Des, Felix, Lala, Leni and Mike negotiating the garbage in Tanza.
Black Saturday came with a totally unplanned but very welcome birdwatching trip for me in Tanza, Navotas, just north of Manila. The purpose of the trip was a waterbird census, aimed in particular at Chinese Egrets.
Chinese Egrets looks more or less like any other egrets, but they are rare, and getting rarer (Vulnerable on IUCN Redlist). The total breeding population is estimated somewhere between 2000 and 3600. The main reason for their decline is habitat loss, due to reclamation of tidal mudflats and estuaries for industrial use, infrastructure or aquaculture.
Yet, just 45 minutes from Rizal Park (downtown Manila) we found 74 of them. And a part of the explanation is the thousands of tons of garbage that is flushed out from Manila each day. Sometimes conservation works in mysterious ways.
The group (Des, Lala, Felix, Pres. Mike, Leni, Propgerry, Jenny and me) met up at Aristocrat on Roxas Boulevard where I, still sleepy from getting up way too early in the morning, was scammed of P40 from a very nice young man "collecting parking fees". I did not break my mood though, he did a good job. When everybody was counted for and stocked up on bread and water the caravan headed north, through the labyrinths of Navotas. We parked by the school and headed out towards the ponds. The area had been dredged since the last census two weeks ago, so we had to take a detour by the coastline. The detour offered a balancing act on an 8-foot high, 8-inch wide concrete wall and some crisscrossing between beach visitors who looked a bit bewildered about what we were doing there. We reached a stilt house village and met the Barangay Captain at his Sari-Sari store. He again told us about the dredging and arranged for a banka to take us across the dike. My shortest banka ride yet here in the Philippines, about 5 meters. By then all hardships getting there were forgotten, because on the other side of the dike, the Chinese Egrets were waiting for us. Lots of them.
The beach looked like a garbage heap. Not the kind of area you would think of as a bird refuge. I'm not saying that the birds like the garbage (unless it's edible) but it keeps the people away, and as bad as it looks it gives the birds some space. The currents in Manila bay go counter-clockwise, bringing tons of garbage. As a result, all good beach resorts are south of Manila, and the best birding spots are to the north (Puerto Rivas in Bataan has been coming out as no 1 (in the Philippines) in the Asian Waterbird Census for years.)
The egrets were being totally insensitive about our efforts to count them and kept flying back and forth leaving Lala with a lot of addition or subtraction posts in her notebook. My suggestion to shoot them after they had been counted (to avoid any double-counting) did not go well with the others. Some people just can't think outside of the bomb....box!
A small plover with an orange head gave us some identification problems. The first call was Kentish Plover, but there was no black on the neck so we had to decide on either Lesser or Greater Sand-plover. After much deliberation on whether the neck, bill and legs were slightly longer or shorter, or the head was slightly rounder or more angular, compared to a bird which we only had a picture of, we settled for Greater Sand-plover. Later on Des caught up with us and provided a much easier identification technique. If the bill is half the length of the head, it is a Greater Sand-plover, if the bill is a third the length of the head it's a Lesser Sand-plover.
The egrets caught the most attention, but a cloud of around 2000 terns who were having a feeding frenzy out at sea, and small numbers of waders; Redshanks, Greenshanks, Terek Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers and Sand-plovers were adding diversity. Almost at the end of the shoreline, the majestic Far Eastern Curlew offered us a great view.
At the end of the mangroves we turned east. Again, we had to go around a bit since the good people who were preparing a dump site in midst of the mangroves and fish ponds would not let us pass through their area. The fishpond area offered more kingfishers, swallows and reed-warblers. The Striated Herons were abundant. Another cloud of terns were having another feeding frenzy. We happily left the counting to our president, who had been assigned with the terns. Propgerry discovered a Black-Crowned Night Heron in a tree just above us. When we passed back between the fishponds a single Black-Headed Gull landed on the water on the right side and three small "ducks" plunged down on the left side. The "ducks" turned o to be Little Grebes, according to Lala the first record of them on this site. Just 50 meters ahead a lone Marsh Sandpiper in a flock of Greenshanks added a new species to our list. After some 6 hours in the baking sun we reached the cool, soothing environment of our fossil-fuel driven metal containers, commonly known as cars, and headed home. A great day to be alive./J.