Birding Tales: Remembering Ondoy

Exactly one year ago, 25th of September, 2009, a week was about to end. Dennis, my birding buddy, and I just acquired some new birding gear and for weeks we have been doing rigorous testing so we can familiarize the things we have. I just shifted then to a Canon system from a Nikon D300/D90/Sigma 150-500 rig and my new glass was giving me creeps as doubts came as to the sharpness of the lens. I suspected having a bad copy and I needed to do some serious testing to verify.

Few days prior, I was experimenting indoors trying to calibrate my new lens, finding ways and techniques to eliminate shake and vibration when shooting. I suspected the very slight blurring I get from my photos was caused by some shake. As the experimentation went smoothly, I figured easily how in-body lens AF calibration work and tried to eliminate shake by putting some 2 kilo bag of rice on top of the rig while shooting. After doing several indoor tests, it seems the weight of the 2 kilo bag of rice helped eliminate shake and does good with my non-IS (Image Stabilized) Canon EF 400mm f5.6L lens and EOS 50D. Of course I can’t bring along some bag of rice out in the field unless there is some cooking needed so I got myself a couple of 2-pound ankle/exercise weights used by athletes and concluded that shake can be stabilized faster with just the added 2 pounds. And I thought the approaching weekend was to be the perfect opportunity to try it on actual birding situations. So we did.

We wanted to go that weekend around the Paralaya, Candaba area. The weather forecast however was a stormy weekend, as a relatively weak storm Ondoy (International Codename : Ketsana) was just around the corner. We continued monitoring through the local news for weather updates and there was no clear advisory on the impending storm. Before nightfall, the weather bureau has downgraded Ondoy as a tropical depression. Rain was intermittent and quite moderate.

Just around dinner time, I got a text message from Dennis, confirming if we needed to push through with the birding trip. With caution, I texted back suggesting if we get the itch the next day, we will give it a go … rain or shine. We packed nevertheless and gotten ourselves battle-ready just in case we have that birdnut’s itch. The night went through with intermittent light to moderate rain.

2:00am, I woke up from a text message. Dennis was asking if we feel like going for it despite the rains. So I joked and told him “Kung konting ulan lang eh nde tayo lalabas, walang mangyayari sa atin” (translation: “if we easily get discouraged to go out due to some crazy rain, we will never achieve anything) in reference to a popular quote from one master bird photographer Romy Ocon. Romy was trying to encourage us to go out in the rain when we met him the first time some weeks prior (to test a pre-production Canon 7D) to the same place we planned to go. With the message, we heartily decided to push through despite the rains.

So I left Makati past 3:00am and drove straight to our agreed meeting place: McDonalds, Quezon Avenue corner EDSA. Dennis parked his car there and we boarded mine. Rain was very light so off we went hoping for another great birding day. Just as we approached the Balintawak cloverleaf, rain fell. It was crazy as it was strangely very heavy and road visibility was reduced to just about 5 to 10 meters. As we drove through NLEX, we thought it won’t be wise to proceed to Paralaya, Candaba where we could get stranded as the area has been prone to flooding even with little rain. It didn’t took us long to decide to instead proceed to Subic.

As we approached the other end of North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), rain stopped and we thought it was a good sign. We took the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and we reached Subic a bit late for birding around past 7:00am. No rain still and the Subic skies looked gloomy. We went straight to Nabasan trail of the forest.

Eerie was all we could describe when we finally reached our destination. The forest was so quiet, no wind, no chirps, no deafening insect sounds, no monkey chatters, nothing. On a normal day around this time, the forest would be bustling with all sorts of wild life and one could get drown from all sorts of forest sounds. We waited for an hour more and still nothing until we heard a couple of Brown Shrikes from afar. Something is wrong we reminded ourselves. It must be the approaching storm. That was probably past 8:00 in the morning.

As we waited some more, the wind started to get our attention. Not unusually strong, but was enough to tell us to pack up and leave. Then a few meters from us, a Brown Shrike perched. Sensing a fruitless birding day, we wasted no time in photographing one of the most common migratory birds in the Philippine shores. It flew just as we had a few shutter clicks. Shots were no good. We then proceeded to leave the area. After the Brown Shrike, we can only hear the wind as it intensified. Mindful of getting stranded in the forest, we decided to call it a day and headed for early lunch. We found ourselves at Gerry’s Grill situated along Subic’s waterfront area.

As we waited for our lunch to be served, we saw it on the restaurant’s TV that Metro Manila is experiencing some strange flash flooding. Then we started receiving disturbing text messages about the situation in the metropolis. Our loved ones advised us to stay put in Subic instead or risk getting stranded along the way if we go home early. As we monitor, news updates were increasingly becoming so disturbing. We saw on television flashes of images of heavy flooding in areas that were not known and prone to flooding before. Ondoy is unfolding to become one of the country’s record breaking storm.

Just as we were having lunch, one news item got our attention, then another, and then another. Shown on TV, the intersection of Quezon Avenue and EDSA was already waist deep and this is where McDonald’s is situated and where Dennis left his car. Dennis seem a very calm guy and he doesn’t seem worried about the fact that his car could already be submerged as we had our lunch. Rain kept on dumping record breaking volume of water. My other half also texted that water is also getting into their house, first a few inches deep and later about a foot .. it was the first time they were flooded she said. But there was nothing we can do but to hope and pray. We wished everyone to be safe and that my buddy’s car will be fine. Good thing though that my two sisters living in the metro were just as fine as well.

When we had the chance, we bulked up on gas from the nearby gas station just in case some emergency arises. We had ample supply of food and water, enough perhaps for at least the next 2 days. We then decided to just haul ourselves in the car listening to whatever news on AM radio while the wind and rain reached Subic. Occasionally, we got hungry and Gerry’s Grill was kind enough to have stayed open as others closed shop earlier than they used to.

Ondoy’s eye reached Subic around midnight. The wind was so strong we felt as if the car would flip over and belly up. Since we parked a few meters from the beach, we kept on checking if the bay’s seawater becomes a concern. Surprisingly, the waters along the bay were pretty normal … rough but not so rough. It gave me an idea how Subic Bay became one of the best harbors in the world. It is just simply immune to freakish storms. Our car was the only vehicle parked in that lot.

As I remember, I would drift into unconsciousness only to be awakened everytime the wind shakes the vehicle. I felt safe and sound in the driver’s seat and occasionally just waking up to check if we were ok. Dennis was probably doing the same too. I would occasionally text my fiancé and my sisters to check how things were with them. From time to time, I would start the engine just to be sure we can speed right away when necessary. By this time, Metro Manila is submerged in an unprecedented amount of flood water. Every time I tune in to the AM radio, everything and everybody is devastated. Some areas were flooded to the roof and scores of vehicles and debris where floating through the flood. Scores of deaths were also constantly reported. Ondoy just made its mark in the country’s history.

4:00am, we woke up, there was no wind and rain anymore. We got out of the vehicle and assessed what we have to do in the next hours. We checked the news, texted our loved ones that we are safe and sound and we thought we might as well do a couple of hours birding in the forest of Subic before we head back home to Manila. With the very gloomy situation awaiting for us in the metropolis, we might as well get something positive, something to tell that despite Ondoy, birdnuts’ lives go on.

Without wasting time, we stopped by Mini-Stop and had some hot noodles and headed back to Nabasan trail. Along the way, forest debris were strewn everywhere. We proceeded and waited on my favorite spot for the first light to break. I brought Dennis on a tree where I always predict for Sooty Woodpeckers to come out before day break. Told him we might have a big chance to take some good shots of these fellas. So we positioned our car and waited inside a few meters from the tree. At the break of dawn, we noticed some activity in the tree and bingo … three Sooties, hopping from branch to branch, as they emit their familiar calls. I was never wrong that the birds are there. This is the 4th time I got the Sooties at the same spot at the same time. Then we would rapidly shoot at them. The scene did not last a minute. Then the birds flew.

Here is one Sooty I got from that very memorable encounter. It looks fresh and unperturbed from the hellish storm that came the night before. This photo turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.

SOOTY WOODPECKER, Mulleripicus funebris, ENDEMIC, Male

Then nearby, a Brown Shrike, which seemed to have lost parts of its tail from the previous hellish night, perched from where the Sooties came. This must be the same Shrike we photographed badly a day before.

BROWN SHRIKE, Lanius cristatus

We roamed around for about an hour, and not many birds other than the occasional Brown Shrikes which we just ignored.

Then it drizzled. We thought we should not push our luck and instead head back home. That was past 7:00 in the morning. As we are about to go, another Brown Shrike came out and enjoyed the morning shower. We took a few shots and headed back home.

As we traversed the Subic forest roads on our way back, we were a bit sad knowing we will go home empty-handed. As we passed by the old Fed-Ex parking lot, we noticed some bird activity in the nearby forest. We stopped and checked a bit. We thought, hmmmm … Philippine Bulbuls, and plenty of them. We were about to proceed home when we spotted something different beneath the thick foliage. LIFERS!!!!!!!!!!! When the birds finally showed up, the frenzy started. Dennis hurriedly transferred to the back seat so we get equal viewing opportunities.


Here we got the Red-Crested Malkoha, a Philippine endemic and a photo-lifer to both us, that seem to perpetually move in and out of the foliage. Got lucky the bird decided to show itself enough for me to get a single decent frame.

RED-CRESTED MALKOHA, Phaenicophaeus superciliosus, ENDEMIC

Then a few meters from where our vehicle were, a kingfisher darted into a tree. I slowly moved near the tree and there was the kingfisher perched inside the dark recesses of the tree. Perhaps sensing it is camouflaged by the dense leaves and the absense of light, it stayed long enough for us to find a very minute opening so our lenses can penetrate. And here is something funny. The small opening only allowed either one of us to have a good view of the bird. When I have the view, Dennis, which was on the back seat wont be able to see the bird. I would alternately move the vehicle forward and back it up several times so both of us have the chance of shooting the bird.


Whew! Tough shot on this KF!

Then from nowhere, a Common Kingfisher showed up a few meters in front of us.


While we still have our hands full with the kingfishers, a couple of rather large birds flew by. A pair of hornbills. It was starting to rain heavily again and sensing we might lose the opportunity to shoot the hornbills, Dennis and I hurriedly abandoned the kingfisher and moved the vehicle a few meters away from the pair. With the rain as the backdrop, I got one of my favorite shots ever.

LUZON HORNBILL, Penelopides manillae, ENDEMIC

Still lightly raining, we stayed and shoot from inside the vehicle as I try to move the vehicle slowly as the birds move. Several species showed up all at once and it was like a frenzy that we got confused which ones to shoot first. As we chased the hornbills, there was a brood of Red Jungle Fowls, some White-collared Kingfishers and White-breasted Woodswallows and more Red-crested Malkohas. But we never got our chance to shoot them decently. The last bird shot we had was that of a Brown Shrike at almost 11:00am and we decided to call it a day.

We got back to the metropolis with scenes of heavy flooding along the way, with lots of debris left and right. We saw vehicles that bellied-up along the way. Surprisingly, NLEX was free flowing by the time we were there. We got to McDonald’s easily and Dennis had a big sigh of relief knowing his car was spared.
I went home safe and sound, with a bunch of photo lifers and a gear fully tested. It is unfortunate to know though that I have concluded to have a bad copy of the lens as I have to microcalibrate it to +8 with my 50D to get a really sharp image. To this day, that 2-lbs weight is a fixture inside my birding bag and a regular in my routine. It really eliminates shake faster than you can ever imagine. It is your poor man’s Image Stabilization package. I now fondly call it my ‘2 pound “rice”bag’. Birder friends call it the same too.

I hope Ondoy victims have recovered well after one year. Kung titiklop tayo tuwing may Ondoy, eh wala ng mangyayari pa sa atin!

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