Saturday 4th/Sunday 5th February
Could the Tawny Owl that perches in the oak tree at the end of my garden, illuminated by bright moonlight, be an omen of the nightbirds to come in the next two weeks? We depart for Manchester Airport with fingers crossed.
Our 12½-hour flight to Singapore is executed with the now-expected Singapore Airlines efficiency, saving one minor ‘Is there a doctor on board?’ incident. The Manila connection is equally as prompt and after another three hours in the air we find ourselves descending over the flat and densely populated Luzon lowlands, towards a 13.00 arrival in the Capital of the Philippines.
Outside the terminal building Martin Kennewell, Graham Finch, Andy Deighton and I are met by a welcome blast of humid tropical heat and a beaming, fresh-faced Rob Hutchinson. MK and I have come to know RH very well since an impromptu early-morning encounter on a mountain in Sulawesi some two years previously, when we politely requested that he removed his tent from the track to allow our 4WD to pass at 04.00 in the morning! It’s a good job he doesn’t hold grudges, as we are about to put ourselves in his very capable hands for a fourteen-day tour of the islands of Mindanao and Palawan, plus a couple of sites close to Manila. Having previously investigated the logistics of an independent trip to these potentially tricky birding sites, a tour under the guidance of one of the most experienced Philippine birders around seems by far the best option; our trip is, in fact, destined to be the inaugural Philippine tour for RH and James Eaton’s newly founded Birdtour Asia Company (URL: www.birdtourasia.com, E-mail: email@example.com).
A comfortable minibus conveys us along the well-maintained highway system, relatively free from the usual congestion due to our Sabbath journey, to skirt Manila Bay as we head for Subic on the far side of the Bataan Peninsular. We are treated to our first close-up looks at the fantastic array of ‘jeepneys’, which throng every road in the land. This ubiquitous form of Philippine public transport is derived from the American WWII Willy’s Jeep, still bearing the distinctive headlamps and grill, but stretched to increase passenger capacity and adorned with acres of chrome and the brightest of paintwork.
Our four-hour journey takes us through flat lowlands predominated by rice paddies and scattered settlements, until we reach the forested hills of the Bataan Peninsular. At Subic the forest has been protected by the presence of a large naval base and hence it still hosts a number of lowland Luzon specialities that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
Keen to air our bins we head straight for an area of remnant woodland in an area known as Jest Camp, where we spend the last hour of daylight. A pleasant sea breeze cools the air as we wander around an odd assortment of converted ex-naval nissan huts, which have been taken over as housing by the local populous and adorned with bright murals depicting kingfishers and snakes.
Accolade of the first tick of the trip goes to a Grey-streaked Flycatcher, typically perching high in the canopy on an exposed branch. The widespread endemic Philippine Bulbul is next to appear, coinciding with a flypast of five rocket-propelled Purple Needletails. An exquisite little black, white and yellow Elegant Tit feeds in the canopy and a pair of Luzon Hornbills alight on a nearby tree.
A pair of displaying Philippine Serpent Eagles call loudly overhead, as we are treated to a parrot-fest in the fruiting trees that divide the nissan huts. Diminutive vivid green and red Colasisis, or Philippine Hanging Parrots, hurtle overhead calling frantically as we strain to locate the fractionally larger Guaiaberos amongst the similarly bright green leaves; the handsome males display a bright turquoise cheek-patch. ‘Parrot of the day’ is a single Blue-naped Parrot, a near-endemic now much reduced in numbers.
In the last light of the day we savour a group of Coletos, which utter their distinctive chiming call from the higher branches. These stunning black mynas show contrasting grey mantles and a huge eye-patch of bright pink skin, making them ten-times more impressive than the illustration in our field guide!
After the orange sun has dipped into the South China Sea we track down our evening’s accommodation, in the form of the surprisingly comfortable Days Inn Hotel, at which we appear to be the only guests. A brief night-birding session in the hotel grounds produces nothing more than a deceptive reversing siren, audible from a nearby dockyard, and we soon abandon the owl sortie in favour of a trip to Vasco’s Restaurant. This fine establishment sits on stilts above the lapping ocean waves, where we celebrate a fine introduction to Philippine birding with the first of many ice cold San Miguels.
Monday 6th February
Our 04.30 breakfast is a taste of things to come, both in terms of the excellent crispy fried bacon and the distinct lack of time spent in bed! Just a short drive from the hotel we pass through a security checkpoint and into the official naval facility, then onto a maze of tarmac roads that dissect the forested hillsides and link a series of huge concrete bunkers. Known as ‘the magazine’, the facility is testament to the presence of the US Navy throughout recent history, though the area is now abandoned and the tarmac roads are rapidly being encroached by vegetation and the concrete structures are in a state of decay; this all leads to quite an eerie scene when viewed through shadowy headlights.
Our destination is Hill 394, an unusual title that seems more akin to a Vietnam War movie than a birding site! Vacating the minibus in the pre-dawn darkness, we can immediately hear a number of Philippine Hawk Owls calling in close proximity. RH’s tape is deployed and although we get extremely close to two different birds they remain undetected in the dense canopy. The same is true of a Spotted Wood-Kingfisher, which also frustratingly avoids location.
Just after the first light of day is illuminating the forested hillsides a call of ‘raptor’ draws our attention to a large brown bird flying through the trees. It alights in a gap in the dense foliage just long enough for us all to get a view in the scope. Amazingly our first bird of the day proves to be one of the rarest of the trip. It is a Philippine Eagle Owl, even a tick for RH who has already notched up all but a handful of the Philippines 170-odd endemics; what a start!
Next a flock of wonderful little Stripe-headed Rhabdornis appear in a roadside bush. Rhabdornis are the only family endemic to the Philippines and these Stripe-headed versions scamper along limbs in creeper-like fashion, displaying neatly striped flanks and crown plus a bold dark facial mask. Island Swiftlets feed overhead and we locate the first of our Philippine Falconets, tiny black-and-white falcons, perched on the highest exposed branches.
As the sun climbs higher we take to a forest trail where the beautiful Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove is added to our list, together with more endemics in the form of White-browed Shama, White-lored Oriole and Philippine Tailorbird. On Luzon the Greater Flameback is represented by the distinctive red-backed haematribon form, one of which crosses our path shortly before a pair of spectacular Red-crested Malkohas.
A final hour walking back down the tarmac road finds a pair of extremely photogenic Whiskered Treeswifts building a tiny cup-nest on a thin branch right above the road and an active bird flock whose numbers include more Red-crested Malkohas, Rufous Coucals, Balicassiaos and Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker.
Last destination for the morning is the Ocean Adventure Resort situated on the shore of Subic Bay. By late morning it is hot and hazy but we still manage to pick out a handful of Philippine Ducks amongst the large gathering of Northern Shoveler and Eurasian Wigeon in a nearby inlet.
Our route back to the hotel takes us past a vast roost of both Large and Golden-crowned Flying Foxes, before we rapidly pack and head back east towards Mount Makiling. The journey takes us initially on some fast new roads, including a stretch of tolled ‘motorway’, before Gabby our driver introduces us to a number of ‘short cuts’. His chosen route uses narrow winding roads, along which we dodge and weave into unperceivable gaps between an endless stream of jeepneys and motorcycle rickshaws. Each of the grotty little towns we pass through is indistinguishable from the last, the streets being lined with stalls purveying everything from fireworks to canaries. Between the conurbations is an unexciting landscape of paddy fields and pasture.
In Quezon City we are snarled up in the rush hour traffic, giving us time to savour the contrasting areas of pleasant leafy suburbs, modern apartments blocks and filthy sprawling slums. Eventually the conical dark green and heavily forested peak of Mount Makiling appears in the distance, with a summit shrouded in cloud.
At the base of Mount Makiling we pick our way through the buildings of the university campus to the Veterinary College, or the Dairy Husbandry block to be precise. From here we follow a muddy trail through an area of cultivated fields around which Long-tailed Shrikes hunt and Striated Grassbirds sing. This is our quail steak-out, and after a couple of Barred Buttonquail scares we see a pair of endemic Spotted Buttonquails, a somewhat larger species with a distinctive reddish breast.
Tonight’s accommodation is the Trees Lodge, set beside the university campus and on the very edge of the forest. An early evening owling session is unproductive and we retire for a pizza in the nearby town. Upon our return to the hotel the nightbirds are much more responsive, however, and within minutes we have a pair of fantastic Philippine Hawk-Owls displaying right above our heads and within a few metres of our accommodation. The birds duet and indulge in nuptial preening, facilitating the first of what is to turn out to be a truly stunning series of nightbird photographs.
Tuesday 7th February
Setting off at 05.00, well before first light, we make a rapid and sweaty ascent of the lower slopes of Mount Makiling to give us another shot at some crepuscular species. Philippine Hawk-Owls are relatively common by call, but only a single Philippine Scops-Owl is heard and ignores our tape. In the early morning half-light a Spotted Wood-Kingfisher calls loudly from a nearby, but unseen, perch. For half an hour it frustrates us and then, just as it becomes light enough to scan all likely perches, it ceases to call. We set off to continue our climb and it calls again; this time we’re not going to let it escape! It’s much easier to find kingfishers in the daylight and soon we are soaking up the dazzling colours of a male Spotted Wood-Kingfisher. He displays a dark green back with neat buff spotting, rufous throat and collar, and a black mask bordered above and below with bright turquoise.
Gabby appears with our breakfast of leftover pizza right on cue, just as the heavens open in a torrential downpour. We retreat downhill to Makiling Botanic Gardens in the face of the adverse weather, where Red-keeled Flowerpecker is added to the list in a very pleasant setting. By 10.00 the rain has abated and we head uphill once more.
First new bird in the montane forest is a magnificent Scale-feathered Malkoha, surely the best-looking member of this family. Grey-backed Tailorbird, Buzzing and Pygmy Flowerpeckers, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher and Pechora Pipit all follow in hot pursuit. Brolleys are regularly raised and lowered in response to the weather as we continue our climb, with the track growing narrower as altitude increases. Yellowish White-Eye and Handsome Sunbird attend a flowering tree, whilst an attractive Blue-headed Fantail and a Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo are found near the summit of our climb.
The last of the daylight is spent back down at the Botanic Gardens, though Indigo-banded Kingfisher again eludes us and this time we have to scale the high security fence when we find ourselves locked inside the grounds! Within a couple of hours we are amongst the high-rise neon signs, bars, casinos and traffic jams of downtown Manila. Gabby drops us off at the Best Western Hotel with the comforting words, “If you hear a gunshot on Mindanao, make sure you duck”. Is there something Rob hasn’t told us about?!
Tim Fisher joins us for a pre-dinner beer and the English ex-pat guru of Philippine birding entertains us with anecdotes of life in the Far East.
Wednesday 8th February
Just because we’re not birding this morning doesn’t mean we get a lie-in! In fact we have to rise excruciatingly early to make the 03.30 check-in for our Mindanao flight. After a breakfast of donuts and coffee in the departure lounge we board a brand new Cebu Pacific Airbus bedecked in the Company’s flamboyant yellow and green logo; it’s great to see that a European aircraft manufacturer has dumped the Americans out of the market in what must be one of their strongest spheres of influence.
It takes just one-hour-and-fifteen-minutes to reach Cagayan De Oro, located on the north coast of Mindanao in Bukidnon District. Our driver, Willy, is awaiting our arrival and within minutes we are heading south in his spacious minibus, again on a good road. Mindanao is instantly more appealing than south Luzon, with a ridge of forested hills forming a scenic backdrop to the lush coastal plain. The small villages that lie between cultivated plots of land are brighter and cleaner than those of Luzon, creating an island of much more character. Even the jeepneys are more extravagantly painted, and often bedecked with dozens of spotlights and huge, bugle-like horns.
We make a stop en route at an ice factory, as our accommodation for the next four nights is far from the nearest electricity supply and if we need a cold beer this commodity will be vital! It is most intriguing to watch men in white Wellingtons extract huge slabs of ice from a steaming vault and chop it into manageable chunks which are loaded into the back of the minibus.
Soon we turn off the coast road, to head south and climb a winding road into the hilly interior of the island. A barrier stops us and we have to perform the bizarre ritual of vacating the vehicle and filing through a footbath that we are informed has been installed to prevent the spread of Foot-and-mouth Disease.
It is 09.30 when we arrive at the small village of Damitan. Here we leave the tarmac and slide our way up a greasy dirt road that first weaves between houses and then crosses vast expanses of agricultural land, the majority of which is dedicated to Del Monte’s pineapple plantations. Before us the vast green outline of Mount Kitanglad reaches into the sky, though ominously much of its upper section is shrouded in moody grey cloud.
In typical fashion it starts to rain heavily just as we vacate the minibus! With a steep two hour walk ahead of us we take shelter and wait for the downpour to subside, while our porters strap our bags to a couple of rather malnourished-looking horses. When the rain ceases we set off, but it has already had the effect of making the trail incredibly slippery, forming a mud-bath in every hollow and hoof-print; on the first few metres of the trail MK manages to slip and badly cut his arm on a barbed wire fence. Going is slow but we eventually scramble through the cultivated lower slopes to reach the first remnant patches of forest, at a height of approximately 1300m above sea level. In a particularly muddy gully just short of the lodge we run into a small feeding flock that contains Mountain White-Eyes, Cinnamon Ibon and very smart Black-and-Cinnamon Fantails. A Mountain Verditer Flycatcher darts for passing insects and Philippine Swiftlets flock overhead, while our first Mindanao Hornbills perch up in an obliging manner. And then it rains again.
We find that our home for the next four nights is a substantial two storey timber structure set in a clearing with views down to the valley floor far below. The lodge has a concrete ground slab with eating area and gas cooking facilities. Upstairs is a large flat timber floor with mattresses, protected by a high-pitched roof. There is neither electricity nor a generator but, to our delight, we find that the lodge sports two fine sit-down flushable toilets! A plaque next to the lodge proclaims that the facility was donated by Del Monte as part of the Philippine Eagle project.
The establishment is run by Carleto Gayramara, who is also a well-informed local bird guide, with his wife and two very attractive daughters taking care of the cooking. We are soon tucking into a fine meal of beef stew and rice, which very quickly takes our minds off the arduous walk up to the lodge and the predictably adverse weather.
During a brief respite from the downpours we set off up the main muddy horse track that leads steeply to an area of cultivated fields. After half an hour’s walk we enter a large remnant block of forest that harbours a good selection of montane species including Rufous-headed Tailorbird, Brown Tit-Babbler, Grey-hooded Sunbird and our first Philippine Cuckoo-Dove. Also, after much effort, we glean views of the endemic mindanensis race of White-browed Shortwing. In an adjacent block of forest we spend half an hour in the fading light looking for another ultra-skulker, the Bagobo Babbler. The bird is, in fact, such adept at skulking undetected in the dense understorey that it was unknown, other than from the type specimen taken in 1904, until rediscovery in the last few years. The Babbler circles our position, calling continuously, but appears only as a fast-moving shadowy shape in the dense understorey.
The trek back down to the lodge produces Tawny Grassbirds, while in the clearing we are very pleased to find a Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo that actually responds to the tape and happily perches in the open; a feat normally unheard-of for this normally uncooperative genus! It is now dusk and a Great Eared-Nightjar skims the canopy calling loudly. Excitement mounts as we hear a distinctive staccato pip-pip-pip-pip-pip call increasing in volume. The distinctive silhouette of a woodcock breaks the skyline above the clearing and is illuminated by a powerful spotlight. At this point the bird actually descends and banks within a matter of metres of our position, clearly showing plumage detail that includes a distinctive white terminal band to the tail. It is hard to believe that the Bukidnon Woodcock was discovered as recently as 1993, when it proclaims its presence in such an unmistakable manner, but that is precisely when Tim Fisher first found this species here on Mount Kitanglad.
In the darkness we venture back up the muddy trail, where a Giant Scops Owl is now calling within 100 metres of the lodge. RH informs us that it is a juvenile bird, giving a call that he identified for the first time only a year previously. Sadly the bird ceases to call when we go in pursuit, but we do have the good fortune to encounter a Chocolate Boobook perched out in the clearing when we return to the lodge for dinner.
After another superb meal we set out to the forest with renewed vigour. The Giant Scops Owl is calling and again we begin to pick our way through the dripping undergrowth. Just as we are within striking distance the calling stops and we are forced to retreat. The saga continues in the same vein for the next hour as the bird ranges through a sizeable section of forest, until finally Carlito whispers loudly, “Come over here”. There, in the spotlight on a horizontal mid-storey bough, is the unmistakable bulky orange form of a juvenile Giant Scops Owl. We spend the next twenty minutes photographing and filming our prize, an enigmatic owl that has been seen by very few people, eventually leaving it to preserve our batteries in this electricity-free environment.
Above the clearing there is now a fantastic display of stars and we retire to bed hoping that the clear weather will hold out until the next morning.
Thursday 9th February
It has rained in the early hours, but by the time we sit down for breakfast at 05.30 the precipitation has ceased. We are served a superb offering of porridge, followed by bacon, scrambled eggs and then papaya.
Yesterday’s route is retraced, with Carlito and his son Danny as our guides, the muddy pools being nicely topped-up by the last downpour. We continue past yesterday’s forested blocks, adding Black-masked White-Eye plus Olive-capped and Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers as we go. From the next area of open cultivated land we can see that the cloud base is relatively high on the mountainside; this looks quite promising for some good weather and we continue with a renewed spring in our step.
Just two weeks before our arrival Carlito had made the fantastic discovery of an active Philippine Eagle nest higher up Mount Kitanglad. What is even more amazing, considering that only two pairs of Eagles inhabit the entire mountain range, is that the nest site is beside the main trail and just an hour’s walk above our accommodation.
Reaching the allotted point we leave the trail and descend a steep and heavily forested hillside. After just 100 metres we stop, propping ourselves against an appropriate tree for steadiness on the precariously steep slope, to view the scene below. Just 80 metres away, a little below eye level, is a huge stick nest set in a cleft in the uppermost boughs of a very tall tree. Sprigs of green leaves decorate the nest and mounted on top of everything is a massive fluffy white eaglet! The young bird is apparently eight weeks old and is already beginning to show dark feathering through its down on both wings and crown. Yellow legs are just visible, but what is most incredible is the bird’s immense black-tipped blue-grey bill which already appears capable of ripping apart the toughest of colugos, even at this tender age.
Within minutes of our arrival an adult bird sweeps over the canopy on the broadest of wings, but lands out of sight from where it calls intermittently. We wait, in hope of better views, and cannot believe our luck when the same adult bird drops into a treetop, in full view, just 30 metres from our vantage point! To see such a magnificent and highly sought-after bird at such close quarters is an incredibly rare experience and we savour every feature of this incomparable raptor, from wispy golden-brown crest to murderous yellow talons; it certainly ranks amongst the most memorable birding moments of all time.
When the adult departs we retreat to avoid undue disturbance, continuing steeply uphill through patches of tall pampas-like grass, bracken and blocks of forest. A pair of Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis appears, before a Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher responds to the tape from deeper inside the forest. After a short chase we pin down the source of the call, a magnificent large kingfisher with buff-spotted green back, orange breast, bright red bill and royal-blue crown and mustachial stripe.
As we continue our ascent a number of Philippine Nightjars are flushed from their roosting sites on bare ground beside the track, and a feeding flock is located which contains numerous Mountain Leaf Warblers and Cinnamon Ibons, plus an attendant pair of attractive Apo Sunbirds. It is actually quite surprising just how much good forest habitat remains on the mountain, with ridges of continuous woodland stretching into the distance.
Close to the peak of our ascent at around 1750 m we see our only Apo Mynas, very peculiar black birds with a large patch of bare yellow skin around the eye and a wispy erectile crest. Carlito’s family have kindly followed us with a superb packed lunch and we dine on a hillside affording a fantastic view down to the fruit plantations far below. And then it rains again. In fact the cloud base suddenly drops and it absolutely scythes it down, so we all start to head downhill as fast as the slippery trail will allow.
An overhead flock of five Mindanao Racquet-Tails briefly interrupt the evacuation, as we make our way rapidly through the soaking wet waist-high vegetation. A convenient shelter is situated mid way up the trail, where we take refuge from the downpour. This proves to be a great move, as a flock of around twenty-five wonderful White-cheeked Bullfinches appear as if by magic to land in an adjacent bush; even in the rain these are superb birds!
Making the most of a brief respite in the weather we head downhill, picking up a bonus pair of McGregor’s Cuckoo-Shrikes not far below the shelter. Lower still a Red-eared Parrotfinch and Long-tailed Ground-Warbler are seen in close proximity, but both give frustratingly brief views in the atrocious weather.
The lower section of the trail is now an absolute quagmire and by the time we reach the lodge we are in a soaking wet, filthy and exhausted mess! The inside of our Gore-Tex boots are thoroughly soaked and there is no fire beside which to dry them. In desperation we rip up the trip reports we have brought with us, screw them up and stuff them inside our boots to help them dry! The room is lined with dripping shirts and trousers.
The dusk flypast of our resident Bukidnon Woodcock helps to lift spirits, as does a bottle of San Miguel and another fine dinner, before we go to bed to the sound of calling Giant Scops Owls.
Friday 10th February
Up before first light, we don our soggy boots and go in search of Philippine Frogmouth. All is quiet on the frogmouth front, but we do manage to relocate the juvenile Giant Scops Owl once more, before returning for a very welcome cooked breakfast. There are complaints of rats running around the sleeping quarters during the night from the lighter sleepers in the group and rat droppings on the dining table seem to corroborate this suspicion!
This morning’s trudge up the muddy trail is undertaken with distinctly less vigour than the previous day. We trudge past the now-familiar ramshackle huts with bleached timber plank walls and rusty corrugated iron roofs, and through the banks of cloud that drift in and out of the cultivated valley. A Metallic Pigeon appears out of the mist at one point and Island Thrush plus Little Pied Flycatcher are new to the trip.
Moving on to higher elevations, we hear the loud ringing call of a Philippine Eagle echo from the valley in which the birds are nesting and cross paths with a further six Mindanao Racquet-Tails and an astonishing forty White-eared Bullfinches. And then it rains again. We descend to the Bagobo Babbler site, this time having slightly more success in that we can almost discern what colour the bird is, rather than just chasing a rapidly moving shape.
Retreating to the lodge for lunch, we remove our soggy boots to reveal feet that have the appearance of being in the bath for six hours! Is this an initial symptom of trench foot? After eating we take a deserved siesta, while the girls manage to light some sort of fire with which they make a vain attempt to dry our boots.
We set off for the field again at 16.30. It’s not raining and at least our boots are warm and wet! Nightbirds are again our goal this evening and the clearer weather gives us confidence. Bukidnon Woodcocks are again in evidence and a flyover Australasian Grass Owl is a bonus bird. After the sun has set we negotiate a particularly steep and muddy valley in search of Mindanao Scops-Owl, but receive only a very distant response to our recording. A Philippine Frogmouth calls much closer by, but he too cannot be persuaded to make an appearance.
By the time we get back to the lodge we all seem to be hobbling on painful feet, inflicted by the numerous miles walked in soaking wet boots over the last two days; sighs of relief and winces of agony accompany boot removal! We dine on magnificent spaghetti bolognaise, with the dining area now totally draped in clothes of varying degrees of wetness and filthiness. The girls manage to amass enough dry wood to build a small fire and our dripping boots are taken away to the fireplace.
Saturday 11th February
Although the rain has beaten on the tin roof for most of the night, a glorious fine morning greets us at breakfast time. Bags are packed and loaded onto horseback and we set off downhill in hot sunshine, in boots that feel at least partly dry! The hour-and-a-half walk is accompanied by superb views over the cultivated lowlands and cloud-shrouded Kitanglad Range. Willy and his minibus are awaiting our arrival and after fond farewells and thank-yous for the superb hospitality of Carlito and family, we begin the next leg of our journey.
With the dark peak of Kitanglad shrinking into the distance we travel south through a landscape of pineapple fields, rice paddies and rubber plantations. It is an intensively cultivated landscape with woefully little space for wildlife. A local passion for cock-fighting is clearly in evidence and we regularly pass the homes of breeders who have ranks of tiny lean-to huts on their lawn, each sporting an elegantly plumed fight-ready bird invariably perched on the roof of its shelter. The sight of a man proudly clutching his favourite bird, either by the legs or affectionately tucked under his arm, soon becomes a familiar sight.
As we progress toward Davao the road rises then descends, snaking through lush green hills, although it is noticeable that even the seemingly inaccessible peaks have been cleared of forest; there really is a frightening lack of natural habitat remaining on Mindanao.
After skirting the huge city of Davao, built on the south coast of the island, we turn in a north easterly direction and head for Bislig. A lunch break is made at a convenient Jollibee, the Philippine version of McDonalds and pretty much identical in all but name. For the next few hours the road follows the flat coastal plain, a land of rice paddies and palm plantations. It is almost dark when we reach the limit of the tarmac road; from here the going will be somewhat slow and bumpy!
After two hours on the bottom-numbing dirt road, in which time we see nothing but silhouettes of trees in the darkness, it seems an amazing revelation to suddenly hit a paved road with street lamps. Soon we are travelling through a thriving, lively frontier town that seems to have materialised as if by magic from the depths of the forest! Our journey has taken a good ten hours and the sight of our hotel for the next three nights is a great relief. The name of our hotel, however, is rather ominous and actually tells the sad tale of the region. We are staying at the Paper Country Inn; where else would one find a hotel proudly named after the industry which has systematically destroyed vast areas of lowland forest that surround the town of Bislig? Bislig has actually grown up around the logging concession of the Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines, more commonly know as PICOP. For many years birders have been visiting the ever-decreasing remnant patches of lowland forest in this area and, perhaps surprisingly, most of the target species still seem to be present.
Sunday 12th February
An 03.30 alarm call is never a good way to start the day. Needs must, however, as it takes over one-and-a-half hours to drive to good habitat and our efforts prove to be well worthwhile when at 05.00 we are standing beneath a magnificent Philippine Frogmouth which has obediently responded to the tape.
Our guide at PICOP is named Zardo, actually a security officer for the Paper Company, who has been helping birders track down the specialities of the logging concession for many years. We also have the pleasure of travelling around the rough forest trails by jeepney, bringing us ever closer to true Philippine culture! The driver is a particularly mean looking character. He actually arrived at the hotel twenty minutes late but only Zardo had the nerve to give him his deserved bollocking!
We spend the first hour of daylight in an open area, partially cleared of forest, at a site with the catchy title of Road 1/4. The lowland habitat brings a completely new set of birds from those present on Kitanglad, as we concentrate our efforts on forest between sea level and an altitude of just 300 metres. It is very sad to note that a certain set of mid-montane bird species are now almost impossible to find on Mindanao, as virtually no forest still exists between the upper limits of PICOP and the lower limits of Kitanglad.
A pair of Rufous-lored Kingfishers are the first birds to make the list, as they call from the high canopy. Pygmy Swiftlets are thankfully easy to identify, with their tiny size and obvious white rump-band. A pair of attractive Black-chinned Fruit-Doves is found in a fruiting tree, while Pygmy Babbler, Yellowish Bulbul and Philippine Leafbird feed beside the track. After hearing White-eared Brown-Doves call since our arrival we are delighted to finally see one, along with the White-bellied Woodpecker, Philippine Oriole, Black-and-white Triller and Naked-faced Spiderhunter that feed in the clearing. A smart Black-faced Coucal completes the list, before we set off for the next site.
Seen for the first time in the daylight, PICOP seems an unlikely birding venue. The unfathomable maze of narrow, potholed tracks dissect the logging concession, much of which is heavily deforested. Small settlements of squatters have sprung up in recent years, whose presence is strictly illegal but ignored by the Paper Company. They have set about clearing what remains of the forest, following the commercial logging operation, in order to grow subsistence crops. It is another nail in the coffin of the remaining lowland forest species, but one can hardly blame them for trying to eek out a living in this particularly poor corner of the world.
At Road 42 a steep trail climbs into an area of relatively intact forest. Beside the trail a flowering tree attracts Metallic-winged and Handsome Sunbirds and our first Philippine Needletails are identified overhead. We have just pinned down a bird flock containing Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher, Olive-backed Flowerpecker, Blue fantail and Everett’s White-Eyes when the inevitable downpour occurs to interrupt our fun. The rain continues off-and-on throughout the walk, though a very welcome Sooty Woodpecker makes it all worthwhile.
Back in the cover of our jeepney we enjoy a picnic lunch of sandwiches prepared by the hotel. Or at least we enjoy the remaining sandwiches that have not been consumed by the hungry local ants! Next stop is a tiny roadside pond, which actually acts as a cesspit for a number of adjoining huts. Without previous knowledge one would never dream of looking for a bird at this site, but that is exactly why we are here!
After waiting for twenty minutes a small kingfisher skims the water’s murky surface and alights on a thin branch. The Silvery Kingfisher is a gorgeous little bird, whose near-black plumage shows subtle traces of indigo blue with sharply contrasting white throat, back, belly and ear covert patches. Most striking of all are its bright red feet. We spend an hour watching and photographing a pair of these exquisite little birds at this most unlikely of settings.
Our plan is to end the day at Bislig Airfield, where the surrounding grassland and marshes provide some quite different habitat. Upon arrival it is immediately apparent that the facility is rarely used, in fact the only feature that suggests it is an airport at all is the long concrete runway cutting through the lush grassland and marshes.
Undisturbed wetlands seem to be in short supply in this part of the world and we take to the roof of the jeepney, now parked on the runway, to make the most of our opportunity to look for waterbirds. Up to four Australasian Grass Owls are quartering the grasslands, while flocks of Wandering Whistling-Ducks go about their aerial wanderings and Philippine Ducks dabble. A Purple Gallinule of the endemic pulverulentus form is a good find, while we also see both Black and Yellow Bitterns and a pair of Philippine Nightjars.
Monday 13th February
Getting up at a similarly disturbing time as the previous morning we are on site at Road 1/4 by 05.00. Philippine Frogmouth, Chocolate Boobook and the Mindanao endemic spilocephala race of Philippine Hawk-Owl are sadly only heard, but the first bird that daylight brings is a very handsome Pink-bellied Imperial-Pigeon which responds outrageously to the tape by performing a display flight overhead and landing in a tree beside the track! A fine male Philippine Trogon appears next, with salmon-pink gorget, scarlet belly and deep-blue facial patch, closely followed by Yellow-wattled Bulbul.
In transit to the next site we note that the local population seems to be becoming used to the jeepney full of daft whiteys who are tearing about their forest and our journey is now accompanied by friendly waves and the screams of excited children. A Black-headed Tailorbird, which calls from thick cover beside the track, is eventually coaxed out after a good half-hour of effort. In complete contrast the small flock of Philippine Needletails that skim back-and-forth through a forest clearing are infinitely more obliging and provide great photographic sport that is likened to clay pigeon shooting!
A rather brief bout of clear weather causes the Barred Honey-Buzzard population to take to the skies en mass, but a long walk to a fruiting tree recommended by Zardo provides just a distant Bicoloured Flowerpecker, a motley group of gentlemen illegally collecting timber and heat exhaustion!
Road 4A is the latest contender in the ‘most original site name of the trip’ competition, and our final destination to conclude the day. Olive-backed Flowerpecker and Black-bibbed Cuckoo-Shrike are seen as we search in vain for Celestial Monarch, while the sunshine and showers call for constant raising and lowering of umbrellas.
Further down the road a homemade banner requests that the forest is left untouched in this particular area and is signed by the New Peoples Army rebel group. Zardo explains that the faction is not known for violent antics and that the acronym NPA is widely transcribed as Nice People Around. Regardless of their constitution it is good to hear that they are conservationists at heart! A narrow trail leads into the excellent limestone forest, seemingly protected by the NPA, where trees sprout precariously from the jagged limestone pillars and trenches that make up the forest floor.
When RH’s Steere’s Pitta tape gets a loud response heartbeats increase in unison. Remarkably it takes just minutes to track down the source of the call, as the breathtakingly beautiful endemic pitta is located on a bare bough some five metres above the ground. One of the larger members of this most sought-after Asian family, Steere’s Pitta displays an amazing combination of dark green back, jet black head and lower belly, white throat, red vent and the most vivid turquoise-blue breast. For a whole hour we are unable to take our eyes off this gob-smacking bird, as we contort ourselves around the precariously sharp limestone pinnacles in search of the definitive photographic angle. In fact we are only forced away by the next torrential downpour, though our pitta can still be heard calling after we have reached the vehicle back at the road!
Final action of the day comes from the same area of limestone forest, where a Streaked Ground-Babbler is coaxed out of the gloomy crevices for a brief moment or two, before we retrace our tracks back to Bislig.
Tuesday 14th February
Ah, the joys of a lie-in until 04.30!
A replacement jeepney awaits outside the hotel, as our original driver has other duties to attend. Our new means of transport is a real old beast, which has clearly seen many years of service in this unforgiving terrain. Our journey to Road 42 is interrupted by a magnificent flock of Blue-crowned Racquet-Tails, one of which perches almost above our heads to display his rear-end finery.
Another morning of sunshine and showers keeps the brolley arm exercised as we notch up a steady stream of good birds. Both Rufous and Writhed Hornbills make frustratingly brief flypasts, though the Blue-capped Wood-Kingfishers which respond to tape are as amenable as one could wish for, offering definitive digital composition and Flashcard overload!
A dazzlingly blue Short-crested Monarch also eventually obliges after considerable efforts to locate the source of his distinctive call. Normally a treetop percher, we finally discover a Philippine Falconet at photographic level, while a tape-lured Streaked Ground Babbler provides MK with definitive video material. As the cloud descends a final surprise is a very welcome Philippine Hawk-Eagle, which passes overhead so low that every feature of its intricately streaked underparts can be seen; if only every raptor was so thoughtful!
After our usual tuna sandwich and crisp picnic we check out a deep limestone gully where a Red-bellied Pitta responds distantly to the tape. In more natural pitta fashion this bird is clearly not going to give himself up so easily and it takes half an hour of sweaty manoeuvring through undergrowth and around limestone outcrops before we are all in a position to savour our quarry which calls from a limb three metres above the ground. He may lack the splendour of yesterday’s pitta prize, but a more subtle combination of royal blue back, turquoise collar and bright scarlet breast still make for one outstanding bird.
Back on the main trail we have to move aside for another battered old truck piled high with timber and topped by another bunch of very dubious looking local characters. Zardo confirms that this is another load of smuggled timber illicitly vacating the forest and one is left wondering just how long the remaining lowland habitat can survive the relentless logging and agricultural clearance that is clearly rife in the area.
Final excitement of the day comes in the form of small yellow-and-green tree frog (probably Rhacophorus pardalis), which displays a fantastic pair of false white eyes on its hind parts, evolved as a clever predator-evasion strategy. Naturally, this incredibly photogenic creature is filmed from every conceivable angle! A determined nightbirding session produces perched Philippine and Great Eared-Nightjars, a wonderfully picturesque Moonrise from behind the forested hillside, but again Philippine Frogmouth, Chocolate Boobook and spilocephala Philippine Hawk-Owl remain heard-only.
Our drive back to Bislig is interrupted by a tremendous gunshot-like bang, which transpires to be the demise of one of the double rear jeepney tyres. The driver continues onwards, showing no concern about the situation, though when a second gunshot rings out more drastic action is clearly required. Our driver is well versed in post-puncture tactics and carries out a wheel change with which the Ferrari F1 team would be proud, but it is only after the old wheel is removed that we see what we have been running on for the last two days. A tyre with no tread would have been expected in this part of the world but what we find is actually a tyre with no rubber; we are driving on a worn strip of canvas and steel supported by the rubber tyre walls!
Back at the Paper Country Inn we find that the dining room has been liberally decorated with pink cutouts of hearts and cupids, in honour of St Valentine’s Day. Overcome by the air of romance we order a huge fish that we communally consume amongst the bouquets and fresh flowers and between tables of gooey-eyed couples!
Wednesday 15th February
Hitting the road at 04.00, to get us on site at first light, we have not gone far before another gunshot heralds the loss of a further tyre. Soon afterwards the aging jeepney’s electrics totally give up the ghost and we complete the journey without the aid of headlights!
Getting to Road 4 at dawn proves to be a good move as the area seems alive with avian activity. A pair of Philippine Fairy-Bluebirds moves through the treetops together with Philippine Trogons and Scarlet Minivets, while a group of Rusty-crowned Babblers feed in the understorey. The big target here remains, of course, Celestial Monarch and when one begins to call the excitement mounts. We soon discover, however, that hearing it is one thing and seeing it is another! For a good hour we strain our necks, searching for the source of the call in the high canopy. When a male finally appears just four metres above the ground, displaying an outrageously disproportionate long wispy crest, panic ensues and it is some time later before all present are able to soak up his bright blue finery.
Mission accomplished we return to Bislig, fearful that another puncture may interrupt our airport arrival schedule. This is actually the first time we have seen this bustling little frontier town in the daylight and we marvel at the stunning artwork that adorns the hordes of motorcycle rickshaws thronging through the narrow streets. This artistic competition seems peculiar to this one town, and elsewhere on our travels the rickshaws are sadly dull in comparison. Another interesting observation is the statement that seems to appear outside most schools, not just in Bislig but throughout the land, that the establishment is a ‘child friendly school’!
The long and bumpy journey back to Davao is spent in sleep, or at least as much sleep as the rather cramped minibus will permit. After a quick return visit to the Jollibee we check in at the incredibly plush and modern Davao Airport, boarding our Cebu Pacific flight back to Manila at 17.20. Cebu Pacific practice a rather bizarre ritual of on-board games, with prizes given to passengers who respond quickest to various questions and requests; needless to say we fail miserably, with brains numbed by the succession of 03.30 alarm calls!
In Manila we check back into the Best Western Hotel, take a hasty shower and then hit the town to celebrate GF’s Birthday. In our brief walk to the ‘Cowboy Grille’ we see a city of stark contrasts and cruel inequality; old women sleep in doorways on cardboard sheets and young children in tattered clothes beg, while right next door overindulgent Westerners feast in expensive seafood restaurants.
The Cowboy Grille, recommended by the hotel staff, is thankfully free of white faces. The atmosphere is lively and the pitchers of San Miguel are drained with alarming regularity. The more beer we consume the better the live band becomes, though we certainly need no alcohol to stimulate our appreciation of the lovely ladies. A Birthday request of a Bob Dylan song for Mr Finch is even forthcoming from the boys on stage! We have an 05.00 alarm call, but the previous week-and-a-half has already proven that sleep is by no means a necessity…
Thursday 16th February
A one-hour hangover-clouded flight takes us from Manila to Puerto Princessa on the Island of Palawan. Palawan is in a different world from the frenetic pace of the nation’s capital, with an instantly discernable relaxed and easy-going atmosphere; the ladies in the tourist information booth even turn on a ghetto blaster to play holiday-mood samba music as we enter the terminal building!
Local guide and ground agent Arnel is waiting outside and we are heading for the first birding locality within minutes of our arrival. It takes just half an hour to drive to Garcellian Beach, where a short walk through the coconut palms and narrow strip of mangroves delivers us to the waterfront before 09.00.
The tide is out and the exposed mudflats are dotted with wading birds, egrets and local people digging for shellfish. The sky is clear blue and the temperature is already climbing rapidly as we scan through Little Egrets and Eastern Reef Herons to note the salient bill shape and bare-part colouration of the accompanying Chinese Egrets, at least three of which feed close by. Grey-tailed Tattlers, Pacific Golden Plovers and Red-necked Stints scamper over the mud close to our vantage point, plus various other wintering waders of a more familiar Western Palearctic disposition.
Lunch follows back in Puerto Princessa, where we dine on Tuna Panga, a mouth-watering grilled steak that is quite possibly the culinary highlight of the trip. On Palawan distance is not such an obstacle as the other islands and with just 70 km to travel to the evening destination of Sabang our afternoon drive is a relatively sedate one. Our route first follows the coastline then, on a road now made of gravel, cuts from the south coast across to the north coast of the island, at its narrowest point. Although we initially travel through areas of cultivation and secondary forest, as we head north, we soon reach an area of imposing limestone pinnacles and high orange-tinted cliffs where undisturbed forest stretches off into the distance.
A roadside birding stop in the Dahun area produces the brightly marked Palawan Flowerpecker, Sulphur-bellied Bulbul and White-vented Shama, while groups of Palawan Swiftlets swoop overhead. We are also delighted to be greeted by an inquisitive flock of no less than seven Palawan Hornbills, boldly marked black-and-white birds now uncommon on the island. A short distance further north we stop at the Cabayugan National Park Checkpoint, to explore a couple of quiet forest trails a little way off the main road, where Ashy-headed babbler, Palawan Blue Flycatcher and Hooded Pitta are added to the list.
The sun has now set and the next time the minibus pulls to a halt we are in virtual darkness. Almost immediately the mournful growling call of a Palawan Frogmouth is heard, and it only takes a couple of blasts of playback of its call before a fantastic male bird is sitting on a low branch adjacent to the road. Allowing close-up study for twenty minutes, the diminutive red-brown nightbird shows a heavily-whiskered face typical of this genus and a broad white band to the lower breast which is intricately marked with narrow black shaft-streaks, edges and tips to individual feathers.
The other nightbird endemic to the island is the Palawan Scops-Owl, and Arnel seems to have high hopes of the appearance of this species as we head down a narrow trail through the bamboo; with our recent scops-owl form we cannot share his enthusiasm. We play the appropriate harsh, low-pitched single note for nearly twenty minutes until a distant response is heard. Moving deeper into the bamboo woodland another whirl of the recording produces a dramatically close response. Arnel immediately deploys the spotlight and AD whispers loudly, “higher, higher, further right, further right”, directing the cutting beam of light like a ‘Golden Shot’ contender! His aim is good and to our amazement a stunning Palawan Scops-Owl is suddenly floodlit on a low branch just three metres away from us! A volley of flashlights illuminates its sharply demarcated pale brow, fierce orange eyes and well-streaked underparts, before it disappears silently into the darkness. What a result; we have crowned this incredibly successful nightbirding trip with two of the best yet!
The remaining journey to Sabang is relatively short and the Last Frontier Inn, nicknamed the ‘Last Resort Inn’ prior to our arrival turns out to be thoroughly undeserving of our pun. It is actually a very comfortable lodge, currently being renovated with an ecotourism theme. The food is superb and we even persuade the lady chef to make us an impromptu rice pudding from our first course leftovers!
Rooms are equipped with running water, mosquito nets and fans, though our state of tiredness means that getting to sleep in the extremely humid climate is never going to be an issue.
Friday 17th February
A hearty breakfast sets us up for our first nautical venture of the trip. Five minutes walk from our hotel is the palm-fringed Sabang seafront, whose golden coral sands have lead this stretch of Palawan’s north coast to become a small tourist resort in its own right. We wade out to a small but stable outrigger boat that carries us east on a beautiful turquoise blue sea, following St Paul’s Bay towards our destination of the Subterranean River National Park.
Inside the National Park boundary forested hills run down to sandy beaches or occasional high rusty-stained limestone cliffs, on which Pacific breakers crash. It takes just twenty minutes to reach the small bay from which the underground river is accessed; this local tourist attraction is not what has drawn us to the site, however.
After wading through the shallows we walk less than 100 metres into the forest to the park ranger’s accommodation blocks. The staff are obviously well versed in the antics of visiting birders and they instantly point us in the direction of two female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants that are busily feeding on scraps of food on the pathway between huts. Seconds later they are joined by the awesome explosion of black, white and iridescent blue that is a male! For the last five years or so a male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant has been visiting the ranger station and becoming more accustomed to the visiting birders. Before this bird appeared seeing this species was very difficult indeed and after it dies, who knows? At least in the short term visitors are able to savour every last feather of this stunning bird’s silky black underparts, boldly patterned black-and-white head, iridescent scaled mantle and coverts and an intricately dotted and barred tail with wonderful blue-centred peacock-spots. This mad bird actually seems inquisitive about visitors and follows us along the trail, posing for frame-filling close-up shots, at times too close for the camera!
After this incredible display the Philippine Scrubfowl that scratch the ground at the edge of the clearing and the metre-and-a-half long Varanus salvator monitor lizard which scavenges outside the canteen seem very dull! We follow the mosquito-ridden, sweaty trail deeper into the forest for a few hundred metres and take a boardwalk that ascends the jagged karst limestone pinnacles. This vantage point delivers us at least four Blue-headed Racquet-Tails and a number of Lovely Sunbirds, while our first Palawan Tits are seen en route back to the beach.
Taking the boat a short way back in the direction of Sabang we stop at another sandy cove, this time the location of the Central Park Ranger Station. By following another trail just a short distance into the forest we encounter our first Blue Paradise-Flycatcher and Yellow-throated Leafbird, both of which turn out to be fairly widespread in the surrounding forest. Target at this site is, however, the skulking Falcated Ground-Babbler and it takes half-an-hour of manoeuvring around a certain shallow rocky gully before a bird is coaxed into a conveniently viewable position. This endemic is worth the effort though and eventually displays his meticulous white striping, bold white throat and chestnut neck patch for our collective appreciation.
With a full house we jubilantly return to the cooling breeze and gentle rocking of the ocean for the short boat journey back to base. We are dropped off short of Sabang at yet another sandy paradise-of-a beach, from where we walk back to our hotel in the company of a pair of Malaysian Plovers and a couple of blue phase Eastern Reef Egrets which pluck fish from the surf in a most photogenic manner. After the frantic action and often-horrendous weather of both Luzon and Mindanao, the Palawan experience is a real tonic; we even have time to stop in a beachside bar for a cold one before wandering back to the hotel for lunch. In the dining area a young man is painting a huge wildlife mural covering the whole rear wall. Realising that we are birders he asks for advice on his Palawan Peacock-Pheasant illustration and we are able to advise him with the aid of our digital images taken just hours before; he is quick to change his greens to blues, having originally taken guidance from a photographic field guide where the true colour is corrupted by flash!
The afternoon journey back to Puerto Princessa is broken by a very enjoyable two hour walk in the region of Buenavista, which serves to emphasize Palawan’s distinctive avifauna and provides such trip ticks as Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Common Iora, Fiery Minivet and Ashy Drongo. Arriving in Puerto Princessa just after dark we check into the rather ropey Badjao Inn, whose rooms would benefit from a good fumigation but whose seafood cuisine and ice cold San Miguel certainly hit the spot.
Saturday 18th February
An early start gets us to the trip’s most unlikely birding site for first light. The Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm provide the unique experience of searching for endemics in the company of the convicts! The cultivated land through which we travel after passing through the prison gate actually looks identical to the rest of lowland Palawan. An area adjacent to the forest of the Balsahan Trail, our destination for the morning, is actually a thriving tourist attraction with swimming pool and picnic tables, yet it is all within the bounds of the prison; very bizarre!
The Balashan Trail leads along a valley bottom, crossing back and forth over the stream that meanders through the trees. At the crossing points the boulders upon which we tread are decidedly slippery and it is here that our normally sure-footed leader takes a tumble and subsequent dip; RH really will go to any length to keep his punters entertained!
Our morning has just one major goal, the endemic Melodious Babbler. This vocal species refuses to give up without a fight, however, and it takes an hour to lure a pair into a viewable slot in the rather dense vegetation. Palawan Hornbill and Blue-naped Parrot are the only other notable birds at this rather forgettable site.
Driving back outside the forest we have just settled down to scanning the waders feeding in the flooded paddies when a burst of automatic gunfire splits the quiet air. Its source is clearly too close for comfort and when we observe a group of escorted prisoners diving for cover we realise something is seriously amiss! Arnel ushers us rapidly inside the minibus, from where we watch the scene unfold. Along the bunds between the flooded paddies half a dozen prison guards, armed with either Armalite automatic rifles or pump-action shotguns, are running towards a block of woodland just two hundred metres from our position. They are firing randomly at an unseen quarry, which we later discover to be three escaped convicts! Both Arnel and our driver are keen to vacate the area as soon as possible and as we do so we pass by a group of fifty prisoners who have been ordered to the ground by their heavily armed guards. They have the look of a bloodthirsty gang of tattooed extras from a Hispanic gang warfare movie, yet are keen to offer a polite “Good morning” when they see our white faces peering out of the minibus!
We continue our birding at some more remote paddy fields, while intermittent gunfire echoes across the valley for some time to follow. The tilled earth supports large flocks of Eastern Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits plus a sprinkling of striking Oriental Pratincoles, a family that always pleases the crowds. Large mixed flocks of munias buzz the field margins and a pair of Blue-breasted Quail is seen well in flight after a little gentle encouragement.
We check out of the prison compound after a somewhat memorable morning to continue our journey southwestwards, keeping to the flat coastal plain where coconut palms, rice paddies and the turquoise Sulu Sea are constantly in view. Another target for this section of the trip is to get to grips with the region’s wintering snipe species and to this aim we spend considerable time in the heat of the midday sun pacing back and forth around the margins of any likely wetlands flushing the dozens of snipe which feed unseen in the low vegetation. A single Greater Painted Snipe which we disturb is straightforward to put a name to, but the other three species which all winter here are far less straightforward. Common Snipe, which are clearly in the majority at all sites visited, present the least problems as they make their characteristic high-pitched call and usually zigzag into a towering escape flight during which a broad white trailing edge to the secondaries is displayed. Birds without obvious pale-tipped secondaries, which have a low pitched call, a general reluctance to fly far when flushed and a somewhat heavy appearance are assigned as Swinhoe’s Snipe; this species just makes double figures. Birds similarly lacking pale-tipped secondaries, with a call only slightly lower-pitched than Common Snipe and with a relatively towering but less erratic escape flight are labelled as Pintail Snipe and are in a distinct minority.
Around 13.00 we check into the beachside La Vista Hotel close to the small town of Narra. Clean air-conditioned chalets nestle between palm trees and the fish and chip lunch is very tasty. After a brief siesta we make the short journey to the quayside at Narra, to rendezvous with the boat that will take us across to Rasa Island. A small flotilla of brightly painted outrigger craft of various sizes bob just offshore in the stiff breeze. Around two kilometres offshore the long low shape of Rasa Island is clearly visible, the dark outline of its surrounding mangroves contrasting with the sparkling blue ocean.
When our boatman arrives on cue at 15.30 there is more than a little consternation about the seemingly inadequate size of the craft we are about to board; after a near-death boating experience off Halmahera some two years previous MK and I are very apprehensive about boarding undersize boats. As it transpires our craft is more than adequate for the twenty minute crossing which, in the lee of the island, is a relatively calm affair.
Upon reaching Rasa our boatman finds the appropriate channel amongst the seemingly unbroken green curtain of mangroves and gently noses our craft amongst the labyrinth of aerial roots characteristic of this unique maritime tree species. The narrow channel, in its latter stages passing through a fantastic tunnel of mangrove boughs, leads to a newly built concrete quay. Unfortunately the low state of the tide and significant draught of our boat means that we have to wade over precarious razor-sharp coral formations to reach the jetty; little do we know but this is actually a trivial warm-up for later adventures!
Just beyond the point where the jetty meets dry land is a very impressive steel tower hide. We ascend the ten metre structure and are joined at our vantage point by an extremely articulate gentleman named Freddy, who works for the Katala Foundation created to save the ‘Critical’ listed Philippine Cockatoo from extinction (Katala is the local name for this species). Freddy explains that the Philippine Cockatoo now numbers less than 1,000 wild individuals, sadly qualifying it as the most endangered cockatoo in the World. Efforts to increase populations through a programme of habitat protection and education of local farmers seem to be bearing fruit, however, with the number of birds roosting on the island increasing from just a handful to over seventy birds. There are also sixteen pairs now breeding on the island, which Freddy is delighted to inform us was declared a formal nature reserve by the government on the previous day; we have the accolade of being the first visitors to the newly established zone of protection.
In spite of the alleged increase in the Cockatoo population we hear, but fail to see, our quarry and after an hour in the tower are forced to retire to the boat in a rather concerned manner as the tide continues to fall. The precarious walk to the boat is now much further and the journey through the mangroves is made difficult by the low tide, but eventually we make the open sea. We chug northwards, keeping close to the mangroves and constantly scanning the skies. It is 17.45 when a glimpse of white and a shout of ”Cockatoo!” finally heralds our relief, as a flock of seven Philippine Cockatoos skim the treetops before alighting on a high snag.
We make our second landing of the day with the cockatoo pressure off, but with a highly sought-after nightbird now in our sights. Again we have to tiptoe across the coral pinnacles, where RH makes painful barefoot contact with a sea urchin, this time making land on the edge of a more open area of dry grassland and clumps of dense low shrubs. It seems to take an age for the day to slip into twilight, as a steady stream of Palawan Fruit Bats pass overhead. Darkness has not properly descended when a far-carrying call resonates across the clearing, revealing that a Mantanani Scops-Owl is close by. Incredibly, this near-endemic small-island specialist will be the tenth new nightbird of the trip if we can track down the source of the call.
A fair breeze is rocking the bushes, which does not bode well for nightbirds, as we try to tempt the bird out of dense cover by use of a recording. But the owl won’t budge and the bushes are far too dense to allow entry. Eventually he ceases calling and we move to a new area. The owl quest continues for almost two whole hours, with the frequency of calls steadily decreasing. When no calls are heard for half an hour we reluctantly admit defeat and begin a deflated trudge back to the landing point. Suddenly a bird calls close by and Arnel rushes into the dense undergrowth with flashlight in hand. A whistle announces that he has found the bird and we dash to the spot to obtain brief but conclusive views of the decidedly large scops-owl before it disappears from its low perch. Arnel relocates it briefly but again it flies all too soon; under normal circumstances we would be elated, but such has been the quality of nightbirds on this trip that still we feel a little cheated.
The lights go out and again we try the tape. This time a duet is heard in response. Arnel crashes into the brush and within seconds summons us to follow. In a state of disbelief we see that a pair of Mantanaini Scops-Owls are perched shoulder-to-shoulder, on a thin bare branch, just two metres above his head! We carefully manoeuvre ourselves into position, having to kneel and zoom in lenses in order to fit the birds in photographic frame! Interestingly the birds appear to show dimorphism, with one bird being distinctly rufous and the other quite grey. For forty-five minutes we photograph and film these mind-blowing creatures in feather-perfect detail, as they perch totally unconcerned and within touching distance; they even sit tight when we inadvertently rock the branch on which they are sitting as we swap photographic positions below. Ear tufts are raised and lowered, heads rotate and wide yellow eyes first stare fiercely then close in an apparent state of sleep. They are still in the same spot when we quietly leave them in peace, after a totally stunning finale to the most successful nightbirding trip ever!
After stumbling back to the beach we don sandals and splash off into the darkness in search of a hopefully waiting boat. Unfortunately the tide has fallen dramatically since our landing and we are rather perturbed to discover that the boat has been forced to a position around 200m offshore to keep afloat. The ensuing mission to return to the craft turns into one of the most uncomfortable and hazardous ventures of the entire trip as we pick our way through the lethally sharp coral and sea urchins. It is pitch black, at times the water reaches our waists, and we each have a small fortune in optical and photographic equipment dangling from our person! Legs become more wobbly and obscenities ring out across the water in response to collisions between tender toes and unseen pointed obstacles. Eventually we all make it to the most welcome boat on Palawan and it seems a miracle that no photographic insurance claims have arisen!
Back in the safety of the outrigger the beauty of our location immediately sooths away our trauma, as we look up into a sky filled with a million stars and to the flickering lights on the distant shore. This one really has been a night to remember.
Back at the La Vista we find that the extensive menu is in fact restricted to fish and chips; the other forty items all seem to be off, but after the wonders of the preceding hours complaints have left our vocabulary. We all raise our San Miguels and drink to Mr Hutchinson and the success of Birdtour Asia.
Sunday 19th February
We are relieved to find that the breakfast menu stretches to scrambled eggs and crispy bacon, thus avoiding another repeat of the fish and chips for breakfast. An early drive brings us to an area known as the Zigzag Road, where a series of sharp bends cut through the forested hillsides. Disappointingly a road construction gang has set up camp right in the gully known as a stake-out for Palawan Flycatcher and consequently our attempts to tape the bird out are met with early morning coughing and spitting as the workforce tumble out of their overnight shelter. When a transistor radio is cranked up we realise that all is lost.
It takes a couple of hours to drive to Puerto Princessa Airport where we thank Arnel, our knowledgeable but at times overbearing guide, for his help over the last few days. It is early afternoon when we arrive back in Manila and we have a good three hours to kill before we are due to check in for our longhaul flight. There is obviously only one destination where we can pass this time and we hail the first available taxi and ask for the LA Café!
The bar is a lively venue to say the least and the welcome we receive from the waitresses with whom we had become acquainted a few evenings previously is outstanding! The San Miguel, pizza and banter flow at an alarming rate for the next few hours as we reminisce over the last two weeks of hardship and exhaustion, ecstasy and exhilaration. As the bar fills up later in the afternoon it is clear that the sprinkling of single, ageing Western males are here for more than just the beer and we cannot help but feel very protective of our new friends in the bar, who suddenly look particularly young and vulnerable in this notoriously seedy environment.
Sadly check-in time comes round all too soon and fond farewells are exchanged. It is also time to part company with Mr Hutchinson, who has looked after us in such an impeccable manner over the last fourteen days. We knew he was sharp, but the bird-finding success of our trip has exceeded all expectations and we are deeply indebted to Rob for the skill, enthusiasm and effort that lie behind our achievements. If this is a taste of things to come from Birdtour Asia then the venture is surely set to rise from strength to strength and we heartily wish Messrs Hutchinson and Eaton the success which they thoroughly deserve; we cannot recommend them highly enough (URL: www.birdtourasia.com, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
And so one of the most physically demanding, rain-drenched and sleepless trips of recent times draws to a conclusion. It will not, however, be the hardship that will stick in the memory. It will be the awesome adult Philippine Eagle calling in the canopy above our heads, the shining blue male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant doing circuits of our feet and probably most of all the unbelievable set of endemic nightbirds which iced a birding cake of epic proportions.
Ian Merrill March 2006 email@example.com http://firstname.lastname@example.org/default.htm