Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Map Sabang Palawan
The aim of this four month trip was certainly focused on finding a good number of endemics within these two countries (Borneo report seperate) but not exhaustively so. There were many other fantastic birds that I spent time chasing and a good deal of the trip was also spent diving with whale sharks and other great creatures. Where else can you surface from having just swam with turtles and sharks to see Pied Imperial-Pigeons and Black-naped Fruit-Doves as I did on one day at Sipidan off Borneo (see seperate trip report).
This report, as is often the case, but more precisely so (hopefully), is intended to provide some update on any existing gen where possible and to provide some that doesn't seem to be readily available. I will try not to cover any existing info even where it pertains to accomodations and other related miscellanea. I have also made no attempt to fully list all the endemics or specials I saw, I am glad to say there were too many!
I must give thanks to Tim Fisher for the information he shared with me at various stages on our journey. Marie-Jo and Claude Rabille were great companions in the field during our stay at Makiling and shared with me some invaluable information.
Notes On Sites
As much as Taiwan is an easy place to bird/travel, the Philippines is the toughest place I have ever travelled. However, it is well worth every effort. There is a lot of gen but it's best to find the most recent reports and information.
As a result of the diving I was to do at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, I added Sablayan (Siburan Penal Colony) and Pandan Island to my itinerary. It is possible to get there overland from Puerto Galera (a short hop by ferry from Batangas Pier which is three hours by bus from Manila). The trip however, is gruelling. If you choose to do it this way you will need to do a short part of the journey by banca to Abra de Ilog (just say Abra). Hire one (there will always be one available) from or somewhere close, preferably Talipanan which is 30mins closer to Abra and thus cheaper.
From PG expect to pay P1500 or P1200 from Talipanan. From here you can jump on the buses that await the arrival of larger ferries coming directly from Batangas (an easier option) though it's more comfortable to hire one of the 'vans' for the trip to Sablayan. I jumped on the small fishing boat that goes just about daily from the yacht club for only P100 but it's not too comfortable and drops you off at Wawu, from where you will need a tricycle to Abra or to Mamburao, where the transport to Sablayan and San Jose passes through.
Once in Sablayan, you can stay at the long beach hotel (P700/double) where they can cook up a reasonable meal and have a bar. They also know the conservation office, where you can organise transport and logistics for a trip to Sablayan at a reasonable rate for a small group. Of course, many opt to arrange by other means, but this is an option.
Nearby is the small island of Pandan, where you can get away from the stress and do some private birding on the only resort on the island. It's quiet, nobody used the trails in the 12 days we spent there, and right in front of the chalets is a great stretch of beach from where you can swim with turtles and other marine life all day long.
They can arrange various types of transport from San Jose or Abra, or if you like you can fly by sea plane from Manila direct. If you are in Sablayan it's a short P150 ride in a banca to the island. It's very reasonable, at around $30 a chalet and has some interesting birds.
Having said all this, It's not worth putting on a hectic schedule unless you really have time or special interests.
Tabon Scrubfowl walk around the bar and the chalets early every morning. In the trees during the same time of day, keep your eye out for Black-chinned Fruit-Dove and Cuckoo dove. There is a very short trail to the back of the island where both Red-bellied Pitta and Hooded Pitta are common and undisturbed. During my stay I had Hoopoe and Black-hooded Coucal here though they may be exceptional. Various other common birds are present including Pied Fantails and Emerald doves that have become very tame. The owner raised a grass owl that makes an almost nightly appearance. Great Eared-Nightjar flap over the forest on most evenings and Gerygones everpresent.
Plenty of gen on the birding in the forest here but here are a few useful hints. From Manila you can jump on a bus from the Pasay area to Santa Cruz/Campus/UPLB. From where the bus drops you it's a short tricycle ride to the campus gate where you will need to jump on a jeepney (P7) headed for 'Forestry' or ask one to take you on a 'special' ride (P200). Many go by every minute so just hold up your index finger to the sky...this means you want to go to forestry. This is the building right on the edge of the forest others call Trees Lodge. Calling in advance didn't seem necessary but maybe best at other times (P700/double). Remember there is a 10pm curfew.
Trip reports really helped here and the Spotted Wood-kingfishers were quite easy early morning. Of course, as was the case with birding throughout the Philippines, recordings are essential for some specials but as the place is under pressure, go easy.
During my stay I bumped into a fantastic birding couple that shared some very good info with me. One of which was a site for Ashy Thrush. Head up the road before light, pass the food stalls after about 4kms and take a right toward the 'Mud Springs'. A few metres in, there is a track leading to the right (Bleeding Heart). Ignore it and take the next one just a few metres futher, it follows a small wet creek (steep to begin with) to the right. The first 100 – 200m is good.
The muddy track for the Spotted and Barred Buttonquail is well known but I thought I would give directions for those who don't have them. There is a large soccer field on campus with a big tower at one corner. This tower is a well known spot for Lowland White-eye. To get to the track you will need to pass the soccer field on your right (with the tower in the far right corner) where you will pass under an arch. Follow the road past some of the husbandy houses, cross the river, pass a boom and look for the Diary Husbandry on your left. It's written in large letters above the old building. Directly in front is a track leading away through some fields. A short way along you will pass under the first tree large enough to cover the track. I found this a great spot for standing still and watching up and down the track patiently. Trying early morning or late afternoon is best but I saw a great deal at 3pm on some days as well as during overcast days. Both Buttonquails, Plain Bush Hen, Barred Rail and Slaty-breasted Rail put in appearances for great scope and binocular views. While waiting for birds on the track, I watched the surrounding areas where some good numbers of more open country birds were present including Cinnamon Bittern, White-eared Brown-Dove, Cuckoo Dove, Guiabero, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Coppersmith Barbet, Pied Triller and Strip-headed Rhabdornis.
On one day, I followed the river (not easy) down from the summit to just below the lodge. Along the way I saw Indigo-banded Kingfisher 5 times. However, I also found it on all trips to the Botanical gardens, where I also found a number of other good birds. While I was there though, others had a tough time with it. Walk along the road until you are just about to cross the bridge, take the trail down to the stream on your right. At the spot by the bathroom(?) overlooking a section of stream with a more visible walkway on the other side, there is a pool. Some droppings were evident on an exposed root on the opposite bank and it was here, as well as on the large rock beside the pool, where I regularly saw it.
From Cebu city I thought I would try to get to Tabunan for a shot at the Cebu Flowerpecker. It was only possible as a result of unexpected time I had to spend in Cebu. It was a short trip but here at least I picked up the Black Shama and potential split of Coppersmith Barbet. To get there I jumped in a taxi (P200) from town (Pacific Inn Hotel, though I am sure there is better) to Pitos Talamban. On the return journey I jumped on a jeepney (P12). From here, I jumped on the back of a motorbike (P200) for the last hour or so to Tabunan, was fun, though we did come off once on this backroad. Once there, everyone directed me to Oking's house. We sat on the lower lookout (jagged limestone outcrop) for a short while. More time is definitely necessary but either way it's a long shot.
PICOP - Mindanao
Another well covered site and justly so. Fantastic birding but very hard without priorand recent knowledge or the company of Zardo. To get there you can take a bus from Davao. It's 7 hours and the last 2 hours are hellish but it's a must. The well known Paper Country Inn is not the only place in town but obviously nicer, and in contact with Zardo. Having said that, you should contact him in advance – he will help you with anything, even arranging transport to other accomodation, bus times etc. He charged P1000 for his services and a futher P1000 for the Motorbike. It's P2000 for the Jeepney. All very cheap and well worth a good deal extra at the end of the day!! He perhaps wasn't the sharpest at spotting but knows the sites, birds and their calls intimitely. Without him, it would have been a struggle, and perhaps at times, a little unsafe. He does have a tape recorder with many necessary calls though not everything. We managed to get many great specials and just about everything I was after in just one day, but this is rare so give it a few days to do justice.
Apart from greats like the Mindanao Broadbill, Celestial Monarch, Silvery Kingfisher, Philippine Needletail, Rufous-lored Kingfisher, Philippine Leafbird, Philippine Oriole, Pygmy Babbler, Blackheaded Tailorbird and Little Slaty Flycatcher we had a host of other endemics and specials. The only Racket-tails we saw however, were tied to a small perch outside a restaurant.
Zardo is a fantastic guy and birder and was very keen to explain the local corruption and the effects on the conservation of this great site.
Only ten minutes by tricycle from town is the airport where I spent an afternoon and a morning. Walk along the shorter grass along the edges of the runway for Blue-breated Buttonquail. Various birds are on offer here and are covered in a number of trip reports. One of the reasons many stop by is the chance for Philippine Duck. Early morning or late evening is a good time to check all the groups of ducks that fly around the greater area. During the day when there is less activity, I had good luck on the left of the runway almost all the way down , where you will find a maze of waterways. Of course, it is also worthwhile spending an evening there for the chance of Grass Owl which offered nice views during my visits.
Malaybalay - Mindanao
This section of my trip represents one of my greatest bird and indeed, nature experiences of all my travels. It was here that I observed and marvelled at the ongoings of a Philippine Eagle nest for three days. I had only planned to visit the nest for a short while and to move on to the well known Kitanglad area and the 'Del Monte' lodge. Well, as a consequence of the moving experience I had on day 1 at the nest, I scrapped my plans and so missed many of the high altitude endemics on Mindanao. I don't regret it for a moment.
At the time I visited, the young bird was large enough and so great that I could understand the short stop overs to 'tick' this magnificent bird. Indeed, the bird, as you can see in my pictures was very similar in plumage to an adult and quite sizable at that. According to the records made by the young volunteers that had been watching the nest all day, every day for the last few months, I was there to witness her (the teenage eagle's) first venture far from the nest within the tree, among other things. The adults at this stage had begun spending more time away from the nest (2-3days), leaving the eaglet to explore the larger home it lived in, including forays to flap it's wing in the stiff breeze that regularly moved up the valley. This time away meant that many a birder/enthusiast stopped by without ever seeing an adult. What a pity because my final few minutes were spent listening to the long distance cries shared between parent and child before the first meal in three days was flown in, a Colugo (regular in this growing eaglet's diet).
Although the nest is no longer active, the following information may be of interest and some of which will be necessary for future visits, as a number of nests are monitered in the area.
From Davao, it is around three hours by bus to the town of Malabalay. A little less from Cagayan de Oro. Once in town you will need to get to the offices of the DENR. Most tricylcle drivers knew where it was. Here I spoke to Felix Mirasol, though a number of people were there who helped us. They will be able to tell you what the status is on any nests. They can then possibly arrange transport and more importantly, a permit to visit the area.
I must stress that this is well monitered and it is a privelage to be able to visit the area. Should anyone without prior permission enter the area and be caught, it may be a privelage short lived. Apart from that, it appears that the money does make it's way toward the conservation of this icon and the environment it inhabits. The nest I visited was unique in it's convenience and I am providing the following information only for those who wish to obtain the necessary permits and visit the area for furture birding trips and would like to make their own way there. The nest won't be there anyway!
I was given one permit for around P510 and it was for 3 days as I requested (It covered both the nest site and a visit to Kitanglad that I never made it to). From the town of Malaybay to the particular nest that I visited, it was around 1.5 hours total. On most days I made my own way there as there was no vehicle available (the DENR had provided a spare vehicle on the first day and I covered the costs of the fuel).
To get to the nest area that was active during my visit, I rode a Jeepney to Lantapan for P30, that took approx 1 hour. From there I jumped on a habal (motorbike taxi) for P100 for the last 5km up the hill to Cinchona. I walked down on the road (mostly fields, once you leave the forest) or I arranged a pick up time.
Once I left the fields behind on the road and began to enter the forest and it was only a few minutes before I passed a DENR sign designating the area a protected one, and shortly after there was a small unused chapel in a clearing on the left. A trail left from behind the chapel and it took about 40 mins to reach the platform which had been built into a tree, 90 feet up and a nice distance from the nest. The chapel is only a few minutes from the 'white house' further up the road where the volunteers and security guard were stationed. I was lucky enough to spend a free night here, exploring some of the area and it's birds during early morning hours, as well as being conveniently close to the nest. I don't recommend a stay in the 'white house' itself but they do have ample space for camping, assuming you have permission.
Birding the general area was interesting and a return trip to higher altitudes further up the road may be interesting. I saw various birds during my time here (90% of which was spent stationary in the hide) that I would otherwise have missed. These included Mountain white-eye, Cinnamon Ibon, Olive-capped Flowerpecker, Grey-hooded Sunbird, Short-tailed Glossy Starling, Black and Cinnamon Fantail, McGregor's Cuckoo-shrike. Also present were Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis, Amethyst Brown-Dove, Yellow-breatsed Fruit-Dove.
Sabang, St Pauls – Palawan
St Pauls (subterranean river park) is well covered in trip reports and there is already a map or two of the park in a couple of trip reports. If you plan to see the Peacock-Pheasant you will however need to know some of the following.
Firstly, to get to Sabang from Puerto Princesa by public transport you can take the morning bus that takes around 2 hours and returns at 3pm, though you may need to sit in an hour early to reserve your seat. You can also jump on a jeepney for a typically uncomfortable ride that can take anything from 2 to 5 hours as we experienced. The last jeepney from PP leaves at 2pm. At the airport and the transport terminal 15 minutes away, there are vans for hire for around P2500. Once in Sabang there is a limited number of accomodations but the lodges to the north of the pier (basketball court) along the white stretch of beach are closest to the park and are generally quieter. Mary's on the far end seems to be a popular choice for birders that don't choose to stay at the Last Frontier resort and would prefer to be close to the park. Double rooms were around P500 at most beach places, and the entire town runs on generators, as well as being without phone lines. Our time there seemed to prove that the towns inhabitants are quite bored and spend a great deal of time partying on the basketball court, often accompanied by loud music into the early hours of the morning.
If you arrive before 5pm, go into the park offices located right beside the basketball court and pay for the following day's permit as the office does not open till 8am which can be too late for the Pheasant. You should also book a banca to the ranger station if you wish to go by boat. A one-way trip is P600 (max 6 pax), a return is P700. Most will opt for the boat to get to the Pheasant in time, though I walked the trail one morning very early and made it just in time.
I do not recommend this however, as the previous day I had birded the trail slowly and it took almost four hours – fantastic birding with most of the endemics and great trip report gen. Two parts of the trail are quite steep and the humidity can be quite unbearable. It was only as a result of not booking a boat for the early morning that I was forced to practically run the trail in an hour - a serious push even for someone as fit as I was at the time. There were a regular couple of Malaysian Plovers on the first stretch of trail that follows the beach just before entering and making a steep climb on some wooden steps.
Apart from the regulars and specials to be had in the park, I decided to explore areas around the park, particularly the road into town, between Sabang and the next small hamlet 5km inland. See the above map for basic details.
The road provides access to more open habitat species as well as a backup to a few species you may miss in the park. It is also where I was able to add a number of species to my Philippines list as many species found elsehwere in South East Asia (Borneo for example), have ranges extending into the palawan region of the Philippines.
There is a small patch of bamboo just outside of town where a small track leads to a stream where the thicket held a Blue Paradise-Flycatcher on every visit I made. Further along in the numerous fields beside the road I racked up both Greater and Lesser Coucal, and in the forest edge and scrub around some of the houses I picked up Back-headed Bulbul.
Further down the road there are two large fields bordered by forest on the far side, the second one of which held Palawan Tit easily picked out by call. At the very end of this field, right by the road, there was a fruiting fig with it's canopy over the road. This held various species including Thick-billed Green-Pigeon. Just 10 metres up from this, and 4 feet off the edge of the road I almost trampled on a Hooded Pitta nest. The next stretch of road is good for a number of species as it is a corridor of less disturbed forest. As you are about to leave the forest, on your left there is a trail worth checking out as I had my only views of Spotted Wood-Owl and Chesnut-breated Malkoha here, along with other goodies. Across from the trail entrance is a small field where Little Spiderhunter, Ashy Drongo and a fly over Hill Myna put in appearances.
Futher along the road there is a small bridge, around which I regularly had Blue-headed Racquet-tail, and it was from here that Slender-billed Crow would often put in an appearance. Continuing on, and just before reaching the small town with a school, I went down a small track into the large field to the left and to the base of the forested ridges on the other side. Here it was easy to spot/hear Palawan Hornbill flying to feed on the large fruiting trees.
Chocolate Hills- Bohol
An Island with a very different feel to most of the rest of the Philippines and personally, one of my favourites. The chocolate hills reminded us of the mutinondo wilderness in Zambia and just like mutinondo, the birding is great.
The road to the Chocolate hills area is very nice (exceptional by Philippine standards) and the journey to the hotel of the same name takes only around 2 hours by bus. The bus however will only drop you at the base of the 'chocolate' hill that the hotel is built on. From here you can jump on one of the many Motorbikes (P12) to take you the 2 minute ride up the steep spriralling road up to the hotel. There is a patch of trees below the lower section of road that is reliable for Amethyst Brown-Dove.
Tricycles are less regular but you can get dropped off at the town (Carmen?), just a few minutes beyond the hotel where a tricycle can take you and your luggage should you be carrying a lot.
During our stay we found the hotel to be in good order despite the disturbing stories we had been given before the trip. The new double rooms (P1200) upstairs overlooking the pool and hills were very clean and comfortable and service was quite adequate. Many birders are choosing to stay at Nuts Huts as a result of rumours about the Choolate Hills hotel but this is not necessary. Nuts Huts however, does have some interesting birding on the grounds.
To get to Rajah Sikatuna Park from the hotel, I pre-arranged a pick up with one of the habal drivers who charged me P200 all the way to Logarita camp. This is not vital as there are drivers hanging around at the junction early every morning. For the return I just walked to the main road from the park and flagged down one of the regular buses.
The park is another well covered site but I found a few unmentioned sites that could be of use.
From the turn-off on the main road, it is around 2km through rice fields, homes and over a small river until you enter the forest and pass a turn to the right. This leads to the swimming pool area from where one of the more productive trails begins. Not too far in, I passed through some open forest where I had luck with Rufous-lored Kingfisher. A little further on, just before the trail begins to climb, I found the first and easiest Steere's Pitta calling ten meters up in a tree. While positioning myself at the base of the tree and waiting for the bird to call once more, a Yellow-breasted Tailorbird hopped into some tangles a few feet away.
Skipping the road to the pools, you will pass through a narrow cutting through a bank and you will enter the Logarita Camp area. A very birdy and open camp, surrounded by forest on all sides, and from where some good birding can be done. It is particularly good for picking up birds flying over the canopy and I picked a number of birds in this area only. Heading up the right hand side you will come to the start of the Brahminy Trail and shortly after you enter, the Tarsier Trail. This first few hundred metres of the Tarsier Trail also provided great views of a calling Steere's Pitta. Many of the specials can be found along the Brahminy trail and it's various branches and I spent a fair amount of time here. I did not make clear notes of my time there, but I remember following the Brahminy trail for some time and coming to a junction at the base of some steep hills where there was a sign marked 'Tarictic Trail'. Behind this sign was where I decided to stare into the mass of tangles and wait for Visayan Broadbill. I waited 25 minutes on one of the lower steps and finally picked up a trio of Broadbills. The site proved to be reliable over the next three days and I regularly stopped to watch these great little birds. Taking a right at the sign, I would complete a circle back to camp via the pools.
Taiwan (April 11 - 19)
Taiwan is a fantastic country, and while it's safety and organisation reminded me of South Korea, it was a much easier country to bird in terms of site accessibilty. The Taiwanese are incredibly friendly and helpful. To the point that we were sometimes picked up while hitching, only to have the drivers insist they take us all the way to where we were going. Despite it often being many kilometers out of their way.
Shortly before the trip, we had been given a quote for a fully guided tour and were told that we might spend a similar amount ourselves, and probably see less of the endemics if we did a DIY.
Well, we spent a great deal less (around $550 for two of us, with other site-seeing included!) and got almost all our targets, including 14 of the more widely accepted 15 endemics and a chunk of the likely splits. While many won't consider hitching, it is the only way to some sites without using public transport that is too time consuming . Of course, hiring a car for these trips is another option and still won't bring the costs anywhere near to that of a guided tour.
Most of the existing gen is still good for Wulai.
Though it may not be of any use by now, I picked up the Formosan Blue Magpie and shortly afterwards, it's nest.
Following the road out of town with the river to my left, I passed through a small tunnel and shortly after that, round a big bend. Around this bend was where I sheltered under a newish looking landslide bridge/tunnel. While looking down at the river from the sidewalk here, a Magpie flew across the clearing created by the landslide, and into a tree on the edge of the clearing. The nest was only a few tens of metres fom the sidewalk at the end of the tunnel headed out of town.
From here I also had the Whistling-Thrush, though these were easy in town, especially near the first tram station.
After our two days in Taipei and Wulai respectively we took a train to Hualien where we picked up the Styan's Bulbul in bush around town with not too much effort, though one has to be careful of hybrids. From here we got straight on a bus to Taroko Gorge.
The bus only goes as far as Tiansiung and it was from here that we needed to hitch to avoid a much less direct route on public transport to the Wushe/Meifeng area. We were picked up within ten minutes and taken the entire way by one lady, also on her first trip through this beautiful scenery.
The journey took a few hours but around 5 kilometers below the entrance to the blue gate trail, the forest opens up and there are plenty of lodges/hotels. We picked the first one located right on the road, overlooking the valley and just below the small convenience store.
Double rooms are usually $100/night but the valley was very quiet and it didn't take much persuasion to have it dropped to $30. Many of the hotels have restaurants, but one can also buy basic food supplies from two small stores on the main road. Hitching/walking the 5km up to the blue gate entrance or further up to the continuation trail is easy, and on many days I thumbed it back to the room to shelter from a few hours of rain.
There is a lot of gen regarding the two trails, though I did see Taiwan Tit only twice. Once very early on for brief views, and once right near the landslide along the continuation on my last walk.
I cleaned up all the remaining current endemics, but for one, during my time in this area. The exception being the Mikado. I failed to reach what is apparently a very reliable site due to various problems. As well as these endemics, there were some potential and likely splits that I did spend time searching for. Again, most of the species are easy enough with existing gen. I did find a site for the Vinaceous Rosefinch that I had not read about before – At km18, where one can turn down toward the start of the 'continuation' trail, there is a police station..across the road is a small building where I had them twice in bad weather.
Mark Wilkie is the man to contact here should you wish to stop by for the Fairy Pittas and other special on offer in the area. Mark is not only one of the most knowledgable birders in town but also a historian. We reached Huben via Sunmoon lake on a long journey from Meifeng and it provided a very productive final stop on our loop around the northern half of Taiwan. There is basic accomodation only a few hundred metres from the Temple where most of the great birding is. Mark mentions a good deal about the birding in the area on Birdforum that is very useful. While there, I picked up many of the specials I was after including the Mountain Scops-Owl in the tree just above the bathrooms beside the road. Malayan Night-Heron was easy here, as were Collared Finchbill and Chinese Finchbul. There is a site not too far from here for the Formosan Magpie, and a number of species reach the lowest elevation in their ranges within the area.