After the New Year in Manila, I almost immediately met up with Iris Buhay, a friend from W&L who is now working for the UN in New York, and her parents to accompany them on a visit to their home province of Ilocos Norte. While there we visited the historic town of Vigan, one of the best preserved (because it was not affected by the WW II Japanese/American bombings that destroyed Manila). We also visited a beautiful lighthouse at Cape Bojeador, a massive baroque looking church called Paoay (built in 1704!), and the famous beaches of Pagudpud, which were filled with tourists from nearby Taiwan. My favorite part, though, was talking to Iris’s grandmother about what life was like for her in the “good ol’ days”. She told us about how her husband used to be friends with Imelda Marcos (the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was the former dictator of the Philippines before he was deposed in the first EDSA “People’s Power” revolution in 1986). Marcos was originally from Ilocos Norte, and many Ilocanos still hold a relatively positive view of his legacy (in stark contrast to the rest of the country). His body (or possibly a wax replica) is even on display in a memorial chapel near Iris’s birthplace!

Back in Manila again, I joined a group of bird enthusiasts as well as Ms. Lala Espanola (my professor at UP and one of the top experts on Philippine birds) to participate in the Asian Waterbird Census in the Candaba Swamp near Pampanga (north of Manila). This is an attempt to count how many of each different species can be found in a single day in all the different Asian countries. It was really exciting to be around so many bird enthusiasts, who would almost jump out of their skin if they saw a Cinnamon Bittern! Among biologists, it is well known that ornithologists are a “different breed” in that they have an extreme dedication to their subject matter, and even speak their own language, using words like “lifer” (first time to see a particular rare species), “rufous” (a colour) and “sallying” (a method of eating insects). I also met a cool British guy who spent many years in rural Japan teaching English. He was a humanities major in college, but after so much time in the Nipponese countryside he became fascinated with birds, even publishing his observations in scholarly journals. Now he’s a Ph.D. student again in the UK, studying the migration patterns of birds that move between Africa and Europe.

I also finished up most of my fieldwork in Bataan during January. This mostly centered on my goal of growing some small Leea sprouts from seeds I collected from the adult plants. While I was hoping to collect more data, unfortunately the Leea plants and birds themselves did not cooperate; the birds ate up all of the Leea fruits! This is a recurring difficulty for many field studies, since the thing you are studying is a living system, it rarely behaves in a manner convenient to your personal time-table. While ecologists try to isolate and control for all the variables such as temperature, humidity, time of day, etc. they ultimately are watching something unfold that will never be repeated exactly. The best one can do at this point is to attempt to discover patterns in the midst of all the myriad interactions that go on in the natural world. Despite the best efforts of many brilliant scientists though, our understanding of ecological interactions even in simple systems remains very weak. That is the difference between the field biologist and the laboratory experimenter. While laboratory conditions are precisely regulated and can be repeated many times, the field biologist must wait until next year before he can return to see if the same species of bird will again eat Leea fruits. It is frustrating, but on the other hand, it’s exciting because everyday there is something new to learn. Of course, the fact that ecosystems are very complicated and not easy to predict the behavior of (not unlike the economic and climate systems that are frequently in the news) suggests we should be cautious in interfering with its functioning. A great deal more research needs to be done, especially in places like the Philippines, before the human race will even know what’s in its own “back-yard”.

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