Birds in our midst

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

ATTENDING the National Book Awards at the end of the year is always an interesting look-and-hear exercise at what new books have been published, what they are all about and who wrote and who published. Otherwise, one would not know the breadth of publications unless one visited the publishers’ bookstores, because for one reason or another some books never get out to the regular bookstores.

Naturally, academic titles prevail as most of the publishing houses are part of universities – history, sociology, literary criticism, science, literature. But there is much more—non-fiction prose, biography, art, graphic novels, children’s books, language, professions, food, translations, writing in Filipino and other Philippine languages, etc. For the latter, this year the language other than Filipino that was chosen to be featured was Waray with three entries for poetry. There was also a prize for book design.

Handbook of birds

Looking over the wealth of published offerings, I chose one to focus as a start – A Field Guide to Flight, Identifying Birds on Three School Grounds by Amado C. Bajarias, Jr. with paintings by Oscar Figuracion, Jr. published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. It is a soft-cover handbook of birds found in three school grounds in Metro Manila.


The three school grounds are those of UP Diliman, Miriam College and Ateneo de Manila, Loyola Heights, all in Quezon City with more or less contiguous campuses (though Katipunan Avenue separates UP from the other two).

Bajarias is an experienced birdwatcher having worked for Haribon and concentrated on bird-watching and cataloguing, together with eminent birdwatchers from here and abroad. He is familiar with the catalogues of Philippine birds over the decades and has his own experience to match.

The book not only has the photos of each bird recorded but each bird is drawn beautifully and correctly by Figuracion, a son of an artist from Davao who learned to sketch and illustrate birds and butterflies from his father who specialized in nature scenes. He has worked for Dioscoro Rabor, the renowned wildlife biologist as an artist at the Natural Science Museum at the Mindanao State University and many other projects.

Life-altering

Birdwatching is a singular experience that can be life-altering, according to Bajarias. As he says “Knowing an animal’s name changes how you feel about that bird and the place where you saw it. Knowing what an animal is called plucks it from the confounding messiness of nature and brings it to sharp focus, making it special. You want to learn more. You start caring….”

A total of 683 species of birds representing 90 families have been seen in the Philippines. This is from the checklist of the Wildlife Bird Club of the Philippines. Out of the 683 species, 113 have been reported from the three campuses which together comprise 594 hectares, with UP having the biggest, at. 493 hectares.

Bajarias sketches each campus detailing the terrain and the built areas. He also gives an introduction on how to identify birds with appropriate sketches indicating parts of their bodies, details of their heads, limbs, feathers, wings. He also shows how they fly – straight and fast or dipping up and down in the air. He shows the type of wings – long and rounded, or sharp and pointed, their beaks, etc. It is a detailed introduction with illustrations of the terms of bird topography. Markings and patterns, life cycles, vocalizations are itemized. He also tells you what to look for in birds and how birdwatching contributes to science. By this time, birdwatching is already an attraction the reader cannot forego. Bajarias then thoughtfully tells you how to conduct yourself as a birdwatcher which is all about respecting birds and not disturbing and disrupting their daily life. There are notes on what to wear (dark colors) and what equipment you should have, the most important of which is a pair of binoculars. Birds do not go near a birdwatcher so binoculars are necessary to catch their features and be able to identify them. As I mentioned, there are photos of each species but Figuracion’s drawings are what tells you what to look for.

A revelation

There are birds in my garden which I have been watching for some time and which I have come to know – the white-throated kingfisher, the black-naped oriole, even some crows because I live next to the WackWack (after uwak, for crow) Golf Course. But Bajarias’ book, which is basically a handbook, is a revelation of how many more feathered beings are around.

For example, at Hole #14 of the Manila Golf Club course in Makati, there is what I now know is a little egret (in Tagalog tugak) which can be a resident or migrant (from winter climes). It comes in the winter months from way up north, probably the Asian continent, and settles near the pond where it eyes us as we try to drive our balls over the water. This egret and another called cattle egret can be seen riding carabaos or following goats in the countryside. They are basically winter sojourners.

Another bird that looked like a wild chicken to me, which I have seen on golf courses in the city, is the buff-banded rail (tikling-kilayan) which likes to be in marshy or wet places. It prefers to run rather than fly. It is not too common a sight so when it appears looking like a chicken, it caught my eye just as I hit the golf ball which fell into the water, as it distracted me. It probably laughed.

Then there is the family of swiftlets, bluish-black and known in the vernacular as laying-layang, flying about in mixed groups. They fly fast with acrobatic wings and are quite small. They are not uncommon in open areas.

The collared kingfisher (salaksak) is a familiar sight all over the country from the mountains to the coasts.
Turquoise upper part and white below. It is a beautiful bird which awes no matter how often one comes across it. On the golf course, it makes a staccato racket that seems like it is laughing at your golf errors.

Looking closer at the birds illustrated, I recognized the golden-bellied gerrygone (pipit-hakaw) which I see in the garden in Baguio. It is a small songbird that warbles pleasantly. It dashes here and there and does not stay still on a branch for one to get a good look. But its lemon yellow underparts are quite visible and tell you where it is.

Another one with a yellow underpart is the olive-backed sunbird (pipit-parang) which has olive-green feathers in the upper part, blue-black throat and iridescent breast. It has a high-pitched call and sometimes seems to chatter. Also, aubiquitous presence near trees.

Birds are friends

Then, of course, there is the unmistakable black-naped oriole (kilyawan) that is large enough to see as a yellow streak through the trees while it whistles. It is comparatively large with an undulating flight (up and down). For me it is a joy to see when it is flying among the trees in my garden. Really, as Bajarias says, when you know,
you care.

Not to be ignored is the zebra dove (bato-batong katigbe), a small ground dove. It is often on the ground. The head and face are gray, the upper parts and sides barred black with a long brown tail that has white at the tips. It is friendly and says ku-ru-koo-took as it walks about even with people around.

Birds are friends, we have to treat them as such by looking out for their environments to be safe, their habitats to be undisturbed and their lives to be free. They do us good and we should return the favor.

Thank you Messrs. Bajarias and Figuracion for bringing them up close enough to know them better and appreciate them more.

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