Plans to attend an international conference being held in Cebu City in June 2018 offered me the opportunity to do some birding in the Visayas, the central group of islands in the Philippines. Each of the medium-sized islands in this region hosts one or more endemic species, and some of the more widespread Philippine species can be found more easily here than on the three main islands (Luzon, Mindanao and Palawan) that are the focus of most birding tours. Early June, however, is the start of the wet season and a time when many species are nesting, so not the best time for birding. As a result I decided to make just a short trip focusing on only two sites, the Tabunan forest on Cebu and Rajah Sikatuna NP on neighboring Bohol. The three cebuan endemics (Cebu Boobook, Black Shama, and the nearly extinct Cebu Flowerpecker) plus a few near-endemics can be found at Tabunan, while Rajah Sikatuna holds Bohol’s sole endemic (Bohol Sunbird) plus a number of species otherwise restricted to the Visayas or Mindanao. After reading a few trip reports that highlighted the challenges of renting a car in the Philippines or advocated hitching rides on the backs of motorbikes, I concluded that hiring a driver would be the most comfortable, safe and sensible way to get to the birding sites, and contacted the Manila-based company Birding Adventure Philippines (www.birdingphilippines.com) for recommendations. They offered to put together a 5-day tour for me, arranging all transportation, accommodations and the services of their lead guide, Nicky Icarangal. Although this cost more than I had originally anticipated spending, I was very glad in the end that I had taken this easy route, and saw far more than I would have had I attempted to visit either site on my own. Nicky carries an awesome 95-mm Swarovski scope at all times, which gave me much better views of many species than would otherwise have been possible since I had not had room in my luggage to bring my scope (packing a single 20-kg bag for a professional conference, birding trip, and post-conference SCUBA diving was a logistical challenge that necessitated a few sacrifices!). And traveling and birding with a male companion (usually two, as a local guide accompanied us at most sites) gave me a welcome sense of security I would not have had birding on my own in this country.
The standard field guide to Philippine birds is Kennedy et al.’s “Guide to the Birds of the Philippines” which was published in 2000 and is now sorely out of date. Many of the species resulting from recent multiway splits (e.g., 7-way split of Philippine Boobook, 5-way split of Tarictic Hornbill) are not depicted, and the taxonomic affiliations and common names of a number of species have also changed, in a few cases drastically. The pocket-sized photographic guide “Birds of the Philippines” by Tanedo et al. (2015) lists the updated taxonomy and nomenclature, but does not include photos or accounts of all species. Fortunately there are relatively few difficult IDs in the Philippines, and geography alone informs most of them.
Cebu City is the second-largest metropolis in the Philippines (next to Manila), and has an international airport with direct connections to Hong Kong and a number of other locations in Asia, making it easy to reach from North America. My flight from LAX via Hong Kong arrived into Cebu City at about 11 a.m., and a driver was there to meet me and deliver me to the Montebello Villa Hotel. This is a pleasant, older establishment with nice grounds, and I spent some of the afternoon looking for birds in the hotel gardens, picking up a few of the common Philippine endemics such as Red-keeled Flowerpecker, Philippine Pied-Fantail, Philippine Bulbul, and the ubiquitous Gray-rumped Swiftlets (recently split from Glossy Swiftlet). Nicky met me at the hotel for dinner, and we reviewed the logistics for the next day’s trip to Tabunan forest.
We left the hotel at 6 a.m. for the one hour drive to Tabunan and our rendezvous with local guide, Oking, whose house is at the start of the trail into the forest. Oking guided us through a maze of cultivated plots along the forest edge, where we picked up Magnificent Sunbird, Philippine Magpie-Robin, Pygmy Swiftlet, and the endemic, red-headed subspecies of Coppersmith Barbet. Once we entered the forest the birding became challenging due to a combination of dense vegetation, low light, and treacherous footing as we followed the overgrown trail over slippery, jagged limestone karst. We had early successes, however, with Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, White-vented Whistler, the white-bellied form of Balicassiao, and excellent views of a Cebu Boobook disturbed from a day-roost. The trail ends at a viewing platform atop a rock outcrop, constructed 20 years ago as part of an effort to monitor the Cebu Flowerpecker, a species thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered here in 1998. Although we spent an hour or more watching the canopy from this vantage point we were not lucky enough to see that species (Oking claimed to have last seen one in the fall of 2017, Nicky not since 2006…), but we did come away with close views of Elegant Tit, Everett’s White-eye, Philippine Coucal, and the ubiquitous Red-keeled Flowerpeckers. Black Shama was our primary quarry as we made the descent back into the forest, and it was not long before we had one at point-blank range, too close to raise the bins. At a spot near the forest edge we tried for Streak-breasted Bulbul, and although one eventually did respond to tape it remained high in the distant canopy. A Blue-breasted Pitta that called nearby was a bit more cooperative, sticking around until we were done with the bulbul and then coming in to give us a brief view. With all primary target species accounted for plus this final bonus bird, we hurried back to Oking’s house and the car to beat an approaching rainstorm.
We caught the 8 a.m. fast catamaran passenger ferry from Cebu to Bohol, arriving into the port of Tagbilaran after a smooth 2-hr voyage. We were met by a new driver, stopped for an early lunch in the city, then made the hour-long drive to Habitat Bohol in Bilar. Habitat Bohol (formerly called Simply Butterflies) is a butterfly garden that is a popular stop on the island’s package-tour route, and throughout the day buses disgorge groups of tourists to visit the walk-in butterfly enclosure and have lunch or ice cream in the open-air restaurant. In a private area at the back of the gardens are some basic accommodations that are apparently used mostly just by birders. It’s a pleasant base of operations convenient to Rajah Sikatuna NP, and although it’s a bit crowded and noisy with tourists during the day, in the early mornings and after 5 p.m. we had the place entirely to ourselves. After settling in and making a first pass through the butterfly garden (Olive-backed and Purple-throated Sunbirds, Black-naped Oriole) we met up with a local guide named Julius who led us to a well-hidden day-roosting Everett’s Scops-Owl.
We spent the rest of the afternoon birding the Sevilla road, a lightly-traveled dirt road opposite the turn-off for Rajah Sikatuna NP. This road offers good views of the canopy, and the birding was much easier here than in the densely forested park. We quickly picked up Northern Silvery Kingfisher, a pair of Philippine Trogons, Bohol Sunbird, Samar Hornbill, Coleto, Black-faced Coucal, and after waiting out a brief rain shower, Azure-breasted Pitta. At dusk we managed to spotlight a Striated Wren-Babbler coming to roost, and then walked along the road in the dark, eventually getting a good look at one of several Philippine Frogmouths that were calling.
The morning started very well with full-on scope views of a Yellow-breasted Tailorbird singing his monotonous song from the understory vegetation along the entrance road to Rajah Sikatuna NP. We then proceeded to the Magsaysay area of the park, and, finding little activity around the clearing, walked one of the loop trails through the forest. Although not quite as treacherous underfoot as Tabunan, the forest here is nonetheless hard birding as the canopy is high and dense and birds are almost always badly backlit, making it difficult to discern much other than silhouettes. A Philippine Leaf-Warbler glimpsed briefly and a backlit but stationary Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo were about the only conscionable ticks I could manage before we made it back out to the clearing. We had, however, been hearing a Pink-bellied Imperial-Pigeon calling from high in the canopy all morning, and were now finally able to lure this uncommon species into the open for a good scope view. Next, the local park rangers agreed to show us a Visayan Broadbill nest they had found. At first the nest—a football-sized affair of leaves and moss with a side entrance-hole—appeared to be inactive, but after about 10 minutes the male Visayan Broadbill appeared, carrying a dead leaf that he proceeded to add to the lining of the nest. He was joined by the female, and for the next half hour we enjoyed crippling, eye-level views of the pair as they collected leaves from the adjacent trees and took them to the nest. The rangers also knew where there was an active Philippine Frogmouth nest right along the entrance road, so we went there next for great views of the female sitting on her incongruously tiny cup nest. Nearby we tracked down a calling Rufous-lored Kingfisher, got fleeting views of another Northern Silvery-Kingfisher, and photographed a Colugo (Flying Lemur) that was hanging half-asleep on the trunk of a large tree.
As we returned to Bohol Habitat for an early lunch heavy rain began to fall, and it continued on into the mid-afternoon. The skies looked somewhat brighter to the north, so we drove to the Chocolate Hills Complex Visitors Center in Carmen for some sight-seeing at Bohol’s premier natural attraction. The Chocolate Hills consist of more than 1200 perfectly conical hills that stick up above the surrounding forest, resembling chocolate kisses when the vegetation turns brown in the dry season. A concrete staircase leads to a viewing platform atop one of the hills, and I joined the selfie-snapping throngs of tourists and made my way to the top for a few photos of this unique landscape. By the time we returned to Bilar the rain had eased off, and we spent the remainder of the late afternoon back along the Sevilla road, where we added Philippine Green-Pigeon, Philippine Hanging-Parrot (Colasisi), and Yellow-wattled Bulbul. At dusk several Great Eared-Nightjars circled overhead, and a calling Luzon Boobook responded to tape playback and showed briefly.
It had begun raining during the night but appeared to be easing off when we headed out after an early breakfast to go back to Rajah Sikatuna NP, this time entering the park at the trailhead adjacent to the Logarita pools. Initially the rain was not coming down hard enough to be noticeable inside the forest, but after about 15 minutes it let loose and began to really pour. We pulled out ponchos and umbrellas and stood waiting for the storm to pass, but when that didn’t happen we sloshed back out of the forest and returned to Bohol Habitat to dry out our gear. By mid-morning Nicky and I were both bored (the storm had killed the WiFi!), and agreed we would prefer to try our luck in the rain than to continue sitting around the restaurant. We spent about two hours walking the Sevilla road in a steady drizzle, but the birds were more sensible than we were and we saw little of note other than a very wet pair of Whiskered Treeswifts. When the rain finally eased off for real in the late afternoon we returned to the Sevilla road. Running back to my room first to quickly grab a few things, I surprised a Hooded Pitta hopping along one of the paths in the back garden, a chance encounter that was one of the trip highlights for me. The rest of the afternoon was an exercise in frustration as birds such as Rufous-fronted Tailorbird, Black-chinned Fruit-Dove, Amethyst Brown-Dove and Plain Bush-Hen all called repeatedly but played hard to get, with the latter two ultimately giving us the slip and remaining invisible. We did, however, pick up Bicolored Flowerpecker, a Barred Rail preening on the roadside, and good looks at a Blue-crowned Racquet-tail perched in a distant tree (thanks to that 95-mm scope!).
Today we picked up where we’d left off yesterday morning, entering Rajah Sikatuna NP at the Logarita pools and walking the network of trails on that side of the park. It was a sunny morning, which didn’t make the birding any easier as it simply intensified the backlighting of birds in the canopy. Over the course of the morning I did, however, manage to get reasonable views of Philippine Oriole, Philippine Fairy-Bluebird, and Black-crowned Babbler, and after a number of tries finally got my bins on a hyperactive Visayan Blue-Fantail. Although they were present and calling, Brown Tit-Babblers and a Yellow-bellied Whistler remained backlit silhouettes. As we left the forest, a White-bellied Munia hopped up into view just meters from the trailhead.
After lunch we headed back to Tagbilaran and the ferry to Cebu, stopping en route at the Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella. Here, free-living Philippine Tarsiers reside within a predator-free enclosure, and the staff keep track of their daily movements. We were led to three different individuals, all sleeping at eye level in stands of bamboo, and were able to view and photograph them at very close range. Other highlights of our visit here were flying lizards (Draco) gliding across a clearing, and a trio of Brown-breasted Kingfishers perched on phone lines by the sanctuary entrance.
I finished the trip having seen 78 species, 46 of them Philippine endemics, and left with a promise to return next year to visit Luzon, Mindanao and Palawan.
CEB: Cebu City
TAB: Tabunan forest, Cebu
HAB: Habitat Bohol, Bilar
RAJ: Rajah Sikatuna NP
SEV: Sevilla Rd., Bilar
BOH: Bohol (roadsides)
bold = Philippine endemic or near-endemic
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta): RAJ, 2
Barred Rail (Gallirallus torquatus): SEV, 1
White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus): RAJ, 2
White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus): CEB, 30
Rock Pigeon (Columba livida): BOH, 25
Asian Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps indica): RAJ, 1
Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata): CEB, 4
White-eared Brown-Dove (Phapitreron leucotis): TAB, 1; SEV, 2; RAJ, 3
Philippine Green-Pigeon (Treron axillaris): SEV, 3
Black-chinned Fruit-Dove (Ptilinopus leclancheri): SEV, 1
Pink-bellied Imperial-Pigeon (Ducula poliocephala): RAJ, 1
Green Imperial-Pigeon (Ducula aenea): SEV, 4
Black-faced Coucal (Centropus melanops): SEV, 2; RAJ, 1
Philippine Coucal (Centropus viridis): TAB, 1; SEV, 1
Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo (Surniculus velutinus): RAJ, 2
Everett's Scops-Owl (Otus everetti): HAB, 1
Luzon Boobook (Ninox philippensis): SEV, 1
Cebu Boobook (Ninox rumseyi): TAB, 1
Philippine Frogmouth (Batrachostomus septimus): SEV, 1; RAJ, 1
Great Eared-Nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis): SEV, 3
Pygmy Swiftlet (Collocalia troglodytes): TAB, 5; SEV, 2; RAJ, 5
Gray-rumped Swiftlet (Collocalia marginata): CEB, 10; TAB, 20; HAB, 3; SEV, 10
Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata): SEV, 4
Philippine Trogon (Harpactes ardens): SEV, 3
Samar Hornbill (Penelopides samarensis): SEV, 5; RAJ, 1
Northern Silvery-Kingfisher (Ceyx flumenicolus): SEV, 1; RAJ, 1
Brown-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon gularis): BOH, 4
Rufous-lored Kingfisher (Todiramphus winchelli): RAJ, 1
Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris): TAB, 2; RAJ, 1
Coppersmith Barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus): TAB, 2
White-bellied Woodpecker (Dryocopus javensis): SEV, 1; RAJ, 1
Blue-crowned Racquet-tail (Prioniturus discurus): SEV, 1
Philippine Hanging-Parrot (Loriculus philippensis): SEV, 1; RAJ, 2
Visayan Broadbill (Eurylaimus samarensis): RAJ, 2
Blue-breasted Pitta (Erythropitta erythrogaster): TAB, 1
Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida): HAB, 1
Azure-breasted Pitta (Pitta steerii): RAJ, 1
White-breasted Woodswallow (Artamas leucorhynchus): BOH, 2
Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike (Coracina striata): SEV, 2
Pied Triller (Lalage nigra): TAB, 1
White-vented Whistler (Pachycephala homeyeri): TAB, 2
Philippine Oriole (Oriolus steerii): RAJ, 1
Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis): HAB, 1; SEV, 2
Hair-crested Drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus): SEV, 6; RAJ, 4
Balicassiao (Dicrurus balicassius): TAB, 2
Visayan Blue-Fantail (Rhipidura samarensis): RAJ, 1
Philippine Pied-Fantail (Rhipidura nigritorquis): CEB, 1; TAB, 4
Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea): TAB, 1
Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos): SEV, 3
Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica): BOH, 5
Striated Swallow (Cecropis striolata): BOH, 10
Elegant Tit (Periparus elegans): TAB, 1
Yellow-wattled Bulbul (Pycnonotus urostictus): SEV, 2
Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier): TAB, 1
Streak-breasted Bulbul (Hypsipetes siquijorensis): TAB, 1
Philippine Bulbul (Hypsipetes philippinus): CEB, 2; TAB, 5; HAB, 7; SEV, 10
Philippine Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus olivaceus): RAJ, 1
Rufous-fronted Tailorbird (Orthotomus frontalis): SEV, 1
Yellow-breasted Tailorbird (Orthotomus samarensis): RAJ, 1
Black-crowned Babbler (Sterrhoptilus nigrocapitatus): RAJ, 1
Everett's White-eye (Zosterops everetti): TAB, 1
Striated Wren-Babbler (Ptilocichla mindanensis): SEV, 1
Philippine Fairy-bluebird (Irena cyanogastra): RAJ, 1
Philippine Magpie-Robin (Copsychus mindanensis): TAB, 2; HAB, 1
Black Shama (Copsychus cebuensis): TAB, 1
Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis rufigastra): TAB, 3
Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis): TAB, 5; HAB, 5; BOH, 2
Coleto (Sarcops calvus): SEV, 10
Bicolored Flowerpecker (Dicaeum bicolor): SEV, 1
Red-keeled Flowerpecker (Dicaeum australe): CEB, 1; TAB, 4; HAB, 1; SEV, 2
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma): SEV, 1; RAJ, 1
Purple-throated Sunbird (Leptocoma sperata): HAB, 2
Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis): CEB, 1; HAB, 3; SEV, 3
Magnificent Sunbird (Aethopyga magnifica): TAB, 2
Bohol Sunbird (Aethopyga decorosa): SEV, 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus): CEB, 10
White-bellied Munia (Lonchura leucogastra): RAJ, 1
Chestnut Munia (Lonchura atricapilla): CEB, 2; TAB, 1
Philippine Colugo (Cynocephalus volans): RAJ, 3
Philippine Tarsier (Carlito syrichta): Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, Corella, 3