Chasing Pato Tsinas in Naujan

I almost laugh when I heard the folks say, “Pato Tsinas.” It even went crazier when WBPP Fellow Bj Capacite, Jr. pronounced Naujan as “Naw-dyan” giving a Chinese tone to the lake’s name. Pato Chinas are what the common folks call the Tufted Ducks that regularly winter by the thousands in Naujan Lake.

In the year 2000, about 12,000 pato tsinas have been counted in the lake. From 2001 to 2008, the annual count was always above 10,000 ducks. Last January 21, 2014, however, only about 5,250 were counted. Makes one wonder why the decline in the bird census in the lake.

Peter Steven and Mark Wallbank of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) reported, “The Tufted Ducks were in several rafts of 500+ birds, and one large raft of around 3000. Care was taken not to double-count the birds as they were put up by the boat. Interestingly they seemed less skittish than last year, allowing us to approach much closer than last year, which was necessary to confirm that there were no other species mixed in with them. Perhaps a sign that there really is no hunting?” 

The annual visit of the thousands of pato tsinas in Naujan Lake, as part of the migration flyway, was one of the important factors that made the lake a Ramsar site, a wetlands of international importance.

The common folks are so used to the pato tsinas that they never bother to observe them. They have have been a part of their way of like, and often playfully ram their motorized towards a flock that blocks their way, but the ducks just fly away and then return later.

The flocks of pato tsinas from afar can be seen as dots that are floating on the water. As we come near them, I was reminded of the scene of the allied forces’ invasion at Normandy – the number of ships were just like the pato tsinas that dotted the seas.

As our banca approaches the flock, the birds began to fly away from us. Contrary to the report of Peter and Mark that they could be approached, the pato tsinas seemed so skittish that day. We were still about 50 meters when they started flying away. Maybe the noise of our motorized banca, its big size and the number of people aboard all wearing neon bright-colored life vests scared the hell out of them.

The adult male Tufted Duck is all black except for white flanks and a blue-grey bill. It has an obvious head tuft that gives the species its name. The adult female is brown with paler flanks, some have white around the bill base.

Getting clear and sharp photos aboard a motorized banca in rough waters is near impossible. MBCFI Project Manager and WBPP Fellow Djop Tabaranza said we got steady hands, to which I replied, “No no no, it’s not about steady hands steady as a rock… When the banca moves, the waves move, the birds move, everything is cancelled out by the other, and then the camera’s IS does its works! Ha ha ha! The only effort that the photographer must do is to make sure those birds are inside the small frame and that when the shutter is clicked, they are in focus! Sounds easy eh?”

I continued, “And then you constantly pray that you don’t fall outside of the banca in the process! Ha ha ha! ‘Cause you will be confused if your hand will hold something attached to the banca like a wood to keep you steady, or hold the lens/camera and start clicking! Then the rains will come and pour down unto you, and then the waves will splash waters all around! Crazy!” WBPP President Rey Sta Ana explained this as, “Once again the sheer ecstasy of bird photography.”

As we approached a big congregation of pato tsinas that dotted the waters ahead of us, we saw a rainbow at our left. I tried getting aframe using my long lens, but I could only frame a portion of it. A shorter or wider lens could have captured the magical moment. The rainbow reminded me of God’s covenant to Noah after the big flood.

And then hundreds, nay thousands, of ducks began to rise and fly like a swarm dotting the mountain behind. Ten years ago, that was 2004, I saw this very scene in Candaba Swamp but which I never saw again until today. They were more in numbers this time, and they made a wall blanketed the mountain with their wings and bodies.

Note. The photo above is composed of two frames taken in a burst stitched together.

They rise and fly as one big congregation, like a swarm of bees, the pato tsinas flexed their wings and easily lifted their bodies high above the waters and away from us.

Note. The photo above is composed of two frames taken in a burst stitched together.

Above the mountains they fly higher circling that part of the lake and then landing on the far left near the other end of the rainbow. What a sight to behold, totally unexpected in this trip.

Note. The photo above is composed of two frames taken in a burst stitched together.

When told of the thousands of ducks in Naujan Lake, I was imagining photographing them as our motorized banca is moving parallel to their flying flocks. That could have been a wonder moment where precious photographs may be taken. But alas, that was just a dream.

Since we could not come near the ducks, we tried photographing them as they take off from the waters. We noticed that they fly with their feet paddling the water surface as their wings flap. They resemble the airplanes needing a long runway in taking off and leaving traces of disturbed waters behind them. The water splash becomes added element that make the photos dynamic and livelier.

Best photographs taken during this photosafari will be exhibited at the Provincial Capitol and other public places to celebrate the World Wetlands and Earth Days on February 2 and April 22. MBCFI believes that photographs depicting stunning images of birds and biodiversity are powerful tools that can evoke emotions from the viewers. Moreover, when these images placed in the context of conservation can move the public into concrete conservation action. Appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of Mindoro’s biodiversity will raise public awareness and consequently the public’s concern for the biodiversity conservation. WBPP believes so too. We call this Conservation Photography.

Many thanks to the Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc. (MBCFI), the provincial government of Oriental Mindoro (environment and tourism offices), and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in the province and in Socorro for partnering with WBPP in this endeavor.

Thanks Djop for bringing WBPP in Naujan Lake and Oriental Mindoro! Olan Balbido is the other WBPP Fellow that joined us in this trip.

All photos were taken haldheld aboard a moving motorized banca using Canon EOS 7D + EF 300mm L USM IS + 1.4x Teleconverter.

See also Part I Birds at Naujan Lake and Part III Close Encounters with Mindoro Birds.