The Philippines has always been high on the list of priority countries to visit for the aspiring world lister, due to its highly specialised, highly endangered avifauna. Depending on which taxonomy you follow, almost 200 species are endemic to this diverse archipelago, including some remarkably spectacular birds which would be high on the wish list of any birder. Over the past few years trip reports have increasingly emphasised the ‘now or never’ nature of the Philippines as a destination, such has been the staggering degree of destruction of forests and natural vegetation on virtually all the islands. The big tour companies all without fail visit the islands in the window of dry season between January and March, not really convenient for a teacher’s timescale. However, when Mike Catsis contacted Philippines birding guru Tim Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) he surprisingly told us that it was indeed feasible to do a trip during the English summer, so we decided to shelve prior plans for a return trip to Ecuador. We used Tim’s services to set up a month long tour taking in Luzon, Mindanao, Palawan, Bohol, Mindoro (SA only) Cebu and (so we hoped at the time), Negros, although ultimately a late change in ferry services meant that we had to do without the day at Casa Roro waterfall on this island, costing us the chance of three or so endemics. As it was, the trip more than exceeded expectations. We feared washouts at several places but in reality despite some downpours we lost few species to the weather, and were very lucky in this regard on Mindanao and at Hamut camp in particular, when typhoons were apparently lashing Manila and areas further south on Luzon at the same time. Mike flew out a few days before me at the end of July and I joined him subsequently, flying out on August 1st having been to a friend’s wedding the day before. Tim arranged for Mike to visit Mt Makiling not far from Manila and we then met up on August 2nd, spending three weeks or so together before he had to fly back and I visited Mindoro, with Tim, and then Makiling for a couple of days by myself. Given the time of year and the fact that northern migrants would be almost entirely absent, we concentrated specifically on endemics. Between us we managed a tally of about 138, including near-endemics, including some of the most sought-after and stunning birds in Asia. We also witnessed a remarkable amount of environmental destruction, particularly on Mindanao, although thanks to the efforts of Tim and the team of guides he uses on various islands, new sites and new patches of habitat are still being found, and it remains possible, for now, to find a high proportion of the special birds of these islands. But time is certainly running out.
Transport and Logistics
I flew to Manila on Emirates via Dubai, which cost £637.30, a reasonable price for a quality airline. In terms of ground arrangements, we sorted everything out through Tim Fisher, which is an absolute must if you want to maximise your time during a trip of just a few weeks. He charged us $2400 US per person for all transport, a number of internal flights, guides in many areas, accommodation and more. Only food was not included, and that only in certain areas. We felt that this represented excellent value for a month, particularly given the strength of the pound against the dollar at that time. Tim worked hard to make sure our trip was as smooth as possible, including allowing a welcome degree of flexibility whilst we were actually mid-tour, and he is to be thoroughly recommended.
Friday 30th July MC arrived on Qatar Airlines at 1.30pm. pm transfer to Mt Makiling and birding time. Night at the Trees Lodge in the University of Los Baños campus.
Saturday 31st July Full day birding on Mt Makiling for MC including visiting the Dairy Husbandry late pm. Night at the Trees Lodge.
Sunday 1st August Another full day on Mt Makiling for MC.
Monday 2nd August Morning birding on Mt Makiling for MC. 12:00 return to international airport rendezvous with SA at 16:30. 17:30 transfer to Malate Pension House for overnight stay.
Tuesday 3rd August 07:10 – 08:10 flight with Cebu Pacific to Puerto Princesa on Palawan where met by Arnel Mallari; 09:30-11:00 birding near White Beach for coastal and scrub birds; 12:00 – 16:00 drive to Sabang, good birding en route. Night in a small hotel on the beach.
Wednesday 4th August 04:30 – 05:30 night birding behind Last Frontier resort; 07:00-11:00 boat to Underground River ranger station and birding there; rain from 11:00-15:00, then birding at Central Park station; night in small hotel.
Thursday 5th August 04:30 – 11:00 birding behind Last Frontier hotel and in adjacent paddies; 15:00 – 18:30 return to Puerto Princesa; night at the Hotel Badjao.
Friday 6th August 04:30 – 09:30 birding in the Iwahig penal colony in between rain showers; 11:00 – 13:00 drive south to Narra; 16:00 – 21:30 birding from the boat around and on Rasa Island then return to mainland; night in La Vista hotel in Narra.
Saturday 7th August 03:15 – 04:30 drive from Narra to the ‘zig-zags’; birding there until 08:00 then depart for Puerto Princesa airport; 11:00 – 12:15 flight to Manila; 15:00 – 16:10 flight to Tagbilaran, Bohol, where collected by our driver Chito and transferred to Rajah Sikatuna National Park; night in the nearby Chocolate Hills Guesthouse.
Sunday 8th August Full day’s birding in Rajah Sikatuna NP but hampered by rain and high winds; night at Chocolate Hills.
Monday 9th August Morning birding in Rajah Sikatuna. 13:00 – 16:00 drive back to Tagbilaran to discover that 17:00 Negros ferry not running, so return to Chocolate Hills for overnight.
Tuesday 10th August 06:00 -11:00 birding in Rajah Sikatuna NP; 12:00 – 15:00 drive to Tagbilaran. 16:00 ferry to Cebu, taxi to Vacation Hotel for overnight.
Wednesday 11th August 04:00 – 06:00 met by the CBCF jeep and taken to Tabunan in central Cebu for full day’s birding at and around the second observation platform, again hampered by wind. 15:00 – 17:00 return to Cebu City; 19:30 caught overnight ferry to Cagayan de Oro; overnight in one of the suite rooms.
Thursday 12th August 06:30 arrival in Cagayan de Oro, met by the driver Willy; 08:00 -10:30 drive to Dalwangan in Bukidnon; having payed respects to the village elder, drove up to the village of Damitan on the slopes of the Katanglad mountains, where we were met by our guide and horses. 12:00 – 13:00 Walk up to the camp 15:30 – 18:00 birding above the camp; night in the Del Monte Ecolodge.
Friday 13th August Full day’s birding on Mt Katanglad up to mossy forest above second eagle viewpoint.
Saturday 14th August Second full day on Mt Katanglad, concentrating on lower slopes and forest patches; pm around lodge area.
Sunday 15th August 06:00 – 07:00 walk down to Damitan; 08:00 – 18:00 met by Zardo Goring and jeep and drive via Davao to Bislig; night at the Paper Country Inn, Bislig.
Monday 16th August 05:00 – 15:00 birding on roads 1/4 and 4 at PICOP logging concession; late pm visit to the Bislig airfield; night at Paper Country Inn.
Tuesday 17th August 06:00 – 18:00 full day birding at PICOP on a variety of roads including the good area of forest on road 4a which has limestone outcrops; night at Paper Country Inn.
Wednesday 18th August 06:00 – 12:00 hilly forest area on road 42; 15:00 – 18:00 roads 1/4 and 4; night at Paper Country Inn.
Thursday 19th August 06:00 – 12:00 road 4 and 4a; 15:00 – 18:00 hill forest area on road 42; night at Paper Country Inn.
Friday 20th August 10:00 – 16:00 drive to Davao Airport with one or two stops en route; 18:00 – 19:50 Cebu Pacific flight to Manila; airport cab to the Malate Pension House for overnight.
Saturday 21st August 07:45 taxi to the domestic airport; 10.00 – 11:00 flight to Tuguegerao airport in northern Luzon, met by our guide, Aquilino Escobar; 12:30 – 14:00 drive to the village of Baliuag in Isabela. 14:30 – 17:30 hike up to camp one on the lower slopes of the Sierra Madre mountains.
Sunday 22nd August 06:00 – 09:00 – birding around and beyond the camp. 09:30 – 15:00 hike up to Hamut camp, birding en route; birding around camp until dark; night in camp at Hamut.
Monday 23rd August full day birding around camp including on the ridge; night in camp at Hamut.
Tuesday 24th August 06:00 – 10:00 birding around Hamut; 11:00 – 15:00 hike down to camp one with some birding en route; night in camp one.
Wednesday 25th August 06:00 – 08:30 birding in forests and edge habitat on lower slopes around the village of Palay; 08:30 – 11:30 hike down to Baliwag; 12:30 – 20:30 drive to Banaue via Tugeragao; night at Banaue View Inn.
Thursday 26th August 04:30 – 06:00 Drive up to Mt Polis; 06:00 – 09:30 birding around the pass including the trail behind the shrine; heavy rain; 09:30 – 11:00 to Bay-yu and hike down to the river; 11:30 – 14:00 birding in torrential rain at Polis until we finally gave up at around 14:00; night at Banaue View Inn.
Friday 27th August Lie-in until 08:00 then drive to Manila for overnight in Malate Pension House, arriving 18:00.
Saturday 28th August MC departed for the UK; 05:45 – 06:45 SA flies to San Jose on Mindoro with Tim Fisher; 07:00 – 10:00 drive to Sablayan Penal Colony; 14:00 – 18:00 birding on forest edge and at Lake Lubao; night in small house at Sablayan.
Sunday 29th August 06:00 – 12:00 birding in the forests of Siburan; 13:00 – 16:00 drive to San Jose for overnight in small hotel near the beach.
Monday 30th August 07:15 – 08:15 flight back to Manila 09:30 – 11:00 drive to Los Baños for overnight at the Trees lodge; 14:00 – 18:00 afternoon birding on Mt Makiling, especially Botanical Gardens and Dairy Husbandry.
Tuesday 31st August 05:00 – 12:00 birding on Mount Makiling, main trail; rain all afternoon so no birding; night at Trees lodge.
Wednesday 1st September 05:00 – 09:30 some final birding on Mt Makiling. 10:30 – 12:00 return to Manila; afternoon with Tim Fisher then flight to London late pm.
The relatively new field guide has made life far easier for visiting birders and we found it to be useful, although there are few identification issues to deal with. We relied heavily on Tim Fisher and his team of guides, as well as a number of reports, particularly that by Rob Hutchison, Sam Woods and Andy Adcock (2003) available through the Oriental Bird Club, which is really excellent. Other reports we used in our preparation included those by:
Markus Lagerqvist (2003)
Gavin Maclean et al (2003)
Sander Lagerveld (2002)
Garry George (2002)
Marc Guijt et al (2000)
Aidan Kelly (2000)
Miscellanea and Timing
The Filippinos are a friendly and helpful race but it is not a country without trouble. There have been recent reports (Feb 2005) of trouble on tribal land close to or on Mt Katanglad, and one or two recent groups have not been able to visit this key site. This is why it is crucial to get Tim Fisher to make arrangements for you on the ground, and his services are well worth the money he charges.
As regards timing, obviously at the time of year we visited there is a much increased chance of losing significant time to rain. However, the message is that it is possible to visit the Philippines in August and still emerge with a healthy list of endemics and specialities. There is doubtless some altitudinal migration that goes on but it was interesting birding there at a time when so few have done so beforehand. It was admittedly the case that certain species are harder to find at that time of year, particularly on Luzon where Ashy Thrush was absent on Makiling and Hamut camp was not at all birdy, but if you are desperate to visit the Philippines and you can only get a month off in the northern summer, don’t let it put you off!
The sites described below are well-known and covered in detail in a number of trip reports, and I can add little to information already available. Clearly with the rate of deforestation particularly at places like PICOP, the best sites are going to continue to change and thus contacting local guides at a range of sites (or rather, getting Tim to do this for you) is definitely the best option.
Monday 2nd August
I arrived on time into Manila at 16:30 and was met by Tim and Mike who had just returned from Mt Makiling. On the drive to downtown Makati, one of Manila’s more upmarket districts, and our destination for the evening, Mike filled me in on details of the thirty or so endemics that he had already seen during the past three days, which whet my appetite for the weeks to come. Once installed in the Malate Pension House we had a few beers and some dinner with Tim before retiring with an early flight to Palawan awaiting us in the morning.
Tuesday 3rd August
Up at 5 or so, the 7:10 flight to Palawan passed uneventfully and we were met at Puerto Princesa airport an hour or so later by Arnel Mallari, our guide for the next few days. Arnel is a genial character and clearly extremely proud not only of Palawan’s endemic avifauna (depending on taxonomy this numbers about 16 species) but also fiercely committed to ensuring that his clients see as many of them as possible! He was to take this to extremes that we certainly would not have considered had we been on our own. And so it was that we got straight down to business, with the short drive to a local area of mangrove and shoreline and coastal scrub known as White Beach. The tide was high and there was no sign of any early (or late?) Chinese Egrets, one of the specialities of the site in winter at least, but we did find Palawan Swiftlets hawking over the area and Rufous-tailed Tailorbird in the mangroves whilst both Hooded Pitta and the endemic White-vented Shama gave excellent views in the coastal scrub just inland from the beach along a narrow road. After lunch we began the bumpy three hour drive up over the centre of this narrow island towards the resort village of Sabang and our ultimate destination of St Paul’s NP. Arnel obviously knew plenty of good spots along the way and within the first hour or two we had added three smart endemics, Yellow-throated Leafbird, Palawan Flowerpecker and the attractive Lovely Sunbird, whilst a short trail into some mangroves surrounded by taller trees revealed a fine male Copper-throated Sunbird.
Some nice forest patches a little further along the route proved most productive, and allowed us to add Common Flameback, Great Slaty Woodpecker, a showy Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, drab Olive-winged and Grey-cheeked Bulbuls, Dark-throated Oriole, Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike and the scarce Blue-naped Parrot alongside more localised specialities of the island such as a retiring pair of Sulphur-bellied Bulbuls, some dainty Pygmy Swiftlets and best of all, a pair of smart Palawan Tits in a legume overhanging the road. This was to prove our only encounter with this distinctive relative of the more widespread Elegant Tit of the remainder of the archipelago. Some high-pitched screeching further on led us to excellent views of some perched Blue-headed Racquet-tails, whilst a roadside Pygmy Flowerpecker was very confiding and a Changeable Hawk-Eagle soared overhead. A final stop close to Sabang gave us flight views of a Palawan Hornbill against the greenery of a cliff face (again our only encounter with this endemic) whilst a Rufous-backed Kingfisher zipped past us over a paddy field on its way into a patch of secondary forest.
Thoroughly satisfied with our efforts thus far we checked into the small set of rather quaint cabanas on the beach, eschewing the exotically-named and rather ageing Last Frontier Resort just inland. It began to rain shortly after our arrival which curtailed birding for the day and scuppered plans for owling, but not before we had enjoyed a refreshing dip in the South China sea and admired the stunning scenery of the forest-clad limestone karsts reaching down to the idyllic beach.
Wednesday 4th August
Arnel had us up bright and early of course, and we spent the hour before dawn birding on a trail up behind the Last Frontier resort where small forest patches hold an interesting range of species. Undoubted highlight of our foray into the darkness was an encounter with the remarkable Javan (or Palawan) Frogmouth at eye level some five metres away from us in full spotlight beam. The facial tufts on this bird really have to be seen to be believed. With no response from Palawan Scops-Owl and some distant grunts from a Spotted Wood-Owl not showing any interest in the tape we retreated back down the hill and headed for the beach where a short longtail boat ride saw us deposited within about 15 minutes at the Underground River station of the St Paul’s NP. It did not take long for our main quarry here to show itself and after a short wait we were treated to fantastic views of the increasingly habituated male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, surely the island’s most spectacular and celebrated endemic bird species, and one which has become much more regular in the last few years around the ranger station here. Once we had had our fill of the strutting male it was off into the forest to try to locate some of the more soberly-attired specialities of the area. First on this list was a small group of Ashy-headed Babblers which showed at close range, and soon afterwards some keen spotting from Arnell had us watching a male Palawan Blue-Flycatcher in the sub-canopy after a little hide and seek with the tape. Near the Underground River itself we found a shy group of Tabon Scrubfowls on the forest floor, a Stork-billed Kingfisher at the cave entrance and a single Malaysian Plover on the beach, although some hawking swiftlets went unidentified. We soon moved on from there to the Central Park station and were met with some rain for a couple of hours, but when this abated we ventured out into the forest once more and WERE rewarded with another of Palawan’s special birds, the striking Falcated Wren-Babbler, which eventually responded to the tape and gave good views. We also had a brief Hill Myna in this area, but Blue Paradise-Flycatcher was heard only. Rain saw us lose most of the afternoon but we used the time to catch up with a little sleep before a brief foray into the park on foot this time later in the afternoon failed to produce Ruddy Kingfisher. We stayed inside the forest after dusk and in the pitch black tried again for Palawan Scops Owl, but eventually gave up after an hour with no response whatsoever to the tape.
Thursday 5th August
Another pre-dawn walk behind the Last Frontier resort saw us draw another blank with Palawan Scops Owl although a vocal Large-tailed Nightjar was more obliging. Once the rain had passed an hour or so after dawn we worked the hillsides in search of our remaining target species. A pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers were a welcome addition to the list of impressive non-endemics, and Crested Goshawk and both Plaintive and Asian Drongo-Cuckoo also obliged. A couple of Philippine Cuckoo-Doves flew over but it was not until after a couple of disappointing, distant views and a couple of false alarms with Black-naped Monarchs that we finally had the opportunity to enjoy the attractive Blue Paradise-Flycatcher in all its glory.
Back at the Last Frontier we invested a little time in a vigil at the paddy fields which gave us views of a male Greater Painted-Snipe, a long-time much wanted species for me, although Cinnamon Bittern was the only other species of note. We returned to our beach huts and by noon were on our way back towards Puerto Princesa. Stops in the forest patches which had been so productive on the way were less birdy this time round, although a pristine male Violet Cuckoo was a most welcome surprise. More rain heralded our dusk arrival in Puerto Princesa where we spent the night in the Hotel Badjao.
Friday 6th August
Our destination this morning was the Iwahig penal colony, where again we failed to connect with Palawan Scops Owl pre-dawn and again where rain interrupted us a little, although not sufficiently to prevent us from connecting fairly easily with a party of Melodious Babblers, one of the very few Palawan endemics not found in the Sabang area. There was little else of interest around so we again indulged in a little open country birding in the rather extensive area of paddies along the entrance track to the forest. A suprising range of waders were present, and in addition to the numerous Black-winged Stilts, we found Wood Sandpiper, a couple of surprise Grey-tailed Tattlers and both Rufous-necked and Long-toed Stints, whilst in some taller more vegetated wet fields further south we found at least two Watercock. By lunchtime we had arrived at La Vista Hotel for our night at Narra, and following lunch and a siesta we began our journey, first by jeep and then by boat, out to Rasa Island. The tide and sea conditions were quite favourable and as we sailed around the island towards the northern end, I spotted a hulking Great-billed Heron amongst the mangrove roots. As the afternoon light began to fade we spent some time trying to identify egrets on the fish traps out to sea, eventually deciding that they were Chinese Egrets, before enjoying the spectacle of upward of 90 of the highly endangered Philippine Cockatoo coming into roost in the same tree, a truly memorable sight. After dark we spotlighted a surprise adult Rufous Night Heron that flew off the island and onto another fish trap, before going ashore over very rough coral (do not attempt this without shoes of some sort – flip-flops may actually make you even more unstable!) After a tricky walk around the beach we came into a clearing where we eventually had good views of two different Mantanani Scops-Owls after some effort. It was pretty late by the time we got back to the mainland and going on 11 by the time we got to bed.
Saturday 7th August
Arnell was not going to give up the scops owl easily, and despite our late night he proposed a 2.45am alarm call to give us a chance of getting to out last birding site on the island, a nice patch of forest around a large hairpin bend between Narra and Puerto Princesa, with enough time to track down this bird before dawn. Unfortunately we once again drew a blank despite considerable effort and much to Arnell’s disappointment as well as ours, we had to let that one go as day broke. Compensation for this dip came in the form of a sneaky Palawan Flycatcher, the final diurnal endemic of the island, (with the exception of Palawan Striped Babbler for which you need to mount a semi-expedition to the higher peaks of the south of the island) which we got good views of as it ghosted quietly through a patch of bamboo in which we were sitting just off the main road. This is certainly a species which we would not have found without Arnel’s considerable expertise.
Before returning to Puerto Princesa, we dropped in at Iwahig fishponds where a Slaty-breasted Rail on the entrance track was a good start, followed soon afterwards by a single vagrant Black-faced Spoonbill, one of the three that had been present at the site since February. A few Chinese Egrets were feeding in the shallows alongside their more widespread cousins, and we also found a Lesser Coucal and a Pink-necked Pigeon in adjacent trees. Back at the airport we said a fond farewell to our guide before boarding the plane back to Manila. Tim was there to meet us and we went for some lunch in a nearby restaurant amidst an almighty downpour. At 3pm we left for another flight to Tagbilaran on the island of Bohol, where we were met by our driver Chito, who loaded us and our kit into his van before setting off for the Chocolate Hills, next to Rajah Sikatuna NP, our home for the next two nights.
Sunday 8th August
Rajah Sikatuna NP is an island of forest in a largely cleared landscape, and although Bohol holds no single-island endemics, it is the most accessible site for the handful of species endemic to Bohol, Samar and Leyte. These include Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Visayan Broadbill and Samar Hornbill, and these were certainly the main priorities for the next few days. Another pre-dawn start saw Chito drop us at the bottom of the track leading to the main clearing known as Magsaysay or the Scout HQ. Once we had passed through the cutting and entered into the clearing it was clear that weather conditions were not going to be favourable, with strong winds sending menacing low clouds scurrying across the sky. Sure enough, no sooner had we picked out a Whiskered Treeswift high in the canopy at the clearing’s edge than the rain began coming down, and we had to take shelter in a small hut for a couple of hours to wait for it to stop. Once it finally abated we set off up the Steere’s Pitta trail which leads off to the right at the far end of the clearing. Birding was extremely slow amongst the limestone boulders, but along a ridge we came across our first endemic of the day, Philippine Leaf-Warbler, which was associating with a pair of Black-naped Monarchs. Rain again threatened and then started coming down heavily again as we joined up with the Valley (or Brahminy) trail which contains perhaps the most productive forest in the area.
Not before we had secured views of the attractive Black-faced Coucal shinning up a vine tangle. This was to prove one of the most frequently recorded species during our stay in the park, although after the dearth of birds that the morning had brought, seeing our first was a definite highlight. Emerging at the forest edge we followed the wide track round towards the Logarita station where there is a very dingy and basic guesthouse. Here we had some lunch before venturing out again to try to add to our meagre tally of species. Some Blue-throated Bee-eaters sallied for insects in the paddies behind the guesthouse and indeed this area was to prove relatively productive for an hour or so, as we found first some bizarre Coletos, a perched White-eared Dove and then a pair of Samar Hornbills. Another walk up to the scout hut clearing gave the ubiquitous Philippine Bulbul and Yellow-bellied Whistler but nothing of any great excitement, and we returned to the Chocolate Hills frustrated with the returns of our first day.
Monday 9th August
This morning’s plan was to do the loop we had walked yesterday in reverse, so Chito dropped us off near the start of the Valley trail and we headed up slowly towards the main clearing. Weather conditions were still far from optimal but seemed a little kinder this morning, and the bird activity was certainly more pronounced. First onto the list was a pair of the very distinctive rufopunctatus race of the Greater Flameback, with its striking crimson back. These were soon followed by a close encounter with a confiding Striated Wren-Babbler which showed great interest in the tape and circled round us, showing nicely. Further on our first ‘decent’ mixed flock gave Brown Tit-babbler, Black-crowned Babbler and a Metallic-winged Sunbird, whilst we also surprised a pair of Red Junglefowls, although there was still no sign of any pittas or broadbills and Yellow-breasted Tailorbirds were only calling infrequently near the start of the trail and remained invisible. Back on the ridge above the scout hut clearing we finally caught up with the supposedly common Blue Fantail, as well as Red-striped Flowerpecker, whilst the trees along the road back down towards the Logarita swimming pool area yielded Yellow-wattled Bulbul and another Black-faced Coucal. At lunch time we were again picked up by Chito and, rather disappointed we packed up the luggage and headed back towards Tagbilaran, hoping to connect with the 5pm ferry to Negros. When we arrived we discovered that this sailing had been discontinued so we were left with little option but a soul-destroying three hour return drive to Chocolate Hills for another morning at the decidedly unbirdy Rajah Sikatuna. Missing out on Negros would of course mean that we would have no chance on this trip of Flame-templed Babbler, Red-keeled (Visayan) Flowerpecker or Visayan Hornbill, three possible endemics at the Casa Roro waterfall which we were due to visit the following day. As it was we resolved to make the best of this disappointment and had fingers crossed that some of the species that had eluded us on Bohol thus far might appear the following day as compensation for this setback.
Tuesday 10th August
Our final pre-dawn foray around the scout hut clearing saw improved weather conditions and we got quite close to a calling Philippine Hawk-Owl without being able to spotlight it in the forest interior. Easier to see were the two Great Eared Nightjars that flapped languidly over the clearing as dawn approached. We returned to the start of the Valley trail after first light, and after some considerable effort we both eventually got good views of the remarkably skulking but pretty Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, rich reward for our persistence and some consolation for our cancelled ferry. Continuing up the Valley trail we tried hard to connect with a flock that might contain a Visayan Broadbill but despite increased activity we just could not find this sometimes elusive species. A splash of colour did emerge at the top of the ridge in the form of a superb male Philippine Trogon, and Orange-bellied and the endemic White-bellied and Olive-backed Flowerpeckers were found in the little valley above the scout hut clearing. Most remarkable sighting of the day was undoubtedly a Chattering Lory which we found feeding quietly in a tree near the flowerpeckers. A native of the Moluccas, this bird was obviously the missing partner of the noisy individual to be found in the cage at the main clearing, and it has obviously made its home in the more salubrious surroundings of the forest!
With ferry tickets for our catamaran ride to Cebu purchased the previous day at the ferry port, the three hour return trip to Bohol allowed us to enjoy some of the Bohol countryside. Whilst largely deforested, the island is notable for its selection of very old but in many cases well-preserved Catholic churches, dating back to the time of Spanish occupation in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and a most incongruous sight in south-east Asia! The four o’clock ferry took just an hour to reach the sprawling, dirty port of Cebu City and we taxied to the pleasant Vacation Hotel for dinner and bed.
Wednesday 11th August
Up at 3.45, we were met at the hotel shortly after 4am and transferred by jeep for a two hour ride to Tabunan in the hills in the centre of the island, where our destination was the simple house of our guide for the day, the famous Oking. It wasn’t raining but the wind was gusting around, and it looked likely to make looking for a tiny flowerpecker rather a thankless task. Undeterred, we hiked along a muddy trail, making our way through small plots of agriculture towards the small block of forest contained within the nominal Central Cebu NP. The wind was indeed quite strong as we made our way towards the second, upper platform to prepare ourselves for a vigil for the flowerpecker. We clambered up the limestone pinnacle and tried to position ourselves as comfortably as possible on the sharp rocks (not very easy). Very few birds at all were visible in the surrounding trees, although the wind blew a couple of Red-striped Flowerpeckers over, and Oking claimed to have heard a Cebu Flowerpecker, but despite a six hour wait we were to draw a disappointing but not unsurprising blank with this exceedingly rare endemic. Sightings are becoming increasingly infrequent apparently and the species is being pushed towards extinction primarily by the aggressive nature of its Red-striped relative. Shortly after 1pm we called it a day on the platform and set about trying to locate one or two of the other specialities. The forest around the base of the limestone outcrops soon gave us Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher, Everett’s White-eye, Crimson Sunbird and good looks at the furtive and rare Black Shama, Cebu’s other endemic. An hour-long stay at the lower platform, where there is a wooden floor and a couple of rudimentary benches, allowed us to add a brief fly-by Blue-crowned Racquet-tail, Balicassiao and good views of another rarity, Streak-breasted Bulbul, which may be split in future from the siquijorensis race due to vocal differences, whilst Mike also saw a Philippine Serpent Eagle. By 3pm we were making our way back towards Cebu City in the jeep, Mike seeing a Purple Needletail en route. He had already seen this species at Mt Makiling but this was a bird I was to fail to connect with altogether. Our destination for the evening was the ferry port, and by 7pm we were installed in one of the grand ‘suite rooms’ on a large overnight ferry bound for the city of Cagayan de Oro in northern Mindanao. After an early dinner we retreated to watch some television in our room before turning in at another absurdly early hour.
Thursday 12th August
A long if occasionally disturbed night’s sleep ended as our vessel drew into Cagayan harbour. We had feared rain on Mindanao above all other islands, but for once it seemed that we would be lucky with the weather as it was a fine sunny morning. After a fine buffet breakfast in a nearby hotel’s restaurant, our jovial driver Willy took us to the village of Dalwangan where we first met up with our team of guide, cooks and porters, and then were obliged to be party to (indeed, supposedly to benefit from) a local ritual designed to bring us luck and to ward off any evil spirits that we might encounter on the mountain. This involved having our hands brushed with the blood of a freshly killed chicken, for which purpose ITS throat was promptly slit in our presence. Whilst the team of porters loaded our horses we reacquainted ourselves with our binoculars, and watched Uniform Swiftlets overhead, whilst a Philippine Hanging-Parrot zipped by showing its red rump. The walk up to the exotically-titled Del Monte Eco-Lodge took the best part of an hour and to our amazement it had remained hot and sunny throughout the morning, thus granting us clear views of the imposing figure of the near-mythical, solitary Mt Kitanglad rising above the surrounding hills. The walk up took us through farmland with little native vegetation, and few if any birds were in evidence. Having set up our sleeping kit on the wooden floor in the open-plan upstairs area (those expecting luxury will be disappointed), I had a short stroll around the lodge clearing, adding Bicoloured Flowerpecker in the process, whilst the cook prepared what turned out to be a fine lunch.
We were eager to get out into the forest, although in reality we were to discover that there is limited habitat along the main trail up towards the ‘eagle viewpoints’, and that accessibility has brought inevitable deforestation in the area. Nevertheless, it was an excellent afternoon’s birding, and good weather and a fierce appetite to get our teeth into some Mindanao montane endemics saw us rack up a good list over the next few hours. First up was a Rufous-headed Tailorbird that popped out of its dense hedgerow home for long enough for us to admire its smart plumage, but it was not until we entered some more intact, taller forest near the checkpoint at the lower eagle viewpoint that we hit a couple of mixed flocks which contained a good number of our targets for the mountain. The first of these contained Mindanao White-eye, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Elegant Tit, the beautiful Black-and-cinnamon Fantail and the striking MacGregor’s Cuckoo-Shrike, plus the non-endemic Mountain Leaf-Warbler and Island and Little Pied Flycatchers. A couple of Mindanao Racquet-tails shot overhead calling, whilst some further searching of a flock a little further on in an area of more mossy forest revealed a number of Cinnamon White-eyes and on the way back down, a Grey-hooded Sunbird. Overhead Philippine Swiftlets replaced their Uniform cousins from lower down the mountain, and one of the birds of the afternoon, a Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis, showed well, if briefly, in a dead tree. Rivalling the rhabdornis for bird of the afternoon was Red-eared Parrotfinch; we found a small family party of these sought-after finches feeding quietly in an area of ferns adjacent to some open country and enjoyed close-up views before they flitted away. The evening was not finished yet, with good views of a roding Bukidnon Woodcock around the lodge clearing against a darkening sky a fitting preface to dinner. After eating we tried our luck with nightbirds, with a distant, unresponsive Giant Scops Owl calling us into the woods. We got much nearer to a Philippine Frogmouth but couldn’t seem to get it to sit on a visible perch and it too eventually lost interest and slipped away into the night. Nevertheless, a great start to our time on Kitanglad and we went to bed with fingers firmly crossed that a certain eagle might cross our path in the morning.
Friday 13th August
We were away on the trail shortly after dawn, having heard the woodcock roding again around the camp before first light. Our first destination of the morning was a patch of mossy forest close to where we had been the previous evening, just above the checkpoint and lower eagle viewpoint, which Danny, our local birding guide, knew to be a good location for another of the key species of this site. His local knowledge was to prove spot on, as within a few minutes and after a couple of blasts of the tape we found ourselves admiring the red bill and stunning plumage of a male Blue-capped Kingfisher, a highly sought-after Mindanao endemic. From there we hiked further up the trail towards the upper viewpoint into true stunted, mossy forest which closed in around us making for difficult viewing conditions. Reaching this area is important as some of the mountain’s key birds rarely if ever venture to lower elevations. We did quite well on these species over the next couple of hours, adding the bizarre Apo Myna, a single, responsive Apo Sunbird and three smart White-cheeked Bullfinches a little lower down at the upper viewpoint itself, although we couldn’t find a Mountain Shrike. We also flushed two or three Philippine Nightjars from their day roosts, but time was pressing on and after a half hour vigil at the upper viewpoint drew a blank on the eagle, he suggested that we return to the area around the checkpoint to wait from there. Once back there we were in the process of setting ourselves up for a long haul scanning the sky, based at the small open shelter with a tin roof, when a highly distinctive high-pitched yelping cry rang out from across the forested valley. Danny immediately confirmed that this was being made by our target, and for the next couple of minutes time seemed to stand still as the three of us tried to find the source of the sound. Soon enough Danny said he was on the bird, and better still, it was perched less than 200 metres away across the gorge. Within seconds we were watching a magnificent full adult Great Philippine Eagle in the scope, its blinding white underparts set off by its hugely thick bill and the extraordinary mane-like nature of its crest which was being blown about in the breeze, thus showing it off to its maximum effect. We quickly realised that there was a second source of yelping and I soon located another adult, again perched, and only about 50 metres away from its mate, and almost visible in the same binocular field. We had our fill of these amazing eagles over the next half hour or so as they called to each other, before one then the other took to the sky to scout out a potential nest site, soaring upwards on thermals until they eventually disappeared over a ridge. With at least a small amount of authority I think I must concur with Don Roberson’s list of ‘the Fifty Best Birds in the World’ in saying that you would be hard pushed to find a ‘better’ bird than this anywhere in the world when one considers not only its vast size and imposing features but also its extreme rarity. Much of the rest of the morning came as a relative disappointment, although the Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis gave more extended views in exactly the same spot as the previous afternoon and our raptor list was swelled by a tiny Philippine Falconet and a larger Oriental Honey-Buzzard. After lunch we worked a couple of areas nearer the lodge, and finally caught up with another Mindanao endemic, Olive-capped Flowerpecker, in a mixed flock that also included Snowy-browed Flycatcher. Brush Cuckoo and Greater Flameback were also added to the day’s total, in addition to a range of species we had recorded the previous afternoon. One night had fallen we had another nightbirding session, this time hearing a distant scops owl sp., but having more luck with Philippine Frogmouth, which this time we managed to lure to an open branch not far above our heads.
Saturday 14th August
With the eagle ‘in the bag’ not only had we taken the pressure off for our last day on Mt Kitanglad but we had also gained a day in the itinerary – the contingency had we missed the eagle here was to be a visit to a site closer to Davao in southern Mindanao called Mt Macabul near Salaysay. We managed to speak to Tim by mobile phone the previous afternoon to tell him the good news, and in so doing, gained an important extra day at PICOP.
Birding today was a disappointment, by and large, and few in the way of new birds were added. We concentrated primarily on the lower slopes where there was forest left, as well as some of the more open adjacent areas. First up was a visit to a site which Danny knew for the ultra-skulking Bagobo Babbler (presumably the spot which Hutchison et al had found the previous year), but this ghost of the forest floor remained unsurprisingly elusive. We scrambled down a steep forested slope but had to spend too much time trying to keep our footing and in any case activity was minimal. We finally chanced upon a couple of new birds in the form of a Philippine Coucal in some bushes and a Philippine Woodpecker which alighted in a tree close to us at the forest edge, whilst we had much closer and more lesiurely views of a cute Philippine Falconet in the same area. Much of the afternoon was birdless, and we used it as an opportunity to catch up with a bit of sleep.
Sunday 15th August
This was to be primarily a travel day so we knew we had to be on the way out of the lodge quite early. After a breakfast a quick look around the camp revealed a Besra and our first Mindanao Hornbills, but all too soon we had to leave the legendary Mt Kitanglad, well pleased overall both with our haul of endemics and especially with the way that the weather had behaved for us. Certainly with the premier lowland forest site of PICOP to come we were hoping for more of the same kind of luck. But, we had to get there first, and driving from Damitan, where we bade farewell to our guides and cooks who had looked after us so well, to Bislig is a long and tiring journey. Our guide for PICOP, Zardo Goring, had remarkably come from Davao that day to meet us to accompany us on the journey (he had been waiting there in case we needed him for Mt Macumbul and the alternative eagle site). Although not a million miles away as the crow flies, there is no direct road from the Katanglad area across eastern Mindanao, and one has to journey south to the city of Davao in the south before following the eastern coast up to the ramshackle, grubby town of Bislig which lies adjacent to the largest remaining block of lowland forest left in this part of the country. One hears about the state of ecological devastation every time someone writes a trip report on a visit to the islands, but the stark reality was there for all to see during our arduous journey to the east coast. I cannot ever remember having spent so long on the road anywhere in the world without seeing a native patch of woodland or forest. It was truly depressing, and the ten hours couldn’t pass quickly enough. Shortly after nightfall we arrived at the relatively luxurious surroundings of the Paper Country Inn, which due to our good fortune with the eagle was to be our base for the next five nights.
Monday 16th August
An early breakfast was followed by a ride with Zardo in the jeepney that was to be for our exclusive use for the next four days into the PICOP forest. Our first port of call was a nest hole that Zardo had discovered for the vast Rufous Hornbill, and shortly after dawn we were admiring this remarkable species perched and then in flight, a great start. As the sky lightened further and we made our way along road 1/4, the well-publicised extent of deforestation at this site became immediately apparent as it became clear that large areas of what once must have been fantastic, bird-filled forest had been laid to waste by the relentless march of the chainsaw. PICOP is the best site for some of the most spectacular endemics in the Philippines, and if, as must be the eventual outcome within a few years, it is lost entirely, Tim Fisher reckons that it will be very difficult to find an alternative lowland site on Mindanao. After yesterday’s drive I can well believe him. Still, for our visit, it was far from doom and gloom as far as birds were concerned, and we soon added a fine Rufous-lored Kingfisher and a pair of diminutive Rufous-fronted Tailorbirds a little further on. We connected with some more activity in a largely cleared area adjacent to some tall forest, as first some Guaiaberos whizzed by, perching briefly, and then we added a group of Pygmy Babblers, a Philippine Oriole, Green Imperial-Pigeon, Coppersmith Barbet, more Mindanao Hornbills, White-bellied Woodpecker, Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo, Purple-throated Sunbird, and a few other species that we had already seen on Bohol. Further on we found a couple of bizarre Philippine Needletails over another cut-over area, plus Black-and-white Triller, Black-faced Coucal, a female Philippine Trogon, a vocal White-browed Tailorbird (which whilst skulking was easier to set eyes on than its Yellow-breasted cousin) and a Naked-faced Spiderhunter in another bird party. We spent some time at Zardo’s stake-out for Little Slaty Flycatcher but there was to be no response to the tape. As the temperature rose we headed to the pool along road 1 where we were soon admiring the intricate plumage of a Silvery Kingfisher at its traditional, and seemingly highly reliable stake-out. After our picnic lunch the afternoon session saw a slowing of activity and we added only a Philippine Serpent-Eagle before heading back towards Bislig to spend the last hour or so of daylight at the airfield. We were able to enter in the jeepney and enjoyed a grandstand view of proceedings perched on the roof. Despite staying until dusk had fallen there was no sign of any Grass Owls, and it seems that they are rare or absent at this time of year. However, we did see Tawny Grassbird, Javan Pond-Heron and a confiding White-browed Crake, but the highlight was the two or three Philippine Ducks we saw initially in flight and then dabbling in a small pond next to the runway. We returned to Paper Country Inn knowing that there were still plenty of specialities that were missing from our lists, and hoping that again the weather would be kind to us in the morning.
Tuesday 17th August
Another pleasant morning dawned with us already close to our first site of the day, an area of forest along road 4. Things started pretty slowly, with Yellowish Bulbul and some Pompadour Green-Pigeons being the only species of note during the first hour or so. We gained a little elevation and during a walk along the road as we came back down a slope towards road 4a, we at last heard the distinctive whistling of the beautiful endemic Azure-breasted Pitta. It responded quite strongly to the tape at first but gave us the slip at first, although just when we thought it had retreated out of sight Zardo spotted it on a low branch below eye level and by craning our necks over some vegetation we had great views of this special bird. Relieved to have caught up with the pitta having missed it on Bohol, we returned to the level forest and spent some time working an area along road 4a where there is still a very good patch of forest in amongst some low, jagged limestone outcrops. This area held our attention for some time, as first a Sooty Woodpecker showed well at eye level, followed by an Amethyst Dove and another Rufous-lored Kingfisher for good measure. Our pulses began to race when we some concerted twittering heralded the arrival of a mixed flock, and we were soon admiring a Chestnut-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher along with a Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher and some Blue Fantails. The pulses really began to race when we heard the distinctive three note whistle of a Celestial Monarch, one of the most sought-after endemics in the whole archipelago. After a nervy couple of minutes when I got brief views of the bird high above our heads but Mike failed to get onto it, we followed the flock a little way into the forest and were rewarded with a great look at this fantastic species, its electric blue plumage set off by a bright apple-green eye ring and the long droopy turquoise crest. This was one we both really wanted to get and one or two expletives were certainly uttered once our target was in the bag. Again much of the rest of the day was OMIT (a) comparatively quiet, and some fairly heavy rain curtailed the afternoon session, although not before we had found a small confiding party of Rusty-crowned Babblers and a couple of sleek Stripe-sided Rhabdornis.
Wednesday 18th August
This morning’s outing took us along a road which Zardo had not really explored much (road 42) but which led up to a slightly higher elevation and into a couple of valleys where there was a really quite promising extended area of forest. The area looks to have plenty of potential, although we encountered pretty hot and sunny conditions which doubtless curtailed activity quite early on in the morning. Nevertheless, we did notch up one or two good sightings, foremost of which was the superb male Short-crested Monarch that we teased into view, with another Celestial Monarch heard nearby. We also encountered a couple of Handsome Sunbirds which had for some reason eluded us up until now, and had fantastic views of a sub-adult Azure-breasted Pitta as it hopped along the road in front of us for about 200 metres, but other than that the flock constituents were the same as lower down.
The afternoon saw us back on road 1/4 where we had spent much of the first morning, and despite the decimated habitat we tracked down a Black-chinned Fruit-Dove for good scope views, before another fruitless attempt at teasing out the silent Little Slaty Flycatcher. Mike sat up front on the way to road 4 and was rewarded with views of a Plain Bush-hen at the side of the track. At road 4 a flurry of activity in some of the few remaining tall trees in the last couple of hours of the day gave us two species that are becoming increasingly rare and difficult to locate at PICOP, Philippine Leafbird and Black-bibbed Cuckoo-Shrike.
Thursday 19th August
Our last full day at PICOP, and there was a handful of key birds we knew we still had to catch up with, and for whom this was the last potential site. The Mt Pasian road was apparently impassable due to a landslide, thus making the decision for us regarding whether or not to try for Lina’s Sunbird. Dawn therefore saw us once again on road 1/4, near where we had seen the fruit dove the previous afternoon. This time it was a Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove which was calling and after some diligent searching we finally laid eyes on this colourful pigeon as it sat motionless in the centre of a leafy tree. After another unsuccessful trawl for Little Slaty Flycatcher, we decided that the best tactic would be to head for what we considered the best forest to see if we could locate any of our remaining targets. We were all in agreement that that should be the patch along road 4a where we had seen Celestial Monarch a couple of days previously. This proved a fine move as first we finally caught up with the rare and declining Writhed Hornbill, its red bill and black plumage with white tail distinctive. Also in the area was a couple of noisy pairs of another rare species, Blue-backed Parrot, and it was particularly good to see a perched female with her horn-coloured bill separating this from the superficially similar Blue-naped Parrot that we had seen on Palawan. Back at the jeepney at the other end of the forest patch we added Philippine Fairy-Bluebird to our endemics list and then embarked upon a long and patient vigil up and down this stretch of forest, waiting for the arrival of a flock that we hoped would bring the most wanted of our remaining targets at PICOP, the much sought-after Mindanao Wattled Broadbill. After at least two hours of waiting and watching, a reasonable sized mixed flock came through a little distance away into the forest, and it was not long before I had got onto a broadbill perched in the mid-storey, joined by another soon afterwards which also gave good views of its smart plumage and remarkable bill and wattle, and prompted celebrations all round.
After a well-earned lunch and a rest we headed back up the hill at road 42, this time walking right rather than left at the obvious fork in the road, and coming out onto a level area of reasonable forest. Three large pigeons flew past us and from the brief glimpses we had an obvious white tail band ruled out Green Imperial-Pigeon and left us assuming that they must have been Pink-bellied Imperial-Pigeon, another fine endemic much reduced by hunting. From their flight pattern it seemed that they had possibly not flown completely out of sight, and sure enough creeping along the road we soon found the birds perched quietly in a small tree, and spent a good fifteen minutes admiring their pale heads, rich green breasts and backs and pinkish bellies. Their deep booming call and laboured movements made them almost comical but we knew that this was a great find and a bird that many birders can miss. We returned to Bislig delighted with our days work, and the fact that we had found three such scarce endemics on our fourth full day fully justified our decision to invest the time at this exceedingly important but severely threatened site.
Friday 20th August
This was another ostensibly travel day, and with an afternoon flight to catch from Davao airport, some 5 hours away by jeepney, we weighed up the species that we were still missing, namely Spotted Imperial-Pigeon and Little Slaty Flycatcher, and the likelihood of finding them in the two or three hours we had available to us, and instead, remarkably, opted for a lie-in. Wary of the physical and mental exertions of the hike to Hamut camp now less than 36 hours away we felt it was probably the right decision, as four consecutive 4am starts had certainly begun to take their toll. This decision was also fortuitously vindicated by the fact that I caught up with the pigeon on Mindoro when Mike had gone home but the flycatcher was to remain elusive and represented our only real dip of our memorable PICOP experience.
The drive to Davao was uneventful other than a flat tyre which allowed us an hour or so’s birding in scrappy secondary growth outside of Bislig which gave us nothing of interest at all. We arrived at the airport in good time, and a couple of hours after take-off we were in a cab going through Manila on our way towards the Malate Pensionne House for an overnight stay.
Saturday 21st August
Another relative lie-in preceded a 10:00 am flight to the north Luzon city of Tugeragao, where we were met by Aquilino Escobar who was to be our guide for the whole of our Hamut experience. After stocking up with some supplies in town he took us in a jeepney to his tiny home village of Baliuag. After some lunch in his family home and a chat with his delightful family we began the hike up into the foothills, towards the village of Palay, which lies adjacent to ‘camp one’, a small clearing at the forest edge of the lower slopes where birders tend to spend the night. We had about 5 porters with us but we soon got ahead of them, but it was exceptionally hot and humid even at 3pm and we struggled to make process through the undulating deforested countryside. Birds were few and far between, although some open country species such as Striated Grassbird, Golden-headed Cisticola, Pied Bushchat and Chestnut and White-bellied Munias allowed us brief respite from our exertions. We reached Palay itself after about three hours steady walking, and from there we had to make the short step up to camp one. As we contoured round a hillside past open forest and secondary edge habitat we found our first Yellowish White-eyes, and were delighted to find them accompanied by a single White-fronted Tit, a scarce species with which this was to be our only encounter. It showed well in a small bare tree before the flock moved on. When we reached the camp, just up from a pleasant little stream, we had to endure a long wait until the porters arrived with our kit and we could set up the tents. A Blue-headed Fantail appeared above our heads and we enjoyed views of a fine Rufous Hornbill as it crossed the valley just before dusk, but we were mightily relieved when the porters finally arrived at about 7:45am and we could finally rest properly after some dinner.
Sunday 22nd August
The plan for the morning was to bird along a trail that led from camp one further around the side of the hill through an area of reasonable forest, before returning towards Palay to link up with the main trail up towards Hamut camp itself. This was quite a birdy couple of hours, which began well with good views of a singing White-browed Shama, and got even better when we reached a small hut, above which was a sparsely vegetated tree which held a number of the rare and little-known Green-faced Parrotfinch, one of the Philippines most difficult-to-see endemics. It is a nomadic and irruptive species, which tends to follow the seeding of bamboo and thus can be absent from a potential site for some months, even years at a time before appearing, often in numbers, where conditions suddenly become right. Aquilino took us to an area of bamboo which had indeed been seeding recently but this seemed to have died off now and thus the parrotfinches had dispersed into the surrounding forest. In fact we were to see these birds on every one of the next four days, including in good forest up around Hamut camp itself.
After enjoying some flocking activity which didn’t really give us anything new, we made our way back towards the main trail, where we enjoyed views of a soaring Philippine Hawk-Eagle before taking the plunge and beginning the long hot hike up the mountain. It was perhaps 9:30 or 10:00 by this stage and with a good portion of the hike seeing us negotiate our way through tall stands of razor grass with no good forest in sight, it was something of a relief when we did come across an area of orchards and second growth which held a few birds of interest, including Philippine Tailorbird and Luzon Striped-Babbler. We ate lunch on the trail about two thirds of the way up, and finally arrived in decent forest and made the short descent into Hamut camp at about 3pm. Once tents were set up we were keen to explore the surrounding area, and working the area between the camp and the main trail gave us Lemon-throated Warbler, Blue-breasted Flycatcher and Citrine Canary-Flycatcher as well as our first audio experience with Whiskered Pitta, our main target species at this site. Back at camp we took a little walk down beyond the tents to the spot where Jonathan Rossouw had found the pitta on a nest in May, but there was no sign of life at the nest now of course, although compensation arrived in the form of the spectacular Scale-feathered Malkoha. As night fell we returned to the camp for dinner, which was interrupted by a Philippine Hawk-Owl that we spotlighted just above us whilst sitting at the table. Unsurprisingly it was not difficult to get to sleep.
Monday 23rd August
Full of expectation, we climbed up out of the little valley where the camp was situated and up onto the ridge trail which we followed for several hundred metres. This was an ultimately frustrating morning, and it soon became apparent that the cooks’ and porters’ assertion that the birds were pretty inactive and invisible in August was accurate. There was little activity to speak of on the ridge but we struck it lucky with a shy Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove that we eventually got good looks at in a tree, before enjoying a pair of Blue-breasted Flycatchers. Before too long we were engaged in what was to be a titanic struggle to try to see a Whiskered Pitta. They are not unvocal in August but this is a pitta which at any time of the year loves nothing more than to give birders the slip. They do respond and to a certain extent they do give up eventually and come in. But, they rarely sit still once they do so, and it is therefore imperative to get a window on it as it moves stealthily through the dense undergrowth, sometimes circling the observer but going totally unnoticed. Getting such a window is of course a matter of luck, and on this occasion Mike was the one who had that window and therefore got a glimpse of the bird, whilst I was left disappointed to say the least, despite a two to three hour battle. Aquilino claimed that he too saw the bird twice as it returned to the same log towards the end of our efforts, but try as I might I couldn’t get onto it and frustration grew. Eventually we had to admit defeat, and whilst I knew there was still time left at Hamut, this near miss had also made me realise that I had probably just missed my best chance of laying eyes on this bird, unless i was to happen upon one on the trail. Back in camp we spent some time in the valley beyond the tents, and were rewarded with a nice flock which included Golden-crowned Babbler and Flaming Sunbird, both endemics. Much of the afternoon was spent above the camp again but nothing new was added.
Tuesday 24th August
More in hope than expectation we again worked the area above the camp. One or two more audio encounters were had with the pitta but this time no-one could get a look at the bird, and we just couldn’t bring it into an area where visibility was more favourable. The rest of the forest was pretty dead as well and the only highlight of an extremely slow final morning around Hamut was excellent views of a Cream-bellied Fruit-Dove perched in the open at eye-level on the ridge trail. By 10:00am we decided it was time to head down towards camp one where we were due to spend the night, as there were some target species there that we had yet to see, as well as one or two along the way. One final teasing encounter with a Whiskered Pitta was had in the place where we had had lunch on the way up, but it was not to be. We kept an eye out for some of the endemics we had missed thus far on the way down, but despite flushing one or two pigeon-like forms from beside the trail, we could turn none of them into Luzon Bleeding-Heart, for which this is a good site. Arund some fallen logs we heard the exceptionally high-pitched whistle of the ultra-skulking Luzon or Rabor’s Wren-Babbler but some twitching vegetation was the nearest we got to laying eyes on the bird itself. We could elicit no response from Furtive Flycatcher (and didn’t really have a site for it in any case) and the dead trees lower down the route held one Stripe-sided Rhabdornis but certainly no Long-billed. Back down at Palay we were pretty exhausted and I threw myself happily into the cool stream just below the camp, and went to bed resolved to put the pitta behind me.
Wednesday 25th August
The plan for the morning was to bird around camp one for a while before heading back to Baliuag and then beginning the long drive to Banaue, our base for exploring Mt Polis. My frustration of the previous day heightened when Mike got views of a pair of Luzon Hornbills in a slightly distant mixed flock at the forest edge above the village, which also included White-lored Oriole, Blackish Cuckoo-Shrike and another Sooty Woodpecker. Eventually the hornbills returned and showed themselves to all, and we then all enjoyed the remarkable spectacle of a vast, probably two-hundred strong flock of Green-faced Parrotfinches of various ages and plumages as they wheeled up and around through the bamboo and secondary growth near Palay; at one point there were six or seven altogether on the same thin branch! By 9:30 or so we were on our way back through the deforested foothills towards Baliuag, which we reached by 11:15 or so. After saying goodbye to Aquilino’s family and our porters and downing a couple of beers we were on our way towards Banaue, via a Buff-banded Rail that sat in a puddle in the middle of the road en route to the highway. It later transpired that at least two major typhoons had been lashing northern Luzon whilst we had been at Hamut and this much became clear as we made our way south, with huge, menacing cloud formations visible on the horizon on both sides of us. It was well after dark when we arrived at the pleasant Banaue View Inn where the prospect of a decent bed for the night was mouth-watering to say the least.
Thursday 26th August
Another early start saw us climbing up in the jeep towards what birders know as Mt Polis, which actually represents the highest section of the road between Banaue and Bontoc. The journey to the top took an hour and a half, and it was clear from the way the sky was looking that this was going to be a day when the weather, which had been so kind to us in recent days, was suddenly going to turn nasty. Still, at first light only a light drizzle was falling, and certainly not enough to stop us from setting about our task of locating the remaining Luzon montane targets that were still absent from our lists. Island Thurshes, Chestnut-faced Babblers and Philippine Bush-Warblers were all common, although the latter took a bit of work to pry out of the dense roadside vegetation. We soon encountered a Green-backed Whistler in a mixed flock with Mountain Tailorbirds, Mountain White-eyes and Snowy-browed and Island Flycatchers. There is virtually no good forest along the road here any more, although there are still some accessible patches above and behind the shrine and radio masts at the pass, although these are being converted into cabbage fields at an alarming rate. We followed a narrow trail through some quite attractive mossy forest, and were soon rewarded not only with some fly-by Luzon Racquet-tails (which apparently are easier to see when there is low cloud) but also with a pair of smart Flame-crowned Flowerpecker, a montane speciality which is far from easy to come by. Shortly after admiring the male of this species as it fed on berries, looking not unlike a Neotropical euphonia, the rain started to come down and we beat a hasty retreat towards the car. When it showed little sign of abating we decided to continue beyond the pass in the jeep, either to find some better weather or at any rate to head for the village of Bay-yo to wait for it to stop. It had eased slightly by 10 or so, so we donned ponchos and grabbed umbrellas for the short but steep hike down to the bridge and the rushing torrent in the base of the gorge. It was not long before we had encountered our target bird, Luzon Water Redstart, for which this is undoubtedly the best-known and reliable spot on earth. Once we had made the steep hike back up to the jeep we returned up towards Mt Polis via an early migrant Brown Shrike, where I undertook a long and exceedingly damp search for one of the few possible endemics left available to us, Mountain Shrike. Unfortunately the weather ultimately put paid to our chances of securing this unusual species and Mike eventually convinced me to return to the jeep, whereupon we returned to the Banaue View Inn to try to dry out. The view was only a little better than what it had been when we arrived in darkness the previous evening but eventually the cloud lifted to reveal the scenic, ancient rice terraces for which the region is famous.
Friday 27th August
Another decision had to be made regarding the morning’s activities. We had done well at Polis yesterday, particularly given the conditions, and with a ten hour plus drive back to Manila in front of us, coupled with the likelihood of more poor weather at the pass, we opted against any birding this morning, in favour of a lie-in. By 8:30 we were on our way in a remarkably luxurious vehicle which had come to pick us up, and the journey took us through the heavily deforested landscape of central Luzon. We drove over Dalton Pass, made famous in the past as a collecting site and migrant trap, and through one or two attractive gorges, finally arriving in Manila at about 6pm after a marathon drive, for a final meal before Mike had to return home the following day.
Saturday 28th August
We all left early for the airport, dropping Mike at international departures before Tim Fisher and I boarded the 6:45 flight to San Jose on the island of Mindoro. Once there it took us some three hours to get to our destination for the next 24 hours, the Sablayan penal colony, also known as Siburan. The journey was largely through areas of paddies with some trees here and there, and we added Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Plain Martin along a river on the way. Once we had arrived, we laid out our things in a basic house and had a little stroll in the midday heat down to the river where some prisoners were engaged with constructing a new bridge. On our return to the house for lunch, a pair of Philippine Hawk-Eagles was admired as they soared upwards on the abundant thermals. After some lunch Tim and I took a walk towards nearby Lake Lubao and worked the forest edge as we went. Two or three Swinhoe’s Snipe flushed from the grass close to the compound, and it wasn’t long before we had located a single Scarlet-collared Flowerpecker, a distinctive Mindoro endemic. At Lake Lubao itself we soon flushed a Yellow Bittern from the reedy edge and found a Cinnamon Bittern crouched low in a vegetated pond and both Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea-Eagle were seen overhead, although a long and rather arduous hike around the lake shore was largely unproductive, with Plain Bush-hen heard only. We eventually emerged close to the impressive looking forest edge and with an increasingly good light on the forested slopes, some good birds began to grant some nice views. Blue-naped Parrots and Blue-crowned Racquet-tails were both seen perched at close range, and a pair of endemic Mindoro Hornbills was a very welcome addition to the list and one of the other key targets. Quite a lot of pigeon activity led me to a slightly distant fruiting tree where some judicious use of the scope allowed me to get decent views of two or three Spotted Imperial Pigeons, the Philippines’ most endangered large columbid, alongside some Pompadour Green Pigeons, Green Imperial Pigeons, and a little further on some fly-by Metallic Pigeons. As dusk fell we tried for one or two nocturnal species, but it was only after we had got back to the camp and I ventured out along the road towards the river on my own that I gained good views of a Philippine Hawk-Owl of the mindorensis race, a candidate for a future split for sure, in response to the tape.
Sunday 29th August
We teamed up with a couple of field students from the Haribon Foundation (the Philippines branch of BirdLife) this morning for our assault on the forested slopes of Siburan behind the house. From the road the habitat looks truly excellent but when you get in amongst the trees it becomes clear that logging has gone on and that hunting is clearly also a problem, as it is in so many places in the Philippines. We invested quite some time in trying to flush a Mindoro Bleeding-Heart, an exceptionally rare species which has been greatly reduced by hunting and which would have been a lifer for Tim. Despite much scrambling around off-trail we couldn’t find a pigeon, and also drew a disappointing blank with the shy and declining Black-hooded Coucal, which was heard only but which would not show itself and eventually slipped away unnoticed. The forest was extremely quiet and almost totally devoid of any of the smaller passerines. Again it was pigeons which gave the most interest, with Thick-billed Green-Pigeon, a bird only found on Mindoro and Palawan in the Philippines and a fine Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove representing the day’s only notable sightings. I suspect that more time is required here than we could give it, although there is quite a bit of habitat left up in the foothills and perhaps other sites on the island will be found where the bleeding-heart and particularly the coucal will be found at greater densities. Certainly they are both scarce at best now at Siburan. In the early afternoon we made our way back to San Jose where we installed ourselves in a slightly run-down but relatively upmarket little hotel close to the sea, where a couple of beers and news of the Olympics on BBC World preceded dinner and then bed.
Monday 30th August
Up in time for the 7:15am flight back to Manila, we were met at the airport by Tim’s driver who after dropping him back at his home, took me to the University of Los Baños camps on the lower slopes of Mt Makiling, site of some quite extensive lowland forest within an hour of the capital. Mike had done quite well here for a few days before my arrival and armed with his gen and some additional information from Tim I had high hopes of catching up with a good range of remaining target species. After checking into the Trees lodge and lunching at the university canteen across the road, I wasted little time in getting out into the field to explore what looked like quite a productive area. Having admired a female Violet Cuckoo in the huge tree just outside the lodge, I began in the Botanical Gardens below the lodge. This area was full of Filippino schoolchildren, many of whom looked inquisitively at me as I birded my way along the wide track, reacquainting myself with a range of flowerpeckers and bulbuls that I had seen on other islands previously. The road down through the gardens crosses a stream and this seems to be a reliable site for the endemic Indigo-banded Kingfisher. Sure enough despite some noisy locals, it was not long before I spotted a pair of this well-marked species amongst the rocks on the lower side of the bridge. My next port of call was to be the raptor breeding centre, accessed via a series of steps next to the kingfisher bridge. Here things were much quieter in terms of human disturbance and hot on the heels of a female Philippine Trogon came my first Red-crested Malkoha; well worth the wait. From this forested area I wandered down into the campus towards the sports fields where I found a party of Lowland White-eyes in the tall acacia-type trees along the track towards the Dairy Husbandry. I spent the next couple of hours scouring this area in the heat for some ground dwelling species, and after brief views of Barred Buttonquail threatened to be my only reward for my efforts, a quite sit-in opposite the first, un-vegetated track off to the left off the main track here gave me good views in quick succession of a pair of crypticall-patterned Spotted Buttonquails and then another smart bird, Barred Rail. A pre-dinner owling session drew a blank but it did allow me to scout out the main track from the lodge up through the forest that would be my destination for the following morning.
Tuesday 31st August
I was up and out before dawn, and whilst I heard Philippine Scops Owl and Philippine Hawk Owl, neither responded to tape. After a steep initial hike up the hill I came to the first crash barrier on one of the sharper bends, famous in the past as being a good site for the elusive Ashy Thrush, which many birders see on the road here at first light. A White-browed Shama did its best to masquerade as the thrush but my attention was soon diverted by a splendid Red-bellied Pitta that hopped into the road and stayed there foraging for a few minutes, although there was no sign of the thrush. In the same area, I got good views of another fine endemic, Spotted Kingfisher, which sat calling in the sub-canopy in pretty good light for me to admire its intricate plumage. Another individual, this time a female, also showed well a little later. I then took the track to the hot springs that bears off to the right close to a drinks stall. Activity was not high but I did get good looks at a pair of Grey-backed Tailorbirds in some dense viney tangles next to the trail, in response to tape. Little else new was seen along this trail and activity was presumably suppressed by some low-ish cloud, although I peered hard into the undergrowth and walked the trail up and down a couple of times in the hope of surprising a bleeding-heart, but it was not to be. Continuing a little further along the main track I added a Thick-billed Flowerpecker (split by some authors as Striped, which would then become a Philippine endemic) in a large tree, as well as another Flaming Sunbird. The rain did indeed come, at about midday, and as it looked pretty settled, I headed down into town to catch up with some emails as the rain poured down outside. It stopped at around 4pm, and a last owling session allowed me to get very close to a calling Philippine Scops Owl which responded strongly to tape but which called from a concealed perch upon which I just couldn’t get my spotlight.
Wednesday 1st September
My last morning’s birding in the Philippines saw me thwarted once more by rain, this time earlier in the morning, and a similar route to the one I had taken the previous day gave views of a selection of the species I had already seen, but nothing new. At 9ish with rain coming down, I retreated to the Trees Lodge to relax and pack, and to await the arrival of Tim’s driver. We negotiated the return journey to Manila without too much in the way of traffic, surprisingly, and the afternoon was spent with Tim at his club downtown, drinking a few beers and having some food, before he dropped me at the airport and I said goodbye to these fascinating islands with their wonderful yet so severely threatened endemic avifauna.
TRIP LIST : MC and SA combined
(Taxonomy follows Clements); endemics in bold
Great Philippine Eagle
Little Ringed Plover
Thick-billed Green Pigeon
Pompadour Green Pigeon
Pink-necked Green Pigeon
Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon
Spotted Imperial Pigeon
Green Imperial Pigeon
[Black-hooded Coucal] – heard only
[Greater Coucal] – heard only
Mantanani Scops Owl
[Philippine Scops Owl] – heard only
[Giant Scops Owl] – heard only
[Spotted Wood Owl] – heard only
Javan (‘Palawan’) Frogmouth
Great Eared Nightjar
Asian Palm Swift
Great Slaty Woodpecker
(Mindanao) Wattled Broadbill
[White-browed Shortwing] – heard only
Little Pied Flycatcher
Palawan Blue Flycatcher
Mangrove Blue Flycatcher
Citrine Canary Flycatcher
Palawan (Melodious) Babbler
[Luzon Wren-Babbler] – heard only
Luzon Striped Babbler
Mount Apo Sunbird
Mindanao (Black-masked) White-eye
Cinnamon White-eye (Ibon)
Asian Fairy Bluebird
Philippine Fairy Bluebird
Asian Glossy Starling
(Crested Myna) – introduced
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
286 species seen, 7 heard only, 138 endemics
ENDEMICS WE DIPPED (which were possible at sites we visited)
Luzon Bleeding-Heart – Hamut, Makiling
Mindanao Bleeding-Heart – Rajah Sikatuna, PICOP (very rare at both these sites; recently found to be relatively numerous in central Samar)
Mindoro Bleeding-Heart – Siburan
Mindanao Lorikeet – Katanglad (now rarely seen there)
Rufous Coucal – Hamut (also possible at Subic Bay which we didn’t visit)
Mindanao Scops-Owl – Katanglad
Luzon Scops-Owl – Mt Polis (although we didn’t try for it; Mt Data also seems a reliable site)
Palawan Scops-Owl – St Paul’s, Iwahig, Zigzag road
Philippine Eagle-Owl – Rajah Sikatuna (a very tough one)
Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher – Luzon and Mindanao (a really difficult bird very rarely seen by visiting birders; Angat in Luzon may be the best site still)
Visayan Broadbill – Rajah Sikatuna
Mountain Shrike – Katanglad, Mt Polis
Ashy Thrush - Makiling
Rusty-flanked (Luzon) Jungle Flycatcher – Mt Polis (rare; recently found to be more reliable at Mt Pulog)
Mindanao (Goodfellow’s) Jungle Flycatcher – Katanglad (very rare above and around the Del Monte lodge; recently found on the southern side of the mountain by Hutchison et al at Sitio Bolugan)
Ashy-breasted Flycatcher – Hamut
Little Slaty Flycatcher – PICOP
Russet-tailed (Cryptic) Flycatcher – Katanglad (very rare)
Furtive Flycatcher – Hamut
Long-tailed Bush-Warbler – Mt Polis and Katanglad
Bagobo Babbler – Katanglad
Long-billed (Grand) Rhabdornis – Hamut
Cebu Flowerpecker – Tabunan
plus others listed above and mentioned in the text that were heard only.