Friday, October 21, 2011

La Union surfing fun

I've been waiting for the waves to pick up a bit at nearby San Juan beach, La Union, Philippines. On a recent weekend (September 25th), the waves were decently sized enough, and I had fun aiming my birding gear at waveriders.

This surfer looks stoked, enjoying the waves under the early morning sun.

Shooting info - San Juan, La Union, Philippines, September 25, 2011, 1D4 + 500 f4 IS + 1.4x TC, 700 mm., f/7.1, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, manual exposure, 475B/516 support, AWB.

Our indigenious food, in plastic bags

Whenever I find myself in my native La Union province (northern Philippines), the first place I visit is the local market to buy foodstuff that I've relished since childhood.

The vegies are still as fresh as ever, being sold barely a couple of hours after leaving the farm. But alas, everything is now packed in non-biodegradeable plastic bags, which will eventually clog up our waterways.

In this snapshot, one buyer is holding a 5 peso coin (USD 0.11) to pay for the bunch of ampalaya leaves (aka bitter gourd plant, sc. name Momordica charantia). These leaves go well with our native recipe of free-range chicken soup, providing a distinctive flavor that we so treasure.

Incidentally, the bitter gourd fruit/leaves have been discovered to have amazing medicinal properties, particularly for the treatment of diabetes. Concentrated extracts are now commercially sold in tablets as herbal medicine. For us natives of northern Philippines, we eat this plant for the taste..... the medicinal value is just a newly discovered bonus.

Shooting info - Bangar town market, La Union, Philippines, October 16, 2011, 7D + Sigma 10-20, 10 mm, f/7.1, ISO 320, 1/60 sec, hand held, available light, uncropped full frame.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The uncommon Flaming Sunbird

Philippine sunbirds are mostly diminutive in size, and the Flaming Sunbird is no exception. At a mere 95 mm (3.75 inches) total length, it is one tiny bird. Even with a 700 mm lens, I needed to get close to decently fill the frame with the subject.

I got the chance to do this at Mt. Makiling in 2007 when a patch of bird-of-paradise plants were abloom at the lower slopes of the enchanted mountain. A wide variety of sunbirds descended on the flowers to sip nectar, and I had a field day shooting the tiny beauties up close .

Endemic to the Philippines, the Flaming Sunbird is found in Luzon, Catanduanes, Guimaras, Panay and Negros islands.


Flaming Sunbird (Aethopyga flagrans, male, a Philippine endemic)

Habitat - uncommon in forest, edge and second growth up to 1350 m.

Shooting info – Mt. Makiling, Laguna, Philippines, November 3, 2007, Canon 40D + EF 500 f4 L IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, 1/60 sec, f/6.,3 ISO 800, manual exposure in available light, 475B/3421 support. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Portrait of a Lowland White-eye

With a total length of only 102 mm (4 inches) and given its very active nature, this tiny avian dynamo is very tough to capture well.

This intimate portrait I got way back in 2005 at Tiaong, Quezon, was more of a lucky shot, considering the slow shutter speed used. I probably pressed the shutter button just at the moment when the bird was in between motions. The DOF at nearly 700 mm focal length, f/5.6 and close focusing distance was very thin, and I'm glad I managed somehow to focus precisely at the eye area of the active subject.

The Lowland White-eye is common in lowland second growth, scrub and gardens. It ranges in Luzon and Batanes group of islands. It is found mainly in the Philippines.


Lowland White-eye (Zosterops meyeni, a near Philippine endemic)

Habitat - second growth, scrubs and gardens.

Shooting info – Tiaong, Quezon, Philippines, November 27, 2005, Canon 350D + Sigmonster (Sigma 300-800 DG), 687 mm, 1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, 475B/3421 support, some tiny branchlets in the background were removed to improve aesthetics.


This large, bald-headed myna (292 mm total length) is found only in the Philippines and at Bangi Island off Borneo. It is common in forest, edge and clearings, where it perches in open on exposed dead branches. It ranges in most Philippine islands except the Palawan group.

A fruiting balete (local fig tree) at Mt. Makiling was the site of an avian feast way back in 2007. Multiple bird species of various sizes were gorging themeselves on the ripe fruits. Among the feasters was this individual that seemed to almost choke on a 10-mm diameter balete berry.

The Canon 350D's mild shutter slap helped tame camera shake at 1/100 sec shutter speed, which is slowish for the fully zoomed out, non-stabilized Sigmonster (800 mm).


Coleto (Sarcops calvus, a near Philippine endemic)

Habitat - forest, edge and clearings.

Shooting info – Mt. Makiling, Laguna, Philippines, January 2, 2007, Canon 350D + Sigmonster (Sigma 300-800 DG), 800 mm, 1/100 sec, f/8, ISO 800, manual exposure in available light, 475B/3421 support.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Grass-Owl in flight

I’ve been to Candaba wetlands dozens of times, and I usually stay in the area from dawn until well after sunset. But I’ve gotten near this night hunter in daylight only twice – both cases under the same lighting circumstances and similar time of day.

The late afternoon sun was covered by heavy clouds, making it appear that nightfall was coming in ealier than it should. Perhaps seeing that it was already dusk, the owl came out to hunt, flying low and silently over the grassy areas of the wetlands. Just before the sun disappeared in the western horizon, the clouds thinned somewhat, allowing some light to illuminate the place. This made it possible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the bird in the air.

This raptor acted like it was curious – it circled around and looked straight at me while I was trying to acquire focus in the low light. The out of focus grasses in the distance provided a pleasing creamy background to the nocturnal bird of prey.

Many of the shots were misfocused, probably because the dim light was straining the AF system or maybe because I was trembling with excitement as I was tracking the subject. Whatever the reason why I missed many frames, I wouldn’t know for sure. But I got at least one photo sharp, and this made me do the “dance of joy” once I confirmed the keeper in the 1D MII’s LCD.


Australasian Grass-Owl (Tyto longimembris, resident)

Habitat – Grasslands and canefields.

Shooting Info – Candaba wetlands, Pampanga, Philippines, May 27, 2008, Canon 1D MII + EF 500 f4 IS, f/4, ISO 800, 1/500 sec, 475B/3421 support, near full frame, manual exposure in available light, pushed +2/3 stop in RAW conversion.

A short video of the Australasian Grass-Owl.

Philippine Serpent-Eagle


I’ve spent a small fortune on birding gear, but the most published image I ever snapped was taken with a cheapo rig. Shot in jpeg. Using AI servo at f/8 when the camera was designed to autofocus down to f/5.6 only. Worse, the image was underexposed because I was in Av priority and I didn’t have time to dial in some exposure compensation.

I was standing on a ridge at Subic rainforest when I espied this raptor soaring nearly level with my position. Most of the shots were out of focus, as the ancient AF system of the 20D saddled with a non-reporting 1.4x TC could barely focus on a static subject, much less at a bird in flight. But in one critical frame, when the eagle banked with the distant Zambales mountains as background, the sluggish AF locked on magically and I got a decent shot.

This is one good example of a modest rig at the right place and time being better than a state-of-the-art gear with no photogenic shooting opportunity.


Philippine Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis holospilus, a Philippine endemic)

Habitat – Forest from lowlands to over 2000 m.

Shooting Info - Subic rainforest, Bataan, Philippines, June 2, 2005, Canon 20D + EF 400 5.6L + Tamron 1.4x TC, 560 mm, f/10, ISO 400, 1/1000 sec, hand held.

A fine balancing act

In bird photography, like in many other things in life, timing is everything.

A common migratory bird, perching uneventfully atop a bamboo pole by a fishpond, was pushed off-balance by a sudden gust of wind. The Canon 7D’s sensitive shutter button, almost instantaneous AI servo AF and 8 fps burst allowed me to grab an interesting frame from what was an ordinary looking scene moments before.


Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus, migrant, breeding plumage)

Habitat – Bays, tidal flats to ricefields.

Shooting info – Binmaley, Pangasinan, Philippines, April 22, 2010, Canon 7D + EF 400 2.8 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 475B/3421 support, 560 mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/2500 sec, manual exposure in available light.

Video of Whiskered Terns in flight.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A feathered Ballerina

These delicate looking birds are very shy in the usual places where I see them, like in nearby Candaba wetlands or at Manila Bay. However, in the fishponds of Sta. Cruz (Zambales), more than 300 km north of Manila, they’re quite approachable.

This capture is among my favorite photos of this migratory bird because of the take-off pose and the catch light. Likewise, the nearer wingtips are acting like a veil that tries unsuccessfully to hide the pretty face of the avian ballerina.

The Canon 1D MIV’s amazing AF and 10-fps frame rate were instrumental in nailing this shot.


Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus, migrant)

Habitat: Wetlands from coastal mudflats to ricefields.

Shooting info – Sta. Cruz, Zambales, Philippines, February 9, 2011, Canon 1D MIV + EF 500 f4 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3, ISO 800, manual exposure in available light, 475B/516 support.

Video of this bird foraging on a dried-up fishpond.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sometimes, size doesn’t matter

In the fast-paced world of raptors, large size doesn’t always translate to might.

I was on a routine visit to the Coastal Lagoon at Manila Bay to check out the water birds when I saw four Ospreys fishing at mid-morning. With the light already too harsh for shooting good photos, I settled on filming the Ospreys as they repeatedly dove into the water to try to grab some fish. Here are some footage of one of the Ospreys dive-fishing.

Suddenly out of nowhere, a Peregrine Falcon appeared and started harassing and chasing the larger raptors! The larger birds’ wingspan is about 1.35 m while that of the smaller bird is circa 0.915 m. The Falcon zeroed in on one of the Ospreys and literally flew circles around the larger bird, not unlike a jetfighter buzzing a heavy bomber. I was awe-struck with the spectacle, but I had enough presence of mind to switch my gear to a flight-shooting mode from filming mode.

One frame from a long burst miraculously got both birds within the DOF, but this was more due to a happy accident than a result of my shooting proficiency.


Osprey (Pandion haliaetus, migrant)

Habitat – Associated with water both along coast and inland.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus, resident/migrant)

Habitat – Wide variety of habitats, from along coasts to high mountains.

Shooting Info - Coastal Lagoon, Manila Bay, Philippines, January 4, 2011, Canon 7D + EF 500 f4 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 1/1600 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400, manual exposure, 475B/3421 support.

Little Heron coming at me

I was set up well for shooting birds in flight along the shore of the Coastal Lagoon last year when this Little Heron flew straight towards me. I remained motionless so as not to scare the bird, and apparently this worked – the bird continued with its flight path till it was very close.

I shot several long bursts at the incoming bird, and most of these are in good focus. Head-on flight shots are among the toughest AF job for any camera, and the 1D MIV worked beautifully even with a 1.4x TC on the 500 f4 IS. The critical focus plane was right on the head/shoulder area. At 700 mm, f/6.3 and 50 feet distance, there simply wasn’t enough DOF to keep the tail and feet sharp.


Little Heron (Butorides striatus, resident)

Habitat – Exposed coral reefs, tidal flats, mangroves, fishponds and streams.

Shooting info – Coastal Lagoon, Manila Bay, Philippines, July 6, 2010, Canon 1D4 + 500 f4 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, /6.3, ISO 400, 1/1600 sec, manual exposure in available light, 475B/3421 support, 15.3 m shooting distance, background is out-of-focus seawater.

Little Egret wingspread

When I get the itch to bird and can’t embark on an out of town sortie, I go to nearby Coastal Lagoon to get my fix.

There, less than an hour drive from where I live, common water birds abound and I try to catch them in action to make the photos a bit more exciting.

This Little Egret obliged me on one such quickie birding.

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta, migrant)

Habitat: Coastal marsh and tidal flats to ricefields.

Shooting Info – Coastal Lagoon, Manila Bay, Philippines, September 17, 2010, Canon 1D MIV + EF 500 f4 L IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, f/7.1, ISO 400, 1/1600 sec, manual exposure in available light, 475B/3421 support.

Manila Bay’s Little Egrets (short video).

Wagging a tail against the current

Like what its name implies, the Grey Wagtail continuously wags its rear as it forages along streams or on the ground.

This wagtail was walking against the current of a mini-dam’s spillway in Quezon province in March 2006. The bird’s almost non-stop motion presented a difficult shooting challenge – I needed a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject’s movement, but at the same time should be slow enough to blur the current and come out with a more dynamic-looking environment.

I settled for 1/100 sec and timed the shutter press when the bird momentarily paused every few steps. I got one shot sharp after many tries, and I’m glad there was strong eye contact plus a catchlight.

With its throat turning blackish, this individual was molting into breeding plumage. When breeding, a large area of the throat becomes black. The same throat area is white during non-breeding season.


Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea, migrant)

Habitat – Streams and forest roads at all elevations.

Shooting Info – Tiaong, Quezon, Philippines, March 25, 2006, Canon 20D + Sigmonster (Sigma 300-800 DG), 687 mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/100 sec, 475B/3421 support, near full frame, manual exposure in available light, pushed +1 stop in RAW conversion.

Some Grey Wagtail footage.

A worm too long

A common migratory bird, this Greater Sand-Plover had just snagged a long worm at a dried up fishpond in Tagburos, Puerto Princesa, when I snapped the photograph.

I always use AI servo AF for active birds on the ground, treating them similarly as I shoot birds in flight. The fast shutter speed freezes the action, AI servo assures correct placement of focus even when the subject moves, and M mode keeps the exposure of the bird optimized regardless of the changing background which can easily fool the meter.

The worm was too long to be ingested whole. Using its beak and some head jerking, the bird cut the invertebrate into shorter manageable pieces before swallowing. I reckon this bird hit the jackpot for the day as far as a juicy meal was concerned.


Greater Sand-Plover (Charadrius leschenaultii , migrant)

Habitat – Along the coast on exposed mud, sand and coral flats.

Shooting Info – Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, February 11, 2007, Canon 1D MII + EF 500 f4 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, f/7.1, ISO 320, 1/1600 sec, A328/3421 support, manual exposure in available light.

A wingspan of nearly six feet

I’m always amazed at the size of the Grey Heron. When I see a flock of these birds in the air, they look like a squadron of small planes flying in formation. These migratory waterbirds have the largest wingspan (1.78 m) of all the feathered subjects I’ve photographed so far.

Among Philippine birds recorded in the past and at present, the only ones with a larger wingspan are the Sarus Crane (2.20 m), Spot-billed Pelican (2.13 m), Great-billed Heron (1.90 m), and our national bird the Philippine Eagle (1.88 m) – all these behemoths I have yet to see afield.


Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea, migrant)

Habitat – Uncommon in wetlands.

Shooting Info – San Juan, Batangas, Philippines, February 12, 2010, Canon 7D + EF 400 2.8 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 475B/3421 support, 560 mm, f/5.6, ISO 250, 1/2000 sec, manual exposure in available light, near full frame.
Footage of a Grey Heron in flight.

Flying without wings

When our feathered friends are scarce, one way to save a trip is to take advantage of the capabilities of one’s bird-in-flight gear and shoot other subjects in motion.

Well, this fledgling can also soar in the air even without wings.

From afar, he looked like he was scarcely 5 feet tall and he must have weighed a bit south of a hundred pounds.

But oh boy, saying this kid can surf is like saying Michael Jordan knows how to play basketball!

Shooting Info - San Juan, La Union, Philippines, February 19, 2011, Canon 1D MIV + EF 500 f4 IS + Canon 1.4x TC II, 700 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, manual exposure, 475B/516 support.

Here are some footage of the young fellow playing with the waves in my native La Union.


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