Batanes is a fun birding destination because of the soul-satisfying and dramatic scenery all around. How can you not enjoy birding on rocky, windswept hillsides with the possibility of unusual migrants awaiting you at every turn? WBCP Founding Member Kitty Arce shares the magic of birding in Batanes.
The Batanes 7
by Kitty Arce
This is not the first eBON article about birdwatching in Batanes but birding Batanes it seems is never the same the second, third or fourth time around. Batanes as we all know is absolutely breathtaking but what makes a trip to a certain place even better is the company you are with and of course, for us birdwatchers—the birds. Here are some of the highlights of the Batanes 7.
Everyone was expecting to see the Batanes race of the Lowland White-eyes as a first treat but we got the Chestnut-Eared Bulbul (Brown-Eared Bulbul), first. From previous trips, this species was only seen a handful of times. On our visit, we counted up to 200 birds on the island of Batan alone. Later on as we explored Batan, we saw at least 300 Lowland White-eyes. Manuel, the guard at Songsong Beach was very accommodating and gave his insight about this. He said the bulbuls seemed to be displaced by typhoon Santi. The bulbuls became more conspicuous all over Batan after the typhoon ravaged the habitat, which made sense.
Fifth and Sixth Official Sighting of the Eurasian Hobby
An unexpected sighting of the Eurasian Hobby on our very first day of birding, flying close above our heads before it made an exit. The raptor made the group all the more excited about the days to come. According to the WBCP Records Committee, it is possibly only the fifth official sighting of this raptor species in the country. Perhaps, if more people went birding in Batanes, the Eurasian Hobby would probably not be considered uncommon during the migratory season, as a second one appeared just outside our hotel on our second day there.
The Seven Stooges and the Ryukyu Scops Owls
The most memorable moments during the Batanes trip were spent stalking the near-endemic Ryuku Scops Owl. Our guide Roger Amboy was very specific when he said that we had to be at the site—his friend’s backyard—before the owls arrive at 9:00 at night. He was eager and determined to locate the owl as it was Christian’s third attempt to find it, and Tonji and Sylvia’s second. So he marched us into the darkness, through the woods, across a stream and up a steep slope. As we approached the house, we heard the owl calling somewhere in the gloom.
Since it was only 7:00 in the evening, Rob said we didn’t have to wait two hours but should find our way to the source of the calls. Our group ended up in a clearing, which was probably someone’s vegetable patch. We heard the owls alright but after an hour of waiting still did not find them. We finally decided to return to the house, where Roger said the owls would be. There were chairs available. Exhausted from all that stumbling in the darkness, we sat under the stars and waited for Rob to find the owl.
After some time at the house, we spotted flashes of light in the distance. “Aliens?” someone ventured. “No, lightsaber!” said another, laughing. Then light pointers were out, laser lights like swords in the air. Roger came out from the shadows and exclaimed: “He (Rob) found the owl! He took a picture of it!” By this time we were all thinking, “Oh no, worst owling nightmare! We have missed the owl!” Only later did we realize that the flashes of light we’d seen earlier were Rob’s signaling the group to come over. Then from the shadows we heard Roger shout: “Follow me!” Off we went after our guide, down a steep narrow trail to the stream, across which was the tree where the owls were perched. Rob was on the opposite bank, lighting up the tree so we could see the owl.
Because the owl kept shifting on its perch, we ended up trampling each other; big cameras, tripods and all. Each birder scrambled after Roger, trying to get a decent photo of this beautiful owl. All the while, Roger would exclaim in the background: “Over there, ma’am! There is two of them! Look! Follow my light! It’s so cute! This way Ma’am, Sir!” Eventually, everyone got to see the Ryuku Scops Owl, two of them. Ixi was right when she said we were going about like the Three Stooges, except there were seven of us. But oh boy, what a sight it was! On the way back to the van, we discovered that there was a drive way directly to the house from where our van was parked. D’oh!
Mt. Irayat Trail Specials
Chestnut-Eared Bulbuls and Lowland White-eyes were plentiful on the trail up Mt. Irayat, where we encountered a variety of birds on every visit. A few Swinhoe Snipes were flushed along the trail but none were seen the next day. A rare Dark-Sided Flycatcher dropped by for some quick views, long enough for Christian to take a documentary shot but not enough time for everyone to see it! A flock of Ashy Minivets flew by and landed in a tree smack front of us before moving on again. There was a quick sighting of the migratory Ruddy Kingfisher. Birds were definitely on the move! The darker and seemingly larger version of the Philippine Cuckoo Dove also made some nice appearances for the group to appreciate.
The Whistling Green Pigeon and Some
Thinking the same birds were going to be seen on the Mt. Irayat trail, Tonji, Sylvia and Ixi decided not to join us on the first visit there. Christian, Rob, Irene and I walked until we reached a clearing with a breathtaking view of Songsong Beach. Rob and Christian said that they had seen some movement up the trail and we could stay put while they checked it out. I tagged along and just when I was saying “It might be a Whistling Green Pigeon, you know,” a pigeon flew right in front of us and landed in a tree on the next hill. It was the Whistling Green Pigeon, indeed. It could not get any better than that at that moment.
Having learned about the pigeon, Sylvia and Tonji set out the next day to photograph this not very common bird. I happily joined them on the trail and ten minutes into our hike, a big pigeon-like bird shot across Tonji’s path and landed in a leafless tree. We saw the bird and agreed that it was the Whistling Green but as we were examining Tonji’s photo of the bird, it started to look quite different. We went on because the awesome husband and wife team still needed a decent photograph of the bird. When we finally reached the clearing with its amazing view of Songsong Beach, we waited and waited and still no pigeon. Tonji suggested we walk back since we have spotted it along the trail anyway. I suggested we stay a few minutes more since it was only 7:20 in the morning. Not two seconds passed after we’d flopped on the grass, another pigeon flew right in front of us and landed on the same trees, where they were seen the previous day. There the happy couple got their shots.
When we were reunited with the rest of the group, Tonji showed Rob and Christian the photo of the first pigeon we encountered. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a Metallic Pigeon! Oh were we pleased. So pleased. Chalk two lifers for our Philippine Big Year winners Tonji and Sylvia!
A revelation for us was that birds love garbage! We mistakenly drove past these stinky piles of garbage a few times before discovering that birds love to poke around for the insects it attracts. Here the photographers were treated to the Chestnut-eared Bulbuls and the rare migrant White-shouldered Starlings at super close quarters. Perhaps it was also the smell which tempted in the rare Dusky Warbler in the final few days and ensured we will never again drive past garbage without raising our bins.
Basco airfield is not a busy one, three times a week only even if the weather is kind. At other times it’s a recreational area for people to jog, ride bikes, play, bring the carabao to graze or in our case look for birds without too much effort. Pacific Golden Plover, Eurasian Kestrel were common sights and when most of us had left, Irene and Rob were lucky enough to find the rare Little Bunting, Black Drongo and was that unusual call the ‘real’ Richard’s Pipit?
Rain or Shine Birdwatchers
We thought we would never get to Batanes with the weather and all, Our flight to the island was cancelled and postponed to two days later. With the way the weather forecasts were going, it seemed like if ever we made it to Basco, we would be stuck there for a week! But we made it and birded amidst the very strong wind, rain and heat. This is expected of Batanes after all.
It was Christian’s fifth time to the islands. For Ixi her third, although first time to go birding there. Sylvia and Tonji had been there once before, and for the rest of us, our first. And we all know that we will be back, again and again.