New birds and plants in August

One of the great things about moving back and forth between Batangas and Alabang is that whenever you visit, everything looks strikingly fresh and new again. Each time we go to the refuge, it feels like there’s something new to see, discover, observe, and document.

EDIT: We thought we had a new bird for the farm bird list. Tonji thought it was a Black-chinned Fruit Dove but now he is not so sure. We will not count it as Bird #103 because the ID seems questionable. I think it is most likely a Pink-necked Green pigeon.

We had a new bird for the farm bird list. This is a Black-chinned Fruit Dove Ptilinopus leclancheri. It’s a fairly big dove. I saw it while walking with the dogs and wasn’t able to get better photos. I thought it looked familiar, but couldn’t really place what it was. I showed the photo to Tonji about a week later when we were already back in Alabang. He said, “That’s a Black-chinned Fruit Dove, what else could it be?” Yey, bird #103 for the refuge!

a dove, backlit and with a weird pose!

Bats are a very common and plentiful in Alabang, but there were only a few of them in the refuge. We thought that we had very few bats because we didn’t have enough big trees that the bats could use as roosts. This year all of a sudden, this year we have a lot of bats! It seems that the new swimming pool brought in the bats! We see them flying over the pool and dipping into the water. Good thing we are using a copper-based, non-chlorine pool system.

We saw a Lesser Short Nosed Fruit Bat Cynopterus brachyotis roosting in a tree with an aratiles in its mouth. Tonji was cutting the grass when he spotted the bat and told he to look at it. When I saw it, I thought the fruit was a giant tooth! I was wondering if I should stop Momo from foraging for fallen aratiles fruits near the bat.

Lesser Short Nosed Fruit Bat

Our Ipil tree has flowers! This is one of the birthday trees that our daughter Monica gave us for our 49th birthdays in 2014. This was our first time to see this tree flowering. It is so cool when a tree you planted flowers and you get to collect the seeds and plant more trees! Ipil trees have big seeds that germinate well. I hope this tree produces lots of seeds!


Tonji found a new flowering plant while cutting the grass in the paddock.

Tonji: What is this plant?
Me: Looks like talong (eggplant).
Tonji: How can it be talong, it looks like a tree!
Calls for Ambet.
Tonji: Ambet, please look at the plant. What is it?
Ambet: Tawag namin diyan talong-talongan.
Tonji: Ano??
Me (under my breath): TALONG!!


Sometimes you see birds that look “new” and you get all excited. But on closer inspection, turn out to be young birds.

Bright-capped Cisticola, immature

Or faraway young birds.

Asian Glossy Starling

Some things remain the same. Like the amount of time I spend trying taking pictures of Red-Keeled Flowerpeckers. You know when they are around because they have a distinctive call like pebbles being tapped together. When we were starting out with bird photography, a friend brought us to his mechanic’s house so we could take pictures of Red-Keeled Flowerpeckers up close and at eye level. The birds were feasting on aratiles fruit and didn’t mind us being around and taking their pictures.

Now we have our own aratiles trees and we have Red-Keeled Flowerpeckers visiting the trees. But the birds in our place do not behave like the ones in that mechanic’s house. Ours don’t stay put and are often even hard to spot. They are my bird photography nemesis. One of them, because there are others! So far this is one of my best attempts.

Red-keeled Flowerpecker

When I’m walking on our trails I tell myself “I am open to the possibility of seeing something awesome”. And I really believe it!

Bird Stories

Story #1

I was taking pictures of the Pied Harrier when I saw a smaller bird zip by. I snapped a few shots of the smaller bird. When I looked at the photos, I couldn’t tell what it was. I sent the pics to top birder Rob Hutchinson for ID. He said it was definitely a falcon but not a Peregrine or Kestrel. He said it was possibly an Amur Falcon or Northern Hobby, except that my photos were too far and blurry to confirm an ID!

I almost, maybe had a lifer at the refuge!

Story #2

The next week while we were scanning the skies hoping to see the possible Amur Falcon or Northern Hobby, we saw a Brahminy Kite. Being the trigger-happy photographers we are, we snapped away at the Brahminy Kite.

At first it looked like it was flying with its legs dangling.

my, what long legs you have

Then we saw that it was carrying something. Hard to tell what it was carrying, maybe it was a chicken.

The following week, Tonji saw one of our neighbors. One of his chickens was missing! Our neighbor thought someone either stole it or set a trap for it. Tonji said that sure, maybe one of those trappers got it. That’s all he said.

Story #3

Tonji was walking back to the cottage when he saw a mouse impaled on a tree branch. When he reached the cottage he told me about it and we went back out so he could show it to me. When we got to the tree it was gone. He said that it was probably a Long Tailed Shrike that impaled the mouse. It was watching him when he went to inspect it and maybe it moved it or ate it after he left.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to see the mouse, impaled through the eye and all. I didn’t think a Long Tailed Shrike could catch a mouse! Lizards and frogs, yes. But I was surprised that it could get a mammal! Our bird reference book the Kennedy guide says that Long Tailed Shrikes eat insects and small vertebrates. We also have Brown Shrikes and the book says that they eat large insects, small birds, and possibly mammals.

The following day I was clearing overhanging dead branches near the horse poop compost area and saw a mouse impaled on a tree branch! This one was long dead and eaten.

I believe that this is graphic confirmation that Shrikes can catch mice!

Story #4

This week Tonji found half a crow in the grass. He was on the Day 2 of building Pond #7 when when he found a dead crow that looked like it was cut in half. He showed it to me, but I didn’t take pictures. The strange image stuck in our minds though. What could have done that to a crow. A crow! They are big, tough, and travel in groups called a murder of crows!

A few mornings later while Tonji was preparing our morning coffee, a Grass Owl flew in front the cottage. What a treat for us to see an owl in the morning.

Then a Pied Harrier flew into view. They were both probably hunting for mice!

Then Crows flew in and started chasing the Pied Harrier. They were very insistent.

Pied Harrier being mobbed by a Crow

They were doing the same thing the previous week, mobbing the Grass Owl and Pied Harrier. The crows were so aggressive towards the Pied Harrier I thought they might have permanently driven the Pied Harrier away.

Pied Harrier and Grass Owl flying together. This was from the previous week.

Sudden realization! The Pied Harrier probably ate the half Crow! That’s why the Crows are attacking the Pied Harrier. If a Brahminy Kite can catch a chicken and a Shrike can catch a mouse, surely a Pied Harrier can catch a Crow!

And that’s the story of how Half Crow Pond got its name.

Easy Vermicomposting with African Night Crawlers

I am using African Night Crawlers to turn this

horse poop compost

into THIS!

worm poop

The worms are turning horse poop into worm poop!

Worm poop or vermicast is called black gold by gardeners and farmers. Simply by eating and pooping, worms are able to convert a wide variety of things into an excellent, all natural, complete fertilizer that improves the structure of the soil and makes it hold more water.  Unlike chemical fertilizers, vermicast is safe both for plants and people. It is a living product that contains beneficial microorganisms that help the plants absorb the nutrients in the soil.

If you like to garden, then vermicast is an great product to have! We set up big vermicompost bins in the farm in 2013. They eventually failed. I like to think of my current set up as the easy way to do vermicomposting.

The Basics of Easy Vermicomposting:

  • Choose the right worms
  • Choose the right bin
  • Use compost for food and bedding
  • Keep it nearby for easy maintenance and harvesting


You need to start with the right type of worms. The local earthworms in the Philippines are not suitable for vermicomposting because they burrow deep in the soil. In the Philippines we use African Night Crawlers Eudrilus eugeniae. 

They are ideal for worm farming because they

  • don’t burrow deeply
  • go to the surface to deposit their poop
  • live in colonies
  • feed voraciously
  • like to live in aged manure
  • reproduce quickly
  • tolerate heat well

The main disadvantage of African Night Crawlers are that they can’t tolerate cold weather. Some say they also have a tendency to escape or roam, especially after harvesting.

Worm Bin

My first worm bin was very big and had no flooring. It just had cement block walls. This made it easy for the worms to move out and for ants and other insects to move in! It’s much easier to control the living environment of the worms if you choose your bin carefully. Things to look for in a worm bin:

  • doesn’t let light in, not transparent
  • has drainage holes
  • can control temperature, not too hot or cold
  • has a floor
  • can control moisture, not too wet or dry

There are many things that can be made into a worm bin!

The Basic Bin
A big drum that was cut in half with drainage holes drilled into the bottom. You can buy these used, make sure it was used to store food not chemicals! There is a sack lining the bottom and another sack to cover the top. It is under a roof so it gets shade from the sun and rain.

IMG_3632 2.jpg

The Higher Capacity, Stackable Bin
Same handy blue drum, this time cut lengthwise, with drainage holes drilled at the bottom. It also has the sack liner and sack cover. It’s not as stable as the Basic Bin. It needs a shelf to keep it from rolling around!

IMG_3633 2.jpg

The Super Deluxe Barrel Bin
An old wood barrel that was converted into a worm bin! These barrels were used to store rum. They look so much better than the blue barrels and sacks! It’s also nice and dark inside. The main disadvantage of these barrels is that they are expensive! But they are so much cuter! They are also more insulated than the plastic drums.


I used the sacks to line the blue bins to prevent the worms from escaping and so I could lift out the contents easily. They are probably not necessary.

Compost for Food and Bedding

Worms need air, food, and moisture. Worms breathe through their skin. They can suffocate if their bedding gets to compacted, if you give them oily food, if you put in too much food in their bin and the food goes bad, and if their bedding is too wet. The ideal moisture level is 60-80%.

Here is the easy way to avoid these problems:

  • Use fresh compost as both their bedding and food. Nothing will go bad!
  • Don’t make your bedding more than 6 inches deep.
  • Use a watering can when you water the bins to keep the soil from getting compacted.
  • Use rainwater if your water is chlorinated. If rainwater is not available, you can put tap water in an open container and leave it out for 24 hours to remove the chlorine.

I use freshly composted horse manure. It works out well for me since we have a lot of horse poop and grass at the farm. Instead of waiting for several months for the horse manure compost to cure, I can give it to the worms and have ready to use vermicast in a short while. Manure from pigs and cows also works well for vermicomposting.  I haven’t tried using other types of compost as bedding, so I’m not sure how that will work.

Maintenance and Harvesting

These compost bins are in the city house, not at the farm so I can check on them regularly. A healthy bin should feel moist and have no smell.

Then it’s the fun part — harvesting! There are many methods of harvesting.

Top harvesting – The easiest way to harvest is to wait for the worms to produce a thick and even layer of vermicast at the top of the bin. Then use your hand to sweep the castings into a pile and then scoop it out. It’s also gentle, you don’t have to handle the worms too much, or crush them by accident.

Dry and sift –  let the bin dry out to 30-40% moisture and then sift the entire thing.

Migration method –  put the bottom layer on top of a screen that’s on top of a new layer of horse poop compost. Put everything under the sun. Wait a few hours until the worms move down to the new layer of compost. Sift the now worm-free compost that’s on top of the screen. If most of the old layer looks like compost, you can just skip the sifting part and harvest everything.

Combination – you can do top harvesting until most (80-90%) of the horse poop compost has been consumed and harvested. Then you can sift the bottom layer or just put the bottom layer, worms and all at the top of a new pile of fresh horse poop compost.

nice, even layer of vermicast ready for harvesting

A wire mesh file basket makes a good sifter

But, is it vegan?

It is not vegan since vermicast is a by-product of an animal. It’s not at the level of bees and honey though. With bees, you harvest food that they produced for themselves. With worms you harvest their poop, which they do not need or use. Ideally, you would keep the worms in the ground in your garden instead of contained in a box. However, that would add another issue of introducing non-native worm species to the soil.

I am trying to take care of my worms as well as I possibly can. I do my best not to kill any worms when I harvest the castings. I also think their living conditions are quite good and their food is what they would naturally like to eat.

UPDATE: My African Night Crawlers now live in a raised bed on the ground! Read the updated post: Worm Composting Update. Now Even Easier.

Mystery of the Scattered Feathers

We were checking out one of the fields when we came across a sad sight. Lots and lots of feathers strewn all over the grass. We were in the field where the owls are often seen and these were owl feathers. There were small, downy feathers on top of clumps of grass. There were a few big feathers. But there was no blood or any owl body parts. Continue reading “Mystery of the Scattered Feathers”