Birding the road to North Luzon

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There are many hobbies to occupy oneself with in life, so why get preoccupied with birds? I can only speak for myself, but I am confident fellow birders will agree: it is because birding is a wilful appreciation of something exhilaratingly beautiful, mysterious, and even symbolic.

With much of their lives hidden from our view – nesting, birth, sleep –birds have this unreachable quality, like a keeper of secrets that birders naturally will want to plumb. Together with the unique call, flight, and other moves, the winged beauties possess the charisma of an enigmatic woman. The thrill of the chase, combined with the inevitable comparison of a number of species witnessed among birders, also makes the pursuit of birding not just an art, but a sport. Birding appeals heavily to one’s inner nerd, too, what with the air creatures’ interesting names in English and their “Genus species” versions, among other data. In dream interpretation, birds can signify so many things, from the birder’s desire to escape or to be free, to flight of consciousness, to longing for company.

I carry with me all these avian esoterica whenever I get out of my cave and hit the outdoors. Mostly unable to spare the time for any decent birding, however, I end up making do with the circumstances thrown at me. Call me the poor, incidental birder, one whose activities are confined to the luck of the moment — in my case, while traveling by bus bound for Northern Luzon (for some concern or two), seated right next to the window.

The area I have been surveying through the years is huge: the entire expanse bordering the North Luzon Expressway up to the various roads leading to Pampanga, Pangasinan, Ilocandia, and the Cordillera. The Eurasian tree sparrow, yellow-vented bulbul, and brown shrike are the most common ones I see along this trail, but I don’t tire of giving them a chance to surprise me. Called taraz in my native Pangasinan, the brown shrike is particularly show-offy, announcing its presence through its rattling, creaky sound.

Also relatively common, the olive-backed sunbirds are always a lovely sight to behold when chanced upon a private garden or orchard, as they sip nectars from flower to flower. They also issue a little, sweet sound, matching their diminutive charm.

Among the more startling finds is the rust-colored creature that’s bigger than a chicken, which caught my attention while it was sunning itself over an untended grass field in Bulacan. Since it had a blackish head, I figure it can only be a Philippine coucal, an endemic bird.

Sweetness and smallness also characterize the lowland white-eye, which descends everywhere there is a thick clump of trees, in a twittering group (like noisy schoolgirls) that would be a challenge to distinguish from the green leaves they hide in.

Pied fantails are a joy to behold because of their playful moves – their fanning, spread-out tail feathers a dead giveaway. Watching a couple in the middle of a courtship dance is like witnessing highly adept dancers navigating the air in unpredictable twists and turns. I’d say they are the dolphins of the air. Their call is also a playful singsong of six to seven notes that never fails to delight the ears.

Another show-off is the crested myna, or martinez, which often flies distances in pairs, the flapping of their white-dotted wings announcing their identity.

In an adventure trip near Mount Pinatubo, I was assaulted by three new species in one go: a grey wagtail perched on a rock in the middle of a gushing river; a pied triller on a branch, its diagnostic black-banded eyes a dead giveaway; and a rhabdornis (which belongs to a genus unique to the Philippines), with its brown-and-white stripes and pointy body silhouette.

In Sagada, I saw perched on a Benguet pine branch a big black bird that cried, “Aaaak, Aaaak!” which I can’t identify up to this day. No, it is not a raven, as it is too big to be one. I feel frustrated at my failure, but I know I’ll nail it down someday.

Well, I finally did, at least for one species I stumbled upon in the yard of my parents’ home. It was also a black bird, but this time a very tiny one, which I mistook at first for a youngling. It wore a dot of white on each wing and uttered a sweet cry. It seemed to have been trapped by a typhoon, and it dropped exhausted on a guava tree branch. I was wrong, it found out, after revisiting the problem over a number of years: this bird came in its regular teeny size, and I am now certain it was a pied bushchat. My joy of discovery was embarrassingly inordinate, like I won a quiz bee.

One can just imagine the aborted excitement I’ve been contending with since, when it comes to a dozen more other strange species in other places. My quest for more fruitful and auspicious roadside birding thus continues.

Birding Basics

• Birding can be the easiest hobbies to have. Just be present, be observant, and be patient.

• Birds can be found anywhere there’s thick vegetation that’s pesticide-free. However, they generally hide when it’s too hot and during heavy rains. (Nocturnal birds are, of course, only active at night.)

• With open eyes and open ears, you’ll easily notice each bird’s unique silhouette, plumage, call, flight pattern, and other characteristics.

• You might need to stay unobtrusively on the same spot for hours to catch a sight of the stealthy ones said to frequent a given site. At times, though, serendipity rules, so be open for such pleasant surprises.

• Part of the fun is researching the exact identity of certain mysterious ‘lifers’ (birds you see for the first time) via Google Image or a consult with experts. It helps to be part of an online club.

• Ideally, you’ll need to invest in a spotting scope and a field guide and to document your ‘highs’ with a good DSLR camera, but don’t let the absence of these must-haves discourage you from birding a random site.

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