Prior to a guided trip to multiple islands, I went to Subic Bay, Canadaba marsh and Palawan on my own. This trip report provides up to date logistics for Palawan.
Day 0: Flight to Puerto Princessa
Day 1: Iwahig Penal farm in morning, Honda Bay in afternoon
Day 2: Early departure from Puerto Princessa to Sabang stopping at sites along the way, afternoon Philippine Cockatoo lookout, 3KM trail and owling
Day 3: morning Underground Park (Palawan Peacock Pheasant stakeout) and around Sabang, afternoon forest along roadside outside of Sabang (3KM trail and Sheridan ATV trail)
Day 4: morning Underground Park, afternoon depart for Puerto Princessa and Manila
Birds and Reference material: For a field guide, A Guides to Birds of Philippines by Robert S. Kennedy. Although it needs a taxonomic update, it is still the best.
I downloaded target species to my MP3 player from xeno-canto
http://www.xeno-canto.org/index.php I brought a small speaker to tape in species.
Guides: I was self-guided, except for my morning on Iwahig Penal Farm. At Iwahig, I used the services of Eduardo “Arding” Madrinan. Cell: 0919-471-1664, email: firstname.lastname@example.org I would recommend him for this site as he lives at Iwahig, knows the locations for specific species, knows their calls and has good eyes. He can also arrange the permit needed for Iwahig. He told me that he also guides for the Sabang area and can also arrange trips to Honda Bay for those specialties (but I can not provide recommendations for him outside of Iwahig as I did not bird with him outside of Iwahig). He says that cell reception is not always the best so it is best to send him a text message and he will reply once he gets it. He speaks good English.
Prior reports also suggest Rommel Cruz as a guide for Palawan. I exchanged multiple emails with him prior to my trip. Based on those emails, I cannot recommend him although I have no knowledge of his field skills. Feel free to contact me with any further questions.
Timing of the trip: I went in December. This is the end of the rainy season. I was lucky that I had no problems with rain. Prior reports have had issues with rain in December.
Airport: I flew into Manila (arriving at the international Terminal 1). There are 4 different terminals at the Manila airport and you need to make sure that you know which terminal you are arriving to/departing from. You can check the airport website for a listing of the airlines based on the terminal. I departed from Manila to Puerto Princessa out of Terminal 3. Puerto Princessa airport was small and simple and in the middle of the city.
Transportation: Driving is on the right side of the road and the vehicles have the steering wheel on the left side of the car (standard USA driving). I printed out detailed Google Maps prior to my departure with enlargement for all important turns. I did not have any trouble with directions in Palawan.
For my trip in Puerto Princessa, I rented from Sabai car rental (email@example.com). Here, I rented a Suzuki jeep for 2,800 pesos/day. I originally thought that I would need a high clearance 4WD jeep for Sabang, but I did not. The road from Puerto Princessa to Sabang is well paved. The road in Iwahig is poor but can be passed with care in a regular car.
I did not have to get a Philippines driver’s license or show an International Driver’s license. My California (USA) driver’s license was satisfactory. I needed copies of my passport and driver’s license to give to Sabai car rental.
Taxis and local transportation: Taxis (motorbikes with a side carriage) were common. You can get to Sabang by bus and walk to the primary locations except for the Philippine Cockatoo location which would require hiring a motorbike to take you there and wait for you. The locations for night birding are within 3KMs of Sabang so you could be dropped off and walk back.
Language: The official languages are Tagalog and English. Most spoke English but the more rural you get, the less common English becomes.
Money: Currency is the Philippine Peso. I exchanged US dollars at the airport. There are ATM machines at the airport and in Puerto Princessa. I did not see an ATM at Sabang but I assume they are present.
Hotels and Food:
Puerto Princessa: gohotels. It had wireless and was next to Robinson’s Mall (plenty of places to eat and a grocery store.
Google Map coordinates: 9.769563,118.748024
Sabang: Sheridan resort. This is the fanciest resort in Sabang and the most expensive. I did not want to stay there but needed internet access while in Sabang. Daluyon Resort had internet but was only available for one of the nights that I was there. Other places that I checked did not have internet. There are much cheaper places to stay in Sabang than Sheridan resort. If you need to stay at the Sheridan, try negotiating the price down. The place was very empty while I was there and I was able to negotiate the price down (well below what was listed on the internet and what they initially quoted me).
Directions and logistics to sites: I have provided google map coordinates. Plug these into the google map search bar. Using a program other than google maps may not yield the correct location.
Iwahig Penal Farm: This is the best location for Palawan Flycatcher and Melodious (Palawan) Babbler. As of December 2013, Philippine Cockatoos were being seen at this location. You need to have a permit to go here. This should be arranged prior to arrival (I am told it must be done at least the day prior to arrival).
It is approximately 19-20 KM from downtown Puerto Princessa (Rizal Avenue). Google Maps can give you exact directions. Go north from downtown Puerto Princessa (past the City Coliseum) and you will see the left turn to Narra (just past Hotel Centro). There is a gas station (Caltex) at this turn. Turn left here. If you see the Robinson Mall on your right, you have missed this turn. After you turn left towards Narra, follow the road until it reaches the entrance to the penal farm (entrance is on the right). Google Map coordinates: 9.755204,118.677793. There is a guard station and a large sign (it would be very hard to miss). I stopped at the guard station and they took me to Arding’s (the guide) house. Arding then took me to the start of the Balshan trail. The trail is behind the natural pools. Google map coordinates: 9.771196,118.662981 The trail crosses several streams (knee high at one spot and the current was strong so use caution). I went as far as the 4th stream crossing.
Old Narra Road (Zigzag Road): this is the alternative site for Iwahig (if you cannot get in to Iwahig). It has both Palawan Flycatcher and Palawan (Melodious) Babbler. I did not visit but I believe the google map coordinates are: 9.692771,118.693285. This information is from another trip report: “There is a yellow KM35 marker on the right side of the road when coming from Puerto Princesa. Opposite this marker is a sign marked NGO monitoring station (dis-used now).”
Garceliano Beach: this is the spot for Chinese Egret. Google map coordinates: 9.729699,118.772764. You can walk to the beach near the resort that is being built. Others have suggested entering at Aventura Resort. I initially went to the coast guard station (google map coordinates: 9.723005,118.768642) and climbed their lighthouse tower and looked at the beaches from there. This gave me an impression of where the egrets were.
Honda Bay: This is the site for Grey Imperial Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon and Mantanani Scops Owl. The Sta Lourdes Wharf is approximately 14KM north of Puerto Princessa. Drive north out of Puerto Princessa (past the city coliseum, the Robinson Mall, and the memorial park) until you see the right hand turn for the wharf (St. Lourdes Wharf). Google map coordinates: 9.843187,118.736522 The wharf is about 1KM down this road. Drive to the end of the road. At the end, the boats are docked on the right and the information booth and coast guard station are on the left. Google map coordinates: 9.843842,118.74547
Unfortunately, the process for birding these islands has changed. Previously, you could arrange to go to Pandan Island in the afternoon, see the pigeons and stay after dark for the owls (which are apparently common on the island). In May 2013, Pandan Island was apparently closed to birders (due to reportedly “bad behavior” of a bird guide) and birders could no longer visit. I had been told by Rommel of a new island for the owl (“that was much closer than Pandan”) but I was not sure of which island that was. Rommel also told me that he did not see the Imperial Pigeon on the new island but thought it was probably there. I took a chance and went to both Pandan Island and Ramesamay (locally called Cowrie) Island and was lucky to see all the specialties. I was told by Arding that he could arrange it (and Rommel can do it as well) but I do not think either is supposed to take you to Pandan Island. I went and organized my trip to these islands on my own at the wharf (had to to talk with the coast guard). Make sure you have a good light, not only for the owls, but the boat ride back in the dark and the boats do not have lights. I had a good spotlight for the trip back in the dark. Feel free to email me with additional questions.
Sabang area (google map coordinates: 10.196845,118.893099) Sabang is easily reached from Puerto Princessa. It is about 77KM from Puerto Princessa. The road is paved and well signed. It takes ~1.5 hours to drive (if no stopping for birds).
St. Paul’s Underground Park: There are two locations to access this park: 1) at the north end of the beach road in Sabang and 2) taking a boat to the main ranger station at the cave location. No permit is needed to access from the beach road. A permit is required to access the main ranger station by boat. The Palawan Peacock Pheasant is at the main ranger station (thus you need to get a permit and go by boat). This permit may be obtained at Puerto Princessa or in Sabang at the information office near the boats (Google map coordinates: 10.197054,118.892796). I was concerned about getting a permit because I understood that they can sell out. Now, it is my understanding that they may sell out of permits to go on the underground cave tour. They will not sell out of “general entry” permits. If you just want to go to the ranger station and bird around the ranger’s station, a “general entry” permit is all you need. The cost for a general entry permit was 190 pesos. Additionally, you will want to arrange your boat trip to the ranger’s station. I went to the “boat station” (google map coordinates: 10.197328,118.892852) which was just a tent with some chairs and negotiated for a boat trip the following day that would depart at 0545. It cost 1200 pesos. The boat takes you to the main ranger station and the location to take the underground river tours. Google map coordinates: 10.200731,118.92476.
If you have any questions about the permit, you can email the office in Puerto Princessa at firstname.lastname@example.org. The office in Puerto Princessa is on the first floor of the City Coliseum (google map coordinates: 9.754844,118.748796). You can get a permit here. Note, that when I tried on Sunday, to get a permit for Tuesday, they were unable to do it because the computers were not updated. They could get me a permit for Monday but not any day beyond Monday. Thus, I ended up getting my permit in Sabang on Monday (the day before I was to go).
The other location to access the park is at the end of the beach road (past Mary’s bungalows). This road was in bad shape and would be difficult in a normal car. However, it is easy to walk from most lodging (it is a 1.5-2KM walk from the boat dock in Sabang). Once you get to the end of the beach road, you will see the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour office. At this spot, there is a bamboo “boat/raft” with a bench and rope that can be used to cross the river (there is no longer a bridge across the river). Google Map coordinates: 10.196893,118.904611 I watched 16 Filipinos get on this raft and try to go across. It started to sink before they even started across and by the middle of the river, they were up to their waist and some were standing on the bench to try and stay dry. Eventually, they made it to the other side, but several got very wet. If this “boat/raft” is on the wrong side of the river, you can cross at the end of the beach, but note that you could get wet. I crossed at the beach at low tide and it was just above my knees (I am 6 feet tall). Once across the river, there are two trails (Jungle Trail and Monkey Trail). The Jungle trail follows the river to the center of the park. The trail along the beach (Monkey trail) goes up to the zipline and then down to the central ranger station. The Monkey trail is closed beyond the central ranger station (Google Map coordinates: 10.199781,118.911949). Therefore, you must take the trail behind the central ranger station (the trees are painted orange). It goes up and over the ridge and meets up with the jungle trail. I believe some call this the stream trail. At the intersection of stream trail and jungle trail, you must turn right because the jungle trail is closed to the left (there were sticks put up to block the trail). I did, however, walk a portion of this closed trail. The Jungle trail will take you back to where the river crossing is.
Sheridan ATV trail: This trail is just over 1KM out of Sabang on the main road. It is well signed. It is a series of trails that guests from Sheridan drive ATVs on. It does not go far from the road but I had some nice birds including Palawan Tit and a very close observation of Hooded Pitta. It is also a good trail for Palawan Scops Owl, Spotted Wood Owl and Frogmouth.
3KM trail: There is a trail on the left side of the road (as you leave Sabang, same side as the Sheridan ATV trail) that is not quite 3Km from Sabang. There are signs about the forest at this trail. There is also a Sheridan 3Km sign just past the trail. This trail goes through some simple forest and was good for Spotted Wood Owl.
Philippine Cockatoo lookout: This lookout is approximately 12KM from the gas station at Sabang. There is a place to park and then you can walk up some “stairs” to the overlook. Google map coordinates: 10.105303,118.848403 I saw 2 Philippine Cockatoos at 4:50pm (but my understanding is that they can fly by earlier so you may want to get there by 4pm).
Sabang: There are rice fields around Sabang and I also walked through and behind the Dab Dab resort. There was fruiting tree in the Dab Dab resort (about 200 meters northwest of the boat dock) that I watched hoping for a fruit dove (no luck). It was also the only place I had Pale Spiderhunter.
Buena Vista mangroves: There are mangroves in Buena Vista (this is about 11Km from your last turn to Sabang). There is a parking area next to the cemetery and a trail that will take you to the mangroves to look for Copper-throated Sunbird. Google map coordinates: 10.070277,118.812134
Departure Tax: There was a 100 peso departure tax from Puerto Princessa airport.
Weather & Clothing: The only rain was at night in Puerto Princessa. It was wam.
Biting animals: Mosquitos were a problem on the Jungle trail and there were a few mosquitos at Iwahig. I understand that there is malaria in Palawan but I did not take prophylaxis.
Advice: I would advise a minimum of 4 nights for Palawan. Five nights would give more flexibility, especially if there was rain.
Suggested minimal itinerary:
Day 0: arrive Puerto Princessa and spend night (if permit not arranged for Iwahig prior to arrival, then you must arrive early enough to go to the Penal Farm gate and arrange for the permit and a guide).
Day 1: early morning at Iwahig (or Old narra road) Back to Puerto Princessa by 12:30pm to go to the wharf for Honda Bay. Afternoon/early evening at islands off Honda Bay
Day 2: early morning departure from Puerto Princessa, arriving at mangrove location around daylight for Copper-throated Sunbird. Stop at other roadside areas on way to Sabang. On arrival to Sabang, get permit and arrange boat to the main ranger station. Afternoon at Philippine Cockatoo spot. Night for owls and frogmouth at KM3 trail and Sheridan ATV trail.
Day 3: 0600 departure for main ranger station and look for Palawan Peacock Pheasant around ranger station. Return once it is seen. Rest of morning on trails at end of beach road. Afternoon (Philippine Cockatoo lookout if necessary), otherwise Sheridan ATV trail/3KM trail
Day 4: morning trails at end of beach road. Afternoon back to Puerto Princessa for departure.
More specific information in eBird lists.
Tabon Scrubfowl: one seen on Monkey trail, one heard on Jungle trail and two seen around the main ranger station
Palawan Peacock-Pheasant: main ranger station. I saw the habituated male that has been around since 2001 (the bird is probably 12-13 years old). I departed around 0545 and arrived at the main ranger station ~605am. I asked the locals at the ranger station about the bird. They told me: The peacock-pheasant is most often seen around the hut where they cook the food as the locals will throw it rice. It is seen most mornings and afternoons (one of the locals said that it is not seen every day but I would guess that they are not looking for it every day). I basically walked around the buildings and down the Monkey trail looking for it. At 0730, the bird began to call and then walked up to the buildings. I got great looks but then a monkey scared it and it walked off. It is a great looking bird.
Schrenck's Bittern: Sabang. I believe this to be rare. It was a female standing on the side of the road and then flushed into an exposed branch. In flight, dark primaries and secondaries with contrasting pale buff wing coverts. When perched, dark wings with white spots.
Great-billed Heron: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Pacific Reef-Heron: rocky coast at Sabang
Crested Serpent-Eagle: Iwahig
Black-bellied Plover: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Lesser Sand-Plover: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Greater Sand-Plover: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Malaysian Plover: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Kentish Plover: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Little Ringed Plover
Terek Sandpiper: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Gray-tailed Tattler: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Whimbrel: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Eurasian Curlew: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Ruddy Turnstone: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Great Knot: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island)
Gray Imperial-Pigeon: Pandan Island. After arriving, I walked through the middle of the village and to the trails that go south from the village to the other end of the island. I saw a Gray Imperial-Pigeon almost immediately. Another seen and others heard.
Pied Imperial-Pigeon: Pandan Island
Philippine Cockatoo: 2 from the lookout spot. Birds are now also being seen at Iwahig
Blue-headed Racquet-tail: only seen at the main ranger station, heard calling and seen poorly flying around.
Palawan Scops-Owl: Sheridan ATV trail
Mantanani Scops-Owl: Ramsamey Island (Cowrie Island). Responded to tape just after dusk.
Spotted Wood-Owl: 3KM trail, two birds spontaneously calling and then seen to mate (just before dark)
Javan Frogmouth: Sheridan RV Trail
Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher: streams at Iwahig
Palawan Hornbill: Iwahig and Underground Park
Spot-throated Flameback: Underground Park
Red-headed Flameback: ridge trail behind the ranger station (on the jungle trail side of the ridge)
Hooded Pitta: heard at Iwahig but seen very well at Sheridan ATV trail
Pied Triller: pandan Island
Blue Paradise-Flycatcher: Iwahig and Jungle trail
Palawan Tit – difficult (as prior trip reports also indicate). Only seen at Sheridan ATV trail
Sulphur-bellied Bulbul: Sheridan ATV trail, Underground Park
Palawan Flycatcher: Iwahig only (just after 2nd stream crossing)
Palawan Blue-Flycatcher: Iwahig only (same spot as Palawan Flycatcher)
White-vented Shama: common by call
Ashy-headed Babbler: only seen at Iwahig, heard Underground park
Palawan Babbler: Iwahig only (2nd stream crossing)
Falcated Wren-Babbler: Underground Park, in the closed area of the Jungle trail (needed to use tape)
Copper-throated Sunbird: mangroves at Buena Vista, also in mangroves across from entrance to Iwahig
Pale Spiderhunter: Dab Dab resort
Palawan Flowerpecker: Iwahig and Underground park
Dark-throated Oriole: Sheridan ATV trail
Asian Glossy Starling
Common Hill Myna
Eurasian Tree Sparrow