2008 PHILIPPINES TOUR
(1 February-3 March)
We had been on the trail up Mt. Kitanglad in Mindanao for only 20 minutes when our local guide, Carlito, heard a Red-eared Parrotfinch. He soon spotted it and pointed into the dense lantana. None of us could see it. I played the tape. No response. We peered, we listened – the bird was gone. We moved on. Soon Carlito scanned some blossoming lantana about 20 meters distant, and eventually pointed out another parrotfinch. We looked intently for the bird and after some time, spotted it. We put the scope on a beautiful male and soaked up this little jewel. For the next 15 minutes we reveled in watching three males and a female leisurely eating their morning breakfast of lantana seeds. WOW! Getting this difficult fellow in the scope was a real coup! We walked on toward our goal of higher elevation where we hoped to see an Apo Sunbird. It took us a while, but we eventually got a good look at a male. Enroute, we had excellent looks at a flock of 24 Philippine Bullfinches, a brief view of a Mindanao (Goodfellow’s) Flycatcher, Grey-capped Shrike, Mindanao and Cinnamon Ibons, 25 Apo Mynas, a Long-tailed Bush-Warbler, and 20 Mindanao Racquet-tails, as well as the easier species. The next day we added several sightings of the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle, including one directly overhead, to round out our list of Kitanglad specialties. Earlier, we were able to squeeze in an unscheduled visit to Mindoro where we were able to see the endemic Black-headed Coucal, Mindoro Hornbill, Mindoro Boobook and Scarlet-collared Flowerpeckers.
Our trip total of 330 species seen, including 139 endemics was one of our best to date, a tribute to the greater knowledge, experience and effort that now goes into a Philippines birding tour. Both totals are only three species short of the record totals for each category. Some of the other more exciting special species were: Chinese Egret, Malayan Night-Heron, superb close-ups (2 meters) of the habituated Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, Spotted Buttonquail, Philippine Woodcock, Luzon Bleedingheart, Philippine Cockatoo, Red-crested and Scale-feathered Malkohas, Palawan, Philippine and Giant Scops-Owls, Mindanao Boobook, Philippine and Javan Frogmouths, Philippine Kingfisher, Visayan Hornbill, Wattled Broadbill, Azure-breasted Pitta, White-winged Cuckooshrike, Streak-breasted Bulbul, Flame-templed Babbler, Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Palawan Flycatcher, Short-crested and Celestial Monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, White-vented Whistler, Stripe-sided and Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis, and Cebu and Visayan Flowerpeckers.
2006 PHILIPPINES TOUR
(4 February - 6 March)
We arrived at dawn in the area where a habituated male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant has been regularly observed for 4 years. After prowling around for an hour, we still had not found him and I was beginning to worry that he might fail to show up for his regular morning rounds. We split up and wandered the area for another half hour with no luck. Then, not far away, I heard the pheasant call from the forest. Since I was between the pheasant and the group, I crouched down and played a tape in hope of his moving to an area where they might view him. The pheasant responded and came closer. I waited. Soon he walked across the track only 10-12 meters distant. Because he was close, I stayed put so as not to spook him, hoping he would continue to walk toward the group. When the pheasant saw me, he changed course, walked a half circle around me, coming to a stop only 15 feet away, where he stood next to the trail curiously watching me. He was now between me and the group and so close, I thought he might get nervous if I got up and walked to where the others were. I waited and he watched. After about 5 minutes, I decided I’d better move anyway, so I slowly got up and walked toward him. He merely stepped aside as I walked by. Soon I found the group and everyone had fine close-up views of this spectacular pheasant as close as 15 feet. Fortunately he was accompanied by two female-plumaged birds. He appears to have finally found a mate. Until this year, he seemed to be entirely alone. Both the two new birds are already well habituated and hopefully they’ll produce some youngsters that will be unafraid of people in the years to come, ensuring that future groups will have a good chance to see this normally quite shy and furtive species.
Our guide led us to a readily accessible nest of the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle and we watched the chick from above through our scopes at about 100 meters distance for about half an hour. The chick was perhaps 2 months old and in the process of acquiring juvenal plumage feathers to replace his down covering. After getting our fill of the youngster, we began the short walk back to the main trail. Since the adults were not at the nest, we decided to return to a nearby clearing the following morning to try to see them. We had walked only 30 meters or so when one of our local guides reported that “The adult is available.” We retraced a few steps and there, only about 80 meters away, was one of the adults. We put the scopes up again and spent another half hour soaking up this magnificent sight as the eagle impassively watched. WOW!
Our more exciting observations included: excellent scope views of all 4 of the Philippine accipiters, Crested and Chinese Goshawks, Japanese Sparrowhawk, and Besra; a brief view of a Northern Hobby, one of the few records for the Philippines; the recently described Philippine Woodcock; superb scope views of Flame-breasted, Yellow-breasted, and Black-chinned Fruit-Doves, and Pink-bellied and Spotted Imperial Pigeons; a long wonderful scope study of the Green Racquet-tail seemingly eating bark; great close-up views of the undescribed juvenal plumage of the Giant Scops-Owl; fine looks at both Philippine and Javan Frogmouths; scope close-ups of Blue-capped, Spotted, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded Kingfishers; a fine Azure-breasted Pitta; and KingBird’s first sighting of a Benquet Bush-Warbler on a tour.
There were many other good birds, including: Chinese Egret, Black Bittern, Philippine Duck, Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Philippine Falconet, Philippine Scrubfowl, Amethyst Dove, Guaiabero, Philippine Hanging-Parrot, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Black-faced Coucal, Palawan Scops-Owl, Chocolate, Philippine and Mindanao Boobooks, Philippine Nightjar, Purple and Philippine Needletails, Philippine Trogon, 10 kingfishers, 5 hornbills, Sooty Woodpecker, Hooded Pitta, all 5 cuckooshrikes, Black-and-white Triller, Streak-breasted Bulbul, both fairy-bluebirds, all 3 endemic shamas, Luzon Redstart, Island Thrush, 15 babblers, Long-tailed Bush-Warbler, all 8 possible tailorbirds, Little Slaty Flycatcher, Short-crested and Celestial Monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, 3 whistlers, Elegant and Palawan Tits, Sulfur-billed Nuthatch, Stripe-sided and Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis, 10 flowerpeckers, 10 sunbirds, all 6 white-eyes, Philippine Bullfinch, Red-eared Parrotfinch, Apo Myna, Coleto and Grey-throated and White-lored Orioles.
2005 PHILIPPINES TOUR
(4 February - 7 March)
We arrived at 0830 at an overlook at about 1,500 meters elevation on the northern edge of a deep, forested river valley on Mt. Kitanglad in northern Mindanao. Our local guide had suggested this particular site as probably the best place to hope for a Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle flyover. As we settled in to wait, it was already beginning to get hot in the bright sunshine. We had spent yesterday prowling the forests and open patches in this area with good success, but no eagle. So we set aside the whole day today, if necessary, to see the eagle. One hour went by and we brought out our umbrellas to help shield us from the blazing sun. Ten years ago there would have been several other raptors soaring around to keep us busy, but the universal decline in raptor numbers just left us staring at empty sky. Occasionally a raptor would appear though and we got brief looks at a Chinese Goshawk and then two Oriental Honey-Kites. Another hour passed and it was getting hotter and the idea of sweltering through the whole day was not appealing. Usually there are more clouds at this time of year, but "El Niño" had brought drought and lots of sunshine. At about 1100, someone shouted "raptor to the north." The eagle's jizz and "Yip-Yip" scream quickly identified it as a Philippine Hawk-Eagle. We watched it as it soared above us. Another smaller raptor joined it. The plumage features of the second bird, coupled with its more compact shape showed it to be a Barred Honey-Kite. Gradually the raptor watch was paying off.
Shortly after the hawk-eagle and honey-kite disappeared, I left the group for a few moments to relieve myself. Suddenly, in mid-stream, so to speak, a large raptor soared into view about 200 meters distant. I quickly shifted gears and shouted "Philippine Eagle to the west." As the eagle was huge and not far, everyone was soon soaking up this magnificent endangered species with a mixture of great pleasure and relief. The eagle came a bit closer, giving us superb views and then slowly soared up and eventually disappeared high on one of the peaks to the south, giving us 5 minutes of observation. We were dazed and elated by our good fortune.
About 20 minutes later, we heard a Philippine Eagle calling from somewhere on the opposite bank of the river. We scanned and scanned but could not spot the bird. Our local guide went prowling through the brush in hope of finding a vantage point from which the eagle could be seen. After a while he came back and led us to a break in the tall vegetation. From there we had superb scope views at about 300 meters distance, close enough to see its pale blue eyes and watch the wind toss its long floppy crest about. The eagle listlessly shifted position frequently, giving us numerous viewing angles. WOW! We were replete with these superb perched and flying views of the eagle, which is almost everyone's most wanted Philippine bird. There were actually three birds present, suggesting that, at least for the near term, the prognosis for future sightings is good.
Other special sightings were: superb close-up views of a male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant (this habituated bird apparently is not breeding and when he dies, it's back to regularly missing this species altogether - best get to the Philippines soon if you want to see this one), lengthy scope views of a Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove, good views of the Philippine Cockatoo, 8 species of owls (including great close looks at Mantanani and Palawan Scops-Owls, and Chocolate, Philippine and Mindanao Boobooks), fine close-ups of both Philippine and Javan Frogmouths, a quick look at the highly endangered Visayan Hornbill, excellent views of Streak-breasted Bulbul, every feather looks at a very close agitated pair of Ashy-headed Babblers, a super scope view of a pair of Falcated Wren-Babblers preening after a bath with their long back feathers all splayed out, some best-ever looks at Luzon Wren-Babbler, and excellent lengthy scope views of the Celestial Monarch.
We saw a grand total of 134 Philippine endemics (+4 heard only), amidst a total of 322 species seen (+9 heard only). Among the other more interesting birds were: Philippine Duck, Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Japanese Sparrowhawk, Philippine Falconet, Philippine Scrubfowl, Spotted Buttonquail, Philippine Bush-hen, Yellow-breasted and Black-chinned Fruit-Doves, 9 parrots (including 4 racquet-tails), Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Red-crested and Scale-feathered Malkohas, Black-faced and Rufous Coucals, 9 swifts, Philippine Trogon, 10 kingfishers (including Blue-capped, Spotted, Rufous-lored, Rufous-backed, Silvery and Indigo-banded), 6 hornbills, 5 woodpeckers, 3 pittas (Red-bellied, Hooded and Azure-breasted), all 5 cuckooshrikes, Black-and-white Triller, 9 bulbuls, both leafbirds, both fairy-bluebirds, Grey-capped Shrike, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 15 babblers (including Bagobo Babbler, all 3 wren-babblers, and Flame-templed and Luzon Striped Babblers), 2 bush-warblers, 8 tailorbirds, 10 flycatchers (including Little Slaty, Palawan and Furtive), all 3 monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, 3 whistlers, Elegant and Palawan Tits, Sulfur-billed Nuthatch, 2 rhabdornis, 10 flowerpeckers, 12 sunbirds, 3 white-eyes, both ibons, Red-eared Parrotfinch, Apo Myna, Coleto, and 4 orioles. We also had our best scope views ever of 3 colugos (often called flying lemurs). All in all, an excellent, fun trip, with great birds and fine companions.
2004 PHILIPPINES TOUR
(31 January - 1 March)
Someone shouted "eagle" and we all looked up hopefully. There, only 60 or 70 meters away, was a magnificent Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle gliding by with what appeared to be a stick in its talons. It was a brief view, perhaps 30 seconds, but superb -- even the shaggy crest could be seen. Earlier that morning we had seen a pair of large raptors in the distance which could have been Philippine Eagles, but the distance and viewing angle precluded certain identification. After the positive sighting, we had another poor, but certain view through the trees, of a Philippine Eagle gliding overhead. The following day, as we waited at one of the overlooks, a Philippine Eagle gliding down the opposite side of the valley with a small mammal in its talons, stopped and perched in the open for about four minutes for excellent scope views at about 300-400 meters distance, before moving on to its distant nest site. We were quite pleased with our excellent views of this marvelous endangered raptor, which is number one on most birders' want list for the Philippines.
A Spotted Kingfisher flew by and perched in a tree just inside the forest near the road. It could just barely be seen, but not well. I played a tape and the bird moved a bit, but was still not readily visible. I played the tape a few times with poor results. Suddenly the bird flew out into the open and perched atop a mound of dirt only 2 meters (6 ft.) away. The kingfisher just sat there for about five minutes, calmly watching us as we soaked up his attractive and interesting plumage features. Some had to back off a bit to focus their binoculars. Normally this bird is a shy forest denizen that is difficult to see. The habituated and spectacular Palawan Peacock-Pheasant on Palawan gave us superb views at only 9 meters in the open this year. We're hoping that this bird will live forever as he doesn't seem to have attracted a mate. Best ever looks at the Luzon Wren-Babbler were another fine feature of this tour. Apparently we caught them with extremely high hormone levels and they came right in to tape playback. A special treat was a group of 3 Black-faced Spoonbills on Palawan, a very rare vagrant to the Philippines. After 6 or 7 years of not seeing Ashy Thrush at all, we had brief looks at a pair on the road at 2 PM on Mt. Makiling and later a long binocular study in the forest at Aurora. We were pleased to see very well both the recently split Chocolate Boobook, Ninox randi, as well as the likely to be split Mindanao Boobook, Ninox spilocephalus on Mindanao. A wonderful scope study of a Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove on Mt. Pollis was the highlight of our visit there.
Our seen endemic species total was an excellent 136 species with another 5 endemics heard. Among the total of 317 species seen on the trip were: Philippine Duck, Chinese Goshawk, Japanese Sparrowhawk, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Philippine Falconet, Philippine Scrubfowl, Philippine Woodcock, Yellow-breasted and Black-chinned Fruit-Doves, Pink-bellied and Spotted Imperial Pigeons, Philippine Cockatoo, 4 racquet-tails, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Red-crested and Scale-feathered Malkohas, Black-faced and Rufous Coucals, 3 scops-owls, Philippine Trogon, Blue-capped, Rufous lored, Rufous-backed, Silvery and Indigo-banded Kingfishers, 5 hornbills, Wattled Broadbill, Azure breasted Pitta, Pechora Pipit, all 5 cuckooshrikes, both trillers, all 3 minivets, both fairy-bluebirds, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 14 babblers (including all 3 wren-babblers, and Luzon Striped Babbler), Long tailed Bush-Warbler, 8 tailorbirds, Palawan and Furtive Flycatchers, Short-crested and Celestial Monarchs, all 4 fantails, all 4 whistlers, all 3 tits, both nuthatches, 2 rhabdornis, 10 flowerpeckers, 12 sunbirds, all 6 white-eyes, Philippine Bullfinch, Red-eared Parrotfinch, Apo Myna, and 4 orioles. A grand trip!
2003 PHILIPPINES TOUR
(31 January - 3 March)
It was a murky overcast dawn and the birds were beginning to stir as the light gradually improved. We could hear Philippine Bulbuls and other species. Then a small bird flew into a nearby tree and perched, silhouetted against the grey sky. Through my binoculars, it was short-tailed and stocky, with a broad, blunt bill. Wattled Broadbill! I quickly pointed it out to the folks and several managed to see it, but none of us were able to see any color on it before it flew off and vanished. There was a small flock of birds in the area and we hung around for a while, hoping the broadbill would reappear, but it didn't, and we moved on. We returned to the site several hours later and found a large mixed feeding flock of small birds nearby. We searched and searched for the broadbill and other species among the rapidly moving flock. Suddenly, only 10 meters away, the broadbill appeared. Soon the entire group was drinking in the sight of this strange exotic bird. We noted the broad cobalt blue eyering that none of the artists are able to get right. The bird was moving slowly -- and we got excellent views. Then he began preening and we put the scope on it at 8 meters. With 15-20 minutes to watch this fellow at close range, we were elated. The broadbill is becoming increasingly difficult to see and window of opportunity for seeing it is gradually closing. Later that day we found both the Celestial and Short-crested Monarchs in another mixed flock. These two are among the Philippines' most exquisite birds and rounded out one of our most enjoyable days on the tour.
Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle sightings at our usual site were rare this year so we spent a day in another area in hope of seeing one. After a difficult hike, we were rewarded by a view from above of a fully fledged chick on a nest about 80 meters below us. It was only a week or two away from leaving the nest and quite like the adult in plumage. We spent about 30 minutes studying the bird through the scope and then departed. Unfortunately the adults didn't visit the nest while we were there. Two days later, at the regular site, we were fortunate to see an adult soaring at a distance for a short while.
On Mt. Pollis in northern Luzon, we were checking out a mixed feeding flock in the trees at the edge of the road, when I spotted a Rusty-flanked Flycatcher. I was so surprised that I had trouble saying the bird's name. We got several quick glimpses when, to my further astonishment, the flycatcher flew down and perched on the road, possibly to pick up some grit. He then flew off and disappeared. Seeing this rare and little known species at all is a great treat, but to see it on the road!??! I was stunned. Mt. Pollis was quite good to us this year with close scope views of the Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove and a low close fly by of a dozen Montane Racquet-tails.
Other interesting birds were: Chinese Egret, Wandering Whistlingduck, Philippine Duck, Barred Honey-Kite, Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Chinese Goshawk, Besra, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Philippine Falconet, Philippine Scrubfowl, Palawan Peacock-Pheasant (brief but excellent looks at a nice male), Greater Paintedsnipe, Malaysian Plover, Philippine Woodcock, Amethyst Dove, Yellow-breasted and Black-chinned Fruit-Doves, all the possible parrots (including Mindanao Lorikeet and Philippine Cockatoo), Violet Cuckoo, Red-crested and Scale-feathered Malkohas, Black-faced and Rufous Coucals, Mantanani, Palawan and Philippine Scops-Owls, both frogmouths, Philippine Trogon, 8 kingfishers (including Spotted, Rufous-lored, Rufous-backed, Silvery and Indigo-banded), 6 hornbills (including Visayan), all 6 woodpeckers, Red-bellied, Hooded and Azure-breasted Pittas, 4 cuckooshrikes, Black and-white Triller, both fairy-bluebirds, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 14 babblers (including Striated, Falcated and Luzon Wren-Babblers, Golden-crowned and Luzon Striped), 7 tailorbirds, Palawan, Russet tailed and Furtive Flycatchers, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, 3 whistlers, 2 tits, both nuthatches, 2 rhabdornis, 10 flowerpeckers, 9 sunbirds (including Mindanao), Naked-faced Spiderhunter building a nest, all 4 white-eyes, both ibons, and Apo Myna. We saw a total of 310 species, including 128 endemics.
2002 PHILIPPINES TOUR
We arrived before dawn in the forest headquarters of St. Paul's National Park. For about a year now a Palawan Peacock-Pheasant had become habituated to foraging in the early morning in the area where the staff tossed their table scraps, along with a pair of Philippine Scrubfowl that habituated earlier. We prowled around the area and soon got a glimpse of both the pheasant and the spurfowl, but they quickly disappeared into the forest. A little later, one of the park staff told us he'd seen them nearby, but they were gone when we reached the place. We were quite pleased with our glimpse however, as it was a far better look than we usually get of this shy bird. Then another staff member beckoned us into the kitchen as the pheasant was feeding outside it. From there we had superb views of a spectacular male as he fed alongside the two scrubfowl. For 5 minutes at distances of 7-15 meters, we soaked up the beauty of this exotic creature as it scraped and pecked at objects on the ground. This was the finest look we'd ever had of this beautiful endemic species.
This year's tour got us our second highest endemic species total, 139, just 3 short of the record. It took a lot of effort, but it was well worth it as most of the endemic species on our route allowed us to add them to our lists. Special sights included: lengthy scope views of the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle, while distant, were quite satisfying; great close-ups of the Chocolate Boobook, Ninox randi, whose call had only recently been discovered; a brief look at the Rusty-flanked Flycatcher and its cousin, the Jungle Flycatcher; a Philippine Woodcock which flew into the kitchen of the guesthouse on Mt. Kitanglad, and was captured for in-hand looks before release; a beautiful Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove, as well as good looks at the Yellow-breasted and Black-chinned Fruit-Doves; and great views of both Philippine and Javan Frogmouths.
Other highlights were: Great-billed Heron, Chinese Egret, Philippine Duck, Barred Honey-Kite, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Spotted Buttonquail, Swinhoe's Snipe, Amethyst Dove, Spotted Imperial Pigeon, Philippine Cockatoo, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Red-crested and Scale-feathered Malkohas, Black-faced Coucal, Mantanani, Palawan and Philippine Scops-Owls, Mindanao Eagle-Owl, Philippine Trogon, 10 kingfishers (including Spotted, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded), 5 hornbills, all 6 woodpeckers, 3 pittas (including Azure-breasted), Pechora Pipit, all 5 cuckooshrikes, both trillers, all 3 minivets, 9 bulbuls (including Streak-breasted), both fairy-bluebirds, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 13 babblers (including Flame-templed), 7 tailorbirds, Little Slaty, Russet-tailed and Furtive Flycatchers, Short-crested and Celestial Monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, 3 whistlers, 2 tits, all 3 rhabdornis, 12 flowerpeckers (including Cebu and Visayan), all 13 sunbirds, 5 white eyes, Red-eared Parrotfinch, Apo Myna, and 4 orioles. It was a great birding trip, and uneventful politically as the continuing political drama in the Philippines is mostly remote from our tour route.
2001 PHILIPPINES TOUR
We were driving over the Sierra Madre mountain range in northeastern central Luzon when a large raptor was sighted high over the highway. The bus stopped and I watched the bird closely through my binoculars. Its very broad wings immediately identified the bird as a Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle, but I hesitated to call it as there hadn't been a sighting of this endangered raptor on Luzon by a tour group since 1983. Finally I shouted its name and we all enjoyed good, though distant, views as it glided to a distant ridge and banked several times to give a more complete picture of this magnificent bird. Later, in Mindanao, we were treated to extended superb scope sightings of another Philippine Eagle and its week-old chick at a nest about 400 meters away on the opposite side of a deep forested gorge. We got to watch the parent eagle fly about from perch to perch in its morning exercise ritual, then break a branch off a tree and take it to the nest. Exciting stuff indeed!
While still a rather wet La Niña year, it wasn't as wet as last year and we saw 137 endemic species for our second highest total. A broken bridge prevented us from getting to another mountain with 4 or 5 more endemics. The species total for the trip was 322. Some of the more interesting sightings were: Philippine Hawk-Eagle, nice scope views of Spotted Buttonquail, the as-yet undescribed Philippine Woodcock, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, Philippine Cockatoo, 4 racquet-tails, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, both endemic malkohas, Australasian Grass-Owl, Luzon, Palawan and Philippine Scops-Owls, Mindanao (Giant Scops) and Philippine Eagle-Owls, both frogmouths, 10 kingfishers (including Spotted, Ruddy, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded), 5 hornbills, Wattled Broadbill, 4 pittas (including Whiskered and Azure-breasted), all 5 cuckooshrikes, Streak-breasted Bulbul, Philippine Fairy-bluebird, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 15 babblers (including Bagobo, Falcated and Luzon Wren-Babblers, Golden-crowned, Flame-templed, and Luzon Striped), Streaked Reed-Warbler, 8 tailorbirds (including Yellow-breasted), Little Slaty, Palawan and Furtive Flycatchers, all 3 monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, White-vented Whistler, 2 rhabdornis, 11 flowerpeckers (including Cebu and Visayan), 10 sunbirds, all 6 white-eyes, 4 Yellow Buntings (the second year in a row-the first Philippine records in many years), Philippine Bullfinch, Red-eared Parrotfinch, and Apo Myna. It was as superb tour with good company, great birds and lots of fun.
2000 PHILIPPINES TOUR
We were precariously perched on a makeshift, decaying platform on a steep hillside in a pitiful remnant of Cebu's forest, impatiently awaiting a view of one of the handful of Cebu Flowerpeckers, believed extinct by many until just a few years ago. On the last three tours, we've gotten brief, but good views of this critically endangered endemic species from this increasingly dilapidated platform. To while away the time, we checked out the common species and I've briefed the participants on the possibility of seeing the Streak-breasted Bulbul. The Cebu race of this species, long thought extinct, was rediscovered less than a year previously. After we'd been on the platform several hours, Diane Rose told us she had seen a possible candidate for the bulbul several times and was waiting for it to reappear. We focused on the area of the sighting and soon a bulbul appeared, diving into some dense vegetation. Through our binoculars and scopes, we could see only the tail of the bird. It left abruptly without giving us a good look. We watched intently for its return. It soon flew into the same place, this time a brief glimpse of its throat and breast confirmed Diane's suspicion--- it was the Streak-breasted Bulbul. Further it was building a nest right in front of us! Over the next hour, all of us got excellent views through the scopes, allowing us to differentiate this species from the ubiquitous (and also present) Philippine Bulbul. This was a nice first for any tour group. Unfortunately, the Cebu Flowerpecker did not make an appearance this time.
Our 1999 tour was the wettest we've ever experienced. The second La Niña year in a row drenched the Philippines in what would normally be the bone-dry season in the north and the tail end of the wet season in the south. The positive side of the wet weather was the coolest trip ever. While the wet weather interfered with the birding on some days, generally we found most birds and managed to equal our second best endemic total of 136 species seen.
Highlights were: the yet undescribed Philippine Woodcock flying right through our dining room on Mt. Katanglad, nearly colliding with several of the folks (the woodcock was numerous this year, suggesting the 2 consecutive wet years are a boon for it); 2 distant dowitchers, Long-billed or Short-billed, either a first for the Philippines; Philippine Duck; Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle; Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Hawk-Eagle and Falconet; 16 pigeons, including 2 Metallic Pigeons (becoming quite rare in the Philippines); a brief view of a Luzon Bleedingheart and a marvelous Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove; 10 parrots, including Philippine Cockatoo and 4 racquet-tails; both malkokas; the Philippine Eagle-Owl; both frogmouths, the Philipine Frogmouth very close for an extended period in the scope (to satiation); 11 kingfishers including Blue-capped, Spotted, Rufous-lored, Silvery, Ruddy and Indigo-banded; all 5 of the likely hornbills; all 6 woodpeckers; nice views of the Wattled Broadbill; all 5 of the endemic cuckooshrikes; both fairy-bluebirds; Grey-capped Shrike; all 3 shamas; the undescribed Mindanao Shortwing; Luzon Redstart; 14 babblers, including Bagobo, all 3 wren-babblers, Golden-crowned and Flame-templed (one of the world's most exotic critters); 8 tailorbirds; 12 flycatchers, including Mugimaki, Little Slaty, Palawan, Russet-tailed and Furtive; all 3 monarchs; Elegant and Palawan Tits; Sulfur-billed Nuthatch; 2 rhabdornis; 11 flowerpeckers, including Flame-crowned and Visayan; all 11 of the Philippine sunbirds, including the Mindanao Sunbird, only described 2 or 3 years ago; all 4 white-eyes; both ibons; good scope views of Yellow and Yellow-breasted Buntings, both very rare winter visitors to the Philippines; Philippine Bullfinch; Apo Myna; and 3 orioles. A major disappointment was that only half the group got to see the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle. Time is running out for this critically endangered species.
1999 PHILIPPINES TOUR
We had been waiting along a narrow trail for about a half hour, but repeated playback of a tape of Whiskered Pitta didn't bring the bird within viewing range. Apparently his territory no longer included the trail. I asked everyone if they had gotten a glimpse of the pitta. All said no, but Brad Warrick said he'd been watching an odd bird, which he described. It was instantly apparent that he'd seen a Rusty-flanked Flycatcher, a little-known species which has been seen in recent years by only 4 or 5 birders, and never on a tour. Brad indicated where the bird had been seen only a few minutes before. Frantically, I searched the foliage. After a few breathless minutes I found it and all but one of our group got good views. Whew!
The Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle was easy to see this year, with a nearly fledged chick in a nest visible on the opposite side of a valley 300-400 meters distant. The female remained nearby most of the time. We visited the viewpoint on arrival at Mt. Katanglad and enjoyed extended views. In addition 2 fine flyovers of the male were had on subsequent days. On our third morning, Niels Dreyer visited the viewpoint and was rewarded with the sight of the male flying to near the nest and leaving a flying lemur with the female. After his departure, she took the prey to the nest where she fed the chick and herself.
In 1998, some folks were concerned that the El Niño drought would cause us a reduced endemic species total. Instead, we set a new record of 136 endemics. This year, with La Niña causing heavier rains than usual, as well as flooding, it was again thought that our total would be reduced. We were thus stunned with a new record endemic total of 142 species! At that, we still missed a few that we might have seen. At 332, we fell one species short of equalling the total species record set in 1983 on a tour that was an entire week longer.
Among the special species that we saw are: Great-billed Heron, Chinese Egret, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Spotted Buttonquail, Spotted Imperial Pigeon, Mindanao Lorikeet, Philippine Cockatoo, 4 racquet-tails, all 3 malkohas, Australasian Grass-Owl, Philippine and Palawan Scops-Owls, Philippine Frogmouth, 11 kingfishers (including Blue-capped, Spotted, Ruddy, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded), 5 hornbills, 3 pittas (including Azure-breasted), all 5 cuckooshrikes, both Fairy-bluebirds, all 3 shamas, 15 babblers (including all 3 wren-babblers, Bagobo Babbler, and Luzon Striped Babbler), 8 tailorbirds, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Little Slaty and Furtive Flycatchers, all 3 monarchs, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 4 fantails, 3 whistlers, all 3 tits, 2 rhabdornis, 13 flowerpeckers (including Cebu and Visayan), all 11 sunbirds (including Mindanao, described only in 1997), all 6 white-eyes, Philippine Bullfinch, Red-eared Parrotfinch, and Apo Myna. In addition, we saw 3 species which are yet to be described: a woodcock, a cuckoo and a shortwing. It was a grand trip with great birding, good company, tasty food and pleasant hospitality.
1998 PHILIPPINES TOUR
Tension was rising as the second day of our Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle watch was in its final hour. We had spent a large part of the previous day at a good overlook hoping, with no luck, to see an eagle. The only brush with an eagle was one heard while we were inside the forest and couldn't see the sky where it was soaring. We had also spent a large part of today at the overlook without seeing an eagle. It was nearly three in the afternoon and the latest previous flight sighting was about 3:30. We were beginning to fear that we might actually not see this magnificent eagle at its usual site and wondering if there might be an alternate site where we'd have a chance. Suddenly Gerry Shemilt spotted a large bird on the other side of the deep forested valley we were watching. "It's the Philippine Eagle." The huge bird was below eye level flying up the valley. Close inspection with binoculars showed it was carrying a Flying Lemur in its talons. It perched briefly in a large tree and continued its flight up the valley and out of slight, giving everyone an excellent, though short view. There were relieved smiles all around. We had seen the whopper!
Our sighting of the eagle carrying the lemur was the first indication that the eagles are nesting again this year, a hopeful sign. However, this year's nest is several miles above the site used only a few years ago. While the original site is still forested, disturbance has increased dramatically in the last few years, in spite of the area being declared a national park six years ago. Logging, burning and cultivation continue to accelerate. This year's drought has dramatically increased the number and size of fires and the normal dry season hadn't even begun yet. There isn't currently a site as good as the Mt. Katanglad area for observing the Philippine Eagle and we can't predict how much longer we'll be able to see it there. If seeing this bird and the other fascinating endemic species of the Philippines is important to you, do it soon, before it is too late.
Amid gloom and doom predictions about our species total due to the dryer than normal conditions in the Philippines this El Niño year, we had a grand trip. Our total of 136 endemic species was a new record for any tour, beating last year's record by 3 species. Yes, some were more difficult to find, but we found most of them anyway. We saw 2 species that have never been seen on a tour before, the Visayan Flowerpecker and an undescribed species of shortwing that was discovered only three years ago.
We also found again all five species that we first found on a tour in 1997: Whiskered bitta, Furtive Flycatcher, Luzon Striped Babbler, Mindanao Sunbird (first described in January 1997), and Bagobo Babbler. We saw the Little Slaty Flycatcher for the first time on a KingBird Tour, and better yet, saw all 4 of the difficult endemic Ficedula flycatchers. An undescribed Cuculus cuckoo gave us good flyby views in Mandano, our second sighting of this species. The Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove gave us a wonderful show as it stretched to get some fruit in a completely exposed position -- a rare treat.
We had long satisfying looks at the recently split Visayan Broadbill, and great scope views of the Red-eared Parrotfinch. All got a brief but good look at the nearly extinct Cebu Flowerpecker. We again saw 4 species of pittas (Azure-breasted, Whiskered, Red-bellied and Hooded); five species of hornbills, all 3 monarchs, Chinese Egret, Philippine Duck, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, eight Philippine Cockatoos (the most we've ever seen at one time), 3 racquet-tails, the Azure-rumped Parrot, the 2 exotic endemic malkohas, three endemic coucals, the Palawan and Philippine Scops-Owls, the Philippine Frogmouth, Philippine Trogon, ten kingfishers (including Blue-capped, Spotted, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded), Sooty Woodpecker, all five cuckoshrikes, Philippine Fairy-bluebird, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 2 wren-babblers, Flame-templed Babbler, Golden-crowned Babbler, 7 tailorbirds, Blue and Rufous Paradise Flycatchers, all 3 fantails, 13 flowerpeckers, all 11 sunbirds, both spiderhunters, Philippine Bullfinch, Apo Myna and Coleto. It was a superb trip with great birds, gracious hospitality, good company and tasty food.
1997 PHILIPPINES TOUR
We had arrived early in the morning at a clearing that overlooked last year's nesting site of the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle on the opposite side of a long valley on Mt. Katanglad in Mindanao. The pair of eagles and their year-old chick regularly roosted somewhere in the valley. We had been waiting for 2 hours, hoping that the roost site was near and that we might get a look at them before or as they took off on their daily hunt. Our local guide, Carlito, who had been scanning the trees up and down the valley for those 2 hours asked to use the scope. Shortly after, he showed us a barely recognizable speck up the valley, about a mile away, that was the eagle.
We strained our eyes with the 40x lens to discern the distinctive bird's features. The bird complicated our viewing by making several short flights to different perches. Gradually, however, several of us got views that convinced us we were indeed looking at the Philippine Eagle. We were relieved and grateful to have seen it but desperately wanted a good look. Then the eagle launched into a longer flight that carried him first in our direction and then out of view behind and below the ridge above us. We waited anxiously, not knowing whether the eagle was still coming toward us or had disappeared for the day around the other side of the mountain. "He's coming toward us!"
Soon all could see the huge bird gliding directly toward us just over the treetops. Closer and closer he came until he was a mere 40 yards directly above us, where he started wheeling in slow circles. Around and around he went as we gaped in awe at one of nature's most majestic sights. As we watched him, he studied us intently for at least 5 minutes, perhaps to see if any of us would qualify as a meal.
Finally, finding us unappetizing, he slowly gained altitude and soared up to one of the peaks on the opposite side of the valley. He had been soaring near for about 10 minutes, giving us a most satisfying view of one of the world's rarest birds, a bird doomed to extinction in the early part of the next century. It was the undisputed highlight of a superb tour in which we set yet another record for the number of endemic species seen on one tour, 133 (2 higher than the previous record in 1995).
Five of the endemic species we saw were firsts for any tour. Several birders from Belgium got the first tape-recording of a Bagobo Babbler and were kind enough to allow us to copy the tape. Using it, several of us got brief glimpses of this poorly known super-sneak. Also on Mindanao, we saw 2 males of the Mindanao Sunbird, only described for the first time in January 1997. On Luzon, we were the first tour group to see the Whiskered Pitta, Furtive Flycatcher and Luzon Striped babbler.
In addition to these species new to tours, we found many other fine Philippine birds, including: good views for all of the recently rediscovered and nearly extinct Cebu Flowerpecker; the yet to be described Philippine Woodcock; 78 Chinese Egrets; a superb study of the Flame-templed Babbler at only 15 feet; a good scope view of a young Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove; several excellent scope looks at the Red-eared Parrotfinch; wonderful views of a courting pair of Red-vented Cockatoos; all 3 of the large forest kingfishers (Spotted, Blue-capped and Rufous-lored); extended scope views of the Silvery Kingfisher (10 species of kingfishers in all); we heard again the mysterious cuckoo that is probably an undescribed endemic species; good looks at the Azure-breasted and Hooded Pittas; all five cuckooshrikes; 5 hornbills; all 3 shamas; all 3 monarchs; all 4 fantails; the strange and wonderful Apo Myna; all 11 sunbirds; 12 flowerpeckers; all 4 white-eyes; both ibons; lots of Philippine Bullfinches; Philippine Hawk-Eagle; Philippine Duck; the difficult Dark-eared Dove; Luzon Bleedingheart; 3 racquet-tails; all 3 malkohas; Philippine Frogmouth; the Luzon Redstart; etc. It was a grand trip, far surpassing our expectations.
1992 KingBird Philippines Tour
James F. Clements
The Philippine Archipelago stretches some 1,200 miles along the coast of southeast Asia. The 7,107 islands range from 20_N in the Luzon Strait to 5_N in the Sulu Archipelago off the coast of north Borneo.
More than half the 68 million Filipinos inhabit Mindanao and Luzon, with most of the balance distributed on the eight other major islands of Palawan, Mindoro, Negros, Samar, Panay, Bohol, Leyte and Cebu.
Because of its strategic location, the Philippines have been a trading center for centuries. For over 200 years, Spain maintained strict control of a transpacific commerce that exchanged products between two hemispheres. Foreign competition in the late 1700's helped end this Spanish monopoly.
Unfortunately, the Spaniards left the worst of their culture on the Filipinos and that imprint has turned the "Pearl of the Orient" into a political, economic and ecological disaster. Since the three are so closely intertwined, and played so important a part in our month-long stay, a slight background digression will help throw some light on the present day Philippines.
The crumbling of Spain's empire during the 1700's encouraged self-assertion by mestizos, and Mexico's independence ended Spain's transpacific monopoly. Open trade created an extremely wealthy class, educated in Europe and exposed to liberal philosophies.
Spain sold the islands to the United States in 1898, and ushered in a new era which combined the worst of the Spanish and American traits. The U.S. bought and redistributed church-owned lands, most of which went to large landowners. Access to U.S. manufactured items led the agrarian nation to ignore practical industrial development (except for mining), and to focus on export crops. Stable currency, expanded roads and inter-island shipping enabled these wealthy landowners to take advantage of free-trade privileges, and a U.S.-based economy evolved.
The devastation left by the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II was partially alleviated by massive American post-war aid. But with the advent of the Marcos dynasty in 1965, the Philippines have gone into a rapid downhill slide. Alongside the elite's opulence, destitution threatens the agrarian nation. A mounting, massive foreign debt, declining commodity prices, corporate and bureaucratic mismanagement, vast unemployment, and a burgeoning population have seriously eroded the economy--once an outstanding example of development!
The Philippine republic now ranks among Southeast Asia's poorest non-Communist nations. Hope of economic opportunity has lured millions of Filipinos away from overcrowded rural areas. Landless farmers push relentlessly into less populated regions, particularly on Mindanao, Palawan and Mindoro.
Metropolitan Manila, the country's largest urban and industrial hub, attracts workers from every class throughout the nation. With a population variously estimated at somewhere between 9 and 12 million, traffic is a veritable nightmare.
Our month-long ornithological expedition to the Philippines included visits to Palawan, Cebu, Bohol, Mindanao and Luzon.
All but 16 of the almost 180 endemic birds occur on these five islands, and we saw 124 of these (plus three heard) during the trip. We were fortunate to record a total of 320 species, and I doubt with the rampant destruction of the habitat if future tours will be as successful. Ben King estimates that in a very few years there will be almost no native forest left in the entire Philippine Archipelago!
I mentioned earlier that the political, economic and ecological problems are closely intertwined. This was brought to mind graphically each time we had an opportunity to read the local press (sometimes daily for a week or more, depending on our location).
During the four weeks, a microcosm of what is happening to the country as a whole appeared piecemeal in the local press. Put together, they spell imminent disaster!
Since countries run from the top down (just like businesses), let's look at Corazon Aquino's reign since 1986. While nothing as blatant as Imelda Marcos' sale of three million of the five million acres of virgin timber to the Japanese has occurred, the relentless destruction of the remaining forest continues.
We were privileged (if I may use that word) to witness recent cutting by professional loggers in Quezon National Park--within 100 meters of the main highway that bisects the park.
Even more devastating is the "non-protection" being afforded the Philippine Eagle. The caption DOOMED TO DIE appeared under a photograph in the Mindanao Herald, two days after we watched a magnificent Philippine Eagle disappear in a cloud of smoke from a slash and burn fire at the Mt. Kitanglad Eagle Reserve!
President Aquino (affectionately referred to as Cory by the press) took things a step further by approving the turnover of 701 hectares (1,732 acres) of Mt. Apo National Park for the construction of a geothermal project. As compensation for the loss of their ancient lands, tribal leaders will receive from PNOC and NAPOCOR one centavo (a centavo equals $.0004) per kilowatt hour of the estimated 300 megawatts of electricity to be generated by 1994.
"The money will be directly plowed back to Mount Apo communities through environment protection and livelihood projects" the agreement indicated.
A little calculation shows that at one centavo per kilowatt hour, even if they reach the stated 300 megawatts by 1994, the total income to the locals will be less than $100 a year! And this from a $103-million dollar project. In addition, nothing in the article was said about the 63 families that will be uprooted and dislocated from their traditional lands.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the well ran dry! Rather, shortly after we left, the Angat River ran dry. Luzon (and for that matter much of the Philippines) has suffered from a five-month drought, daily power cuts and local conditions were exacerbated by a month-long forest fire. That has further reduced the small amount of critical watershed surrounding Angat Dam.
So, while the geothermal controversy has been settled by the government deciding that it is environmentally safe, the uproar over the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant continues.
Westinghouse (in the best American tradition) has admitted to a $17.3 million dollar bribe it paid to Marcos' underling Herminio Disini. This was his "commission" for the contract on the original Westinghouse quote of $500 million for two 620-megawatt plants.
This has now ballooned to $2.3 billion (for just one plant) due to cost overruns and inflation adjustments, and the "commission" could run as high as $230 million. Quite a spread.
To top this off, the plant is beautifully situated--you guessed it--smack on top of an earthquake fault!
But I digress. Getting back to bribes, speaker Ramon Mitra, a candidate for president in the upcoming May 11 election, has admitted accepting a bribe from José Alvarez, a Palawan logger. Alvarez operates a logging concession under a permit granted by--you guessed it again--the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources!
Goodby to the endangered Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.
While Cory and her pals have been busy giving away part and parcel of the few remaining forests, the locals have also been busy at work.
An army of looters sacked Clark Air Force Base, including (verified by a videotape which we watched on Manila TV) the kitchen sink! We actually saw a man struggling down the street leading out of the air base with a kitchen sink! Under the "protective" eye of the Philippine Army, over 3,000 top quality housing units were laid to waste.
Ben said it very well on the telephone last year. "Don't delay, Jim, because it's going fast. If you want to see Philippine birds, now is the year to do it."
Those of us who were fortunate enough to heed his advice were well rewarded from an ornithological standpoint.
But from a human standpoint, it was a disaster. I must admit I had tears in my eyes when my number one quest bird--the magnificent Philippine Eagle--disappeared in that plume of smoke. It was like I was watching extinction in action.
Bob Braden was so upset by the wanton, useless burning of the slope above Banaue that he just could not bring himself to go back up the mountain the final day.
"If they had cut the wood, or made charcoal, it might have made sense," the sensitive Texan lamented to me in private, "but to torch a 70_ slope that is too steep to plant or graze on, just doesn't make any sense to me."
I guess the final denouement came to me on the eight hour bus ride back from Banaue to Manila. With the senseless forest fire still in my mind's eye, I counted 28 slash and burn fires along the Cordillera Central.
But the one at San José City said it all. A sign boldly proclaimed:
PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCE ON REHABILITATION
SAVE OUR VIRGIN FORESTS
I couldn't help looking across the valley towards Minalungao Park and the Sierra Madre Mountains. The late afternoon sun illuminated a plume of smoke high above the forested summit of the coastal range.
It was a fitting finale to an incredible month in the Philippine Islands.
Farewell to the Jewel of the Orient.
Friday, February 14. Valentine's Day!
Seems like I'm always taking off for some remote part of the world on the worst of days (and generally to meet with Ben King)! I left for the Lesser Sundas four days after my wedding last year, and at 6:00 p.m. today Karen dropped me off at Palomar Airport for the short shuttle hop to LAX.
The Philippine Airlines flight was right on time up to the final moment of departure, but we had an hour delay due to the cancellation of a Garuda flight to Bali. A lot of Indonesia-bound passengers transferred to our flight for Manila, and it was an hour late before we got the Garuda crowd on board and settled down.
This really loaded the Boeing 747 to the gills, and we lumbered down runway 24 Left at 10 p.m. for our initial leg to Honolulu.
We had a 180-knot wind right on the nose all the way to Hawaii, and even with a quick 45-minute turn around in Hawaii, we were just about two hours late getting into Manila. The legs were six and ten hours respectively, which put us in Manila at 8 a.m. Sunday morning (4 p.m. Saturday Pacific Standard Time).
We had to kill an hour at the Hyatt Regency, so we had our third breakfast of the day, and once we had access to our rooms, we did a little birding on the malecón. Arnold Small, Bruce Broadbooks, Clyde Bergman and I flew over from Los Angeles together, and met the rest of the group at the hotel. It appears to be an absolutely first class group, which will be especially important in going after such notorious skulkers as the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant and some of the endemic babblers. It is real tough to show ten people birds of that ilk...but if anyone can do it, Ben King is my number one choice!
The rest of the group consists of Lee Jones, Bob Braden, Rod Norden, Bridget Coullon, and two Australians, Hans Beste, and my roommate, Tom Smith. Another southern Californian, David Smith, is slated to join us at a later date on Mindanao.
The malecón that fronts the shoreline drive in downtown Manila is a stinking garbage pit. The urine stench is almost unbearable, and how the shorebirds stand it is a mystery. Maybe it's a mixed blessing that they have underdeveloped olfactory senses--but even the visual picture of all that trash floating along the margin would be enough to nauseate the hardiest wader!
The common waders were Little Ringed Plovers (~200) and Kentish Plover (~170). Mixed in were smaller numbers of Rufous-necked Stints and Long-toed Stints. The only larids were about 75 Whiskered Terns.
At 3 p.m. we met up with Tim Fisher, the local expert and co-leader, and headed off for the U.S. War Memorial Cemetery. This sure brought back some poignant memories of my first visit to the Philippines, and my second visit some thirty years later in 1974. Tempus fugit!
Birding was better than I anticipated at the cemetery, with several endemics right off the bat. The Lowland White-eye was quite common, and we had good scope views of the White-eared Pigeon Phapitreron leucotis. I was most pleased to pick up the Arctic Warbler, a bird that had eluded me for years, and one that I missed on the Mt. McKinley mountain climbing expedition.
We next moved on to the Philippine counterpart of the U.S. Memorial, which consists of some suitable grassland much favored by both Barred Buttonquail and Blue-breasted Quail. Striated Warblers were calling and singing from the highest bushes, and a flock of Oriental Pratincoles flew over.
I was pleased to add Swinhoe's Snipe as a life bird. Interesting that this "shorebird" is found in these dry grasslands. We missed our quest bird, the Australasian Grass-Owl, but I wound up with four life birds for the afternoon's birding, which was more than I expected in such depauperate habitat (and having been here twice before).
I must qualify that last sentence, however, because my first visit to the Philippines (courtesy of the U.S. Navy) was hardly a pleasure trip. And the 1974 trip, though it consisted of four days on Luzon, was marred by tremendous rains, plus the institution of martial law four days prior to my arrival by Ferdinand Marcos. So at last this trip was going (hopefully) to concentrate solely on birding.
Clyde was thrilled with his eleven life birds of the day, and lacks just over 200 species to hit 6,000. So, we have broken the ice and are on the way. I needed 93 birds to hit 6,500, and the way things are starting out, that should be a slam dunk.
Monday, February 17. Up at 3:30, bags out in the hall, coffee in the lobby, and a quick hour flight to Palawan on a new Boeing 737-300. For a country in debt up to their eyebrows, the national airline certainly has an impressive array of aircraft--including mostly brand new Airbus 300's, Boeing 737-300's, DC-10's, and Boeing 747's. I guess in this respect all the foreign aid we've poured into the Philippines in recent years has gone into a few tangible assets besides shoes and brassieres.
Palawan was a 55-minute flight from Manila, and we landed at Puerto Princesa at 7 a.m. sharp. We had a leisurely breakfast stop at a clean German guesthouse, the Sonne Gasthaus. From here, it was a tough, miserable, dusty three-hour drive to Sabang. We were in an open-sided bus, and the dust just poured in, raising hell with our binoculars, cameras, scopes and tape recorders.
From Sabang, it was a quick ten minutes by outrigger canoe to St. Paul Subterranean National Park headquarters. What a blessing to be back in relatively undisturbed natural forest. You forget during the long drives through such depauperate habitat what this entire island must have looked like prior to the wholesale destruction. When you consider that only three percent of the native Philippine forests are intact. it gives you pause to reflect on what we have done, and are continuing to do, to our environment.
We went for a walk into the forest after lunch, and it produced some great birds. The highlight was a spectacular display by the endemic Palawan Shama, followed by an equally exciting display by a territorial Falcated Wren-Babbler. The babbler reminded me of a tapaculo--skulking around in the dense brush and giving its two-syllable ventriloquial call. Occasionally it would perch a foot or two above the ground, and we would watch its white throat quiver as it raised vocal hell with Ben's tape recording.
With the Palawan Flowerpecker, Yellow-throated Leafbird, Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, Pygmy Swiftlet and Blue-naped Parrot, it was quite a day for the group of us.
The food at the national park is exceptional, considering that everything has to come in by boat. The humidity here is brutal--you just sweat all day long, and any exertion, no matter how slight, causes sweat to run off you in buckets. Some fun!
Tuesday, February 18. Birded the park from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. The lowland deciduous forest is tough birding, since we never run into mixed flocks. So, we had to drag the birds out one by one--but still resulted in eight new life birds for me today.
The exciting birds were Red-vented Cockatoo, Javan Frogmouth and Palawan Scops-Owl. The humidity was still very high, and I sweated bullets all day. I could not believe the amount of fluid that we consumed after these all-day hikes. The big problem is salt loss, for which I have unfortunately taken no precautions. But despite being hammered at the end of the day, I feel good and the hip is holding up fine.
I was concerned about the night excursion for the frogmouth and scops-owl, but my fears were ungrounded. Bob and I had some classic Ben King death marches in the past, but this was a two-hour jaunt in the park by comparison (especially compared to one memorable Sri Lanka nocturnal outing with Ben).
Wednesday, February 19. Started off the day with a small flock of Ashy-headed Babblers. This was followed by playing the tape most of the day on and off for the peacock-pheasant. Several of the group had varying views of a pair, but I missed them both times. So I spent the lunch break looking for the elusive "chicken." I had some good looks at some of the birds we had previously seen, but nothing new.
I rejoined Ben and the group at 3:30, and we spent the remainder of the day at a small jungle pond. We missed the peacock-pheasant again, and a few of us got decent looks at the Hooded Pitta.
We added two new flycatchers--the Blue Paradise-Flycatcher and the Palawan Blue Flycatcher. So, despite my loss in the peacock-pheasant department, we added our daily round of endemics, and the trip is proceeding according to plan. This is brutal birding--the birds are extremely hard to call in and get a decent look at. Davis Finch would love it here--absolutely no candy store birding!
Thursday, February 20. Spent the morning looking for the peacock-pheasant, with interesting results. I saw the male fairly well at the first stop, where it was calling. It made the usual wide circle and several people had glimpses of it. I was thrilled to have had a momentary binocular look at the elusive bird, and felt that was just reward for my 2_ days of chasing this elusive critter. Little did I guess what was in store for Clyde and me in the next two hours!
Climbing the trail to the next stop, I casually asked Clyde why Karen's therapy was so intense, whereas my hip therapy was almost nonexistent. Clyde started to explain how the knee moves, and as he turned around and kicked out in a physical demonstration, his face went into a wild contortion. No sound was necessary. I swung my head and caught the tail end of Polyplectron disappearing across the path behind us. Clyde was ecstatic at having had a crippling look at the bird, whereas my two sightings on a scale of 10 hovered somewhere between 2 and 3.
Ben next asked Clyde and me and several others who had seen the peacock-pheasant to leave the group, since a small group was easier to manage in the further hunt for the pheasant. I stopped at the hut to pick up my tape recorder and Clyde got his camera, since we decided to spend the next two hours sitting quietly with our two toys.
We made our way to the jungle pond where the Palawan Blue-Flycatcher was still present, and Clyde got off one shot at the female from point-blank range. At this point, a tit-babbler started calling, and I started to tape it, with the idea of calling it in close enough for Clyde to possibly photograph it.
I was mentally counting the calls in order to get a minimum of ten repetitions, when there was a commotion on the river bank about 20 feet away. In plain sight, a male peacock-pheasant had clambered halfway up the bank, and paused to get its breath or consider its next move.
I was sure Clyde was going to photograph the bird, but by the time he realized what we were looking at, "buck fever" struck and we watched the bird clamber to the top of the bank and disappear.
My tape recording bears audible testimony to our excitement.I shouted with glee, and we both laughed uproariously at our good fortune. The adrenalin shot lasted for an hour, and the rest of the day was anticlimactic.
Ben, Clyde, Lee and I elected to hike the four kilometers back to the village, and it was a beautiful peaceful walk--a lot of it along a magnificent deserted sandy beach.
We stopped at a salt farm and picked up a few new trip birds, but the peacock-pheasant was certainly the class act of the trip to date. So with Palawan drawing to a close, we have racked up 17 endemics so far, with one of the two major quest birds out of the way. Hopefully the eagle will fall into place in the next few weeks.
We are staying at the Badjau Inn in Puerto Princesa, and I don't ever remember a cold shower feeling so good. The road was the same three-hour dust bath coming back, and I was two shades lighter when I emerged from the shower. I normally don't wear a hat, and my hair felt like I was pouring the shampoo on a brillo pad!
Palawan runs northeast to southwest and is a long, thin island, some 30 km wide and 400 km in length. Puerto Princesa sits almost in the middle of the east coast, and I was surprised at the deforestation from what appears to be a relatively small population. We did see several montane areas from afar that appeared to offer some decent habitat, but unless you actually visit the scene up close, it is hard to judge. Socorro Island is the best example of this I have ever seen. From the air it is a green jewel set in the sparkling Pacific off the west coast of Mexico. But the minute you get on the island, you can see where the sheep have browsed the trees like a barber about three feet above the ground--so obvious from the ground but totally unnoticeable from the air.
Friday, February 21. We spent from daybreak until 2 p.m. birding a forest near Puerto Princesa that is part of the Iwahig Penal Colony. It was a different type of lowland deciduous forest from St. Paul Subterranean National Park, and we immediately picked up several new birds. Three remaining endemics--the absolutely magnificent Lovely Sunbird, the Pygmy Flowerpecker and Melodious Babbler (a fabulous name for this gifted songster) came quite easily. The Palawan Flycatcher was a real struggle, and even with four sightings I never saw the rufous tail.
My big miss was the Pechora Pipit, which was seen several times along the leaf-strewn track, but even spending a quiet half-hour by myself proved to no avail. I was, however, rewarded with an intimate view of a Hooded Pitta hunting grubs (?) in the middle of the trail, apparently oblivious to my nearby presence.
We had a late lunch at 3 p.m. and went out again at 4 p.m., and birded until after dark in a different set of salt works. This produced a whole new set of birds, including White-browed and Ruddy-breasted Crake, plus a paintedsnipe that was a life bird for several members of the group.
All in all, it was a fabulous day, and we have done an incredible vacuuming job on Palawan. If this keeps up, it promises to be yet another one of Ben King's mind-boggling performances. Tomorrow we head for Cebu, which should get us out of the Borneo influence so prevalent in Palawan, and into pure Philippine avifauna.
We now have recorded 22 endemics, including Palawan and the day we spent on Luzon. So we only missed the single high-altitude Palawan Striped-Babbler. I have a total of 32 life birds to date, which is way ahead of my expectations for Palawan. I'm not sure what will happen from here on out, but if we only get the advertised 100 endemics, I'll be well over 100 life birds for the trip (and well past 6,500 life birds in the bargain).
Saturday, February 22. Off to Cebu at 8 a.m. via Manila. The flight to Cebu left at 11 a.m., putting us into the Adjsan Beach Resort shortly after noon. We took another outrigger canoe for the 20-minute ride to Olango Island, a 900-acre Asian wetlands reserve.
The tide was starting out as we finished lunch, and great numbers of shorebirds were packed along the margin. We had to wade in knee-deep water to get to the mud flats. The best shorebird for most of the group was a flock of _40 Asiatic Dowitchers, a bird I had only seen once before (in Hong Kong). That still leaves Nordmann's Greenshank and Spoonbill Sandpiper on my wader want list for my trip to Hong Kong with Ben in 1993.
Sunday, February 23. Off at 5 a.m. for the Black Shama. We took about 45 minutes to negotiate the approximately 20 kilometers to La Consolacion, a small village with a dirt track that led off into shama habitat.
The bird has a totally different song from the other Copyschus of my acquaintance--a highly distinctive whistled tune. We had a bird come in almost immediately, and Homer explained that the population in this area is about 20 birds. The habitat is horribly depauperate (I hate to keep using that word but it so aptly descries the state of affairs), and is third and fourth generation bamboo scrub. How any shama has managed to survive must be one of the mysteries of the century, since satellite imagery has shown that there is no forest cover remaining on the island of Cebu. For an island of 1,707 square miles, that is quite a feat in the few hundred years since the discovery of the Philippines in modern times.
I was appalled at the deterioration on Cebu--not only in the destruction of the habitat, but the general way of life. The six kilometers from the airport to the beach resort was used as a massive dumping ground--it made Venezuela (a notorious dump) look like an operating room by comparison. Mary Lou Goodwin would have a cardiac arrest is she ever set foot in Cebu after her diatribes about the Venezuela countryside!
Cebu is the manufacturing and industrial center of the southern Philippines, and is fondly referred to as the "Queen City of the South." If this is what "progress" is all about, future generations are in deep bat guano.
To further the problem, local contractors have been dredging the sandy beaches for cement conglomerate, leaving fewer beaches available for public use. The Japanese, in turn, have been surreptitiously buying up the leading resorts and beach properties, driving real estate prices out of the reach of most of the locals. And with the typical burgeoning Third World population growth, Cebu can only look forward to a bleak future. What a legacy the myriad children we saw playing along the strand have to look forward to--an island devoid of birds and animals, with no public beach access, no parks--just mile after mile of garbage-strewn streets. Ugh!!!
I must add that we did get three more endemics here, the Red-striped Flowerpecker, Philippine Bulbul and Philippine Coucal. The latter two have shown a great propensity to colonize disturbed areas, and I assume the many erythrina trees provide ample sustenance for the flowerpeckers. But aside from the shama, a trip to Cebu is nothing short of sheer depression. Island ecology is a wonderful storyteller--if only someone would listen!
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the Japanese are one of the biggest supporters of the Asian Wetlands Bureau, so at least they are putting some of their rapacious greed to good use.
We wound up back at the hotel at midday, packed and drove to the airport for lunch. The flight to Bohol was a short 20 minutes, and the drive to our "basic" accommodations near Batuan in the Chocolate Hills consumed an hour and a half. It was almost dark when we got settled, and it appears to be quite a lovely spot.
Bohol is an interesting contrast to Cebu. The latter was littered with the detritus of humanity, and the population reflected a hopelessness in their manners--a certain slouch and pace indicative of a loss of self-esteem and pride.
Bohol, though seemingly as poor, was spotless, and the people reflected a pride in their surroundings and in their carriage. Colorful potted flowers adorned their humble shacks. Their jeepneys are decorated to the hilt, and it was a never-ending source of amusement to read their nicknames plastered conspicuously on the front and/or rear bumpers. What a totally different aspect for two islands just a few miles apart. That certainly tells you what attitude can accomplish!
We had a five-course meal at the Chocolate Hills Rest House this evening, starting off with a sizzling beef dish. The food has generally been excellent throughout the Philippines, if a bit dull. I did order a spicy beef rice dish in Palawan one evening, and it was the most picante plate I have had to date. When you ask for a "hot" sauce, you usually receive bottled tabasco sauce or a souped-up soy sauce--but nothing like a zesty Mexican salsa picante! While airport food is hardly a criterion for good cooking, it still reflects a certain local flavor, and our chicken curry at Cebu City airport today was absolutely dull and almost totally devoid of any curry flavor. Asi es la vida!
Monday, February 24. Breakfast at 4:30 and off for a 45-minute drive to Rajah Sikatuna National Park. We had hoped to arrive before dawn in order to have a shot at the endemic Rufous-lored Kingfisher, which calls while it is still dark.
I can sum up today with only the most outrageous adjectives. Ben was on a tear, and as difficult as it was pulling out one bird at a time, we wound up with 13 endemics for the day. But the sheer numbers do not begin to tell the story. All twelve of us had scope looks at the dazzling Azure-breasted Pitta, followed by equally good looks at a male Philippine Trogon.
The night birds were equally exciting. A boobook started calling about 4 p.m. and we once again had scope views of the bird, and I managed to get an excellent series of tape recordings for Cornell. Just after dark we added the Philippine Frogmouth, making for an absolutely sensational day.
The habitat in the national park is relatively undisturbed second growth in limestone country. We saw lots of cattle sign, although we did not actually see any cattle. The trails are among the most difficult I have ever traversed, and hiking some ten km. during the course of the day over loose limestone rubble caused some incredible discomfort to my ankles and knees. But it was all worth it, and the San Miguel beer was a most welcome sight to Tom and me as we entered the restaurant at the end of the long day.
Tuesday, February 25. It rained hard during the night, but I must admit I was totally oblivious to the noise of the tropical downpour. I slept like a rock for a solid eight hours, and awakened to a glorious, starry sky at 4 a.m.
The big dipper was almost directly overhead, and Rod set up Lee's Questar so we could see the four moons on Jupiter--it was absolutely crystal clear. With such a difference from yesterday's gloomy overcast, we immediately headed for the major clearing in the national park, and were not disappointed.
Right off the bat we had a perched Coleto, followed by an eyeball-to-eyeball scope view of the near-endemic Black-chinned Fruit-Dove. Next were a few Pompadour Pigeons, immediately followed by a fly-by of the endemic Blue-headed Racquet-tail--at eye level! This parrot flies in a most un-psitticine manner--really more like a pigeon, and watching it slowly and laboriously "pass in review" was breathtaking for the whole group. With its rackets streaming along behind it, the green jewel could not have given a better performance had we staged it.
We spent a few hours in the clearing feasting on the visual treats being constantly paraded before our appreciative eyes, until the heat of the day drove us out of the clearing. Around 9 a.m. we wandered back into the forest to clean up the Yellow-breasted Tailorbird and Striated Wren-Babbler that several people were still missing.
I was in the back of the line, behind Clyde, when he suddenly froze. I have birded with Clyde enough to recognize the importance of any subtle move on his part. An almost imperceptible movement of his hand led my eye to the limestone bank, and in a soft tone he murmured, "There's a big pigeon."
I stared momentarily at the bank, and suddenly a movement transformed itself into a large terrestrial dove, that was clambering up a fallen tree trunk. At the top of the trunk, it performed a slow 270_ turn, exposing a beautiful red splotch in the middle of its light cinnamon breast, and with a whir of wings, flew off into the forest.
You can imagine the thrill! First the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, and now the Mindanao Bleedingheart! Clyde was on a tear, and my biggest mistake was not locking onto him like a magnet, because he next racked up the elusive Wattled Broadbill.
Well, live and learn! We birded the forest for several more hours, with a fruiting tree being most productive for a small group of passerines. In fact, Ben found the tree while tracking down an unknown call (Wattled Bulbul) and this turned out to be the first mixed bird party we had seen to date in the Philippines. So, we wound up our stay in Bohol with a fabulous day, and some 20 endemics. Quite a showing for an impoverished island. And tomorrow it's off to Mindanao, where the numbers really get big, and our number one quest bird of the trip awaits us. Not to mention one of my top ten most wanted birds in the world.
We wound up with almost exactly 200 species to date, which varies somewhat since I missed four or five birds so far, and my own trip list to date is 195 species. We have a very keen group, and I think that will enable us to keep up this good pace throughout Mindanao and Luzon.
It was a welcome surprise to find hot water at the La Roca Hotel. Since we will be tent camping it for the next three or four days, it was especially nice to get a hot shower and all cleaned up. Particularly my brillo hair topping!
Wednesday, February 26. Early morning flight to Cebu City, then a three-hour wait at the airport for our scheduled 11 a.m. flight to Cagayan de Oro on northern Mindanao.
I finally reached Karen after an hour struggle at the long distance telephone center. The phone center is located in the middle of the airport, and is right under a loudspeaker that alternately blasts out departure and arrival information, local rock and roll music (in Tagalog of course), and miscellaneous announcements.
It was like opening night at the fights! The decibel level would have raised the blood pressure of an OSHA official to the boiling point. I finally managed to get most of the pertinent information through to Karen, and told her I would try to call her a week from today when we get back to Luzon. Boy, does that seem like a long way off!
The flight to Cagayan de Oro was 45 minutes, then a three hour drive through totally depauperate habitat that immediately reminded Arnold and me of driving through Madagascar. We reached the Philippine Eagle research tent camp about 4 p.m., situated on a ridge at 1,310 meters, bordering some beautiful primary forest. The camp is most comfortable, and Tom and I have an extremely spacious tent. It is much more pleasant than many of the hotels it has been my displeasure to spend the night in!
Thursday, February 27. Breakfast at 5:30 and off at dawn for the ridge overlooking the camp. Much to our chagrin, the habitat has been greatly disturbed all the way to the ridge, with small truck farms along the way and considerable signs of slash and burn shifting agriculture. We picked up a few good birds, and spent about two hours overlooking a fruiting tree that was in constant attendance by flocks of white-eyes, flowerpeckers and sunbirds.
We smelled smoke from time to time, and about 11 a.m. the sound of brush burning and ash falling all around us was a signal to move to a more favorable location. We had no sooner started back the 20 yards to the main trail when Rod's stentorian roar filled the air.
"Eagle! Eagle!! EAGLE!!"
We all got to the main trail in time to see a giant Philippine Eagle soaring low over the smoke, and gradually rise in the thermal caused by the fire, and sail majestically away towards the forested mountains. It was almost like we were watching the farewell flight of the giant raptor, and the symbolism was not lost on any of the group. We had just witnessed one of the greatest ornithological moments in our lives--and yet the fire and destruction around us told a grim story. Our excitement was noticeably dimmed by the uncertain future in store for this rare endemic.
Imagine if this is going on in a research station what is happening in other areas that have no semblance of control? We hiked the three miles back to the campsite in subdued tones, and after lunch we birded a tiny patch of forest that somehow had escaped destruction.
Despite ten or so life birds today, I have a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. The question is no longer if the eagle will survive or not--it is only a question of how much longer it will survive. The habitat is doomed and the government and local authorities seem powerless to do anything to prevent the pending extinction of their national bird. I suppose it's somewhat of a consolation that it will survive on their stamps and coins. Hooray for conservation in the Philippines!
What amazes me is how Ben can handle this. We have birded together in some wild places, and I have often quoted him in my writings because he is so aware of the changes since he has been birding in the Orient. The Giant Panda is doomed, despite the Chinese government having spent over $50 million and in spite of its being the number one conservation symbol in the world! And each year that Ben goes back to Wolong or Tibet, the situation grows worse.
The trip list during dinner was interrupted by a loud call from the nearby woods, and at Tim's call "Mimizuku" we all grabbed our flashlights and followed Tim and Ben into the woods. We were fortunate to get a response to the tape, and ten minutes later we had the light on the Mindanao Eagle-Owl (Mimizuku gurneyi). So, today was a five-star bell-ringer, with my racking up 13 life birds! Mindanao is proceeding according to plan!
Friday, February 28. Breakfast at 4:30, with a 5 a.m. departure for the canyon overlook. Our main goal was to be there early to get as much exposure as possible to the Apo Myna, but despite our good intentions, we saw neither the myna nor the eagle again. We spent a lot of time in the forest, and had excellent views of the Mindanao Ibon, Elegant Tit and Cinnamon Ibon.
My knees and ankles have been horribly swollen, so I took several aspirin, and after my noon shower slept for two hours during the heat of the day. I awakened feeling considerably refreshed, with the swelling noticeably reduced and much less painful.
Hans was in the clearing when I emerged from the tent, and we took a short hike near the camp, adding the beautiful Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove to our collective life lists. Aside from the horrible state of the habitat, we have done extremely well here on Mindanao. I have over 80 life birds, with two weeks still to go! I just look wonderingly at all the smoke and ashes and try to imagine what this island must have been like 50 years ago. A more interesting thought is what it is going to look like 50 years from now!
Saturday, February 29. Our last day at altitude on Mindanao. We birded around camp for a few hours, and then headed back up the hill to the eagle lookout. We were rewarded with a magnificent look at a Philippine Eagle, rising up out of the canyon at eye level and climbing majestically until it disappeared into the blue. It was a fitting finale to our stay in the highlands, and while the rest of the day held few surprises, the memory of the mighty raptor more than made up for it. I caught up with the rest of the troop with a crippling look at the endemic Spilornis, and Arnold, Clyde and I had a clear--if fleeting--look at a White-cheeked Bullfinch.
But we dipped out on one of our quest birds--the Apo Myna. I enjoyed the Basilornis genus from my first view at Lore Lindu years ago, and was looking forward to seeing the Philippine form with great relish. We missed a few other highland endemics, but that was almost a foregone conclusion. When I look back at the horrendous habitat destruction, I am flabbergasted in retrospect that we did so well.
We left for Cagayan de Oro at 3:15 p.m., and our chauffeur "headed for the barn" with a lead foot on the accelerator. We made it in just under two hours, as opposed to three coming up. Even with the descent from 1,300 meters, it shows how much time can be cut when a driver smells home base ahead.
We are staying at the Excelsior Hotel, a moderate establishment in downtown Cagayan de Oro. There is nothing distinguished about this town, although it does boast a pharmacy and a clothing store. I stocked up on aspirin for my swollen joints, and Lee and I both bought surplus socks and jockey shorts that we can dispose of instead of doing laundry. At $2 a pair for socks, it is almost cheaper to adopt Clyde Bergman's m.o. and throw them away, rather than pay for laundry--especially at hotel prices.
Sunday, March 1. Travel day. We flew from Cagayan de Oro to the southern Mindanao city of Davao. From here it was a five-hour drive to Bislig, where we are ensconced at the Town and Country Hotel. Despite the name it is purely basic accommodations, although our lunch stop today was the gastronomic surprise of the trip, with one of the most sensational meals we have enjoyed to date.
This is lumber country, all second growth "falcata," which I assume is rapid growing and used primarily for chips to produce paper and plywood pulp. I can't imagine where we are going to do five days of birding if this is the habitat, so tomorrow will be most interesting.
This town probably has the highest proportion of children to adults of any place we have visited in the Philippines--or any place in the world for that matter. Arnold and I estimated that at least 75% of the population--certainly the visible population--was under the age of 15. I admit it is Sunday and the children are out of school, but the hordes of children everywhere are indicative of the population explosion going on. The Pope would be thrilled to visit Bislig!
Monday, March 2. Breakfast at 4 a.m. and off to the forest at 4:30. We were a bit delayed due to lunch not being quite ready on time, but I was amazed that things went so smoothly. We started adding new birds right on arrival in the forest, and I started the countdown to life bird number 6,500.
6,495 Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher
6,496 Yellowish Bulbul
6,497 Philippine Leaf-Warbler
6,498 White-eared Tailorbird
6,499 Philippine Woodpecker
"I have the kingfisher."
Arnold, Clyde and I snapped to attention at Hans' pronouncement and followed his outstretched arm. There on a low stump, where we had all looked at least three times in the past 15 minutes, was the tiny black and white jewel. Life bird number 6,500, the Silvery Kingfisher (Alcedo argentata). And what a spectacular bird. Generally we think of gaudy, colorful birds as being the most fascinating, and I won't deny that pittas and quetzals have a unique charm. But an elegant black and white dazzling jewel is somewhat reminiscent of Grace Kelly dominating a social gathering simply garbed in a black sheath dress and a string of pearls. Anything else is superfluous!
So, for someone who was going to give up chasing birds after passing 4,000, here I am at 6,500 life birds. I knew the Philippines would be a great step towards another 100 species, but I am pushing the century mark right now and we still have almost two weeks to go. Wow!!!
Well, the day never slowed down. We had spectacular displays of all three endemic hornbills in one tree. And I pulled out the skulking Stripe-sided Rhabdornis for the rest of the group, and we enjoyed scope views of it while it nonchalantly preened for us!
But the pièce de resistance was a spectacular late-afternoon display put on by the swifts. The large Purple Needletails came zooming over us in formation at Mach One, followed by the smaller but no less formidable Philippine Needletail. The latter is a spectacular swift. The leading edge of the underwing glistened white in the late afternoon sun, and coupled with its white throat, gave it a beautiful, unique un-swiftlike look as it came hurtling by us.
The day ended with a pair of perched Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeons. It was by far the best day of the trip, and though we only reached an altitude of some 450 meters, the temperature in the PICOP (Paper Industries Corp. of the Philippines) forest remained pleasant all day. You couldn't ask for any better birding--and we even had a Philippine Eagle fly over to put the coup de graçe on the whole affair.
At dinner Arnold gave his reasons why this was such a fabulous day:
1. More new birds
2. Birds moving all day long
3. The bus was with us, so we had drinks all day
4. Level road which precluded arduous climbing
5. A wide road, eliminating the notorious single-file forest trail birding
6. Liberal use of scopes
7. Cool weather with little or no bugs or flying insects
Actually, pretty damn good reasoning!
Tuesday, March 3. Breakfast at 4 a.m. and off to PICOP Forest Road Number 5, an hour's drive from our hotel. I won't begin to suggest that today was on the scale of yesterday's five-star bell ringer, but that would be a hell of an act to follow.
We started right out with the pint-sized Guaiabero, followed by the giant Sooty Woodpecker, the addition of which gives me a clean sweep of the Mulleripicus genus. Things quieted down around 10 a.m., and while we did have another broadbill sighting which got the troop's adrenaline flowing again, it wasn't until after lunch during the daily siesta that Lee discovered the Short-crested Monarch--AND the Wattled Broadbill!
We all congregated in the forest trail where Lee made his discovery, which included a mixed flock composed of the broadbill, monarch, Rusty-crowned Babbler, Brown Tit-Babbler and Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher. So, I wound up the day with six more life birds, and coupled with yesterday's mind-boggling 16 new birds, certainly gave the PICOP forest a big boost in my book.
I can't imagine that we will bird here tomorrow, since we are missing virtually nothing that we have a shot at--especially that would warrant our spending another night at the "Bislig Hilton." Brrr. My ankles have been horribly swollen again (or still) today, and I am in considerable discomfort. That is the best word to describe the condition, since I am not in any pain--just discomfort. My knees are back to normal, but the aspirin seems to have little or no effect on the swelling any longer. Let's hope I get through Luzon and home before I have any serious complications from the nasty situation!
Wednesday, March 4. The usual 4 a.m. breakfast scenario, after which we birded the PICOP forest until lunch, and then called it for the day. No new birds showed up for the trip list, but I finally caught up with the Naked-faced Spiderhunter (thanks again to the eagle-eyed Dr. Bergman).
Ben was able to get a decent bus to schlep us back to Davao, and the driver made it in exactly three hours--knocking an hour off the time it took us to get up to Bislig. It was good to get back to a five-star hotel again, and everyone came to dinner all clean and squeaky and shiny--with all the layers of dust removed.
Tonight was "Fiesta Latina" night at the Intercontinental, and they had a Spanish buffet, topped off with a Latin combo and dancers. I ordered three bottles of an excellent Macon Villages to celebrate my 6,500th life bird, and we all enjoyed the evening tremendously. I called Karen (collect) at 10 p.m. (6 a.m. Los Angeles time) and got right through. Always nice to talk to your bride after three weeks in the tules. We decided that three weeks is the maximum time we should be separated on these birding trips. I would love to be heading home this weekend. But the Philippines are a very special place, and it really requires a month to do it right. We are leaving a few birds unseen on Mindanao, but since we could not get to Mt. Apo, this is not at all surprising.
Thursday, March 5. "Day at leisure" with breakfast at 5 a.m. and an hour's ride in a cramped, tiny tamaraw to a pond, where we had the Questars and Kowas glued on a group of eight Philippine Ducks, our 94th endemic bird of the trip.
We then drove over to the Philippine Eagle research station, where the manager, Domingo, was feeding breakfast to the first chick raised in captivity. The 50-day old eaglet is a ball of white fluff, and it is sad to think the wild population is down to an estimated 33 birds. Shades of the California Condor (which now of course has no wild population).
It was sad to hear Ben (not King), the human imprint for the eagle, refer to the local mountains as "Bald, like the top of my head." It must be distressing for the locals to realize that all their work in trying to preserve the future of the eagle is going down the tubes. It's like trying to paddle a canoe against the tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy. Forget it!
We got back to the hotel in time for a late lunch, and for the first time in three weeks, we really did have the rest of the day at leisure. But we can put all that behind us tomorrow, when we hit the road for Luzon. We have a trip list to date of 274 species, of which I have missed three (Malay Night-Heron, Mindanao Lorikeet, and Red-eared Parrotfinch). With 94 endemics, we will easily go over Ben's 100 prediction, and the total trip list should top 300 species. Quite an exciting month, especially when I consider that there is nowhere else in the world that I can go and rack up 100 life birds in a single trip any longer.
South Africa might possibly yield 40 to 50 maximum, and after that it's tens and twenties. I guess that's the downside penalty of 50 years of birding. The upside is a lifetime of incredible experiences in every remote corner of the globe. I wouldn't trade it for any other hobby--known or unknown!
Friday, March 6. Late breakfast (6:15 a.m.) and off to the airport for our final internal flight back to Manila. Next time we board an aircraft it will be bound for good old LAX. I called Karen from the airport in Manila and got through in seconds. You dial 105-11 and that puts you in touch with an AT&T operator who takes your credit card number and completes the call. Sure beats the rip-off artists at the hotels who add 200 to 300 percent to your phone bills!
We left immediately on arrival in Manila for Los Baños, a small town at the base of Mt. Makiling some 60 km. south of Manila. We drove up the mountain late afternoon, and birded until after dark. We added a few new birds, and called in the Philippine Boobook again. There appears to be a decent amount of forest remaining, and I am looking forward to birding it in the morning. Our bus took almost 40 minutes to negotiate the road as compared to the 20-minute estimate on Tim's part, which really curtailed the afternoon's birding.
We are staying at the City of Springs Resort Hotel, an adequate one or two star hotel in Los Baños. Lunch was Chinese food, and was exceptional. I am continually amazed at the fine food we get in these out-of-the-way places--the food usually far surpasses the accommodations. It's surprising how even a cold shower does wonders to pick you up after a long day on the bus.
Saturday, March 7. Well, my desire for birding the forest came to fruition all too soon. We had the usual early morning breakfast, and arrived at the forest just before dawn. Ben started the day off with two Spotted Kingfishers (Actenoides lindsayi), of which several of us got poor silhouette views. From there, it went downhill rapidly, with the forest yielding almost no new birds, aside from a beautiful look at a Blue-headed Fantail (not even a life bird--sob).
Unfortunately, we are having "Fourth Week" syndrome, where the candy store birding is over and we are now reduced to skulking, sneaking critters. We headed back to the hotel, had a quick lunch, and drove north for three hours to the Angat Hydroelectric plant, which is about 60 km northeast of Manila. We are staying in a most acceptable rest home that belies the one hour drive from the main highway on an unimproved dirt road.
The forest surrounding the watershed looked most promising, and as we watched the sun set over the forested slopes, three raptors flew by--Philippine Hawk-Eagle, White-bellied Sea-Eagle and Rufous-bellied Eagle. We had an excellent dinner and hit the sack at 8:30 p.m. in preparation for our 4:30 a.m. breakfast.
Sunday, March 8. We hiked slowly in the pre-dawn darkness, climbing to about 500 meters elevation. Dawn came and went with no dawn chorus and the birdlife was almost nonexistent. It went on like that until about 9 a.m., when the temperature hit 26_ Celsius and the cicadas started a din that drowned out all other forest noises. Trying to tape record anything would have been impossible--had anything even dared call!
We took about a three-hour break from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., when a tailorbird caught someone's attention, and we regrouped and got back to birding. A few puffy cumulus formed, and the slight cloud cover brought a few sprinkles, which seemed to have a magic effect on the dormant birdlife.
We soon had crippling looks at the Red-crested Malkoha, and wound up the day with excellent looks at our 13th cuckoo of the trip--the Rufous Coucal. The bird of the day for me was the Long-billed Rhabdornis, which gave us a wipe-out of the Rhabdornithidae. Bob Braden had the bird in his 30X wide angle Kowa, and we all enjoyed as much time as we wanted with the rare endemic. I'm actually not sure if the bird is all that rare. It was until recently described by the International Council for Bird Preservation as "known from two specimens," but since the bird was for many years considered a race of Rhabdornis inornatus, I suspect that many sightings either went unreported, or were reported as Rhabdornis inornatus grandis.
Despite this flurry of late-afternoon excitement, the handwriting is on the wall, and this next week is going to have long periods between birds. But we are committed to the Hoover Vacuum syndrome, and until the Boeing 747 lifts off for Honolulu a week from today, we'll be out pounding the trails for that last endemic!
Monday, March 9. Today started off just the opposite of yesterday. At 6 a.m. Ben heard a strange call, and taped in the Spotted Kingfisher. Too bad he did not have that call on the tape, since I'm confident we could have had success with Actinoides hombroni on Mindanao by playing the same call. I have had a lot of success playing the call of congeners when I did not possess the actual call of the desired species, and generally there is one phrase of the vocal repertoire that attracts the attention of the congener.
We next added the Philippine Kingfisher (Ceyx melanurus) at the end of another tape. A pair must have been nesting close to where we stopped, since we had intimate views of them each time Ben played the tape. We wound up the morning with the Philippine Tailorbird, but dipped out on the rare Celestial Monarch. It answered Ben's tape, but never put in an appearance.
We called it at noon, had lunch, and left at 2 p.m. for Quezon National Park. This turned out to be a six-hour drive, passing directly through Manila again, and winding up on the far side of Mt. Makiling. This was caused by a change in plans, since we were only an hour's drive away two days ago, and now we have to retrace our steps again for the final push up north. But everyone was in high spirits since we were at least seeing birds again. And after yesterday that was a real pleasure. We are staying at another very nice resort hotel, and I am once again amazed at the quality of these places out in the boondocks.
Tuesday, March 10. Running out of time (and birds), so Ben upped breakfast to 4 a.m. so we could get to the forest early. It paid off (what else is new) with some of us getting anywhere from poor to horrible looks at the endemic Ashy Thrush in the gloom of the crepuscular dawn.
But the rest of the morning was a disaster. Quezon National Park is probably the nicest forest we have seen, but practically devoid of birds. We had a few small feeding flocks go through, and I missed the Lemon-throated Warbler again. I also missed Merrill's Fruit-Dove, which a few people had cursory looks at. But generally I was most disappointed with the day's birding, especially after seeing such a productive looking forest. Well, perhaps tomorrow will be another five-star bell ringer?
We had a well-earned rest until 4 p.m., which I spent in the pool doing laps. We then headed for Pagbilao Marsh, where we spent the rest of the daylight hours. It was very productive, with paintedsnipe and a lot of waders. And to top things off, Rod finally got his much wanted Australasian Grass-Owl just after dark.
Wednesday, March 11. As my brother says, "When you lose your reason, redouble your effort."
Well, breakfast at 3 a.m. bore out Bob's dictum only too well. We hit the Quezon National Park forest at the appointed hour (shortly after 4 a.m.) and despite almost two hours of working on both the eagle-owl and megalotis, we dipped out on both of them. We had little better luck with the thrush, with only a cursory look at Zoothera cinera, and I even began to have doubts about my missing the dull endemic Phylloscopus.
But a big fruiting tree paid off. Bridget spied a movement high in the massive ficus, and moments later we had Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove in Bob's scope. This got everyone's attention, and a few moments later Ben spotted the Cream-bellied Fruit-Dove. We watched it clambering around behind some leaves for a few minutes, when suddenly a gasp from Arnold and Bruce let me know that they had just had a crippling look at the stunning bird. Another knockout Ptilinopus. What an absolutely incredible genus of birds!
Clyde and I decided to stalk the bleedingheart by ourselves, and we ran into a small feeding flock of passerines about 100 yards down the trail. The nuclear species seemed to be the Blue-headed Fantail, with other species consisting of Philippine Fairy-bluebird, Black-crowned Babbler, Balicasiao, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Elegant Tit, and last but not least, my much sought after (and greatly appreciated) Phylloscopus, the Lemon-throated Warbler.
Thursday, March 12. Breakfast (would you believe room service?) at 3:30 a.m. and off at 4 a.m. for Candaba Marsh. We arrived at dawn and spent some two hours birding the swamp. In addition to picking up my three missing warblers (Middendorf's, Lanceolated and Streaked Reed-Warbler), we had a five-minute view of a low-flying Australasian Grass-Owl. It was incredible to see the big white owl during broad daylight, and very special to be able to follow it in the scope.
The rest of the day, with an hour break for lunch, was spent in the bus driving north to Banaue. We had a quick stop at the gorge over the Lagawe River, where we added yet another kingfisher, the Indigo-banded Kingfisher. This was our longest day yet as far as transportation went, and we arrived at the Banaue Hotel at 7 p.m.--after almost twelve hours on the bus!
The hotel is another surprise. It is a beautiful alpine style lodge constructed of the finest local hardwoods, at an elevation of just over 1,000 meters. The hardwoods brought back forcibly the fact that the whole day was spent driving through either rice paddies or horribly depauperate habitat. I thought Madagascar and Ethiopia were bad, but the Philippines bring a new dimension to the word destruction.
In fact, now that I have been here almost a month, and have read the local papers almost on a daily basis (in addition to two best sellers about the Marcos regime), I can safely say that the Philippines are a political, economic and ecological disaster. Just this morning there was an editorial in the Manila Bulletin by a lunatic who suggested that the Philippine Islands could easily support a 300 percent increase in population!
My guess is that with a 2.6 percent yearly population growth rate that the Philippines now enjoy (pun intended), they will face the same incredible famines that Bangladesh and Ethiopia have been subjected to by the turn of the century. What's really interesting is the total lack of acceptance of reality on the part of everyone involved. We had a six-hour brownout in Manila (an almost daily occurrence), yet Angat Reservoir is at an all-time low with barely enough water to run one generator.
Despite signs all over about "SAVING OUR VIRGIN FORESTS" and the vast reforestation schemes touted in the press, we saw constant slash and burning of what little habitat remains. Even the main highway that cut right through Quezon National Park had been illegally logged. It was one of the most depressing days of my life--driving for 12 hours through what at one time in the not too distant past must have been a veritable Garden of Eden.
Friday, March 13. Breakfast at 3:30 and off at 4 a.m. for the montane forest. It was about a 45-minute ride in the jeepney on a good but horribly dusty dirt road, and we reached an altitude of just about 1,800 meters. Despite having a good hour of darkness, our playing the tape of Otus longicornis elicited only one distant response.
But at 6 a.m., just after daylight, we struck pay dirt. First Clyde and I simultaneously spotted the Grey-capped Shrike, followed moments later by the bullfinch. This in turn was eclipsed by the elegant Chestnut-faced Babbler, and I then taped in the Philippine Bush-Warbler. By 7 a.m. I had added four life birds, and we kept getting excellent looks at most of them until the activity died down around 9 a.m.
We saw only three high-flying unidentified pigeons and no psitticines, which was a big disappointment, and we also dipped out on the redstart at a nice clear-running stream at lunchtime. Our excitement of the morning quickly faded when a slash and burn fire down the canyon from us got out of control and raced up the steep canyon face, consuming hundreds of hectares of virgin forest in its path of destruction.
It totally changed the mood of the entire trip, and brought home all too vividly the truth that the country is totally out of control. The tenor of greed, rape and destruction rests in the highest offices in the land, and no one pays any attention to the so-called "laws" so conspicuously posted every few kilometers.
We ate our lunch in abject silence, with falling ashes raining on our fried chicken and mangos, and gave up the chase right after lunch since the smoke was so thick you could hardly see the stream from the road. What a contrast to the brilliant night sky and sparkling blue sky that greeted us at dawn. It once again brought back the memory of the Philippine Eagle disappearing in the cloud of smoke on Mindanao. Wildlife and any semblance of natural history conservation is doomed in the Philippine Islands. My roommate Tom Smith says the motto for the islands should be "Burn and Breed."
Saturday, March 14. Tom and I elected to pass on the trip to the top of the mountain (3 a.m. departure) and to try instead for the Luzon Redstart. We started down through the rice paddies just before dawn, and at 5:40 a.m. were at the lowest level of paddies that overlooks the gorge where Tim had seen the redstart at dusk yesterday.
At 6 a.m. Tom spied the redstart on the same rock Tim had see it on yesterday. We had several good views of it, until it disappeared upstream, only to reappear about six minutes later. It was visible here for about 45 seconds, during which time it flew up into the foliage along the bank several times as if it were foraging for food. It finally flew off upstream, and after a half-hour watch of the stream proved unproductive, we turned our attention to other matters at hand.
It was now 6:30 a.m. and after watching a pair of bush-hens displaying on a nearby rice paddy, we retraced our steps to the river bank, where the forest came down closer to the water, for a shot at the White-browed Shortwing. Tom had a very poor section of the shortwing's call from a previous encounter, but he barely located the call when an answer resounded form the nearby vegetation. We spent the next half-hour with a pair of shortwings as our constant companions, and not only did Tom get crippling looks at a life bird, I got a superb series of alarm notes, calls and songs for Cornell.
Our last effort of the morning was to tape in a most cooperative pair of Luzon Bush-Warblers (Cettia seebohmi), which also allowed us not only intimate close-up views, but gave us an excellent series of their calls for the Laboratory of Natural Sounds. We wound up at 9 a.m., had a cup of coffee, showered and were waiting for the rest of the group when they returned from the top of the mountain at 9:45 a.m.
Unfortunately, they dipped out completely on any new birds, a big disappointment after getting off at 3 a.m. We left at 11 a.m. for the return trip to Manila, and with only one brief stop enroute to examine some stilts, we pulled into the Hyatt Regency at 7 p.m. on the button. Ben hosted the usual farewell dinner, at which Bob Braden not only generously provided some superb wines, but then topped things off with a delightful toast (and roast) of the assembled multitude.
Sunday, March 15. Yesterday marked the official end of the tour, but Arnold, Bruce, Tom and I grabbed a taxi at 5:30 a.m. and headed for the Philippine War Memorial Cemetery. We flushed a few Barred Buttonquail and one Coturnix chinensis, and moments later a larger buttonquail exploded from under Bruce's feet. As it carved a semicircle before dropping back into the short grass, Tom, Arnold and I had a beautiful view of the rufous chest--it was the endemic Spotted Buttonquail (Turnix ocellata).
We mogged around for another half-hour trying to flush another bird, but aside from an immature grass-owl and more Barred Buttonquail and Blue-breasted Quail, we had to be satisfied with the one look at the rare endemic. So at 7 a.m. we had the taxi take us to the adjacent U.S. War Memorial, where we spent the next two hours in a futile search for the Chestnut-cheeked Starling.
We gave up the chase at 9 a.m. when the heat of the day started to become too oppressive to make the birding fun any longer. It marked the end of exactly one month of birding in the Philippines--to the day! The tour was eminently successful with 320 total species seen, plus three additional birds heard. We tallied an incredible 124 endemics. Of particular interest were the 16 species of columbids, 14 cuckoos, 10 kingfishers, a complete wipe-out of the three endemic Rhabdornis, 21 Old World Warblers, 10 sunbirds, and last but not least, 9 species of flowerpecker!
Arthur Frommer said it so well of Ben King, "The greatest operator of ornithological tours on earth."
I couldn't agree more!
[Editor's note: Dr. James F. Clements made his living, before retirement, as a publisher of corporate annual reports. He is now owner and editor of Ibis Publications, which publishes books on birds. He is author of "Birds of the World: A Checklist," now in its fifth edition.]