My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather (Loire Hartwould) – all year round

Bird watching is a hobby of mine – although I’m not as active by any means as I was years ago growing up in the Staffordshire Moorlands, or when I was working in Costa Rica in the 1970s. I’ve never been a ‘twitcher’ however.

Costa Rica is a bird watcher’s paradise. In Turrialba where I used to live, it was not uncommon to see 40 or more different species just in our garden – humming birds, parrots, and toucans, and a range of migrants between North and South America. One Christmas Day (1979 I think it was) I took part in a bird count for the Audubon Society, and a group of us counted all the species we could (and approximate numbers per species) over a six  hour period in the Turrialba valley. We managed over 100 species between us, and my birding partner and I saw over 60! When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 I was hoping for a repeat of Costa Rica – the Philippines has a reported rich avian fauna. How disappointed I was over 19 years. Although we lived on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling, about 65 km south of Manila, which still had some virgin rainforest, in a gated community with many mature native trees (planted in the early 1960s) we actually saw very few different species in our garden, maybe fewer than ten over the entire time we were there. Indeed, one of my friends and former colleagues who grew up in Zimbabwe and is a much keener bird watcher than me told me that bird watching in the Philippines was ‘hard work’.

I now live on the east side of Bromsgrove, a small(ish) town in the northeast of Worcestershire, in the English Midlands. It only takes a few minutes, and I can be walking down country lanes, enjoying the tranquility of local farmland as well as the beauty of the towpath along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal that’s just over two miles from home. And it has been intersting to note and watch the various birds that visit our garden and surrounding houses on a regular basis, and the occasional surprise. So here is a brief account of what we see on a regular basis, and those additional visitors. I’m going to update this post as necessary when we see new species, or I want to comment on those species already recorded.

With permission I am including beautiful photographs taken by Northamptonshire amateur photographer Barry Boswell, and published on his website of British and European Bird Photographs. Just click on a thumbnail to view a larger image.

I’ve also made links for each species to the web site of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) where you can find more information and even audio of each species’ song, and also BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day.

Residents (which we see often in the garden)

Blackbird
One of the commonest birds in the UK, and very frequent in our garden. It’s not unusual for us to see three or four pairs in the garden at the same time, with males vying for females, and fighting among themselves. Also, there’s nothing quite like the song of the blackbird to raise your spirits. During August 2012 we’ve seen up to eight or nine individuals in the garden at the same time – mostly juveniles. We wonder if they are from the same nest. Certainly they are very active.


House Sparrow

A noisy little bird, now not as common as it once was. We have a small colony of perhaps half a dozen pairs that regularly come into the garden, but I’m not sure where they nest. Often thought as a rather drab bird, but just look at the plumage on an enlarged image.

Robin
The iconic British bird – a feisty creature. We seem to have a very healthy population of robins in the vicinity, and I often hear them singing ‘against’ one another. Although they are regular visitors to the garden, we often go several weeks without seeing any, and then they are back again.

Dunnock
Also known as the hedge sparrow, I think the dunnock is an underrated species. On a closer look, it has a nice plumage, with grey around the head and neck turning to brown on its back and wings. It’s very active in the undergrowth. We have a couple that regularly feed in the garden.

Great Tit
The largest of the four species of tit that regularly feed in the garden. In recent weeks (April-May 2012) we’ve seen two or three each day.

Blue tit
One of the ‘cheeky’ birds, blue tits are not as common or frequent visitors now than they were in the past. But small flocks – families – pass through from time-to-time.

Coal tit
There are a couple of individuals that regularly visit the seed feeder, and were especially frequent visitors during the coldest months of winter.

Long-tailed tit
The delightful little bird has made something of a comeback around here, and we see small flocks of six to ten individuals much more frequently than we did just a few years ago. The plumage is that delicate cinnamon pink, contrasting so well with the black and white. Barry Boswell’s photo is beautiful.

Wood pigeon
In some ways, the wood pigeon is one of the most regular visitors to the garden, and hardly a day goes by without up to six individuals spending some time feeding or looking for suitable nesting materials, such as thin twigs. Although they are more common in open country, the woodpigeon seems to be one of those species that has made the successful transition to suburban life. They regularly nest and raise young in the gardens roundabout, although they are often attacked by magpies. Although we consider them a ‘pest’ in the garden, they are quite a handsome species. At the end of August 2012, a couple of wood pigeons are making a half-hearted attempt at nesting in our Himalayan birch tree.

Magpie
The local vandals – but seem to be a highly intelligent species. There’s no mistaking the iridescent black and white plumage and long tail. Magpies have increased in number over the past decade, and we regularly see a couple of pairs or more seeking out ‘opportunities’. I do wonder if the increase in the magpie population (and some other larger birds such as woodpigeons and jackdaws) has negatively impacted on the populations of smaller birds.

Jackdaw
This is quite a stunning member of the crow family, with its grey nape. We have noticed an increase in numbers just over the past few months. Not sure where they are nesting. It was nice to see them a week ago in quarry conditions on the coast near Craster in Northumberland. They certainly looked in their element there.

Carrion crow
This is another species that we now see on a regular basis.

Occasional visitors (these drop by from time-to-time, or with the seasons such as winter visitors)

Redwing
This is a winter visitor that suddenly appears out of nowhere, stays with us for the coldest months, and disappears as quickly as it came. We usually see it in flocks of a dozen or so individuals. Sitting at the top of a tree in sunlight, its russet red flanks are very noticeable. A handsome thrush.

Fieldfare
Normally a species of open countryside around here, we had a couple of individuals visit us on one day this past winter. Just like the redwing it has very typical plumage – also a handsome species.

Song thrush
There was a time, more than a decade ago, when song thrushes were very common in the garden. Now we hardly ever see any. In fact, even in the vicinity, I can’t remember when I last saw a song thrush. The population must be in quite a decline around here.

Blackcap
The appearance of a male blackcap several times over the past winter months was indeed a great surprise. At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but the black head feathers were so typical of this species. On one occasion I was able to get a good (and long) look at one individual, sitting on an open branch not far from the living room window – and I had my binoculars to hand. There was no mistaking its identity – and a most welcome addition to the list of species seen in our garden.

Great spotted woodpecker
We’ve seen this woodpecker on just two occasions over the past few months, visiting and pecking away at our Himalayan birch. On the first occasion it was my wife who was lucky enough to spy it land at the top of the tree. On the second occasion I had a great view, since I was already upstairs somewhat looking into the tree from above. The woodpecker stayed there for about five minutes, so there was enough time to retrieve my binoculars. A pleasant surprise.

Grey Heron
Our neighborhood has a ‘resident’ heron, that we see circling overhead – at quite a low level – rather frequently. It even comes in to land on a neighboring roof – quite a silhouette against the sky. We’re sure it’s scouting for fish in all the gardens. On one occasion I was watching the breakfast news early one morning when it landed in the garden and began to strut towards the fishpond. I remained still for a few moments, but as I reached for my binoculars it must have seen my movement, and with great beats of its wings, it was up and away. My wife is quite concerned it will re-visit our garden for its dinner one day when we are not around.


Update 17 October 2013: it’s four days since we encountered a heron in the garden after returning from our weekly supermarket shop. It seems likely that it breakfasted on our goldfish because we’ve not seen any swimming around since.

Collared dove

About a decade collared doves were quite numerous nearby, and we’d regularly see a couple of pairs or so in the garden. Then they went away – maybe displaced by the much larger wood pigeon. Anyway, I’m pleased to say that they have returned, and only today, I have seen an individual in the garden about half a dozen times. A beautiful delicate bird, and I wish we saw them more often than the rather dominant wood pigeon.

Starling
Although starlings are seen in huge flocks in some parts of the UK, we have noticed a decline in those coming into the garden or even in the vicinity. Once upon a time we’d have a flock of 20-30 individuals descend and carry out some lawn aeration for me in the late afternoon. So it’s quite a special occasion these days when one drops by.

Goldfinch
It’s a real delight to see goldfinches in the garden. It must be one of the most brightly plumaged species on the British list. After seeing so many spectacular species in the Tropics it’s wonderful to see this brightly colored species. And although not a very common visitor, it does appear a little more regularly when certain foods are more available (such as thistle-like plants gone to seed); but it’s quite common in the vicinity and I do see goldfinches quite often when I’m out walking.

Greenfinch
This species was once quite common in our garden, but has seriously declined in recent years. I believe that it has been affected by a disease nationwide.

Bullfinch
I’m sure bullfinches must be much more common to the south of Bromsgrove, in the Worcestershire fruit-growing areas. We get the occasional individual through, but I’ve not seen them commonly in the vicinity either. It has very striking plumage.

Chaffinch
Once among the most common species in the UK, we now see chaffinches only occasionally in the garden, although in the vicinity they do appear to be more common.

Wren
The second smallest bird – and rather secretive. We get individuals from time-to-time. A delightful species to see, and what a wonderful song.

Pied wagtail
This species has such a striking plumage, and its wagtail gait is so typical.

Sparrowhawk
A sudden swoop across the garden often leaves me wondering if the ‘resident’ sparrowhawk has flown by. Sometimes it does come into the garden, and it’s most impressive to see it attack and capture prey on the ground. Wonderful to have such a species on our garden list.

In the vicinity

Buzzard

We often see  buzzards flying overhead, often at quite a low level, looking for thermals as they circle and rise with the warming air. It seems we have quite a healthy population of buzzards in this neck of the woods. Hardly a walk goes by without me seeing buzzards, and recently I saw four individuals wheeling and tumbling high in the sky, and really quite close to the center of Bromsgrove.

Swallow
A ubiquitous and common summer visitor, although never landing on our property. But we do see them flying overhead, or gathering in groups along the overhead wires as they prepare for their autumn migration south.

Swift
In the height of summer I sometimes think we see more swifts than swallows.

Mallard
When a new housing development was put up a few years ago on farmland just to the north of where we live, the developers did leave a pond, which is now home to a small population of mallards (and moorhens). Recently a group of mallards has been flying over and landing on neighboring roofs (I’ve not seen them on ours yet). It’s quite strange to see ducks walking up and down a roof where we would normally see woodpigeons, jackdaws or gulls.

Blackheaded gull
There’s quite a large population of these gulls around the town, although they do congregate in several areas. Recently they have moved on to our community, and making a nuisance of themselves. I also wonder if their presence is having an effect on other species.

Waxwing
Until the 2010-2011 winter I had never seen a waxwing. One day in February I was out on my daily walk, about 1½ miles from home, when I saw a couple birds in a shrub about 15 feet in front of me. I knew at once they were waxwings – they’re very hard to confuse with any other species. And then I realised there were about 50 or more individuals in a tree. A great pity I didn’t have my binoculars with me, but I did stop and watch them for about ten minutes, and even without binoculars I had a great view.

 

So this is the current list of species from my Bromsgrove garden and near vicinity. I intend using this post as the basis for continuing recording additional species, and commenting on any special observations.

Pitting my wits . . .

I am a reasonably avid reader, but not of fiction. My literary genres are history and biography.

I guess I’ve always been interested in history, although I did not enjoy it very much at school; and I put that down to poor teaching rather than any innate lack of historical ability. My two daughters had excellent history teachers at the International School Manila (ISM) and I saw just how an inspiring teacher could make this subject come alive. There are many history programs on TV, and a whole new (and not so new) cadre of presenters: Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Bettany Hughes, Dan Snow, and Michael Wood of course (who’s returning to the BCC next week). Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson have also made significant TV contributions. And many of these presenters also write books.

I think we all like to know where we come from, and how events in the distant and not-so-distant past have influenced who we are as a nation. Although I’ve recently taken a shine to medieval history (the 15th century Wars of the Roses period is interesting), much of my reading has focussed in fact on the 18th century, spilling over into the early 19th and the rise and fall of Napoleon. I find the 18th century particularly fascinating for a number of reasons. First, the monarchy changed fundamentally with the accession of a German king, George I and the subsequent Hanoverians. Second, there was the beginnings of a party system that forms the basis of the parliamentary system today, and the appointment of the first Prime Minister, Walpole. And third, the 18th century was a time of great industrial and scientific innovation and change – the beginnings of a ‘modern’ Britain. There were also great changes among the European powers, and Britain ruled the waves.

I get most of my books I read from the local public library, and generally just pick up a book on a whim, so-to-speak. Sometimes I come up trumps, but occasionally what I have chosen is a really difficult read. And that’s just happened.

Having read an excellent biography of William Pitt the Younger by William Hague a couple of years ago (and another more recently about anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce), I was hoping for the same when I came across a biography of his father, William Pitt the Elder (later the Earl of Chatham), 1708-1778. Published by The Bodley Head in 2010, Pitt the Elder – Man of War was written by political journalist and author Edward Pearce. How wrong I was! I struggled with this biography as I have never struggled before, and finally gave up after about 180 pages (of 346). It wasn’t that the topic and subject were not interesting – Pitt was a fascinating and complex character, beset by illness (gout) and mental problems much of his life. But he rose to become one of the most powerful politicians of his age.

The problem was Pearce’s impenetrable and turgid writing style – which a good editor should have sorted out. As one reviewer commented it served him well as a political journalist, but gets in the way of a flowing narrative that other historians seem to achieve without also getting bogged down with too many footnotes (endnotes are fine).

I went looking for reviews of the book to find out what others thought (The Independent, The Spectator, The Bookbag). Some were reasonably positive, but not glowing. Just by chance I looked on the Amazon website, and came across nine reviews by readers who had apparently spent good cash on this book – and the majority were not especially favorable. In fact, one of the reviews, by a certain S Kay, reflected exactly the perspectives that I had after 180 pages (although this reviewer didn’t get past 30!) This is what reviewer Kay had to say: In complete contradiction to the other reviews, I disliked what I read of ‘William Pitt the Elder’ – and I could only fight my way through the first thirty pages before giving up. Unfortunately I consider it to be very badly written. Sentences drift on through a mass of commas, as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives are thrown into the narrative, with the result that many sentences have to be re-read. Once or twice on each page these rambling sentences become so convoluted as to be ungrammatical, the verbs lost in a maze of tangential comments. My other problem with the book is that the author throws in many glib comments, as if he is trying to be funny. This may add spice to the newspaper columns that the author apparently writes, but for me it doesn’t work in what I thought would be a serious work of history. Sadly I bought this book before reading the reviews of the author’s biography of Walpole, most of which seemed to be negative. As someone who reads nothing but history books, I am disappinted [sic] by the fact that this is the first time in a few decades that I have given up on a book before finishing it.

Pearce should perhaps stick to political journalism – but never having read any of his pieces, I have no idea how good they are. But based on my ‘Pitt experience’ I shall give Edward Pearce a wide berth in the future, and would recommend the same to anyone else. If you decide not to choose any book in the future, make it this one.

Cave canem . . .

I quite like dogs – in fact, I think it would be great to have a dog along (to talk to) when I go out on my daily walk (weather permitting). My parents had a wonderful smooth-haired Jack Russell terrier, Chem – a big buddy of mine in the 1960s and early 70s. Great empathy between us. I only had to look at her and tilt my head, and she knew that it was time for Walkies! and rushed off to find her leash.

And how did she get her name? Do you recall the logo on a certain record label – the dog looking into the trumpet of the gramophone. HMV of course!

So what’s that got to do with our dog? Well she looked just like the HMV dog – or ‘aitch-em-vee’. Chem!

My sister had a beautiful Pembroke Corgi, called Scamp – a real terror towards other dogs, but very friendly towards humans. I remember when he was off the leash one time, he chased another dog, barreling into its side and knocking it over, winded. He stood over his victim, lion-like, with one paw on its belly, but showing no other aggression, just looking triumphant in the process.

I have a number of relatives and friends who seem also to have a great relationship with their pooches.

Take one of my former staff, Sol, for example. She has a Pug called Seth, and it seems (from her Facebook page) that Seth is the apple of her eye.

Then there’s Craig – looks like a Mastiff – who’s Mexico-bound to join Darrell and Vivay over there very soon. Here’s Craig at his despedida!

My cousin Karen from Canada, but who lives in Indiana, has a hound called Bruce. She says he’s not spoiled at all, but from this photo I do wonder.

And finally, my communications friend and former colleague Ruth, has the mischievous-looking Morgan, a Terrier. Morgan lives in Rome, maybe ‘speaks’ Italian, and even has his own Facebook page.

These pooches look fine and friendly, and clearly cherished by their humans. But having lived abroad for so many years, in countries where pets are often not well looked after, and rabies is an issue, I have to say I’ve become somewhat wary of dogs I’ve not been introduced to.

The responsibility of dog ownership
Even in this country I’m afraid to say that there are too many irresponsible dog owners. Either it’s that they fail to clean up after their pooches (dog mess is huge public issue here), or they do not have their dogs under control, or at least don’t appear to have them under control. Let me explain a little more.

If I see a dog, whatever its size, bounding towards me when I’m out on my walk, I generally tend to slow down or even stop, and never make any move that might ‘provoke’ it in any way. And especially if the dog barks or growls. That’s just not acceptable, and in open spaces, dogs should be kept under control – and under most circumstances that means ON THE LEASH!

Some months back, I was out walking close to home, when this large retriever bounded out from a side path, no owner in sight. It stopped in the middle of the path, about 10 m away, ears pricked, challenging me to walk past. When the owner lady arrived, just a little while after, she asked why I’d stopped. So I explained that the dog had shown an ‘interest’ in me and I wasn’t going to take any chances. But it was completely under control, she told me. I explained that never having seen the dog before, I had no idea what it might do. She then suggested I should take my walk elsewhere since all the dog owners exercised their dogs in that area! One man even suggested it was my fault that his dogs (off the leash) bounded up growling and snarling. On another occasion I asked a woman to pull her dog over – it was on one of those damned extending leashes – since it was blocking my way. She said it was no problem, but as I passed and it began to growl at me, she ‘remembered’ her dog apparently didn’t ‘like men with beards or hats’. Heavens knows what rage the double combination in my case stirred up in this pooch.

Canis vs. Felis
So having waxed lyrical on the canine front, I have to admit that I’m actually more of a cat person, and would love the opportunity of having another feline friend one day.

When I moved to Los Baños in July 1991, my wife and two daughters stayed behind in the UK, not joining me until the end of December that year. I spent about three weeks in the institute’s guesthouse before my house was ready for me to move in. It must have been the day before or so when I was exchanging dollars for pesos at the cashier that a noticed one of my communications colleagues, LaRue Pollard, striding somewhat purposefully towards me.

‘Hi Mike’, she said, ‘do you like cats?’ I told her I loved cats. ‘I have just the cat for you!’, she replied.

And Pusa,  a 12 year-old Siamese cat took up residence with me the next day when I moved into my house.

Looking for a home
Pusa (which means ‘cat’ in Tagalog) originally belonged to IRRI economist John Flynn and his family. Sadly John (who I never met) developed cancer, and left IRRI to return to his native Australia, where he died a few months later. Pusa was handed from pillar to post, ending up in the Hargrove household. but he wasn’t happy there – the Hargroves had a houseful of children, two (maybe three) dogs, and a couple of cats. Well, I gather Pusa was accustomed to being top dog, so to speak, and didn’t settle Chez Hargrove. LaRue had found him sheltering from the dogs under the Hargrove car – looking very sorry for himself – and took him in.

The only problem was that LaRue already had a housecat, Blue (a refined pedigree kitty) who resented Pusa’s arrival, so LaRue was desperate to find a permanent solution. And that solution was found Chez Jackson. It didn’t take Pusa long to settle in. Ours was as good a house to occupy as any other. He had his couple of square meals a day (having survived for many years on boiled rice and dried fish – which I soon changed to a better balanced diet of tinned food) and a roof over his head at night, although Pusa was a great IRRI staff housing prowler. He’d always jump up on my lap in the evening, and usually begin to groom me – a hairy arm or leg. And he demanded to be let into the bedroom in the morning, jumping up and making himself comfy.

Like all cats, he had his special relaxation spots, a favorite being the roof of the car in the car port, a great vantage point from which to survey his surroundings, better still if the sun had warmed the bodywork.

Sadly, Pusa’s kidneys gave out just after Christmas 1997, and in early January 1998 we took advice to have him put to sleep. By then he was almost 20 years old as far as we could determine, and he’d had a great innings. But it was still a very sad day when we had to say goodbye to him. My flight to Kenya that night was a sad affair.

A bundle of fur
Then Tara came into our lives in April 1998. Tara was an eight week old Siamese kitten that we purchased in Manila, but sadly not properly socialized. When we got her home, she dashed from the box we’d carried her in, right across the living room, and hid away for the next few hours – hunger eventually brought her out. But that initial dash led to her name. Philippa, our younger daughter, 15 at the time, thought that she should be called Cheetara, after one of the characters in the cartoon series ThunderCats, then playing on TV; but this was abbreviated to just Tara.

Tara was a lovely cat, and as with all Siamese, had a mind of her own. As a young cat one of her favorite games was to fetch a small toy that we would throw for her – behaving just like a dog! She’d jump at our bedroom door in the morning, asking to be let in, and then snuggle up, under the bedclothes. Just like Pusa, she had her favorite snoozing places, including our bed and the bookcase in the study. Tara remained a house cat (unlike prowler Pusa), since we didn’t want her to get beaten up by all the other moggies on the IRRI staff housing (some of which were strays). But she had the run of quite a large house – and took advantage of that.

In January 2009, she sadly developed a bladder problem that could not be easily sorted by surgery, so we took the painful decision to put her to sleep. I was badly affected by that, for several months. But we have so many wonderful memories of our beautiful Tara. The video below was taken at Christmas 2008, just a couple of weeks before she was put to sleep – who would have guessed?

Finally, our elder daughter Hannah and husband Michael had a beautiful cat, Carmen, that they got through a rescue center. She also passed away quite recently and is sorely missed in the Foldes household.

We invest a lot of emotion and love in our pets – be they dogs or cats. They support us instinctively, and they look to us for their well-being. But the rewards of having a canine or feline companion are huge, and I look forward – whenever – to having that ‘friendship’ once more.

Anilao: jewel in the Philippines diving crown

I never imagined for one minute when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 that I’d ever take up scuba diving. I’ve never been one for water sports, or lazing about on the beach either. But that changed not long after Steph, Hannah and Philippa arrived in the Philippines, and we decided to see what the beach had to offer. This is how it happened.

Our first beach trip was to Puerto Galera (at the bottom of the map below) in February 1992, taking the ferry from Batangas City.


We went there with IRRI entomologist Jim Litzinger and his family, and a couple of other IRRI staff at that time (Jim left IRRI during 1992). Much as I enjoyed walking along the beach, taking the odd dip every now and then, I’d never even considered snorkeling (something I hadn’t actually tried before). Well, I borrowed a mask and snorkel, and some fins, and off I went for my first attempt at snorkeling. Not being a very competent swimmer (I almost drowned when I was about 10 – my elder brother Ed had to dive into the river and drag me out), I found it quite a challenge to relax and breathe through the snorkel – it just didn’t feel right. However, I persevered, and after about 30 minutes I was beginning to get the hang of it, and the wealth of marine life that opened up to me in the shallows of a coral garden was just stunning. “That’s it” I thought, “something to keep me occupied if and when we come to the beach again.” Just to add, we never did go back to Puerto Galera. Instead, we discovered Anilao.

Arthur’s Place in Anilao
A few weeks after our Mindoro trip, another IRRI colleague, Jean-Claude Prot (a French nematologist), suggested we try a resort in Anilao – Arthur’s Place* – about 95 km south of Los Baños, at the tip of the Mabini Pensinsula, to the west of Batangas City.

Arthur’s Place was opened in the 1980s by local divemaster Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. 

Sadly, Arthur died in September 2002, but Lita has kept the business going – and has expanded it significantly in terms of rooms and other facilities. And of course the resort is a haven for divers who come from all over the world, although most are actually based in the Philippines. It rapidly became a focal point for IRRI staff wanting a weekend away at the beach.

In 1992, the paved road did not reach Anilao, and even along the main roads between Calamba and Batangas the journey was quite slow due to the volume of traffic on a single carriageway highway – mainly jeepneys and tricycles. Between Anilao itself and Arthur’s Place there was just a mud road, essentially impassable except for a few vehicles. So we used to drive to Anilao, and then take an outrigger boat, known locally as a banca, sent by the resort to pick us up. Quite often we’d set off from Los Baños after 5 pm once work was over on a Friday afternoon, and Hannah and Philippa had arrived back from school in Manila. Taking the banca in the darkness was always enjoyable on a calm and moonlit night, but if squally could be quite unpleasant. After a couple of years I became increasingly uncomfortable driving at night, so we’d get up early on the Saturday morning and head off to Anilao before the traffic became too heavy. With the opening of better highways over the past decade, that by-passed most of the towns on the old highway where most traffic congestion occurred, the journey from Los Baños to Arthur’s Place could be made in 90 minutes or less on a good day. Over the years the road from Anilao to Arthur’s Place was widened and eventually paved, and a road down the hill to the beach was constructed. Before this road to the beach was opened we had to park at the top and walk down – I can’t remember the number of steps, fine on the way down, somewhat more taxing on the way up. Fortunately there was always a helping hand from the resort staff to carry all our dive gear in crates. Take a look at the video below to see how things have improved on the 15 minute drive from Arthur’s Place to Anilao.

Unless there were no vacancies at Arthur’s Place, that’s where we spent our Anilao beach weekends over the next 18 years, trying to get away once a month, about eight times a year. Most often the resort would be full of other guests, but just occasionally we would essentially have the resort to ourselves – time for chilling out with a good book, a backlog of the Guardian Weekly, and some great music on my iPod.

In 2010, I was honored to be invited by Lita’s daughter Joanne and her fiancé Rhonson to be a principal sponsor (or ninong) at their January wedding. And Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding and reception, held at the resort – and there must have been more than 200 people at the reception.

Learning to dive
As I said earlier, in my wildest dreams I never expected to learn to become a PADI Open Water Diver, but that’s what I achieved in March 1993. Hannah had received her NAUI certification the previous year (I was too busy during 1992 at the time when she took the course), and Philippa received her PADI certification in 1995.

Diving was THE hobby among IRRI staff in the early to mid-1990s, and several courses were organized to train groups of budding divers.

Instructors would come down from Manila to give the theory classes over a week, we’d take the confined water training in the IRRI pool, and then head off to the beach the next weekend for the open water training sessions.

We were fortunate to have an excellent dive instructor, Ramon E (Boy) Siojo, assisted by Mario Elumba. I’ve lost contact with Boy Siojo, but I ran into Mario several times while diving, and am still in contact through Facebook. Our dive group included IRRI physiologist Tim Setter and his son, Crissan Zeigler, Jane Guy, Michael Goon Jr, and Art and Victor Gomez.

Our open water training session was held over the weekend of 13-14 March 1993, in Anilao. Everything went well, and for one of our training sessions, the instructors took us to Layag-Layag, a banca ride across the channel from the Mabini peninsular (check the dive site map below). What an experience – I knew then that diving was for me! On the trip back to the mainland, we rescued passengers from a large banca that started to sink – men, women and children in the water, even babies. I was facing towards the bow of our banca, and one of the instructors was sat facing me, looking over the stern. I suddenly saw his jaw drop, and he screamed for the boat to stop. We turned round, as did the other banca in our group and we headed back for the rescue, with dive instructors donning their scuba equipment again. After all the passengers were safe, we began to tow the stricken banca back to its port, but the engine fell through the boat’s bottom and sank. By the time we arrived back at Bethlehem, and were greeted by the villagers – silent and stunned; you’d have thought half the passengers had drowned. But they were on their way to a wedding across the channel, and had lost everything.

I received my PADI certification on 17 March 1993, and the rest is history. I completed all my 356 dives from 1993 until 2010 (my last dive was on 14 March 2010) in the Anilao area. In the early days I would dive with Arthur, but when he became ill, he hired Lito Bonquin as the resident divemaster at Arthur’s Place. I made most of my dives with Lito, but there was a two year period 2002-2004 when Clare O’Nolan (wife of IRRI’s IT manager Paul O’Nolan) was my regular dive buddy. Judy Baker, a teacher at the International School Manila (ISM) was also a regular dive buddy.

Anilao dive sites
Anilao is a biodiversity hotspot, especially for soft corals, and is reported to be one of the most diverse marine sites in the Philippines. There are about 40 dive sites within easy reach of Arthur’s Place, the furthest being only a 30 minute or so banca ride away.

Most sites were relatively easy to dive, especially when you had a good divemaster like Lito to show you the ropes. Visibility was mostly fair to good, occasionally excellent with more than 100 feet. Some sites like Bahura, Beatrice and Mainit Point could be quite challenging if the tide was running – strong currents. But my favorite sites were Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. Kirby’s was a 15 minute banca ride straight across the channel from Arthur’s Place. It was a site I got to know extremely well, and I must have dived there over 50 times, and each time was different, in terms of conditions, and what we saw. At Kirby’s there are two rocks, one of which (to the west) mostly peaks above the surface, depending on the tide). It drops steeply to about 75 feet, where there is an overhang; the ocean floor then slopes away north to deep water.

To the east (shown on the left in the dive plan drawing above) is another rock, with its tip at about 55 feet, and base at 125 feet. On most of our dives we’d explore the first rock before crossing to the second, spending about five minutes at 125 feet, and then slowly ascending round and over the rock before making our way back to Kirby’s and the banca. I’ve dived to 140 feet here. As I gained experience I was able to make a deep dive yet have enough air to spend more than 60 minutes underwater. In the video below, I was able to dive only to 95 feet because of the limitations on the housing for my Canon Powershot S40 camera (which permitted only 30 second video clips); you can see the other divers dropping well below 100 feet at the second rock. Kirby’s Rock was a Sunday morning dive, and we aimed to be in the water before 7 am if possible – often when there was calm water and no current. Returning to Arthur’s Place for a breakfast of toast, bacon and fried eggs, and coffee was always a delight!

Another favorite was Twin Rocks, which just got better and better over the years. When we first went to Anilao in 1992 there were few resorts, and the local fishermen were still practising dynamite fishing, causing untold damage to the reefs. But as the tourist trade developed and more resorts were opened, then the reefs began to recover and fish return. Now, Twin Rocks is a marine sanctuary where you regular see giant clams, batfish, a huge school of jacks, barracuda, and cuttlefish among others.

Anilao is not visited by many pelargics, although tuna and barracuda are quite frequent. Whale sharks are seen occasionally, and dolphins come through from time to time; sea turtles are regular visitors. White-tip reef sharks are quite common at Bahura (up to 2 m in length), but the one creature that always made me feel uncomfortable was the giant triggerfish, which can be extremely aggressive. On one dive with Lito and two teachers from ISM at Bahura, we hadn’t noticed one particular critter, about 1 m, in the vicinity. Lito had handed me a shell, and turning around, there was this fish about two meters in front of him – decidely pissed off. It chased him up to the surface (about 60 feet – apologies for the mix of metric and feet in this post; I learnt to dive in feet!), and not having success, came back after me and the other two. We were crouching behind some rocks and eventually it swam off. These fish can inflict serious bites, and afterwards we always gave them a wide berth if possible.

In all my dives there were few incidents that I look back on as being difficult. On one dive that I was leading at Kirby’s with two Americans, as we descended and reached about 90 feet, my regulator went into free flow (it had been serviced just a couple of weeks previously!). I took it from my mouth, and gave it a bash – something that would often correct this sort of problem. Well, I reached for my spare, and before I knew it, it had the same problem. So there I was at 90 feet, losing air by the second. I alerted my dive buddies and indicated we had to surface. I slowly ascended – it took about 90 seconds – just breathing into the air bubbles streaming from the mouthpiece. I had no air left in my tank once we surfaced. But I walked away from the dive – a success.

Here are some photos I took at various dive sites at Anilao:

When I retired from IRRI and left the Philippines, I sold much of my dive equipment, although I kept my mask and fins. Whether I shall dive again, I have no idea – it was great fun while I had opportunity. But it’s now a case of ‘been there, done that’. I have no plans (or desire) to dive in the cold waters around the UK. I look back on all those years of visits to Anilao with great affection – and I still miss my trips there. We were always made most welcome at Arthur’s Place by Lita and her staff, and left to our own devices. I always returned home from a weekend away at Anilao with my batteries recharged. I’m sure most of the folks who stay there have the same experience.