Sibaliw Research Station is bang in the middle of the Northwest Panay Peninsula National Park, probably the largest lowland forest patch on Negros and Panay (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sitefactsheet.php?id=97600). It’s the place for Negros Bleeding-heart and some other difficult Western Visayan endemics. I’d visited Panay eight years ago and was in touch with Dr. Eberhard Curio from the Faculty of Biology at Bochum University who was heavily involved I setting up and running the research station. He had recommended a stay of a few days in order to have a reasonable chance to see the Bleeding-heart, and I hadn’t had a chance at the time. He was always very generous with his time in responding to an amateur birdwatcher wanting to visit the area. I had to wait eight years for my chance to visit, but finally got there.
This year, Dr Curio put me in touch with Rhea Santillan (firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: +63 (0)912-3236859) who is the Secretary of PhilinCon (http://www.philincon.org), which runs the site, and you can email her if you’d like to visit. A million thanks to Rhea, who basically fixed up the whole trip (organizing transport to the drop off, and a porter, guide and food).
The bleeding-heart(in BirdLife’s Critically Endangered category) is one of the Philippine birds whose continued survival depends almost entirely on conservation initiatives (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2607). The Northwest Peninsula National Park is the only real remaining stronghold of the species—with almost no primary lowland forest remaining on either Negros and Panay. The good news is that the karst terrain is so rugged it would be quite an operation to log the area—we did see some small scale logging at the edge of the park, but well away from the bleeding-heart area. However, there was a recently abandoned hunter’s camp along the dry stream in the best area of forest, and you’d think the bleeding-heart would be one of their main targets (together with junglefowl and the like).
Other rare Visayan endemics: Visayan Hornbill is pretty common, I also heard Negros Scops-Owl and Yellow-faced Flameback. My guide, Jun, has not seen or heard Walden’s (Writhe-billed) Hornbill (quite a vocal species) for quite some time. They do have a pair in cages(together with a few Visayan Hornbill) at the Research Station. It sounds just like a sheep! Rhea can also help organize trips to Alegre, in the northern part of the Panay central-western mountain spine, which is the spot for this.
To start with, I checked in with Rhea in the town of Pandan, after flying Cebu Pacific to Caticlan (the airport for Boracay resort island). You can also fly to Kalibo on the north coast and take the bus down from there. The folk at Caticlan airport fixed me up with a motorcycle taxi to the bus station (50 pesos), there was an aircon bus leaving about 20 minutes after I arrived, a one-hour ride (50 more pesos), they dropped me off at a point on the main highway into Pandan, where a motorcycle took me to the PhilCon offices at Dioso Library in Baybay District of Pandan. The library was actually closed (it’s closed Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning) but after wandering around the back, a gentleman poked his head out of an upstairs window, who turned out to be Leo Dioso (namesake of the library), and a retired UN auditor. Leo took me over to the Pandan Beach Resort, which is a great place to stay while you’re checking in (www.pandanbeachresort.org), with fantastic ocean views, good food, prices from below 1,000 pesos up to around 2,000 pesos depending on the standard of room (some are large and have their own bathroom, aircon and TV). There are shops and money changers a short walk away, the owner Gigi and her staff are very helpful with directions.
The next day, Rhea picked me up at 6:30am and we drove 10km west along the south coast of the north-west peninsula to near the town of Libertad, where we stopped and I joined my guide, Jun, and a porter (who whisked my bag up the hill so quickly I hardly got to meet him).
It’s quite a tough 4 hour hike up to Sibaliw, maybe 3 hours if you are super-fit and don’t stop to look at birds. Anyway, I abandoned that effort myself, since it’s so hot and humid that after a few minutes you run out of any dry surfaces to look through or wipe yourself on. Bandana and hand-towels recommended next time! The hike starts off through fields, including a stretch along a dry river, then later along an irrigation channel and at the edge of the fields joining a real stream (with water), which you ascend for a couple of kilometers. As well as common birds like Cattle Egret, Zebra Dove, Yellow-vented and Visayan Bulbuls, Jun pointed out a Philippine Collared-Dove that flew past (I was too slow and sticky to get identifiable views myself). Along the river, you get some tall trees with Black-naped Oriole and Philippine Hanging-Parrot. Finally, the trail starts going more seriously uphill, and soon you get to a serious area of karst limestone with some areas getting close to rock-climbing and a few steep drops of perhaps 20 metres. Jun pointed out one that he had fallen off himself, and I’d say he was lucky to survive.
After getting through the karst, you suddenly reach another flat, dry river, but this time through excellent primary forest. It’s still a few more kilometers, and in the middle of the stretch there are two more ascents up limestone in quick succession (including the worst from my perspective, having a problem with heights). We heard a few troupes of monkeys along the river (presumably Philippine Long-tailed Macaque) and Jun pointed out a patch where a Visayan Warty Pig had been scratching. Finally, you turn left away from the river and start a long, steep ascent (possibly a 250-300m climb, up to about 570m) away from the river, then it’s another 20 minute descent down to the research station.
Jun’s 17 year old son, Benjamin, and the station manager and cook, Ramon, were at the station, and Ramon quickly put together a stir-fry with pork, cabbage, plantain and radish… the porters had just made a food delivery so we had some fresh vegetables to use up. The food was good – plenty of rice so you’ll never go hungry, corned beef and potatoes, fried spam, dried fish. My favouritewere the lumbay leaves that Ramon picked from the forest and cooked with sardines. There’s a pipe with a constantly running supply of spring water to the camp, which I drank the whole time with no problems (you can always bring purification tablets if you’re worried), and they’ve designed a clever lever that diverts the water either to the outdoors kitchen or to a shower cabin.
The research station itself is a wooden shelter on stilts, with around 6 bedrooms with bamboo pallets—you should bring an air/foam mattress, sleeping bag, self-standing mosquito net and something as a pillow. The station floor is made of bamboo slats which were in terrible condition, with many rotten areas they’d put wooden planks to walk across. You have to be very careful to walk on the underlying wood supports, as it’s a few metres fall to the ground underneath the stilts if you fall through; you even have to be careful when sitting down, as the chairs are resting only on the bamboo.
The station’s in some secondary forest with a slightly drier aspect than the forest around the dry river downhill. Walking around, you can see evidence of some terraces (formerly rice paddies) in the forest around camp, Jun said the area was a hideaway during the Japanese (Second World) War. A beautiful, rufous Philippine Frogmouth was sitting on eggs on an exposed branch right outside the station. Visayan Shamas and Philippine Tailorbirds were calling around in the early morning and sporadically throughout the day, as well as Coletos and a party of Sulphur-billed Nuthatch.
Last year, a Negros Bleeding-heart was nesting a few metres uphill from the station, and Jun told me he’s even seen in walking past while he sat inside the station. Jun says they normally breed April to July, and nest in a bird nest fern one or two metres above the ground. You might be lucky during this period if Jun’s found a nest; on the other hand, perhaps it’s more difficult to see them in the field during this period, if half of the population is sitting still much of the time. Jun and I spent a morning walking in the area around the station, and after a few hours he spotted a nest with two eggs in the centre of a bird nest fern, just a metre above the ground. We weren’t sure if the nest was abandoned or the bird had just flown off as we approached, he said there was a hide at the station and suggested we return with it in the afternoon. We arrived back about 2pm and saw the bird flying off through the forest—so we knew it was there! After setting up the hide, Jun left me to sit for a few hours. Unfortunately, the hide windows could only be looked through at a very uncomfortable crouch, so I sat down and waited, poking my head up from time to time. After about 45 minutes, I saw the bird has returned as expected, and, holding my breath, put my binoculars to me eyes. Emerald Dove! (still, the first time I’ve seen this beautiful dove on the nest)
The next two mornings we tried the dry river, which is better forest but a long, steep hike down from camp. Jun says the bleeding-heart often feed on the river even in the middle of the day. The first day we arrived at 9:30am, and it was already quite hot and activity winding down. We heard a couple of Yellow-faced Flameback, but both were completely unresponsive and I failed to see either. Visayan Hornbill is quite common along the dry river, and there are mixed flocks with the common birds including Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike and Visayan Fantail.
The second day, we started hiking down earlier at 5pm (requiring everyone to get up 3:30am), and either because of the early start or because it had just rained heavily, there was a lot more activity down at the dry river. Unfortunately, the rain made the path very slick, and I slipped and broke my ankle near the ridgetop. It didn’t turn blue and swollen for a couple of hours and I thought just twisted, so I did spend a couple of hours staggering around the dry river at the bottom, and after a while, Jun pointed out the song of the bleeding-heart, a series of 8-10 notes over about 2 seconds, rising then falling slightly in pitch (at a similar pitch to White-eared Brown-Dove). Jun tried to call it in by imitating what he said was another all of the bird, a falling purr. The wild individual seemed to be responding, and after a few minutes scanning the undergrowth, we realized it was calling from way up in the canopy, where we could see it flying around (unfortunately, dark and silhouetted as it was quite overcast so I couldn´t get anything on it). Suddenly, the weather turned clear and it stopped calling—but Jun said the real factor was a Philippine Serpent-Eagle, which had swooped in and nearly caught the bird (my ankle had forced me to abandon the chase). Later on, Jun spotted one the dry river, and asked me to wait as he went around the other side of the hill and corralled it towards me, giving me fantastic front-on views of the heart, then a poor photo as it speed-walked up away up the hill. During a sit-down to recover—before the hike out (taking 11 hours this time)—a Blue-breasted Pitta that was calling nearby flew across the river a couple of times in a flash of brilliant red and blue. An Oriental or Himalayan Cuckoo was perched quietly on a branch beneath the canopy.
Aside from Emerald Dove stakeout, I walked around the station on my own during the two other afternoons I stayed at Sibaliw, but it was pretty fruitless. A flowering tree above the station had a Yellowish White-eye, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (a yellow-throated race), Elegant Tit and a male Maroon-naped Sunbird the first afternoon, but I never saw anything in it afterwards. The final afternoon, I spent four hours without seeing a single bird, just deafening cicadas and gusts of wind. There are so many cicadas, and so few insectivores, it makes you wonder if the food web is out of balance here. Some spiders (with banded legs and tangled space webs) in the ceiling of the research station had trapped a couple of the greenish cicadas and were feasting on one; another managed to fight free after a couple of hours (showing its brilliant orange wings).
I also spent some time out at night around the station, but the best thing I saw (which Jun pointed out right by the lodge) was a roosting Maroon-naped Sunbird (the version of Flaming Sunbird on Negros and Panay). Quite a few Luzon Boobook called during the short periods it wasn’t raining, but none were at all responsive. A Negros Scops-Owl (which sounds a bit like a Common Potoo with three descending, mournful whistles) called only once down by the stream below the research station and mist nets.I played the call and got a strong response only from a Philippine Frogmouth (another browner individual than the one sitting on eggs at the station), which flew straight in and croaked at me aggressively.
I’d like to finish by thanking again Dr Curio, Leo, Gigi and Rhea, and Jun, Benjamin and Ramon at the station, who made the visit possible. I was charged only 1,000 pesos per day to stay at Sibaliw (including food and guide services), and 300 pesos for the porter in each direction. Given the rotten floorboards at the station and the constant need for a budget, I’d personally recommend they charge a bit more, as I suppose people making the effort to hike up would be willing to pay it to see perhaps the best remaining forest in the Western Visayas, contribute to the conservation effort, a chance of seeing Negros Bleeding-heart and other rarities. Break a leg if you decide to visit yourself.
Red Junglefowl—1 plus 2 heard
Cattle Egret—40 (fields at start of hike up)
Emerald Dove—1 on the nest and 3 heard
Zebra Dove—4 in fields on the way up
Negros Bleeding-heart—2 seen (including one on the dry river and one singing high up in the canopy) and 1 more heard
White-eared Brown-Dove—2 seen and constantly heard throughout the day
Himalayan/Oriental Cuckoo—One perched in good forest along the dry river
Philippine Coucal—Heard at the forest edge on the hike up
Negros Scops-Owl—Only called once, at the stream below the Research Station. Jun has photographed it just above the Station.
Luzon Boobook—About 5 calling around the Research Station
Philippine Frogmouth—A rufous bird sitting on eggs right outside the station.A brown bird seen at night.Both with a lot of white in the wings.
Visayan Hornbill—8 seen, most around the dry river and 2 by the Research Station
Spotted Kingfisher—2 heard
Coppersmith Barbet—About 20 heard
Yellow-faced (aka Greater)Flameback—2 heard calling and drumming by the dry river. Another large woodpecker drumming near the Research Station (White-bellied is the only other possibility here)
Blue-crowned Racquet-tail—One seen and a few heard by the dry river
Philippine Hanging-Parrot—One seen and many heard in the forest as well as forest edge along the stream during the hike in
Blue-breasted (aka Red-bellied) Pitta—One seen and about 5 heard
Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike—4 seen and several heard, flocking with Balicassiao along the dry river
White-winged Cuckooshrike—A group heard by the Research Station
Black-naped Oriole—Forest edge along the stream during the hike in, and a few heard in the forest
Balicassiao—Maybe 20 seen and more heard around the Research Station and dry river
Visayan (aka Blue-headed) Fantail—10 seen around the dry river and Research Station
Black-naped Monarch—4 seen around the Research Station
Elegant Tit—6 seen around the Research Station
Sulphur-billed Nuthatch—A group of 4, including at least one juvenile, seen by the Research Station
Yellow-vented Bulbul—In fields during the start of the hike in
Visayan (aka Philippine) Bulbul—A few seen and many more heard. Probably the commonest bird around the Research Station, but a bit shy.Also seen in fields outside the forest (together with Yellow-vented).
Philippine Tailorbird—2 seen and about 20 heard around the Research Station
Yellowish White-eye—2 seen (both solo individuals), one in a flowering tree above the Research Station
Visayan (aka White-browed) Shama—Many heard around the Research Station, but only one seen, quite shy
Negros (aka White-throated) Jungle-Flycatcher—A couple heard around the Research Station
Coleto—About 10 seen, groups around the Research Station and dry river
Orange-bellied Flowepecker—One seen in a flowering tree above the Research Station
Olive-backed Sunbird—4 seen, in fields in the hike up, and in the ferny clearing a short way above the Research Station
Maroon-naped (aka Flaming) Sunbird—One seen in a flowering tree above the Research Station, another roosting right next to the Station, both males (perhaps the same one)