Beautiful scenery, colorful cast of characters, costumes, weapons, adventures, magical moments, kings, golden crowns, waterfalls, rivers, natives, and ponies. Is this birding or a fantasy action adventure tale?
ANONYMOUS BIRDING BY A PERPETUAL NEWBIE
By R. Goodfellow
Our protagonists are the Swashbuckling Bird Guide, armed with laser pointer and witty repartee; the Dashing French Mountaineer, who with his trusty walking stick scaled all five of the Philippines’ tallest mountains; the green-thumbed, nimble-footed Farmer Blessed with a Silver Tongue; the Brash and Brawling Amazon out for fun and adventure; and Myself.
There were the usual processes upon our landing: handling luggage, finding transport to our lodgings for the evening, and settling in once we got there. We bought our much needed supplies like toyo, rope, garlic, sardines. And a few other survival essentials like SPAM. We returned to our beds that night, falling into a fitful, restless sleep, only to blink awake moments before the alarm. And so, our intrepid band of purposeful wanderers all but leapt out of our bedclothes and into our garments for the day, striding about before the sun had a chance to peer above the horizon and packing into a jeepney with all our gear and supplies.
Our ponies were selected for us, and our beloved Swashbuckler had provided thick foam mattresses upon which to sit our behinds. It was a most comfortable ride, the fact that I could have wrapped my legs around my pony’s belly notwithstanding.
That said, we set off on a four hour long pony ride that I thoroughly enjoyed, not having to worry about stumbling as I admired the ever changing landscape.
During the long ride up, we were treated to the sight of a large flock of Pompadour Green Pigeons, and a quick, sight of a flock of Spotted Imperial Pigeons! Our Guide was calling, and shouting for us to turn around and look, as we were some distance from one another, and by virtue of being somewhere near the end of the line, had seen the large birds swooping by.
After four hours and a river crossing, the horses were brought to rest. We stopped and stayed a while at the house of the Capitana, who was unfortunately not home. We had landed at Sawa, and the Swashbuckler had left his usual gift and offering for the Aeta woman governing the people in the lush forest. At the Capitana’s home I managed to change into compression socks and my trusty hiking boots, and immediately discovered the hardest, most difficult part of the entire trip. Compression socks are hard to put on. Really hard.
On the trail up to our camp, having stopped by a small, unused hut, we caught sight of a gorgeous Cream Bellied Fruit Dove, its plush underbelly beautifully offsetting the verdant greens of its wings, and the stark orange of its beak and legs. It remained sitting, and gave us a good, long look at it.
Dark clouds were starting to brew in my head as it seemed the trail would never end. Then we stopped to rest a while at a fallen log, catching our breath (Well, I was. Everyone else seemed fine. Damned them.) when the Amazon said, “Lets keep moving, I’m getting too comfortable here, let’s chat at the camp. How much longer?” Then, with a smirk tugging the corner of his lips, Swashy grinned, and said, “Well, 25 minutes if you want to stand around and chat, one if you walk around the bend…”
And sure enough as we forged on and turned the bend, we came across a most heartwarming, and soul-soothing sight.
Tents! Sleeping tents beneath low slung tarp awnings, a dining area set up not far, and a waterfall not fifty feet away roaring mutedly in the background. It was such a welcome, wonderful sight that I nearly cried, so I disguised it in a shriek of delight, and with renewed energy trundled along into camp.
There was a small blind made from leaves and branches, behind which we could bathe and maintain our privacy while we bathed (with a pretty pink tabo) from the mouth of a waterfall basin.
We had hot, sumptuous food, wonderful company, and the sweet living silence of the forest to serenade us as we ate that evening. How could that not fail to please us? So, bone weary, full-bellied and drunk on the happiness of reaching camp, we turned in for an early night.
The first unzip of my tent flap that first morning was like opening a door to Middle Earth, or Narnia, or the Forbidden Forest around Hogwarts, or Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’. It was as though I had fallen into a Tardis (time/space traveling blue police boxes) and come out into some jungle wonderland forgotten by the rest of the world. Stepping out and carefully donning my boots, mindful of the mud and the cleanliness of my tent, half crazed with what must have been sleep deprivation and caffeine withdrawal, I thought of fauns, sprites, that merry wand’rer of the night, and what the rest of my companions would say if I told them I thought we could all be fairies. (See why the recounting of this tale is anonymous?)
Needless to say, I told them nothing of the sort as sanity was restored to me with a first steaming cup of delicious mountain coffee, and a few more moments of realizing that I was awake. So, roused from our meal by the teasing twitters and shrieks of our avian quarry, we packed up and set out for the day.
The leeches weren’t so bad, we had them under control with a little spray bottle of alcohol, but the birds, Oh! The Birds!
On that very first day we scaled a simple but sturdy log ladder in search of the Whiskered Pitta, only having to back track as it had gone to another leafy shady area we had passed earlier. Then, sat silent and crouched down like bunnies hiding from a hawk overhead, we waited as the plump little creature showed itself, inquisitive to the calls given by our Swashbuckling Guide, and caught our first glimpse of the bird. For the hour and a half we spent quiet and lounging by the roots of a magnificent shady tree, we got something of a minute and a half of clean, crisp views of the animal.
But wait! There’s more!
First, I must admit that while I have been a birdwatcher for a while now, I am not so good with names.
Sitting stock still, crouched low in the foliage, our Guide stayed and called, and called, and called, carefully monitoring each call to determine the location of the bird, all the while I could feel the tiny crawling legs of insects trailing over me, I saw the wildly swaying hoards of starving leeches, and felt small flying things land and crawl, with all their thousands of little feet and tiny wings, over my face.
Then it happened, one, two, three seconds, three sightings and it was gone! We got the barest glimpse of an eye, a shoulder and wing, and a butt. But there could be no mistaking it, the Rabor’s Wren-Babbler. It was a rare sight, worth the wait and the creeping touch of tiny insect legs on my person, and incidentally, the Dashing Frenchman’s 400th lifer! In celebration that night he was dubbed Mr. Rabor over a delicious dinner of SPAM soup.
We were treated to the sight of a Scarlet Minivet basking in the sun, its bright orange feathers contrasting beautifully with the dark patterns along its back and wings.
On one memorable morning, we had hiked up to an elevation of about 800m, seemingly on top of the world as we overlooked the many rolling peaks of the Peñablanca landscape, when we were once again reminded that we were not the kings of the world. Above us appeared a Philippine Hawk-Eagle, soaring out from above us like a true master of the skies. It circled closer, and lower, giving us clear views of the marking on its wings and tail. Its piercing cry rent the air as it deigned to stay a while, curious as to our calls and whistles.
Need I mention the Rufous Hornbills? We saw them every single day we were there! The first, excited sighting was of a young adult perched on a distant tree. It obediently sat in place, moved only by the wind that stirred its branches, but all too soon it flew off. It was only later that I was educated that it was a young adult, as its bill hadn’t completely turned the rich, vibrant red of full adult hood, and its tip was still stained with the brown of adolescence.
We were bombarded by them in the same cliff top we’d seen the Philippine Hawk-Eagle, three, possibly four of them alit on the same magic tree that sported a miniscule Whiskered Tree Swift nest. Their raucous calls were heard almost constantly throughout the trip, and while they nearly became an annoyance as we tried to spot the smaller, more evasive birds, but their cawing calls never failed to bring a smile to our faces.
Said Whiskered Tree Swift was adorable, seemingly out of place when we noticed how still, and how long it was sitting in the same place. Then we noticed that it in fact, was sitting on a tiny little nest, with two eggs nestled precariously in the smallest nest I’ve ever seen. We watched as the male and female traded places, sharing egg duty as they alternated getting a bite to eat, and keeping their nest warm. I don’t think you’ve seen anything cuter! When you see a Whiskered Tree Swift yawn, its mouth opens and all but devours the rest of its face, disappearing in a flash of pink, only to reappear once the Swift closes its surprisingly large mouth.
The ever-elusive Furtive Flycatcher lived up to its name. The quiet, nondescript little bird only gave us a glimpse of it on the last day in, as it flitted from branch to branch in the heavy underbrush before sitting long enough for Mr. Rabor to snap a few photos. It sat for a long while on a piece of slanted bamboo, long enough and still enough to make it all the more difficult to separate from the foliage. That despite the frequent laser-pointing and our hushed whispers of “Where? Where?” which didn’t scare it off. The Kennedy guide may be the most accurate guide to birds that we have at our disposal, but the illustrations never live up to the birds in real life. The Furtive Flycatcher is as cute, as it is hard to see. Its muted coloration and its tendency to sit very, very still make it worthy of its name, and truly a great sighting.
One of my favorite sights however, had to be the Golden Crowned Babbler. It arrived in the same flock as a Grand Rabdornis and a few other birds, and while it didn’t seem so fantastic, as I had only an unadulterated view of its feet and underbelly, it took my breath away as it angled itself to nibble on a few berries, and flashed me a glimpse of its namesake. The crown on the babblers brow is truly golden, vibrant, and beautiful, and it serves as a reminder on just who were the kings of flight, size and song notwithstanding. Also, for being a ‘Grand’ Rabdornis, it’s not very big.
It was on the way down that I got my first sight of a Scale-Feathered Malkoha, its magnificent white crest was pale as cream, and much like the Furtive, its picture in the book didn’t do justice to the silky black of its feathers, and the wild red of its eye rings.
Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, but this picture deserves a little story. Our Guide and the Dashing Mountaineer had gone on ahead, leaving the Farmer walking ahead, while the Amazon and I brought up the rear. We stopped by a small natural archway of tall cogon grass, and asked the Farmer to strike a pose. No sooner had the Amazon started taking photos, when two large nightjars flew out from her immediate left! So close she could have reached out and touched them! They flew in front of the camera just as a photo was shot and the moment that the nightjar bore down on the Farmer was captured! There were two of them, though only one appeared in the shot. The Amazon and I believe it to have been the Great Eared Nightjar, but the Farmer, having had an up close encounter, believes it to have been the Philippine Nightjar. (if we debate this with copious amounts of alcohol, the Amazon and I may have a chance of winning that debate!)
Some of my companions saw the Blue Breasted Flycatcher, unfortunately I was dawdling elsewhere, and missed my chance to see it.
I have to admit however, one of my favorite sightings of the trip was that of the White Browed Shama, after so long hunting Subic and hearing its charming trill, but never being able to see it, I barely managed to contain myself when I saw a Shama for the first time! It may not have been so great an achievement, but I was still delighted to see my first Shama, for the first time!
The last morning we had in our private little haven was spent calling and searching the Philippine Hawk Owl, and the Philippine Scops owl. Unfortunately, they deigned not to show themselves, but it was no loss, as we were so high on our previous conquests. From there we descended our little hideaway niche, watching our tents being packed away with a sense of fulfillment, and premature nostalgia.
The forest came and went, and all too soon we reached Brgy. Sawa, where we stopped for a lunch of spaghetti shared with the Aetas and rested a while. During our post-lunch rest, our Swashbuckler whipped out his laptop, and gave the locals a slide show of our victories! He showed them pictures and videos of birds, taught them their names, and laughed along with them.
All too soon I was back on the same spirited pony that bore me there, we reached the point whereupon a jeep would take us back to the city, back to civilization, and away from the savagely beautiful land of winsome birds.
To see the full bird list from this trip, please click on this link.