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The species behind the binoculars


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Roadside birding somewhere along Marilaque Highway

Since 2019, when asked what I do, I reply, “English/Mandarin teacher and birdwatcher,” which always elicits a smile.  Hey, it’s a good introduction, and few people know that “bird” is also a verb. Birdwatching or birding has become a lifestyle for me because I try to do it once a week.  The Philippines now boasts 700 species with 241 endemics (found only in the Philippines), which is really mind-boggling for a lot of us who used to think we only had maya (sparrow), uwak (crow), kalapati (pigeon), and the Philippine eagle.

The bird you see for the first time in the wild (caged birds do not count) is called your “lifer.”  The bird that made you go “Wow!,” triggers your passion, and changes your life is your “spark bird.”  I like the definition of 10,  “the species that mutates one’s benign regard for nature into a seething, immoderate interest in avifauna.”

My spark bird is the kingfisher.  It was pointed out to me in UP Diliman, and I was stunned because all along, I thought it was only found in America.  The next shocker was that there’s more than one species of kingfisher!  What I saw was a White-Collared Kingfisher, but we have a Common Kingfisher, Indigo-banded Kingfisher, Silvery Kingfisher, etc. As of this writing, I have 160 birds on what is called a “life list”; 540 more to go.

A group of birders in Zamboanga

I love birds, but there is something else I find interesting about birdwatching: the species behind the binoculars.  I joined the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and met birdwatchers from all walks of life. We were strangers to each other, but our shared interest was enough for some experienced birders to go out of their way to take someone clueless like me and show me the ropes. They took me places, told me what birds I might see, gave me ID techniques, lectured me on how to do a bird count, narrated humorous anecdotes.  Every single trip I have ever been on has been filled with fun and adventure, even when I had no lifers, because of the company. Here are some of their stories.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom, a chemist by profession. I have been birding seven years now, ever since a friend invited me to join a guided trip.  My spark bird is what I mistakenly thought were hummingbirds, but an ornithologist friend pointed out that they were sunbirds!  I love birdwatching with my husband.  It’s a good time to unwind, to reflect, to commune with nature.  Birds are also a reminder that God watches over us. My most unforgettable experience was rescuing a trapped Philippine duck. Even after I freed it, it looked like it had lost its will to live, so my husband and I waited until it recovered and flew away.  The beautiful Philippine duck is my husband’s spark bird.” – Riza M.

Birding in UP Diliman

“I am a research associate at an Asean subsidiary in UP Los Baños. Bird photography became a hobby after I attended a workshop in May 2014, but it wasn’t until I joined the Bird Club in 2019, upon the invitation of one of its members, that I got into birdwatching.  My spark bird is the Yellow-Vented Bulbul, one of the first few species I recognized other than the usual maya.  I love nature, but only through the National Geographic Channel, because I am neither adventurous nor outdoorsy. Discovering we have so many bird species got me to venture outside the house.

“I am an empty-nester housewife. Church ministry and love for travel take up most of my time. I joined the Bird Club in 2015 as I needed an outlet for my appreciation for birds, and help in honing my ID skills. As a child who had no idea about conservation, I cared for caged birds, even bred them when I was in my 30s.  I had no spark bird, but a foreigner friend ignited the spark question: ‘So what birds do you have in the Philippines?’  I was dumbfounded. All I could think of was the maya. The bird which eventually became my spark bird was the Olive-backed Sunbird, which mesmerized me as it was feeding on a plant at eye level.  Birding gave me all the more reason to not be a stranger in my own land. Birding gives another dimension to visiting places that you’ve been before.  ‘Huwag maging dayuhan sa sariling bayan at kalikasan’ is my new motto.” – Cathy M.

Birding at La Mesa Ecopark on Black Saturday

“I am an emergency services officer of an international development bank. Different projects brought me to the countryside, complementing my love for the outdoors, with marine life as my preference. Birds appeared here and there, forming part of my memories, but an encounter with a Brown Shrike in 2010 sparked a desire to know more about these winged wonders. There’s more to Philippine birds than just the maya! I didn’t realize it then, but I started to ‘bird watch,’ and it felt really good—addictive, actually. I will never forget that time when I went solo birding in my favorite spot, and a big snake fell from a nearby tree!  Needless to say, I never returned to that place again.” –  Bayani B.

“I am in the catering business. I was not even fascinated with birds as a child. One day, I was requested to go on a birdwatching trip in my hometown for a group of Bird Club members in the summer of 2008. I joined that year. My spark bird is the Long-tailed Shrike. My most memorable experience is seeing a pair of Philippine eagles in flight in Mt. Talomo. The majestic flight from sea level to the upland forest was breathtaking. At that moment, I felt I was now the ultimate birdwatcher!” – Cristina C.

Feature image from

Photo of “Roadside birding somewhere along Marilaque Highway” by Mary June Bugante

Photo of “A group of birders in Zamboanga” by Nilo Esparaguera

Photo of “Birding in UP Diliman” by Gwen So

Photo of “Birding at La Mesa Ecopark on Black Saturday” by Tristan Mirasol

Read the full story on the lifestyle of birdwatching on Asian Dragon’s December 2019-January 2020 issue, available for order on Facebook and Lazada, or downloadable from Magzter.

For other related articles, see the link below:

More stories from behind the binoculars


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