Tim Fisher (Manila, Philippines), Gavin Maclean (Southampton, UK), Andy Mears (Bath, UK), Paul Pearson (Southampton, UK), Andy Rhodes (Southampton, UK) and Jan Wilczur (Barn Elms, UK)
Due to time constraints the majority of us were restricted to just two islands, Luzon and Mindanao. AM and JW then spent five days on Palawan. Tim Fisher organised all our ground arrangements in advance. Most of the sites visited are well known and on the usual birder's itinerary. However, two of the sites are less well known and are briefly described:
18 Jan London to Manila via Amsterdam
19 Jan Mt Makiling, southwestern Luzon
20 Jan Travel to Talaytay Watershed, northeastern Luzon
21 Jan Talaytay Watershed
22 Jan Talaytay Watershed
23 Jan Travel to Subic, southwestern Luzon
24 Jan Subic Naval Magazine
25 Jan Travel to Mt Katanglad, central Mindanao
26 Jan Mt Katanglad
27 Jan Mt Katanglad
28 Jan Travel to PICOP, eastern Mindanao
29 Jan PICOP (Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines)
30 Jan PICOP
31 Jan PICOP/Travel
01 Feb Mt Salaysay, central Mindanao
02 Feb Davao to Manila - to London via Amsterdam
03 Feb [JW & AM] Manila to Sabang/St Pauls, Palawan
04 Feb Sabang/St Pauls
05 Feb Sabang/St Pauls
06 Feb Sabang/St Pauls & Travel
07 Feb Iwahig & Rasa Island, Palawan
08 Feb Zig-zag Road, Palawan / Manila to London via Amsterdam
Situated in the Sierra Mardre mountain range in northeastern Luzon. This is an area of montane forest bordering a forested valley, which has been selectively logged. In the distance, mountains rise up and appear to be still forested. If someone spent some time finding a trail up to these peaks surely Whiskered Pitta would be found. . .
This mountain in the Apo range 1 1/2 hours north of Davao City is home to a breeding pair of Philippine Eagles in 2003. Guides and armed guards escorted us on an extremely arduous 2 1/2 hour trek to the nest site (we were assured that this was the most accessible currently active nest site in the Philippines!). We had missed the Eagle at Mt Katanglad, the site best known for these birds. It is not apparently breeding there this year (a rare three-year cycle - the usual pair is now expected to recommence the usual two-year cycle and breed next year in 2004).
The forest on Salaysay was unusual in that it appeared to be moss-forest. Few other birds were seen on the trek although one interesting flock of small birds passed by at a time when we really had to make tracks down the mountain. Exploring the area more fully may well prove to be fruitful.
Access to the site was organised at very short notice by Tim Fisher through the Philippine Eagle Foundation (Contact Mr. Dennis Salvador, Executive Director at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mr. Medel Silvosa at email@example.com). As a group we made a cash donation to the Foundation. Guides, porters and guards were paid the usual daily rates. We were the first westerners to visit the site since its discovery about twenty years ago. See access section below.
We would still advise birders to visit Mt Katanglad. The Eagle breeding valley there is at a much higher altitude than the one at Mt Salaysay, allowing other specialist montane species to be seen (and a hunting Eagle is always a possibility). See access section below.
Every site on the itinerary was worthy of a visit, although inevitably the birding at some was slower than at others.
Prospective visitors should note that shortly after our trip access to two of the key sites became difficult. At Mt Katanglad villagers on the mountain were for a time not allowing birders onto the mountain at all. The reasons why are not clear from this distance but seem to be rooted in regional ownership disputes. We understand that access arrangements have now been reinstated but potential visitors should really try and learn the very latest situation before visiting. The situation at Mt Salaysay is somewhat different in that it seems the Phillipine Eagle Foundation were not prepared for the itinerant nature of world birders! Immediately after our visit several other teams traveled to the site prompting the Foundation's concern over the welfare of the formerly remote Eagles in the light of increased access. Obviously no-one wants to in any way disturb these magnificent birds and again the only way of really appreciating the current situation is by contacting the Foundation (and Tim Fisher) prior to visiting.
We were generally lucky with the weather and lost relatively little time due to rain. Most sites were dry and hot with heavy, brief showers experienced at Mt Katanglad and PICOP.
As would be expected on such a short trip, our itinerary resulted in hard core dawn till dusk birding. Our average alarm clock setting was something like 0415. Often this was necessary to allow us to trek to the site, viewing position, stakeout etc by dawn.
We saw just one leach during the entire trip! There were a few mosquitoes at a couple of sites but none really bothered us. Jiggers are present at St Pauls but we avoided them (tactics to employ are lots of insect repellent and tuck everything in). Worst by far was stumbling into a virtually invisible swarm of stinging wasps at PICOP. Fortunately, the stings were only (very) painful for a short time despite drawing blood!
Overland travel between sites usually consisted of grueling drives over largely unpaved roads. Our van broke down several times and the mechanic who travels with Tim proved to be pretty much essential.
Tim's presence probably instilled a greater (false?) sense of security than we'd have otherwise felt and any group travelling in remote parts of the Islands without an experienced local guide would be advised to be suitably cautious. Potential visitors should assess the safety risk in any given area before visiting.
Tim approaches each new tour with trepidation, knowing the only certainty is that more trees will have been felled since his last visit. Some areas of deforestation are shocking to see and we heard chain saws on several occasions. It's hard to see what can be done but perhaps at a personal level, showing support for organisations such as Birdlife International is the best that can be achieved [http://www.birdlife.net/].
The taxonomy of the Philippines is complex. We make no attempt to unravel the issues here but a few references are made to subspecies where we encountered them.
CHINESE EGRET Egretta eulophotes Of the many Egrets present at Puerto Princessa Beach, Palawan, one of the closest was fortunately a Chinese.
PALAWAN PEACOCK-PHEASANT Polyplectron emphanum The regular male seen at the Ranger Station at St Pauls after a 2-hour wait from dawn. Several others heard over the next 2 days but none of these were pursued hard or seen. Just pipped to the post by Silvery Kingfisher for plumage of the trip.
PHILIPPINE DUCK Anas luzonica Large flock of approximately 400 birds in saltwater bay at Subic.
PHILIPPINE EAGLE Pithecophaga jefferyi Stunning views of both adults at Mt Salaysay, perched and in flight, plus a well-developed nestling in the nest. The squirrel or young lemur we saw one of the adults carrying was our only mammal of the trip! None seen at Katanglad.
PLAIN BUSH-HEN Amaurornis olivaceus Excellent views of several birds obtained at the Silvery Kingfisher roadside pools at PICOP. Elsewhere heard only.
RUFOUS COUCAL Centropus unirufus Despite being extremely elusive in feeding flocks of Malkohas and Drongos, everyone eventually had reasonable views. Highly vocal, its chittering call helped to locate birds and compile composite views
PHILIPPINE COCKATOO Cacatua haematuropygia A flock of 9 seen from the road close to Sabang and 10 seen on Rasa Island.
MANTANANI SCOPS OWL Otus mantananensis One seen easily but briefly on Rasa Island at dusk.
PHILIPPINE SCOPS-OWL Otus megalotis One bird spotlighted at close range at Talaytay. A very beautiful owl with the typically intricate plumage and ear-tufts of a Scops, a black and white frosting on the face and breast and piercing orange eyes.
GIANT SCOPS-OWL Mimizuku gurneyi A bird called each evening close to the camp clearing at Mt Katanglad but was not seen. According to Tim this is typical although other teams have seen them this year.
PHILIPPINE EAGLE-OWL Bubo philippensis One flew low over our heads at dusk near the camp at Talaytay. It had left a stand of trees and was apparently heading out into open grassland to hunt. It or another was heard calling briefly at dawn the next day.
PHILIPPINE FROGMOUTH Batrachostomus septimus One was spotlighted at close range at Mt Katanglad.
JAVAN (PALAWAN) FROGMOUTH Batrachostomus javensis One finally spotlighted at the Zig-zag Road after several failed attempts at Sabang.
PHILIPPINE NEEDLETAIL Mearnsia picina Several seen briefly at PICOP. Quite amazing birds and better views would have been nice.
INDIGO-BANDED KINGFISHER Alcedo cyanopecta Seen at several locations including the University grounds at Los Banos, Mt Makiling.
SILVERY KINGFISHER Alcedo argentata Several showed very well at PICOP on pools beside Road 1, allowing scope views. What a bird - any artist asked to illustrate this species faces a daunting task.
RUFOUS-LORED KINGFISHER Halcyon winchelli Seen well at and just after dawn at Road 1\4, PICOP. Reacted strongly to the tape, flying in and calling from high up in roadside trees.
SPOTTED WOOD-KINGFISHER Actenoides lindsayi Commonly heard at Mt Makiling and Talaytay pre dawn. At Makiling the birds responded to tape by flying in and perching motionlessly in the undercanopy, giving a very quiet, truncated version of its usual call and great, prolonged views.
BLUE-CAPPED WOOD-KINGFISHER Actenoides hombroni Seen very well on two mornings at Mt Katanglad in small wood just above the lower Eagle viewpoint. On first occasion a pair called back to the tape. A male gave good views in the canopy whilst a female was briefly glimpsed. The next day a male gave prolonged, close views after coming in silently to the tape in the same area.
'TARICTIC' HORNBILL Penelopides pannini Luzon and Mindanao Hornbills both seen well at various sites - reasonably common.
WRITHED HORNBILL Aceros leucocephalus Several seen very well from roads 1 and 1\4 at PICOP.
PALAWAN HORNBILL Anthracoceros marchei Three seen in the open forest above Sabang.
RUFOUS HORNBILL Buceros hydrocroax These spectacular creatures seen well on several occasions.
SOOTY WOODPECKER Mulleripicus funebris Seen several times at Talaytay, often associating with black flocks of Malkohas and Drongos etc.
RED-BELLIED PITTA Pitta erythrogaster One bird was heard calling from the road and gave brief views a short distance into the forest at the start of Road 1\4, PICOP. Two other birds were heard here. A second bird was seen well from the stream trail at St Pauls. It fed on the bank of a dry streambed but did not call.
HOODED PITTA Pitta sordida A bird bounded into view at the Zig-zag Road as we quietly waited for Palawan Flycatcher to show. It then allowed excellent views over the next 30 minutes during which time the noticeably large bill of the subspecies was noted. No response to playback from any Hooded Pittas during the trip although a couple more were heard.
STEERE'S PITTA Pitta steerii A bird first heard from Road 1\4, PICOP gave good views a short distance into the forest as it called from a 4m high perch. We watched it for 15 minutes and at one point both this species and Red-bellied Pitta called around us simultaneously and we were torn over which way to look - a nice quandary to be in! Later, another Steere's was heard calling on Road 1. It is also worth recording that on our last day at PICOP we tried for further views of both pittas but none were calling and we failed to gain any response to the tape from either.
RABOR'S WREN BABBLER Napathera rabori One was flushed from the trail at Talaytay and was watched running (rat like) up the vegetated bank. Another was subsequently heard giving its extremely high pitched call from a densely vegetated gully but could not be seen.
FALCATED GROUND-BABBLER Ptilocichla falcata Easily seen from the Jungle trail at St Pauls, in sharp contrast to Streaked Ground-babbler at PICOP (see Notable Misses).
GOLDEN-CROWNED & LUZON STRIPED BABBLERS Stachyris dennistouni/striata Seen in mixed feeding flocks at Talaytay.
ASHY GROUND-THRUSH Zoothera interpres One gave very brief views on the road at Mt Makiling at dawn. Dawn on the track here seems to present the best opportunity to see this species. A White's Thrush was also seen here and gave good views for several minutes.
PALWAN FLYCATCHER Ficedula platenae Two birds seen, one exceptionally well, at the Zig-zag Road.
FURTIVE FLYCATCHER Ficedula disposita A singing bird showed very elusively in trailside rattan litter at Talaytay.
SHORT-CRESTED MONARCH Hypothymis helenae A male finally gave brief views after calling repeatedly in a mixed feeding flock on Road 1 at PICOP. The bird was incredibly hard to get onto as it moved constantly in the understorey.
APO SUNBIRD Aethopyga boltoni A pair watched at close range about 50 yards beyond the Upper Eagle viewpoint at Mt Katanglad appeared to be nestbuilding.
Most Notable Others
Tabon Scrubfowl; Painted Snipe, Malaysian Plover & an interesting selection of other waders; Yellow-breasted & Black-chinned Fruitdoves; Blue-naped Parrot; Green & Montane Racquet-tails; Scale-feathered & Red-crested Malkohas; Black-faced Coucal; Philippine Hawk & Grass Owls; Philippine Nightjar; Brown-backed & Purple Needletails; Philippine Trogon; Oriental Dwarf-kingfisher (10 Kingfisher species seen in total); Philippine & Yellow-throated Leafbirds; Philippine Oriole; Palawan & Elegant Tits (White-fronted Tit heard only); two species of Rhabdornis (no Grand seen); Siberian Rubythroat; White-browed & White-vented Shamas; White's & Eye-browed Thrushes; Philippine & Black-headed Tailorbirds; Long-tailed Ground-warbler; Palawan Blue, Rufous Paradise & Blue Paradise Flycatchers; Pechora Pipit; eight further species of Sunbird; Naked-faced Spiderhunter; nine species of Flowerpecker; and White-cheeked Bullfinch.
Over 250 species were collectively seen or heard on the trip, approximately 107 of them being Philippine endemics, depending on which species list is used.
We will long remember an incident whilst watching the Philippine Duck flock flying around the bay at Subic. No-one could quite work out why JW was in such a panic to get on to them. His dismay was astonishing as someone called "They're landing on the water". Turns out he thought we were watching a flock of Green Racquet-tails. . .
PHILIPPINE HAWK-EAGLE Spizaetus philippensis Not even any probables seen at any site.
BUKIDNON WOODCOCK Scolopax bukidnonensis Strangely, no birds were roding at the Camp clearing at Mt Katanglad at dawn or dusk on any of our days there. Apparently birds were roding in January 2002 and other teams have subsequently been successful this year.. An unsuccessful attempt was made to find roding birds higher up the mountain at dusk on one evening.
PINK-BELLIED & SPOTTED IMPERIAL-PIGEON Ducula poliocephala /carola No birds were found amongst groups of pigeons feeding at fruiting trees at PICOP.
LUZON BLEEDING-HEART Gallicolumba luzonica None seen or heard despite Talaytay being a known site. Mindanao Bleeding-heart is very rarely observed these days and we didn't come close to bothering one.
MINDANAO WATTLED BROADBILL Eurylaimus steerii Despite trying a known evening roosting site on two occasions at Road 1\4, PICOP, none were seen.
STREAKED GROUND-BABBLER Ptilocichla mindanensis None of the half a dozen or so calling birds on Road 1\4, PICOP responded aggressively or closely enough to allow any sightings.
CELESTIAL MONARCH Hypothimis coelestis None seen or heard despite much searching. Habitat loss appears to be seriously diminishing a birders chances of seeing this species although other teams have seen them at PICOP this year.
Special thanks go to Tim Fisher for expertly organising all our logistics, accommodation and transport, and also to the many helpful members of his entourage. We all agreed that his camps at Katanglad and Talaytay were much more comfortable than most of the hotels we stayed in! Like so many birders before us we are indebted to him for all the great birds we saw in the Philippines.
Tim let slip that he is thinking of retiring from the bird tour circuit. Get in quick then if you want to take advantage of his irreplaceable services.
Thanks to Medel Silvosa at the Philippine Eagle Foundation for helping us see the birds superbly well and providing contact information for the Foundation.
Many thanks too to guide Arnel Malleri, who led nobly on Palawan. Hard working and amiable, even if his birding style was somewhat unconventional at times! He certainly knows his birds.
As ever, Aidan Kelly deserves mention for an inspiring report on a previous trip and thanks also go to Steve Smith for supplying some of our recordings.