got into small three wheeled motorcycles called tricycles for the next leg of the trip.  We continued in our SUV to the next stop where we registered. At this point, we parked our car and got into one of the tricycles (or as the group called them a “habai habal” ), which is a motorcycle with what could be called a side car.  In this case the side car was a metal cage with two boards put across so four people could sit down. The main job of these vehicles is to transport charcoal and wood out of the mountains. So five of us, plus the driver, took off in this contraption powered by a small cc motorbike.  We bounced for about 45 minutes on dirt roads through a couple of streams and through small rural communities along the road.  The ride was rough and tough on the bottom, as the seats were hard and the road full of deep ruts.  

We finally arrived at the last motorized stop that our bike driver felt comfortable taking us.  We joined our group and walked for another 30 to 45 minutes to the small village of Kabuoan where we would have our distribution of school supplies.  We had supplies for about 70 children, but it was evident that more kids had arrived from the bush than we had school supplies.  We were about 52 volunteers organized into about 4 groups including school supplies, games, publicity and documentation, and cooking team.  Lenore, Katyann and I were on the school supply team.  We got to work organizing the school supplies while the other groups prepared for their task.

The Dumagat tribes are native filipino people who originally lived in the lowlands but migrated to the mountains due to pressure from more aggressive migrants.  Most of the people live in traditional nipa huts made from palm leaves and bamboo.  The Dumagat seem to have very little documented social structure and according to wikipilipinas (, they tend to move on or split up when conflicts arrive.  Most work for low wages and support their families through hunting and day labor which has become more and more difficult to procure.  The areas that we have visited in Rizal are well deforested.  Even the rivers show few signs of sufficient fish to maintain even a small population.  These people are primarily nomadic, but as their area of habitation gets smaller and smaller, they are have been forced to settle into more permanent communities. On our hike, we saw many carrying out lumber or charcoal from deep in the mountains.  From places even farther in than what we were able to visit.

Although most people in urban areas speak some English, I found that most of the people in Kabuoan did not.  Most of my interaction with the Dumagat were with the children.  They were very interested in me and seemed very affectionate.  I noticed that if I sat down and given the chance children would sit next to me and lean on me or rest there hand on my shoulder in a very friendly and familiar way.  The mothers would let us hold their babies.  Along the public road it was not uncommon to see the mothers breast feeding their babies as the family picked nits out of each other's hair.  I assume that they appreciated our efforts although I noted that it seemed that they were primarily spectators to our efforts. 

I didn’t see many if any of the community members getting involved in delivering our project.  I don’t know what their perspective is on our assistance. The motivation of our group stems from the fact that we love to be in the mountains.  We realize that our presence impacts the residents and we want to be a positive part of the communities where we hike.  Helping children with school supplies should be a great cause.  Since I am not part of the organizers, I do not know what the role of the community was in planning our event.  They seemed very happy that we were there.  Our efforts were focused on the children but we also provided food for everyone.  We brought used clothes that were mainly for children but also some adult clothes.  As our group efforts develop, it will be interesting to see if we can forge partnerships with these communities that can result in protecting the natural environment and encouraging development in a way that also supports efforts to reforest these mountains as well as provides some kind of organic support for the people who live in these mountains.  

The main organizer and visionary who provides these great experiences is Aris Olea.  He is a multimedia specialist during the week and mountaineer, environmentalist, community service specialist extraordinaire.  I asked him how he got started in all these great projects and he replied:

The reason that I have climbed my first mountain is because of a heartbreak. I was about to marry someone (which is my girlfriend for 6 six years that time) when suddenly she broke up with me and decided to marry someone else. I was so devastated and didn't know what to do. My world literally crashed in front of me to the point that I even got tired of breathing.

Then a friend of mine got worried and decided to trick me in climbing Mt.Daraitan. He said that it's just a "walk in the park" and I can shout all my frustrations and pain at the top of the mountain. So I said yes to his invitation... not knowing that 95% of the trails are assault (60-80° slope). I was in bed for two days cursing my friend after that. But it was really an amazing experience. I get to release all my tension and stress when I'm on the top and even though I told to myself that I will never going to try that again, after just a few weeks... there's this strange feeling which they say that it was the mountain that is calling... and I must go.

I got hooked with the thrill and experience. For my initial years of climbing, I was able to climb 13 mountains which is not bad for a 120kgs guy like me. But someone teased me that he has climbed 22, so I challenged myself to climb at least 24 summits/peak in a year. I was able to do 25 last 2016. That was my first new year's resolution that I was able to complete and it felt so good.

Then from there, I asked myself, "so what's next?". I don't usually climb a mountain once I have gone there already, because what's the point of going back? What would be the purpose? And so the #ClimbWithAPurpose was created.”  (Aris Olea)

“Climb with a Purpose” is the slogan and reason behind Taong Bundok.  I am proud to play a small part in these great activities.  Enjoy the photos! Mike Baldwin