WBCP member Randy Weisser shares a very personal account of what raptor watching is and why he loves it!
by Randy Weisser
I love that story about a WBCP member laying on his back out at a Tanay resort swimming pool and seeing the raptors fly by overhead on their way to China. What a great way to finally begin piecing together the flight route of migrating raptors in the Philippines. Even people who have lived their entire lives in the Tanay area were so surprised to learn that raptors have been silently passing overhead every spring and fall, by the thousands, for generations. And now, with that resort discovery, the Tanay Pagasa Weather Tower has become the most visited raptor watching spot in the Philippines. That’s where my wife and I were introduced to raptor watching several years ago by WBCP members.
Now raptor watching time is on us again. For those who missed the arrival of the raptors last fall, you can watch them now, in March and April as they head back north again. This is truly one of the greatest bird watching events in the Philippines.
Let me tell you what has so attracted me personally to raptor watching. First of all, I love the unsolved mysteries. King Solomon said, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings (and birders) is to search out a matter.” And there is so much to search out when it comes to raptor migration in the Philippines.
For example, where exactly do the raptors make landfall in Philippines? Every fall, raptors congregate at the southern tip of Taiwan, in Kenting National Park, before beginning their 400 km flight across the ocean to the Philippines. The well documented numbers have reached up to 50 thousand per day leaving Taiwan during the peak of the migration.
I think it’s probably safe to say that when the raptors return to Taiwan in the spring they leave the Philippines from a few particular points of land on the north shore of Luzon. But even though efforts have been made, those departure points are still waiting to be identified. It will most likely be a WBCP member who makes this important discovery.
Not only do we not fully know the departure points from Luzon, almost the entire route, or routes, from Tawi Tawi up to Batanes, are waiting to be mapped in by WBCP members. In Taiwan and Japan they call the Philippines the Black Hole of the Asian raptor migration route. That’s the challenge before us. We need to rise to the challenge. Or, even better, assign each WBCP member a resort with a swimming pool, where we can lay on our backs and wait for the raptors to fly over.
One of the challenges in raptor watching is the identification of birds that are passing by overhead at the farthest edge of binocular view. But this is also part of the attraction for me. As with other kinds of bird watching, identification gets better with practice. Joining with Alex and Tere and other experienced birders can really help shorten the learning curve.
After a few trips, even us novice raptor watchers can soon start to sort out the larger raptors– the Oriental Honey Buzzard with it’s long “chicken” neck, the local Crested Serpent Eagle with it’s distinctive wing bars, and the Osprey with it’s flying-M shaped wings.
The biggest numbers overhead by far are the Chinese Goshawks and the Gray-faced Buzzards. If the Goshawks pass by close enough to see their black wing tips, then I know what to record. But at a far distance, right on the edge of imagination, its much harder to sort out the Goshawks from the Buzzards. One advantage that we have is that they migrate separately, a few weeks apart. That is an important id aid.
Lastly, one of the most fascinating things that I have learned about raptors is how they make use of thermals to complete their journey of thousands of kilometres. We all know, from watching hot air balloons, that heated air rises. In the same way, when the morning sun begins to warm the surface of the earth, the air begins to rise, creating an atmospheric elevator, called a thermal.
When we see the bigger flocks approaching the Pagasa Weather Tower, they may be strung out in a long shimmering row across the sky, all at the same altitude. They may look like they are maintaining their altitude, but they are actually in a gradual downward descent. Then, when they detect a thermal, they break formation and begin to slowly circle within the thermal, riding it up to gain altitude. Soon a whole column of raptors are rising up and up and up within the thermal, sometimes until they are almost out of sight. And then, one by one, they began to peel off at the top of the thermal, forming another long line of raptors heading to the distant horizon, or to the next thermal.
The first time I watched raptors rising so effortlessly on these thermals, I immediately thought of that long favourite verse from the Book of Isaiah. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. Isaiah was talking about those weary in the journey of life, those losing altitude so to speak. When we reach that point in our lives, it’s time to apply our lesson from the raptors, and let the Lord’s thermals carry us back up until we can once again head out to the destination He has prepared us for. More than 2500 years ago, Isaiah watched the eagles thermaling up and learned this life lesson. Our first known raptor watcher.
And now for what intrigues me most about these raptors. Why migrate in the first place? Surely everything they need is right here in the Philippines! What’s in China that can’t be found here? They must not have heard that raptor life (and raptor watching) is more fun in the Philippines.