Participants: Howard Armstrong (HA), Thaïs Armstrong (TA), Aidan G. Kelly (AGK).
The Philippine archipelago consists of just over 1100 islands, though the major portion of the land area is taken up by just nine main islands. A total bird list of 556 species has been recorded in The Philippines and an impressive total of 185 of these are endemic, including one endemic family, the Rhabdornises, of which there are 3 species. There has been much publicity in recent years about the bleak prospects for the unique fauna and flora of The Philippines due to the continuous destruction of the forests and other natural habitats there. Much of the lowland forests have now been turned to paddyfields and most of the highland and montane forests have been logged. Many Philippine endemic bird species are threatened with extinction with little hope of long term survival. The Philippines has one of the most threatened and endangered avifauna of anywhere else in the World. Only a small percentage of the original forest cover remains and slash and burn and logging continue unabated. Ben King summed up the situation well when he wrote "The Philippines is the worst ecological disaster in the SE Asia region. In the not too distant future, we'll see the last of accessible birding habitat in many areas. Frankly we see no hope, either politically or economically, for The Philippines and recommend it for the number one spot on your 'do it now or never' list". However it's not entirely depressing, there still being readily accessible habitat available and many great birds to be seen on a trip here.
Birdlife International has declared 7 Endemic Bird areas (EBAs) in The Philippines (see Stattersfield et al., 1998). These EBAs are Mindoro, Luzon, Negros and Panay, Cebu, Mindanao and Eastern Visayas, Sulu Archipelago and Palawan. All except Palawan are given Critical status, which is declared of Urgent priority. Of its endemics, The Philippines has 14 species classed as 'Critical', 27 as 'Endangered', 35 as 'Vulnerable' and 34 as 'Near-threatened'.
We decided to confine this trip to just four of the main islands, Mindanao, Cebu, Bohol and Luzon. Like most first time visitors to the Philippines our main target bird was the rare Philippine or 'Monkey-eating' Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. To have a chance of seeing this species we visited Mount Katanglad on Mindanao, currently the most accessible site for it.
The different areas we visited are all well known birding sites on the standard birding itinerary for these islands. All are covered, or at least mentioned, in Nigel Wheatley's Where to watch Birds in Asia (1996). The Philippines is the type of place that needs a lot of time and a lot of preparation for. I had only 3 weeks for this trip, although the others stayed on longer after me and visited Palawan too. A return trip will be necessary for me, which includes Palawan, Mindoro, Negros, Panay and north Luzon. In addition, return visits to Bohol and other parts of Mindanao will be necessary in the near future too.
In the three weeks we recorded 240 species between us (including birds only heard). Of these we recorded 112 endemics (however only about 100 of these were seen, the rest being heard only). We had many highlights over the period, and overall it was a very enjoyable trip. It was however a very intensive trip with dawn-to-dusk birding throughout with very early starts daily in order to make the most of our time. Some species we did badly on, such as the rare flycatchers and the bleeding-hearts, but overall it was a fairly successful trip.
During our visit we saw continuous evidence of logging, hearing chainsaws daily across the valley at Mount Katanglad and also at PICOP. We also found much of Angat very degraded with some recent illegal logging activities in evidence. We saw a few bird catchers in operation, using a Philippine Hanging Parrot as a decoy, at Mount Katanglad.
It is important to note that visas are required for visits to The Philippines which last longer than 21 days. I realised fairly close to the time I was leaving that I was actually going to be there for 23 days. I was however able to obtain one with the minimum of effort from the Honorary Consul in Dublin at a cost of IRP£20 after completing the application form and providing a photo.
On this trip we had a fairly limited time and wanted to see as many of the endemic birds as possible over the period, so unlike many other trips I've done, we decided to have most of the ground arrangements for this trip organised in advance for us by Tim Fisher, who lives in Manila, e-mail: email@example.com. Tim knows the birds of The Philippines probably better than any other. It meant we had drivers and vehicles ready to meet us and bring us to the various birding sites throughout the trip. Because of this we were able to do a lot more in the three weeks than we would have done if we had been using public jeepneys. We would recommend his services to anyone who is on a tight schedule and wants to maximise their birding time.
Tim Fisher modified our original intended itinerary slightly and strongly suggested that we visit PICOP, which was a good move. The 'package' we got from Tim Fisher included our drivers and vehicles (including fuel), 3 internal flights and accommodation for the 3 weeks. We decided to pay for food as we went along however and not get it included in the deal which would have been extra. The 'package' cost us a total of Stg. £750 each, a bit more than it would have been to do it ourselves, but the advantages of having it organised were well worth it. In addition Tim Fisher gave us a loan of some tapes he had of Philippine species. We spoke to him a number of times on the 'phone during the trip, and he was able to give us advice on both birding sites and birds as we went along. We were unable to meet him during our visit however as he was all the time busy leading organised bird tours.
The flight from Dublin to Manila rtn. with Lufthansa was reasonably priced at IRP495 plus IRP10 tax (c.US$660 total). This was booked way back in October 1999 through Trailfinders in Dublin. Unfortunately, Philippine Airlines (PAL) went into liquidation a year ago but are back operating again with a more limited international service. They no longer fly to Europe however, so it was not possible for me to fly with them, and thus take advantage of the PAL internal flight airpass deal, which is only available to people who enter The Philippines with PAL as their main carrier.
Unlike most trips I've done I don't have the breakdown on individual costs of hotels, etc. since we paid for this in the 'package' as discussed above. Apart from this cost, we didn't have much else to pay for except food. Roughly US$150 covered all my other expenses.
The approximate exchange rate at time of our visit was approximately 40 pesos = 1US$
The internal flights were priced as follows:
This varied from a basic floor space with a mattress at the Mt. Katanglad Del Monte lodge to quite reasonable hotels such as Ouan's Worth Farm, Paper Country Inn and The City of Springs. If we had organised the trip ourselves we may not have stayed in such 'up-market' accommodation which was generally of the standard used by the various bird tour groups which visit The Philippines. By ourselves we may have gone for more basic accommodation, sometimes closer to the birding sites, such as the basic lodge at Rajah Sikatuna National Park or the TREES basic accommodation at Los Baños (Mount Makiling). The accommodation we did have however was generally very good, and we got used to the early morning starts needed to be in the field for dawn.
Contact details are as follows for most of the places we stayed:
City of Springs Resort Hotel
Los Baños , Luzon
Tel. (+63) 49 536 0731
Fax. (+63) 49 536 0137
|As mentioned above, for Mt. Makiling, an alternative would be to stay in the
campus in a more basic but cheaper room. Being on site would also be an
Maria "Luz" Annie Cereno
Contact: Dr. Joven Faralda|
National Power Corporation
|Basic hostel-type accommodation at Hilltop.|
|Quezon National Park:||
Ouan's Worth Farm|
Tel: 63-42-714 552
Fax: 63-42-715 014
|Some distance from the park.|
Del Monte Lodge
Carlito who lives in Dalwangan can organise this. His address is:
|It would be wise also to contact Tim Fisher if intending to visit, not least to ensure that visits will not clash with various bird tour groups which use the lodge.|
Paper Country Inn|
1077-79 Tabon, Bislig, Surigao del Sur, Mindanao
(63) 88622 22412
For getting into PICOP the contact person is Felizardo Goring
PICOP: Felizardo V. Goring, Camp Security Operations, PICOP Resources Inc. (PRI), Tabon, Bislig, 8311 Surigao del Sur, Mindanao, Philippines.
Again, due to various sensitivites at this site, potential visitors should contact Tim Fisher who will advise on the current situation and the best birding roads.
For getting to Tabunan and the Central Cebu National Park:
Cebu Biodiversity Conservation Foundation. Inc. (CBCF)
In Tagbilaran, Bohol we stayed at:
Slim Pension House and Commercial Centre
Basic cheap accommodation is available in the National Park itself:|
Rajah Sikatuna National Park, Logarita, Bilar, Bohol
This was apparently one of the wettest Springs in The Philippines for a long time. It rained for a good portion of the time we spent at both Mount Katanglad and Rajah Sikatuna National Park. It rained at many of the other sites too, though not as frequently and often only in the evenings and at night. In the lowlands it was generally hot and humid throughout. Mount Polis was cold in the early mornings until the sun got up when it turned quiet warm.
Although conditions were very wet at times, we saw no leeches at all during our trip. Mosquitoes were present but weren't a major problem. I took Larium tablets as a precaution against malaria, which is really only prevalent in Mindanao and Palawan. An umbrella was very useful in the frequent rain.
Rain at Mount Katanglad probably meant that we missed a few species such as Apo Sunbird, which is usually high up at 5500-6000 feet. Most times we got close to this elevation the weather had turned very wet and misty. We also missed Black-masked White-eye, Red-eared (Mount Katanglad) Parrotfinch and Mindanao Scops Owl here, our chances certainly not helped by the poor weather.
All of the ground transport we took was by hired car (mostly 4WD) and by chartered jeepney. We didn't use public transport at all, which would have been a lot cheaper, but we would have been much more restricted regarding the number of places we could get to in the 3 weeks.
The second largest of the Philippine Islands, after Luzon, Mindanao has 18 endemics. We visited two main sites, a high elevation site (Mount Katanglad) and a low elevation site (PICOP). We had no problems safety-wise travelling in Mindanao. However, recently there has been an upsurge in the amount of terrorism and kidnappings with much media attention. Potential visitors should assess the safety risk in any given area before visiting. The no-go areas seem to be mainly the south west around Zamboanga and the Sulu Islands.
The only reliable and accessible site for the critically endangered Philippine Eagle (our main target bird of the trip). Although it now has National Park status, this affords little protection. Many 'squatters' are still setting up dwellings and are cutting the forest and cultivating the cleared land. We heard chainsaws daily while on the trails. We also saw birdcatchers, with a Philippine Hanging Parrot tethered to a long pole, using it as a decoy.
The habitat consists mainly of patches of montane forest surrounded by crop fields. Further up the mountain and across the valley the forest is more extensive, and looking far across the valley the distant ridges are still completely forested. It's a good thing they are relatively inaccessible, or else they probably would have been logged by now.
In 1993 a new species of woodcock was found by a Birdquest tour at this site, and birds are now regularly recorded roding near the Del Monte lodge. So far this species hasn't as yet been described to science.
To get to the lodge which is at an altitude of approx. 1250m it is necessary to walk a few kilometres up a fairly rough trail. Horses are used to carry the heavier bags and provisions. Carlito, who lives in the nearby village of Dalwangan can organise this. (See details under Accommodation section). He can also organise sleeping bags and provide mattresses. It is also advisible to contact Tim Fisher before visiting.
This is a logging concession which currently has quite a bit of habitat remaining. However, by its very nature it is of course doomed to complete destruction eventually, the primary lowland forest being continuously logged for paper, and the forest being replaced by a monoculture of non-native fast growing trees. Local guide Zardo reckons it has 10 years left maximum. It is currently the best lowland forest site in Mindanao for a number of rare and threatened endemics. Access would be impossible without the assistance of Zardo, who works for PICOP. He takes unpaid leave to act as a guide and can get you past the security barriers at PICOP to enter the concession. This would be very difficult otherwise.
Road 6 goes up to Mt. Pasean. This is the site where Lina's Sunbird Aethopyga linaraborae was discovered as recently as 1997. Also here is a new species of Shortwing. We didn't have time to visit the site during our short visit to PICOP and decided to concentrate our efforts in the logging concession itself.
Over 99.7% of the original forest cover on Cebu has gone, meaning that this island is the most ravaged and devastated of all the main Philippine Islands. Consequently half of the forest bird species (close to 40 species) have become extinct on the island, including some endemic sub-species. There are two endemic species, Cebu Flowerpecker and Black Shama. Both were once thought to be extinct too, but the Shama was rediscovered in 1981 and the Flowerpecker in 1992.
We didn't have time to fit Olango Island into our itinerary, one of the best spots for wintering and passage waders in the Philippines and a noted area for seeing Asiatic Dowitcher.
A small patch of forest near the village of Tabunan, it is however the largest patch remaining in the whole of Cebu. The Cebu Flowerpecker was rediscovered here in 1992, having thought to have being extinct since 1906. No one knows exactly how many remain, but there may be only a few pairs.
We visited the area with Oking the local guide. Even on the day we visited Oking found trees which had been recently hacked. National Park status means little here. However, the Cebu Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (CBCF) are doing excellent work to conserve what little forest remains on Cebu and have a number of scientists from the University of Los Baños employed to survey the remaining forest patches on Cebu and help conserve them.
A small island with no endemics of its own but the best island to some species such as Azure-breasted Pitta, Samar Hornbill, Visayan Wattled Broadbill and Yellow-breasted (Samar) Tailorbird. Most of Bohol has been logged, but the following area still holds good forest and is the site to visit on Bohol:
This National Park is the largest tract of forest left in Bohol. It covers about 90km2. There are a number of trails through the Park, and it is a pleasant area generally. We were the only visitors during the entire time we spent there! Accommodation on site is possible either at the small HQ area or in very basic chalets at Camp Magsaysay (Scout Camp/Nature Centre) though we stayed at the more comfortable Chocolate Hills Hotel outside of the Park. At the HQ, you'll find Jon, the caretaker. He has a birders' logbook and visitors' book on site which is useful to read. We found the birding very slow here, not helped by bad weather conditions with a lot of rain. We missed one of our main target birds here, the Visayan Wattled Broadbill.
Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands, has more threatened bird species than any other Asian island. Like Mindanao it has a total of 18 endemic bird species. Much of its lowland forests have gone but remnants are to be found at Angat and Quezon National Park. In the north east the Sierra Madre mountains still have a quite a bit of montane forest intact. Mount Polis provides relatively accessible montane forest near the town of Banaue, famous for its 2000 year old rice terraces, a major tourist attraction.
We didn't have any time in the schedule to visit the American or Philippine Cemeteries in Manila, which hold Lowland White-eye and sometimes Spotted Buttonquail and Chestnut-cheeked Starling.
This site is accessible from Los Baños, a town c.50km south of Manila. The mountain and vicinity is still forested, and environmental research is carried out by the university here. The track to the mountain starts at the "Forestry Centre" (Institute of Forest Conservation) in the grounds of the university. Like many other sites in The Philippines, birding could be very slow at times here. Apparently, trapping and hunting of birds still takes place here, although the forest is relatively intact.
This site is 14km from Malicboy, the town beside Quezon National Park and is located approximately halfway between here and Lucena City. It's worth looking at for a few hours if on the way to or from Quezon National Park and provides a chance to see some waders and herons to add to the species list. The area can be 'scoped from an open building just after the railway crossing, and the edges of the fish ponds can also be traversed.
This is a National Park of about 1000 hectares situated about 30km south east of Lucena city near the town of Malicboy. Unfortunately, the area is now highly degraded with illegal logging and hunting regularly taking place. Because of this the Park is now much less good for birds than it used to be, and what birds are left here can be very shy and difficult to see.
We spent most of our time here on the Summit Trail, going some way beyond the Cueva Santa cave. We had no sign of Rabor's Wren Babbler here but did see a Blue-breasted Flycatcher. We experienced a lot of rain during our short visit here, which did not help the birding.
These marshes are about 90km north of Manila. We stopped off here for a few hours on the way north to Banaue and Mount Polis. They are a well known wintering site for Streaked Reed Warbler Acrocephalus sorghophilus and Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis, neither of which we saw however. Most of the marshes have now been turned to paddyfields, and this wetland habitat is now a mere shadow of its former self, apparently.
Mount Polis is situated on the road between Banaue and Bontoc in north Luzon. The habitat around it consists of elfin mossy forest with remnant oak and pine forest. The pass is at 2300m (7546ft.) and is situated near the 362km post on the road towards Bontoc. We travelled daily from Banaue and birded either side of the pass and also along the trail behind the army checkpoint which runs along a ridge. Birding was quite good here, and we saw a good selection of species over two days. The area is very cold in the early mornings, and fog and mist often build up early in the day and cover the area, making birding practically impossible. Bay-vu is a small village surrounded by rice terraces about 6km down the road from the pass at Mt. Polis towards Bontoc. The river at Bay-yu is the best known site to see Luzon Water Redstart in The Philippines.
Angat is at the southern end of the Sierra Madre Mountain range, which runs for 500km parallel to the east coast of Luzon. This area is about 60-70km NE from Manila and is owned by the National Power Corporation of the Philippines. Some forest remains at this site, where there is a large dam which is used as a reservoir for Manila. Basic accommodation can be had at the guesthouse at Hilltop in the National Power Corporation 'village'. From here the road leads up past the radio relay station, which you skirt along the edge of. Continuing on this track and taking a right turn opposite a small house leads down to the reservoir. This is the Reservoir Trail. Continuing on the main track and turning right at a fork leads to the Ridge Trail. At first there's a lot of degraded habitat along the Ridge Trail with much bamboo, but eventually better forest is reached. Like most places in The Philippines birding can be very slow and hard work, with most of the birds very shy, due to hunting pressures. We also saw evidence of recent logging activities especially on the Reservoir Trail. The noise from cicadas was also very intense at Angat, and this certainly didn't help the birding.
The following family monographs were also of use for many species:
The following articles from the Oriental Bird Club Bulletin are useful for reference:
The following articles from the Oriental Bird Club's Journal Forktail are also useful for reference:
Some interesting web sites, mainly concerning the Philippine Eagle:
Thanks to Tim Fisher for organising most of the groundwork for the trip and having things booked in advance. Also for the loan of his tapes, which probably helped us to see a number of species we might not have otherwise. Thanks also to our main drivers Nonoy and June for their excellent punctuality and time keeping, especially for all those early morning starts. Our guides Leo at Mount Katanglad, Felizardo Goring (Zardo) at PICOP, and Oking at Tabunan, Cebu. Also Sol Petrogosa of the CBCF in Cebu City. The following also gave freely of advice and other information before the trip and to them I am very grateful: David Cooper, Richard Fairbank, Matthias Fehlow, Mikkel Kure Jakobsen, Ron Johns and Jan van der Laan. Thanks also to my companions Howard and Thaïs for their good company during the trip.
|2 March||Dublin to Frankfurt. Onward flight to Manila with Lufthansa.|
|3 March||Arrive Manila 17.00hrs and overnighted.|
|4 March||Left Manila for Cagayan de Oro at 05.10hrs. Met by HA and TA and driver at Cagayan. Travel to Dalwangan and onward to Mt. Katanglad. Birding Mt. Katanglad for rest of day.|
|5-7 March||Birding Mt. Katanglad.|
|8 March||Birding Mt. Katanglad, leaving at 07.45hrs. Travel to Bislig, not arriving Paper County Inn until 20.20hrs.|
|9-11 March||Birding PICOP.|
|12 March||Birding PICOP in morning. Left for Davao. Flew Davao to Cebu at 17.00hrs.|
|13 March||Birding Tabunan Forest, Cebu. Took evening ferry to Tagbilaran on Bohol, where overnighted.|
|14 March||Drove from Tagbilaran to Rajah Sikatuna National Park and birding here.|
|15 March||Birding Rajah Sikatuna National Park.|
|16 March||Birding Rajah Sikatuna National Park until 10.10 hrs. Drove to Tagbilaran and got 13.30hrs. ferry back to Cebu. 19.00 hrs. flight from Cebu to Manila. Drove to City of Springs Hotel at Los Baños for Mount Makiling.|
|17 March||Birding Mt. Makiling.|
|18 March||Birding Mt. Makiling. Evening birding at Pagbilao fish ponds.|
|19 March||Birding Quezon National Park. Left at 15.40hrs for Manila, not arriving until 20.20hrs, where we overnighted.|
|20 March||Left Manila for long journey to Banaue (stopping for birding at Candaba marshes from 06.00hrs. to 09.15hrs.) Arrived Banaue at 18.00hrs.|
|21 March||Birding Mount Polis.|
|22 March||Birding Mount Polis and Bay-yu.|
|23 March||Left Banaue at 05.00hrs. Arrived Angat at 13.45hrs. Birding Angat.|
|24 March||All day birding Angat.|
|25 March||Birding Angat. Left for Manila just after 13.00hrs. Went to airport and got Lufthansa 20.35hrs. flight to Frankfurt (via Bangkok).|
|26 March||Arrived Frankfurt at 06.45 hrs. Long wait at Frankfurt airport for 13.50hrs. flight to Dublin.|
Left Dublin at 12.35 hrs. on Lufthansa flight LH4539 to Frankfurt arriving at 15.35hrs. 6 hours after arriving in Frankfurt took onward Lufthansa connection (LH750) direct to Manila.
Arrived Manila (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) at 17.00hrs. After quite a while waiting, not helped by some confusion as to where the meeting points were outside the crowded airport, I met Tim Fisher's driver Nonoy (or rather Nonoy's assistant), who had a sign with my name on it. Always a welcome sight on arrival in a foreign place. Driven to the Townhouse Hotel in Pasay, Manila, where Tim Fisher had made a reservation for me. Nonoy gave me the tickets for the internal flights and a final print-out of the trip itinerary and schedule from Tim Fisher.
Couldn't sleep much due to jet lag but mostly the general anticipation of the day to come. Took taxi from the Townhouse to the airport (domestic terminal) at 03.10 hrs for the 05.10hrs. Cebu Pacific flight (5J381) to Cagayan de Oro on Mindanao. Left on time and arrived Cagayan de Oro at 06.35hrs. where I was met by HA and TA, who had arrived in Mindanao a few days beforehand. They had met up with our drivers and the 4WD, supplied by Tim Fisher, the previous day. Tim Fisher's people had bought food for us in Cagayan for our stay at Mount Katanglad, so we were able to begin straight away on the journey there.
Our driver gave me a letter from Tim Fisher who had just spent a few days at Mount Katanglad with a birding tour group. We were somewhat disheartened to read the following lines "I have just been to Katanglad with Ben King/Kingbird and basically missed the Eagle although 3 people who stayed at camp saw it! The young bird flies up and down the valley and could be anywhere." Not very encouraging news as we made our way towards the mountain...
We arrived at Dalwangan after a few hours and called to Carlito's house where we gave him our names. After a short while we continued back up the road and took a rough side track off the road through pineapples fields and ended up in a small village just after 10.00hrs. A boy by the name of 'Leo', who was some relation to Carlito I think, was appointed to lead us the way to the track up the mountain since our intended guide 'Ake' never showed. We proceeded up the mountain, leaving our larger bags behind to be strapped to the horses which would follow us up afterwards. After close to two hours of a hot and sweaty tough up-hill walk on a rough track through mainly cultivated areas in the mid-morning heat we arrived at the fairly dilapidated Del Monte lodge. This was built as a gesture by Del Monte to the conservation of the area. A bit ironic after seeing all the areas which had been turned to pineapple fields!
The Lodge is at an altitude of c.4200 feet. Only birds noted on the ascent were Striated Grassbirds, Long-tailed Shrikes, a few Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers and a single Black-shouldered Kite.
After replenishing with some drinks and a quick read of the birders' log book, we wandered up the trail a short way until we reached the very first look-out on the ridge over the forest. One or two distant raptors soaring over the far ridges remained unidentified but were certainly not Philippine Eagles on size. Our 'scopes were with the horses still! Returning to the lodge for lunch, we were greeted by the sound of the horses which had arrived with our packs. After unpacking, Jimmy, the cook, made some lunch for us.
After lunch we set out up the trail to go higher up the mountain. After going through patches of forest and crossing cabbage fields with occasional small squatters' dwellings alongside, Leo brought us to the lower eagle look-out point, really just an area which commanded a good view across the still forested valley below us and ridges in the distance. He pointed to some trees where the eagles had nested a few years ago, but unfortunately we saw no sign of any birds of prey that afternoon. By 16.00hrs. the clouds had gathered and the rain had begun. It gradually got heavier and when we arrived back to the lodge by late evening we were wet through. The rain cleared a bit towards dusk when we heard Great-eared Nightjar calling, and a probable Philippine Frogmouth called briefly. Birding highlights in the afternoon were 3 Philippine Hanging Parrots seen well, a brief sighting of a Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill, 2 Stripe-breasted Rhabdornises, Brown Tit Babbler, Mindanao Mountain Tailorbird, Mountain Verditer Flycatcher, Olive-capped and Bicoloured Flowerpeckers and a Black-and-cinnamon Fantail. Generally, birding was slow with less birds seen than we would have hoped for today.
Got up at 05.00hrs. We heard a 'Philippine' Woodcock calling a few times as it roded pre-dawn but it didn't break the skyline and we failed to pick it up against the trees. After a good breakfast we set off with Leo tagging along to show us the way to the eagle look-out points. This time we went higher and went straight to the upper eagle view-point, passing through small remnant patches of forest and larger areas of cultivation and crops. At the upper view-point the weather was turning hot and sunny as we scanned the ridges and moss-laden trees across the valley.
By 11.00 hrs., I had separated from the others to take a scan back down the valley. After hearing Howard give a shout, I quickly returned. Through the 'scope, Thaïs had picked up a "white blob" sitting in the tree tops way across the valley. As she was watching it, however, a bank of low cloud rolled in and covered the areas completely. She was sure however that the "blob" had moved just before the cloud came in, and it looked good for a Philippine Eagle. After a while the cloud blew off and through 40x it was obvious that this was a Philippine Eagle!! The dark upper parts, white underparts together with the huge size were very obvious even from this distance. Closer scrutiny revealed the shaggy mane, blowing at times in the wind and a dark face patch when the bird looked face-on (making it look vaguely like a Black-and-white Colobus monkey at times!). Our first full day, and we had seen the Mega-bird of the trip already! We stared at the bird for the next half hour until suddenly it took to the air and started soaring over the ridges across the valley. Excitement grew further when we realised that there was now a second Philippine Eagle in the air with the first one. As we ate our packed lunch, we were able to watch the birds for the next three and a half hours soaring together and landing in the trees across the valley. Eventually, one bird disappeared out of sight over a ridge, but the other flew slightly closer to us before flying up a valley further up the mountain. A memorable sighting.
By 14.30hrs. both birds had disappeared, so we continued further up the mountain to try to see more of the specialities. We were rewarded with nice scope views of 2 Apo Mynas. We could not find any Apo Sunbirds however. They are usually to be found at the highest points of the mountain (above 6000 feet). After a while we headed back down the mountain with Leo, and he brought us to a remnant patch of forest known as 'Bagobo Wood'. This is a regular spot to see the rare and elusive Hombron's (Blue-capped) Kingfisher. It's also a spot for the little known and seldomly seen Bagobo Babbler. Unfortunately we saw neither this evening. By dusk we returned to the lodge getting back just before the rain started. A 'Philippine' Woodcock gave a brief sighting as it roded its territory at dusk. Other birding highlights today were Philippine Serpent Eagle, Philippine Falconet, 2 Mindanao Montane Racquet-tails, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Short-tailed Glossy Starling and Grey-hooded Sunbird. We heard Long-tailed Bush Warbler for the first time, but despite our best efforts, failed to see it.
Up at 04.45 hrs. 2 'Philippine' Woodcocks were seen just before dawn. However, the only other night birds in evidence were a few Great-eared Nightjars. Took a quick look on the small trail behind the lodge before breakfast. After eating we started up the mountain again, this time turning to the left at the sign and crossing a stream. Further along the trail ended and we crossed more fields towards 'Bagobo Wood'. By midday the clouds were already gathering, and by 13.00hrs. the rain started. Soon it was torrential, turning the trails to flowing streams. We were realising how lucky we may have been with yesterday's weather and our sightings of the Eagles. We stayed in the wood for quite some time but saw no sign of Hombron's Kingfisher. We then went further up the mountain and in the late afternoon waded back through the muddy trails and ended up back at the lodge by 18.30hrs., well and truly soaked right through. Birding highlights were 1 Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove, a McGregor's Cuckooshrike, first Elegant Tits of the trip, Tawny Grassbird, first Cinnamon Ibons of the trip, a pair of Mugimaki Flycatchers and 3 White-cheeked Bullfinches, which were probably the day's highlight. In addition we heard our first Philippine (Plain) Bush Hen calling.
Up again at 04.45hrs. Headed up to 'Bagobo Wood' area again with Leo. Although we knew our way around by now, Leo came with us anyway.
After playing a tape of Hombron's Kingfisher, we couldn't believe our luck when a male Hombron's flew in and perched in a tree beside the trail. TA could see it in full view, and after some initial panic we all got on to it, even getting a slightly obscured 'scope view through the leaves before it flew. We saw it again briefly back up the trail. We then heard another bird calling further back along the trail. After some searching we finally located the source of the call. It was a female Hombron's. The bird was right at the edge of the forest only a few metres from the cleared area and crop field with a squatter's hut. It sat at eye-level off the trail and allowed us to watch it in full view for a few minutes before flying off deeper into the forest patch. A sad reality that the birds are holding on in such a small and degraded area of forest.
We continued up the mountain to the upper Eagle view-point, getting there by 11.45hrs. However, before we even made it this far, the earlier clear blue skies had turned grey with cloud. Very soon the rain began. We sheltered for a while in a small empty hut on the upper slopes until it eased off a bit. The rain continued on and off for the rest of the day however, torrential at times. Once again we got totally saturated. We realised as we descended to the lodge on trails that had again become flowing streams that we were not going to see Apo Sunbird on this trip. On the way back we were amazed to see that the trail that leads down to the gully and small stream at the Eagle sign was now a raging torrent. We got back to the lodge by dusk and tried to dry out. Jimmy cooked us up a good meal which we enjoyed while recounting our Hombron's Kingfisher sightings. The rain was still falling heavily right into the night. Other birding highlights today were at least 2 'Philippine' Woodcock, heard Lesser Eagle Owl at dawn and dusk around the lodge but unfortunately not seen, 4 McGregor's Cuckooshrikes, 3 Apo Mynas and 4 White-cheeked Bullfinches.
Awoke to find that it wasn't raining! Clear blue skies, and we were leaving the area this morning... We birded around the lodge for a few hours and at 07.45hrs. started the descent back towards Dalwangan. The track was very muddy and slippery in places, and we now had to wade across a wide stream which had become a raging torrent. The jeep was waiting for us when we got back to the small village. Our bags were unpacked from the horses and we loaded up. We said goodbye to Leo (and most of the village!) and began the long journey to Bislig soon after 09.00hrs. The rest of the day was spent travelling, and we finally arrived at the Paper Country Inn at Bislig at 20.20hrs. In the reception we met 'Zardo', the local bird guide, who had been expecting us. He would be accompanying us to PICOP throughout our stay. We ate some dinner and discussed with Zardo the best plan for tomorrow and quizzed him about our target birds.
Birding highlights: The main highlight was a Mindanao Lorikeet which flew over the lodge before we left at about 07.00hrs. A single Bush Hen was heard calling on the descent from the mountain, A 'Philippine' Woodcock flew over the lodge at dawn and a Philippine Frogmouth was heard calling but couldn't be located.
Today was to be amongst the best and most memorable days birding I've ever had, if not the best ever. We got up for 04.30hrs. and had breakfast. After getting our packed lunch from the hotel (ordered the previous evening), Zardo arrived with a jeepney at 05.00hrs. We travelled to PICOP with him and began birding on road 1, but soon started onto road 1/4. The trees were alive with birds, and amongst the highlights we had soon seen White-eared Brown Dove, Guaiabero, (Philippine) Drongo Cuckoo, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Philippine Falconet, Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill, Black-bibbed Cuckooshrike, Philippine Leafbird, Yellow-wattled Bulbul, Yellowish Bulbul, Philippine Oriole, Philippine Fairy Bluebird, Pygmy Babbler, Rufous Paradise Flycatcher and our first Coletos. The weather too was fantastic with continuous warm sunshine all day.
Birding was so good that we had only moved a few hundred metres down the road in 2 hours. Then we suddenly heard what we all recognised as an Azure-breasted (Steere's) Pitta calling some distance off the track deep in the forest. We wandered off the track with Zardo and after some stalking we all succeeded in getting good views of this brilliant bird. Thaïs even got some video footage. A second bird was also seen briefly. Further along road 1/4, we went from one mega-bird to another, with a Rufous-lored (Winchell's) Kingfisher next. It gave good views as it sat high in the canopy calling. Next Zardo brought us in a short way off the track again and asked us to play our recording of Black-headed (White-browed) Tailorbird. Within in a minute a small flicker of movement revealed itself as a male Black-headed Tailorbird. It moved around a lot and gave brief but good views as it moved through the undergrowth. Once or twice it sat in full view as it sang briefly. A 'Near-threatened' species and a real skulker too, unlike most of the mainland Asian tailorbirds. It would have been all but impossible to see without a tape. A female then joined it, and we obtained more views of both birds together. Thaïs again managed to obtain some video footage of the male.
Further along the road we heard a call which we realised was a Red-bellied Pitta. After a minute or so the calling stopped. However we went in through the undergrowth towards the general area we thought the call had originated from. We played the tape of Red-bellied Pitta once or twice and waited. Nothing. After about 15 minutes we decided the bird wasn't going to respond and were about to head back to the road. Just as we went to turn back I got a glimpse of a movement just a few metres away across the small stream. I thought it was a small mammal at first, until it suddenly revealed itself as a fantastic Red-bellied Pitta as it bounded kangaroo-like across our view and flew across the small stream towards us. It then sat in full view for a few seconds before disappearing, never to be seen again. Two pitta ticks in one day. What a day this had been so far.
By 14.45 hrs. the birding on road 1/4 was getting a little slower, and the only new bird we'd seen in the previous hour had been brief views of a Naked-faced Spiderhunter. Zardo suggested we drive back to road 1 and look for the Silvery Kingfisher at the roadside pools there. We had no sign of any at the first pool and nothing at the second. However at the last pool we visited (the one nearest the beginning of the road) we got fantastic views of this extremely beautiful species. Thaïs obtained some good video footage as the bird sat in the vegetation overhanging the forest pool. Suddenly a movement nearby in the vegetation revealed itself as a Philippine (Plain) Bush Hen. It then walked into full view, and we couldn't decide which to look at, the Kingfisher or the Bush Hen. Another Bush Hen appeared and the two birds disappeared slowly through the thick vegetation on a small island in the pool. This was an added bonus. After hearing Bush Hens at Katanglad, we hadn't expected to see such a skulking species with so little effort.
Zardo then suggested an evening visit to the Bislig airfield marshes. We left PICOP, stopping for a cola en route. After half an hour or so, we arrived at the gates of the airfield and drove along the runway of the tiny airport which runs parallel to the marshes. We stopped to view the marshes, which look fairly overgrown with no open patches of water visible at all, just sedges, marshy fields and scrub. To get a better view, Zardo suggested we climb onto the roof of the jeepney and set the 'scopes up there. A good idea. We soon obtained flight views of Philippine Duck and Wandering Whistling Duck. Also seen were Watercock and Ruddy-breasted Crake, Yellow Bittern and a perfect end to this fantastic day was provided by mega-close views of a hunting Australasian Grass Owl in full daylight, as it quartered the marshes. Videod again by Thaïs.
This time we got up at 04.20hrs, deciding to bring a packed breakfast with our packed lunch, so as to reach the forest in time for dawn. Zardo and the jeepney arrived at 04.30hrs. We went first to logging road 4a at PICOP. Hornbills were in evidence at the start of the road. We had up to 5 Rufous Hornbills (our only ones of the trip) and brief views of a pair of the endangered Writhed Hornbill. Birding was quite a bit slower generally than on road 1/4 yesterday but by early afternoon we had seen a few good species, the highlight being a pair of Mindanao Wattled Broadbills, one bird of which gave stunning views as it sat just above eye level in full view right beside the road for a few minutes. The other main highlight was a stunning male Philippine Trogon which too sat in full view for a few minutes. Once again, Thaïs managed to obtain some excellent video footage of both. Also seen was a Black-faced Coucal briefly and our first Blue Fantail. Zardo then brought us to an area on road 4a where Birdquest had seen Little Slaty Flycatcher a few weeks previously. Unfortunately we had no sign of any.
In the afternoon we went to road 1/4, this time starting at the opposite end of it. Much quieter than yesterday, probably because of the time of day, and we just heard a Philippine Trogon calling. We drove up to the top of road 1/4 and onto road 1 and took a quick look at the first pool before leaving the area. We had a fleeting glimpse of the Silvery Kingfisher as it zipped around the corner into the forest. A single Bush Hen showed itself for a short period again though.
In the evening we went once again to the Bislig Airfield Marshes, arriving at c. 17.00hrs. From the top of the jeepney we obtained excellent close flight views of a group of Philippine Ducks, much more satisfactory than the previous evening's views. In the end we had counted 15 Philippine Ducks. Other birds noted were Cinnamon Bitterns, Watercock and an Australian Grass Owl, more distant however than last evening's sighting. By 17.30hrs. the ominous grey clouds were approaching fast, and torrential rain had begun within a few minutes of us leaving the airfield. The rain was to continue heavily right through the night.
Got up at 04.45hrs. and Zardo arrived at 05.00 hrs. with the jeepney. Today was our last full day at PICOP so we wanted to try our best to see the target species we hadn't seen so far, namely Short-crested and Celestial Monarchs, Philippine Needletail, Blue-crowned Racquet-tail, Little Slaty Flycatcher and Spotted Imperial Pigeon. Unfortunately this morning it was still raining, and this rain continued, heavy at times, until close to midday. Main highlights were Amethyst Brown Dove, Pompadour Green Pigeon, 2 Black-faced Coucals and a Naked-faced Spiderhunter. After some time at road 1 without seeing any racquet-tails, or monarchs other than Black-naped on road 1/4, we moved on to road 4 to try for Philippine Needletail. After about half an hour of waiting on the road, looking skywards at the Island (Uniform) and Pygmy Swiftlets, a large bat-like swift appeared in the distance. As it approached slightly closer, 'scope views revealed the diagnostic white flashes on the underwing coverts. Philippine Needletail! A really spectacular looking bat-like swift and a little-known and rare species generally.
After this, it was back to try for the racquet-tail again, but once more without success. In the evening we went to some paddyfields near the Bislig airfield marshes. Once again it was onto the roof of the jeepney with the 'scopes to get a good view over the area. We certainly attracted a lot of attention from the local children in doing this! Birding highlights this evening were 2 White-browed Crakes, 4 Philippine Ducks and 30 Pacific Golden Plovers.
When we returned to the hotel, Tim Fisher rang us to tell us that the departure time of our forthcoming Cebu to Manila flight on 16 March had been changed to two hours later by Cebu Pacific.
We got up for breakfast at 04.40hrs. and left with Zardo in the jeepney at 05.00hrs. for our last few hours at PICOP, before leaving for Davao and our onward flight to Cebu. Once again we tried for Blue-crowned Racquet-tail on road 1. Some parrots calling in tall trees eventually revealed themselves and were seen to be Blue-backed Parrots. In the same general area we had nice views of Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon and then a Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, but unfortunately no racquet-tails. We then went to the first pool on road 1 where the Silvery Kingfisher once again gave great views. After that we made a last attempt for the monarchs on road 1/4. As we drove down road 1/4 the rain began. We stopped halfway along the road, supposedly the best area for the Short-crested Monarch, in a feeding flock, which regularly passes through this area. Unfortunately once again the few monarchs we could find all proved to be Black-naped. We walked along the road armed with umbrellas, as the rain was now quite heavy. Best birds were 3 Black-and-white Trillers, Philippine Orioles and another brief sighting of a Naked-faced Spiderhunter. The main highlight though was a pair of Writhed Hornbills which flew into a large tree beside the road and sat sheltering from the rain. They even stayed long enough for us to go back to the jeepney and get our 'scopes, giving great views. We left them there sitting out the rain with arched backs and bowed heads. As we headed back to the jeepney we wondered how long more they and the other terrific birds we saw at PICOP could survive the relentless and continuous logging of the area.
We went back to The Paper Country Inn and checked out by 10.40hrs. Tim Fisher had asked Zardo to organise a driver and car to get us to Davao in time for the 17.00hrs. flight to Cebu. Tim suggested leaving no later than 10.30hrs. in order to make the flight. We had driven about 20km from Bislig when a loud rattling noise coming from the underbody forced us to stop. We all got out as the driver and his mate and a group of locals started looking underneath. The fuel tank was dragging along the ground! We looked at our watches and knew that it was more than a 5 hour drive to Davao and our flight was at 17.00hrs.!! After about twenty minutes they told us that there was nothing for it but to go back to Bislig and get another vehicle. They had resecured the fuel tank, but it was now leaking fuel! We reckoned there was now little if any chance of making the flight. After another half hour we were back in Bislig with the driver trying to sort out somebody else to go with us to Davao. We took a motor tricycle to the Paper Country Inn, where they were surprised to see us back again. We 'phoned Davao airport and found out that the 17.00hrs. flight was the last one to Cebu that day. However, we were told that there was availability on the first morning flight the next day and we could go on that if we missed the one that evening. Useful to know but it would mean that we'd have no real time for birding on Cebu with our tight schedule. When the person on the 'phone heard that we were still in Bislig at 12.10hrs., they said there was no way we'd get to Davao for the 17.00hrs!
By 12.20hrs. we were on the way with a new vehicle and driver. This guy didn't hang around, knowing the urgency of the situation and amazingly, to his great credit, got us safely to Davao airport by 16.20hrs, although he took a few serious risks on the road! We made the flight (Philippine Airlines PR460) with time to spare. Thankfully the airport is on the eastern side of Davao so we didn't have to go through the city, saving time.
We arrived into Cebu at 18.00hrs. and were met by Jojo, a driver who works for the Cebu Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (CBCF). He brought us to the Tonros Hotel where we met Sol, a research student from the University of Los Baños, Mount Makiling, in Luzon. She now works for the CBCF and is involved with the conservation of the remaining forest on Cebu. Sol had been expecting us. We asked about the Cebu Flowerpeckers and whether there had been any recent sightings. A few weeks ago, one sighting, she said. She was friendly, helpful and very enthusiastic in her job. We checked into the Tonros where Tim Fisher had made reservations for us and arranged for Jojo to bring us to the Tabunan Forest at 05.00hrs. the next day.
Jojo arrived soon after 05.00hrs., and soon we were on the road heading towards the Tabunan Forest. On getting there we met the local guide Oking. Oking's house is close to the forest edge. Jojo stayed with the car and we followed Oking across the cultivated fields towards the forest. We weren't long on the trail through the forest when Oking stopped and suggested we play the tape of Black Shama to lure one into view. Within a few seconds of playing the tape a bird flew in and gave us good views on and off for a few minutes. A rare species, once though to be extinct. We went onward up the trail hearing one or two more Shamas singing as we climbed. We arrived at the 'new' Cebu Flowerpecker look-out point at c.07.15hrs. This consists simply of a jagged limestone pinnacle which gives a slightly elevated view over the surrounding trees. The vegetation around the original look-out point which has a small wooden platform, has now apparently become too overgrown, and the platform is collapsing in places.
As we tried to find comfortable standing points on the narrow jagged rocks, it was obvious that bird activity was high and the forest was alive with birds. Many Red-keeled Flowerpeckers were in evidence. We couldn't believe it when Oking cupped his ear and drew our attention to a flowerpecker call which he said was Cebu Flowerpecker. Then silence, and for the next few anxious minutes we heard nothing. At 07.50hrs. a small bird flew into the tree right above us. We couldn't believe our luck when we saw a flowerpecker with black head, rich chestnut upperparts and gleaming white underparts. Cebu Flowerpecker! A good candidate for the world's rarest and most threatened bird species. We watched it for about a minute as it struggled to eat a large green insect. It even stayed long enough in the one spot to allow me to get a 'scope on it (not easy on the jagged rocks) and to allow Thaïs to get some brief video footage. We realised just how lucky we were when Oking declared that he had spent 3 days recently at the look-out with some birders and failed to see the species. He visits the site almost daily and sees it roughly 2 or 3 times a month he said. At 10.20hrs. the bird returned and gave us another good view. Another highlight of the morning was 3 Blue-crowned Racquet-tails which flew past us a few times calling noisily. A species we had failed to see at PICOP and had not really expected to see here. By midday, bird activity at the look-out had decreased and we decided to descend and look for Streak-breasted Bulbul. With Oking, we heard a few, and Howard and Thaïs succeeded in getting some brief views. I failed to see any unfortunately, but we did get some more nice view of a Black Shama. Other highlights today were the Cebu race of Coppersmith Barbet (with reddish cheeks), our first Balicassiao sightings and Lovely Sunbird.
While at the 'new' view-point, Oking also heard the call of an Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. This Cebu race pallidus was long thought to have become extinct. Oking told us he had seen it here recently. Unfortunately the bird didn't show this morning. By 14.00hrs. we prepared to leave the forest and head back to Cebu City to get the ferry to Bohol. Firstly we went back to Oking's house and met his young wife and baby and signed his birders' logbook. We were impressed by him, for his friendliness and helpfulness. He is also a very dedicated observer, taking down details of all sightings in his notebook.
We drove back to Cebu with Jojo, stopping off at the CBCF Headquarters to inform Sol of our successful day and to thank them all for their help and hospitality. We also made a donation to the Foundation. Sol had arranged the tickets for us on the ferry to Bohol, and we collected them from her. After a welcome cup of coffee we went with Jojo to the ferry terminal. We took the 19.00hrs. ferry to Tagbilaran on Bohol. We arrived in Tagbilaran and met the driver with our names on a sign. He brought us to Slims Hotel in Tagbilaran where we spent the night.
We checked out of Slims Hotel at 04.00hrs. and travelled to the Chocolate Hills Hotel just beyond the Rajah Sikatuna National Park. The view of the hills at dawn was spectacular. We woke some staff up and checked into the Chocolate Hills Hotel at 05.30hrs! This would be a difficult thing to do in some places, but not here in The Philippines.
We left our bags and soon travelled the road the short distance back to Rajah Sikatuna National Park. The car and our driver stayed at the small headquarters situated just after the swimming pool, and we started walking up the Valley Trail (now renamed 'Brahminy Trail'). We soon heard an Azure-breasted Pitta calling off the trail. After a few minutes we were watching this beautiful bird calling from up in a tree a short distance off the trail. We moved further along the Valley Trail and obtained brief and unsatisfactory views of some hornbills, presumably Samar Hornbill. After the occasional playing of a recording of Yellow-breasted (Samar) Tailorbird, we eventually heard a bird singing further up the trail. After some anxious moments we obtained brief but reasonable views as the bird darted around though the undergrowth of the forest. Another very skulking tailorbird that would be very difficult to see without a tape.
We continued on and took the turn off for the 'Tarictic Trail' and came out eventually at the swimming pool. Birding was generally very slow, with much of the forest being totally 'birdless'. We then headed down towards the scout camp clearing, getting better views of Samar Hornbill there. After spending some time in this area we went up the trail at the far end towards the 'Steere's Pitta Trail' and ending back up to the 'Brahminy Trail'. We saw a few Black-faced Coucals, Black-crowned Babblers, a Philippine Trogon and number of Coletos but no sign at all of our main target, Visayan Wattled Broadbill.
In the evening we drove back down to the scout camp clearing to try for nightbirds. The generally quiet day was to be rescued by the night birds: Just after dusk we were standing in the clearing near the cages, when a large bird came flying across from the far ridge. I was expecting a Brahminy Kite or even a fruit bat, both of which had been in the area. I was shocked to see that it was a huge owl when I put the binoculars on it: Philippine Eagle Owl! It disappeared over our heads into the trees and scattered all the fruit bats out of a tree. That was all we saw of it, but a very welcome and unexpected sighting of a rarely seen and endangered species. We subsequently heard Philippine Hawk Owl calling but failed to see it. We also heard the 'chop-chop' call of a Philippine Nightjar, but again we failed to see it. We did however succeed with Philippine Frogmouth, eventually spotlighting a calling bird which sat a few feet off the ground, near the entrance to the clearing. It stayed for a few seconds before flying deeper into the forest. We also heard at least 2 more calling nearby, but failed to spotlight them. We left the area at 19.30 hrs., by which time things had gone quiet, and headed back in the car to the Chocolate Hills Hotel.
We got up at 04.40hrs. and left the hotel at 05.00hrs. to drive back to Rajah Sikatuna National Park. Firstly went down the 'Brahminy (Valley) Trail' and continued onwards to the 'Steere's Pitta Trail', coming out at the scout camp/nature centre clearing. Still no Visayan Wattled Broadbills. Frustratingly we heard a Striated Wren Babbler (Streaked Ground Babbler) but never managed to see it. We also heard a number of Rufous-fronted Tailorbirds high in the canopy but could never get a decent look at this elusive species.
Unfortunately heavy rain arrived by 11.30hrs. so we spent a good while sheltering in a small hut/shelter at the scout camp clearing, taking a nap too. All these early morning starts were starting to catch up with us. The rain didn't stop until 17.00hrs. Maybe because of the wet and damp conditions, the nightbirding was useless around the clearing compared to the previous evening with 2 Great-eared Nightjars being the only birds heard and seen. We stayed until c. 19.30hrs. and then returned to the Chocolate Hills Hotel. Birding highlights today were few, but in addition to the above included 2 Philippine Trogons seen and another 2 heard, 1 White-bellied Woodpecker flying over the scout clearing, 6 Samar Hornbills, Black-chinned Fruit Dove (heard only), Yellow-breasted (Samar) Tailorbird (heard only) and 2 Azure-breasted Pittas (also heard only).
Since this was to be our last visit to Rajah Sikatuna National Park, we decided to give the nightbirding one final go here, so checked out of the Chocolate Hills Hotel and left for Rajah Sikatuna National Park at 04.00hrs. Unfortunately it was still raining. Around the small headquarters we played a tape of Philippine Scops Owl, and I got a brief view of a small owl soon afterwards. However, the views were unsatisfactory, and the heavy rain didn't help the situation. More than likely it was a Philippine Scops. We birded in the rain up the road towards the 'Valley (Brahminy) Trail', the beginning of which was now completely flooded. We didn't go down it since we had to leave soon. Returning to the swimming pool area we went a short way up the trail here. Very few birds were in evidence, just a few Emerald Doves, and we heard 2 Red Junglefowl and a few Samar Hornbills calling. With rain still falling at 10.10hrs. we left Rajah Sikatuna National Park and drove towards Tagbilaran to catch the 13.30hrs. ferry back to Cebu.
En route our driver stopped on the roadside where there was a tarsier colony being kept in a cage. When he mentioned it at first, we were not very interested in visiting. We expected it to be cruel and touristy, especially when he suggested we could "hold the smallest monkey in the world". However, the people running the set-up knew a lot about tarsiers, and they were able to educate the local people in some way about the importance of the forest for the tarsier. The tarsiers seemed to be well looked after too. Also there was no fee to photograph or video them, like I was at first expecting, just a box to give a voluntary donation towards their upkeep.
We got the 13.30hrs. ferry back to Cebu, arriving back at 15.00hrs. It was an enclosed ferry but we managed to see some Great Crested Terns, Whiskered Terns, Black-headed Gulls and 2 White-winged Black Terns through the windows. At Cebu we were met by Sol and Cha (who also works for the CBCF), together with Jojo. Jojo then gave us a lift to the airport where we caught the 19.00hrs flight (5J570) (rescheduled from 17.00hrs.) with Cebu Pacific to Manila. At Manila, we were met by Nonoy (Tim Fisher's driver) and Nonoy's assistant. Nonoy drove us south to the City of Springs Hotel at Los Baños, our base while visiting Mount Makiling.
Got up at 04.45hrs. Nonoy couldn't accompany us to Mt. Makiling today, so he organised a jeepney for us. Carlito, our driver arrived just after 05.00hrs. We arrived in darkness at the university campus area, and after asking some directions (Carlito hadn't been there before!), we drove up the trail towards the summit. Soon after dawn we had reached the junction with the food stalls. We stopped here and then began walking towards the summit. Birding highlights were a female Spotted Wood Kingfisher, which we taped in. It then sat giving good views for a few minutes. After some effort, we all finally got good views of the skulking White-browed Shama, eventually seeing 3 birds and hearing another 2 singing. Birding was generally slow, and much of the morning was spent walking along very quiet trails. We got brief and unsatisfactory views of a Red (Rough)-crested Malkoha, a species we had expected to be easier to see here. We also heard a Red-bellied Pitta calling and had brief views of a Pechora Pipit walking on the forest floor down a ridge. We heard 2 Black-chinned Fruit Doves calling from the high canopy but failed to see them. Apart from these and Balicassiaos, together with many flowerpeckers, some of which gave enough views to see that they were Striped Flowerpeckers, we saw little else. We walked back down to the jeepney and then drove from here down to the university grounds, where we visited the Botanical Gardens and the Raptor Centre which is in its grounds. Here they have a captive Philippine Eagle. Up close you can really see what an impressive species this is. Most of the species of raptors of the Philippines are to be found in captivity here. We saw little else bird-wise in the gardens.
We then visited the track opposite the Dairy Husbandry building in the university grounds. We had heard it was a good site to see Spotted Buttonquail. After some waiting we succeeded in seeing up to 6 Spotted Buttonquail here, with nice 'scope views of birds on the ground. We also saw 2 Barred Rails here.
Towards late evening we returned to the track up the mountain and tried spotlighting for nightbirds. We heard at least 3 Philippine Hawk Owls, and with the help of tape playback one eventually flew in and gave some views as it sat in a tall tree above our heads. The only other bird we heard was a Great-eared Nightjar. At 19.00hrs. we drove back to the City of Springs Hotel, where we had a meal which was fairly good.
Since we only had one more morning at Makiling, we wanted to try for nightbirds again, so got up at 03.45hrs. and checked out of the City of Springs by 04.00hrs. With Nonoy we headed back to the university grounds and Mt. Makiling. We spent some time spotlighting a short way up from the trail beyond the Environmental Centre. We heard a single Philippine Scops and a Philippine Hawk Owl, but saw neither. At dawn we tried a bit further up at a clearing and a sharp bend where Ashy Thrush was sometimes to be seen at dawn. Unfortunately there was no sign, and it was generally quite birdless. We did hear a Luzon Bleeding Heart calling but despite our best efforts, we just couldn't see it. It usually stopped calling when you went in after it, only to start calling from further off in the forest some minutes later.
We then drove higher up the mountain than we had gone yesterday, going as far as the car could go on the track, and then began walking towards the summit. We went to c.700m altitude. Highlights were a Lemon-throated Leaf Warbler, a Golden (Yellowish) White eye, our first Blue-headed Fantails and a single Arctic Warbler. We heard a few Grey-backed Tailorbirds (but only HA managed a decent view of one). We also saw 2 Philippine Trogons, 2 Guaiaberos, a Black-crowned Babbler and heard a White-browed Shama. We heard another Luzon Bleeding Heart, but again failed to see it. We walked back down the mountain and met Nonoy and the car at the base. At about 13.00hrs. we left, stopping off at a McDonald's in Los Baños for lunch.
We drove towards the Quezon National Park, planning to stop at the Pagbilao fish ponds on the way for a while in the late evening. We eventually arrived at Pagbilao at about 17.00hrs. This was a change from forest birding for a while, with lots of egrets, herons and waders present. Best birds were a Grey-tailed Tattler and a Greater Sandplover. At 18.30hrs., towards dusk, we drove back the road towards Ouan's Worth Farm where we got some cabins for the night. A nice complex generally. We arranged for packed breakfast/lunches for tomorrow.
Got up at 04.20hrs., checking out of Ouan's Worth farm by 04.30hrs. Nonoy drove us to the Quezon National Park. Unfortunately the weather was not in our favour, and it was to rain, sometimes quite heavily, for most of the morning. We arrived a short while pre-dawn at the National Park and went up the summit trail towards the cave/rock formation. Birding was very slow, and even more difficult than normal due to the rain. We eventually obtained some brief views of a Scale-feathered Malkoha. The day was saved however when TA came running back up the trail saying that she'd seen a dark blue flycatcher with greyish belly We all thought, as she did, that it must be a Blue-breasted Flycatcher. Amazingly, when we finally got back to the spot, the bird was still in the same general area. A Blue-breasted Flycatcher OK. It gave excellent views and even allowed some video footage to be taken.
Soon after 11.30hrs. we went down to the bridge, just as the rain was beginning to clear. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Indigo-banded Kingfisher at its 'usual' spot 100m or so downstream. We returned for a while to the Summit Trail but things were very quiet here in the early afternoon, although the rain had by now cleared completely. Then after a final look for the kingfisher at the bridge, without any luck, we left the area at 15.40hrs. and began the drive back to Manila. The traffic was horrendous for much of the way, and it took us over 4.5 hours to reach Manila. We arrived at the Townhouse (where I had spent my first night in Manila), at 20.20 hrs. We said good-bye to Nonoy. We would have another driver tomorrow to bring us northwards to Banaue and Mount Polis.
We checked out of the Townhouse at 04.00hrs. when June our driver arrived with the car. We drove north, arriving at 06.00hrs. at the Candaba marshes. To get here we drove off the main road and continued across tracks alongside paddyfields. June knew the best place to stop as he had been here many times previously with Tim Fisher and tour groups. The first birds we saw at dawn were a group of Oriental Pratincoles hawking across the paddyfields. Most of the marshes have been turned into paddyfields, but there is still a little bit of good bird habitat left. We birded along some of the tracks around the marshes. We knew however that we soon had to leave to continue on with the long journey to Banaue.
Unfortunately we saw no sign of any Streaked Reed Warblers, a rare and little-known species which winters in small numbers at Candaba marshes. Also no Middendorf's Grasshopper Warblers. The highlights this morning were a Pied Harrier, 3 Painted Snipe, a Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Swinhoe's Snipe, Long-toed Stints, an Island Collared Dove, some Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and stacks of Oriental Reed Warblers. Yellow Bitterns were very common, and we saw a few Cinnamon Bitterns too.
At 09.15hrs. we left and continued northwards. We stopped for lunch at La Vista restaurant in San José en route. At 18.00hrs. we finally arrived at Banaue and checked into the Spring Village/Welcome Inn. After showering and unpacking we took a walk up to the town and went to the Coolwinds Restaurant for food, which was quiet good. June arranged to go with us in a jeepney tomorrow to Mt. Polis at 04.30hrs and leave the car and the hotel. The jeepney could cope better with the road up to Mt. Polis which wasn't in great condition.
We left the Spring Village at 04.40 hrs. and went up as far as the army checkpoint on Mount Polis. It took well over an hour to get there. It was very cold, and we were glad we'd brought some extra clothes. We walked beyond the army base and further along the main road for a while, before returning to the army base and statue area. Highlight from the main road were great views of 2 Mountain Shrikes just down from summit. We also heard lots of Philippine Bush Warblers and eventually saw a few. We then crossed through the crop fields behind the army base and went up the narrow trail which leads along a ridge. Unfortunately we had absolutely no sign of Whiskered (Koch's) Pitta, our main target bird at Mount Polis. We knew that the Birdquest group had seen one in the general area a few weeks previously. We also had no sign of White-browed (Luzon) Jungle Flycatcher which had also been seen recently in the area. The best we had was our first Chestnut-faced Babblers, 2 Island Thrushes, Citrine Canary Flycatchers, Green-backed Whistlers and many Metallic-winged Sunbirds. We heard a few Long-tailed Bush Warblers and eventually got very brief views, HA and TA getting better views than I. In the late afternoon we emerged back at the army checkpoint and took a trail further back down the road towards a fairly degraded area of forest with recent landslides visible. This was very quiet however. Heavy fog rolled in by 16.00hrs., and we couldn't see a thing, so we left the area by 17.00hrs as we knew that spotlighting for owls would be useless in these conditions. We headed back down to Banaue and back to the Spring Village Hotel, eating again at the Cool Winds Restaurant.
We left with June in the jeepney at 04.00hrs, in order to get some pre-dawn nightbirding done at the summit, as we had missed out on last evening. When we got to the army checkpoint, we started walking slowly down the road beyond the summit. We played a recording of Luzon Scops Owl and heard a bird calling in the distance. It was calling from an inaccessible area across the ridge behind the army checkpoint however. Soon it got bright, and the bird stopped calling. We continued on down the road, stopping and scanning all the time. As we stood on the edge of the road, looking down over the canopy, TA called our attention to a bird flying across the valley further back up the road. Raising the bins. revealed a Flame-breasted (Marché's) Fruit Dove, which crossed the road and disappeared into the vegetation. Unfortunately we only got a fairly brief view, but it was adequate enough for such a bright and distinctive bird. We went back towards the area where we thought it had gone to, but only heard a clatter of wings as it vanished over the ridge. We weren't really expecting to see this rare species, so any views were a bonus. We also saw a pair of Flame-crowned Flowerpeckers which we hadn't seen before. Other birds seen in the area were much as yesterday.
It was very cold generally, until the sun came up and things warmed up a bit. We then decided to make our visit to Bay-yu, a village 6km down the road from the summit towards Bontoc. The suspension bridge over the river here is a stake-out for the endangered Luzon Water Redstart. On the way we drove past many impressive 2000 year old rice terraces in the valleys below and stopped to take some video and photos of these. We reached Bay-yu, and June got a local person to show us the best way down to the river through the rice terraces. By now the weather was getting quite hot. Before we had even gone as far as the bridge we spotted a female Luzon Water Redstart sitting on one of the large boulders in the clear fast flowing stream. From the bridge we obtained brilliant views of it, and soon it was joined by the male. TA managed to video both birds. As we were watching the birds we had to move off the narrow bridge to let the local people, who were carrying huge piles of leaves on their heads, cross. June told us that it was sunflower leaves, which they use as natural fertiliser for the paddyfields in the rice terraces. This probably explains why the river is so clean, and so the Luzon Water Redstarts still survive here. Long may it stay that way...
After another while of watching the birds, we made the tough climb up the steep slopes of the rice terraces back to Bay-yu and drove back up the mountain for our final birding at Mount Polis.
We went up the trail beyond the army's crop fields once again. Unfortunately we were still to have no success with Whiskered Pitta. We heard some Luzon Montane Racquet-tails calling a few times, but failed to see them, not helped by the fairly foggy and damp conditions which had recently arrived. We also heard a number of Long-tailed Bush Warblers but of course couldn't see them! At 16.00hrs. we made our way down the road beyond the checkpoint (in the direction of Bay-yu) for the last few hours. At dusk we again heard the Luzon Scops Owl, but as before it was calling from the same inaccessible ridge. We had good views of Island Thrushes around the summit in the late evening. By now the fog had lifted, and it was a beautiful clear evening.
We left to drive back to Banaue at 18.30hrs. After showering at the Spring Village Hotel, we once again ate at the Cool Winds Restaurant. Since our birding at Mt. Polis was over we realised now that our trip wouldn't get Whiskered Pitta and realised that we'd have to make the expedition to the more reliable, yet remote spot of Hamut Camp in the far north of Luzon on another trip some other time.
We checked out of the Spring Village at 05.00hrs. and headed south with June towards Angat Watershed, our final birding destination in the Philippines. We eventually arrived at Angat at 13.45hrs. June spoke to the people on the gates, and then we were admitted. He dropped us at our accommodation in the National Power Corporation complex at Hilltop. We said good-bye when he told us that it would be Nonoy who would be coming back to collect us and bring us to the airport in Manila the day after tomorrow. We checked in and left our bags in the rooms and found our way towards the Ridge Trail. From here we took the steep trail down towards the reservoir. Birding conditions were not great as although it was bright and sunny there was a strong breeze blowing. Also the continuous sound of cicadas in the forest were unbelievably noisy, and it was impossible to hear any bird calls because of this. We went down the very steep descent to the shore of the reservoir. The reservoir was fairly dry, and the small streams running into it had all dried out completely. Birding was slow. We did see an Osprey, a Rufous-bellied Eagle, a Grey-faced Buzzard, 3 Lesser Treeswifts and a White-bellied Woodpecker. We heard a White-browed Shama singing. We then made the tough climb back to the top and headed back along the road towards the complex. The only bird we saw on the way up was a confiding male Philippine Trogon which sat close by for a few minutes and allowed itself to be videoed. After dark we heard no owls or nightjars at all, but the breezy conditions didn't help. It turned out that the cook at the guest house was away, so we wandered around and eventually found a small shop/restaurant which cooked us up some eggs and noodles.
We left the complex by 04.30hrs. to walk up the Ridge Trail and try for owls before dawn. We heard a Philippine Scops Owl and a Philippine Hawk Owl calling but never saw them. A few Great-eared Nightjars were also heard. Then we began to walk up the Ridge Trail for a number of kilometres, passing through poor bamboo habitat before getting into more decent forest. Birding was very slow due to the noise of the cicadas and also the fact that birds were generally very wary and shy. We did obtain some reasonable views of a Red-crested Malkoha and 2 Scale-feathered Malkohas, both very beautiful species. Most views of birds were just blips, which got frustrating after a few hours. We heard 2 Luzon Bleeding Hearts in different areas of the forest beyond the bamboo, but unfortunately, despite much effort we couldn't see them in the very dense habitat. Eventually I got some views of a Grey-backed Tailorbird, after hearing 2 earlier along the trail (and frustratingly only hearing them at Mount Makiling). Other species noted were 2 Red Junglefowl (males), 2 White-browed Shamas (heard only), a Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and 2 Pygmy Flowerpeckers.
There was a good movement of birds of preys going northward at times. We counted over 30 Grey-faced Buzzards and a few Chinese Goshawks as well as an Eastern Marsh Harrier. Later we returned to the Reservoir Trail for the evening. On the way back we saw 2 Blackish Cuckooshrikes, our first sightings, and a species which we thought would be easier to see.
The generally poor day was saved by a fantastic Celestial Monarch down a side trail off the Reservoir Trail. We stalked the singing bird and got excellent views of it. TA managed to obtain some video. A tough species which we had missed at PICOP, earlier in the trip.
At dusk we were back on the main trail again trying to see the Philippine Scops Owl, but unfortunately only heard it briefly. Again we heard a few Great-eared Nightjars calling. We went back to the small shop/restaurant in the complex and had a meal which we had pre-arranged with them for 19.30hrs.
My last day in The Philippines. We left the complex at 04.30hrs. and went up to the start of the Reservoir Trail. We spotlighted for owls but this time didn't even hear one. All we heard were 2 Great-eared Nightjars. Going down the Reservoir Trail, we got brief views of 2 Sooty Woodpeckers, and then were frustrated by a singing White-lored Oriole which just would not show itself in the canopy. The only view I got was a useless naked eye-view glimpse, which didn't give me time to get the binoculars on it. At the end of the trail near the reservoir, our luck changed a bit when we finally saw the elusive Rufous Coucal, getting good views of 2 or 3 birds. A high pitched whistle here and a blip view of a small bird flying fast in a straight line through the trees made us suspect a Philippine Pygmy Kingfisher but it would have to remain 'the one that got away'. Other birds noted were a Red-crested Malkoha, 2 Luzon Tarictic Hornbills and a few Coletos. On the way back up the trail we got nice views of a very close White-browed Shama, my last memory of birding in The Philippines.
We then headed back towards our accommodation in the complex, getting back at 12.15hrs. We had to have a shower and pack our bags for the journey back. Nonoy arrived on cue soon after 13.00hrs. We drove southwards in the heavy traffic towards Manila, stopping off at a McDonald's for lunch on the way. In the evening we arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and I said my good-byes to Howard and Thaïs. My trip was finishing, but they were staying on in The Philippines for another few weeks of birding. Tomorrow they were flying to Palawan. I checked in at the departures and took the 20.35hrs. Lufthansa (LH745) flight to Frankfurt (stopping in Bangkok for 1 hour).
Arrived on time into Frankfurt at 06.45hrs. and then had a long wait in the airport terminal for the Lufthansa (LH4604) 13.50hrs. flight from Frankfurt to Dublin.
Species Endemic to The Philippines are underlined
Although views were a little more distant than we would have liked, most of the details on these spectacular birds could be picked up, although having a 40x eye-piece did help. Tim Fisher's advice to scan the far slopes for 'white blobs' paid off as this is how the first bird was brilliantly picked up by TA.
We looked for the birds over the following two days at Mount Katanglad, but had no sightings, not helped by bad weather with frequent rain and mist for much of the period.
The Philippine or 'Monkey-eating' Eagle is one of the largest and most spectacular birds of prey in the world (not the heaviest, but actually the tallest standing being close to 1m tall). Sadly, due to the almost total destruction of its forest habitat, it is now extremely rare and endangered. It is classed as 'Critical' by Collar et al (1994). The total world population was estimated at around 200 in the mid 1980's, but numbers have probably fallen since then with recent estimates mentioning just 22 left in the wild and a further 13 in captivity (Where to watch Birds in Asia, Wheatley ).
A pair bred at Mount Katanglad in 1999 and raised one young. However, by the time of our visit this young bird (which looks just like an adult now) had recently become totally independent, had stopped begging for food and was now moving around throughout the area. Thus it was much more difficult to see. We may have seen it plus one of the adults, or the pair of adults.
[We also had a brief view of what was probably a Philippine Pygmy Kingfisher Ceyx melanurus at Angat but didn't get enough on it to count it.]
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