Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Into The Philippines

A flock of Philippine ducks, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

I would like to start by saying this: the birding in The Philippines is sensational and you should pack your optics, sunscreen and insect repellent and go there as soon as possible. It didn't quite work out the way I had envisaged, there were a fair few problems out of my control to overcome and I didn't do as much birding as I would have ideally liked. However I loved the birding I was able to do and without really pushing myself I saw some great birds. As elsewhere birding also provides a fantastic way to see different parts of The Philippines and engage with local people and see how they live their lives. This latter point should not be lightly dismissed because in many other respects, away from the birds so to speak, I found the Philippines to be very testing: monstrous overcharging, lousy service and poor quality combined with power and water outages are too common for my liking. Life is much gentler around the birds in the Philippines!

Here are the headlines: the Philippines has approximately 600 recorded species of which just under 200 are endemics, that is, only found in the Philippines. By contrast Thailand has approximately 1,000 species of which I believe there are three endemics.This is easily explained due to the location of the respective land masses of both geopolitical units plus the Philippines is an archipelago of islands surrounded by the sea and in fact a convergence point for oceans and seas. It is also the case that coverage by bird watchers in the Philippines is minimal and there is no doubt in my mind that new species will continue to be added to the check list. For instance bean goose was first seen here on 27th March 2010. Check out this link for the detail on http://www.birdwatch.ph/html/news/news20100407.html.

Before you go make sure you get the standard fieldbook:  A Guide to The Birds of The Philippines, R S Kennedy et al  (pub Oxford Univsity Press, 2000 ISBN 019854669). A brief scan of this work will whet the appetite. This is not readily available in the Philippines. I would also recommend you try to get a copy of  Birdwatching in The Philippines Volumes 1 & 2, (publishers: Philippine Department of Tourism, Recreational Outdoor Exchange & Wild Bird Club of The Philippines). These books are essentially about bird watching by location providing information about  recommended sites, logistics, maps, local contacts and what birds to expect. They are really well produced with brilliant photography and probably available from the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. I would also recommend two websites: Wild Bird Club of The Philippines and Philippine Bird Photography Forum.

On arrival we headed straight to Los Baños in Laguna, about 65 km south of Manila. This is home to the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve and is in fact part of the campus of the University of the Philippines. So it is a very green, leafy place all in all a great place to start in the Philippines. After travelling through the night we arrived at the TREES hostel at 6:30h and immediately saw two stripe-headed rhabdornis, a coppersmith barbet, a brief glimpse of a couple of unidentified small brown birds, an olive-backed sunbird, a couple of balicassiaos, a philippine coucal and a green imperial pigeon: three endemics in the first hour! There were also a couple of raptors soaring high in the sky but they too must join the list of unidentifieds. There were abundant glossy swiftlets darting frantically around the hostel......hostel is perhaps a misnomer, because TREES offers pretty good quality rooms with all the facilities you might need at a reasonable price. Only problem is they don't do food but there are many options off campus a short jeepney ride away.

After some sleep, later in the day I had a brief stroll along the forest trail but mainly balicassiaos and coppersmith barbets. No spotted kingfisher which was the sought after species!

glossy swiftlet, collocalia esculenta, UPLB, Philippines,17.04.10

We spent a hot afternoon in the Dairy section of the campus the following day looking for endemics but alas not the target species of spotted buttonquail and plain bush-hen. Maybe we were looking in the wrong place! However we saw two barred rails, beautiful birds, and an aerial philippine falconet, an endemic. We added little egret, cattle egret, brown shrike, blue-tailed bee-eater, barn swallow, eurasian tree sparrow, yellow-vented bulbul and plenty of olive backed sunbirds.

Prior to transferring to Manila I had an early start and found a way to get down to the river bed on the campus, an area renowned for kingfishers. Unfortunately the Botanical Gardens, which houses the Philippine Raptor Centre, is closed for a major refurbishment and this provides the normal way to the river. I had a brief glimpse of a blue ball of speed flashing past me; alas it did not perch so I couldn't tell you what I saw! However I found a great viewpoint into the canopy and there I espied a tarictic or Luzon hornbill hopping around the branches; it finally came to rest and enabled me to get a few pictures.

Tarictic hornbill, penelopides panini, UPLB, Philippines, 17.04.10.

Soon after I had a good sighting of a beautiful red crested malkoha and several noisy balicassiaos. A nice couple of hours but no kingfishers!

Some scheduled activities then fell through so I didn't get out birding until we got to Palawan. The most irritating part of this was arranging for a driver to take me to Candaba Marsh, north of Manila departing at 04:30h. The driver phoned me at 5:30h to ask me if I still wanted to go! No! I specified a time to be there for daybreak and to enable me to get back in time to catch a flight!

I had a truly memorable day's birding on Lake Danao in the north of Palawan, close to the town of Taytay which is about 6 hours by road from Puerto Princesa, Palawan's main town and connection with the rest of the Philippines. I hired a little hand propelled pumpboat and spent 6 hours gently paddling around the lake aided by my tricycle driver, Chrys. We were on the lake for 06:00h and the first bird of the day was a brief glimpse of changeable hawk eagle, a new species, of the very dark variety. Soon after as we paddled gently on came a little heron, a common kingfisher and then a few stork-billed kingfishers, screeching in delight: another new species for me.

stork-billed kingfisher, halcyon capensis, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

I suspect that I was a bit late in the migratory cycle and therefore missed out on the migratory ducks, garganeys and tufted ducks. What there was on Lake Danao was an abundance of Philippine ducks, another emdemic, a really handsome looking duck. I tried to take an aerial shot of this duck to show its upper wing speculum, coloured metallic green and bordered by black, but alas my photographic skills are somewhat lacking plus these birds move at real speed. The lake must currently support a population of between 2-3,000 Philippine ducks. I was surprised not to see in amongst these ducks some wandering whistling ducks, but no, only Philippine ducks today.

Philippine duck, anas luzonica, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

There were plenty of other common birds: barn swallows, swifts, even a slender-billed crow, distinguished by its distinct half-wing beat and sound.

slender-billed crow, corvus enca, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

We simply paddled around the lake staying close to the shore. Next up came a chestnut-breasted malkoha which obliged for the camera.
chestnut-breasted malkoha, phaenicophaeus cumingi, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

Soon after this we observed five distant Palawan hornbills in the canopy. Alas these didn't hang around for long so please excuse the bad picture. 
Palawan hornbill, anthracoceros marchei, Lake Danao, Palawan,21.04.10

Then we paddled round a corner into an osprey which was in the process of preparing some breakfast. Off it went, unmistakable with its prey firmly clutched in its claws. Therafter many more birds almost lined up for us:

Osprey, pandion haliaetus, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

White-bellied sea eagle, pandion haliaetus, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

Intermediate egret, mesophoyx intermedia, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

Crested serpent-eagle, spilornis cheela, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

Probably my favourite bird of the trip came as we slowly drifted around a corner and there perched for us was a blue-eared kingfisher, of the amadoni subspecies. According to the field book this is endemic and only found in Palawan, Balabac, Busuanga & Culion. Of course as a novice in these matters I am ready to be corrected...please feel free!

blue-eared kingfisher, alcedo meninting amadoni, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

grey heron, ardea cinerea, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

We also viewed two grey herons which is not very common in the Philippines but is certainly regarded as a common bird in Thailand.

rufous-tailed tailorbird, orthotomus sericeus, Lake Danao, Palawan, 21.04.10

A final bird of note which we observed was the rufous-tailed tailorbird busying itself in the shrubs on the shore. I have to say there were brief glimpses of many other small birds, little green fellows in particular, but by virtue of being in  delicately balanced narrow boat I couldn't get the scope out and these guys don't hang around when they sense people like me!

More Philppine ducks in flight, Lake Danao, 21.04.101

 an osprey looking for lunch, 21.04.10

So a memorable day out and I would say that if you can get to Taytay then it is pretty easy to get to the lake by tricycle taxi. The track leading into the lake, through a forested area, is also reputed to have excellent birds. All in all a great day out.

Next up we headed back to Puerto Princesa and from there to Sabang which is the staging post for St Paul's National Park and the famous underground river. Here we saw the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.It is known to come out most days at the ranger station in the park between 07:00 and 08:00 hours and true to form the peacock and a tabon scrubfowl appeared about 07:20h and almost ate from our hands.

Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, polyplectron emphanum, Sabang, Palawan, 23.04.10

On the long walk back through the jungle and in and around Sabang  I observed a common emerald dove, glossy swiftlets,  spangled drongo, slender-billed crow, asian glossy starling, brown shrike, olive backed sunbird, cattle egret, Palawan blue flycatcher, ( both male and female) and rufous-tailed tailorbird. 

I was actually glad to get out of Sabang because our experience with The Green Forest Resort where we resided,was awful: hugely overpriced, zero services: water and power outages, request to pay a surcharge for the generator to run during the night, and then terrible overcharging for services like a boat and laundry. I was surprised because this resort claims to be birder friendly and there was a party of visiting birders at the hotel led by some of the luminaries of Philippine birding. Maybe they can get good prices! We couldn't and we were screwed. In summary don't give them your money, as there are many alternatives and I have no doubt you'll have a happier time. 

It was therefore a pleasure to get on the road again and head south to the village of Narra which is the staging post for Rasa Island. The island is the salvation of the much endangered Philippine cockatoo and is run by the Katala Foundation. Most parties no longer visit the island because the cockatoos come to the mainland most mornings where they feed on malunggy trees. I must have counted between 40 - 50 birds in the trees. In fact it was quite a surreal experience as the locals were in karaoke mood so Beatles's tunes were blaring out at full volume at 07:00h, while on another sound system my guide Fred, from the Katala Foundation, was being interviewed on local radio as he is standing in the current elections as an environmental candidate.

Philippine cockatoo, cacatua haematuropygia, Narra, Palawan, 26.04.10

I strongly recommend you to contact Fred and go to the island. I couldn't go very far as it is breeding season but I saw three cockatoos, a significant number of olive-backed sunbirds and a greater flameback.

Elsewhere in the area I saw a ruddy turnstone, lesser sandplover, greater sandplover, collared kingfisher, eastern reef egret - white morph, glossy starlings, chestnut munias and a common kingfisher. Finally on both the two days I was there I saw this first winter black tailed gull in the area around Narra harbour. If you look closely at my bad pic you will see it has a black band at the foot of its right leg.

Black-tailed gull, larus ridibundus, Narra, Palawan, 26.04.10

I wish I could have stayed longer because Fred said there were a couple of other good areas to visit for birds. I had a flight to catch to Cebu so had to head back to Puerto Princesa. I really recommend this place for a stop. The locals are great fun, and it is generally very laid back.

A short stop in Cebu enabled me to spend a couple of hours in the Bird Sanctuary on Olongo Island opposite Macatan. More predatory tricycle riders wanting to screw ridiculous money from me to transport us from the ferry to the sanctuary! The highlight was watching a solitary Chinese egret playing on the mudflats. Unmistakable as it skewered its neck at 45º and pranced in pursuit of its prey. We saw some terek sandpipers, red-necked stint in full breeding plumage, whinbrel, curlews, wood sandpiper in breeding plumage, lesser and greater sand plover, little egrets, collared kingfisher. I didn't take any photos as I was unwilling to pay a camera fee of 500 pesos especially as light was poor and it was late in the day.

Thereafter we spent our time in Negros Occidental but unfortunately I had to cancel my birding plans as I was afflicted by a bad back. Quite literally my lower lumber locked and I was restricted to lying in my bed and only got  effective relief when I went to see chiropractor in Manila.

I really enjoyed the birding notwithstanding some of the difficulties I encountered. I am planning a return  in October and I reckon I will spend it all exploring Negros Occidental. I met some of my wife's former colleagues in the local university in Bacolod City and they are very knowledgeable about local birds and where to see them. I also think we are going to invest in a tent!

So I am very enthusiastic about the first step into birding in the Philippines and I recommend it. Just allow plenty of time, be patient and be careful.

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