The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

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The Philippines
by: James McCarthy

With 7,100 islands stretching from the Malayan-Indonesian complex in the south to close to Taiwan in the north, sandwiched between the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean the Philippines is both a rewarding and difficult place to watch birds. The processes of geography and evolution has left one of the highest degrees of endemism known in the world with some 181 species of birds only found within the archipelago. Add to those species mainly found within the the Philippines and a huge potential for further ‘splits’ and one can see the attraction for birding here.

As if the prospect of traveling through a myriad of islands of different sizes, shapes and forms each often with its own dialect and transportation and access problems was not enough, the element of human influence is also one of the highest in the world. Virtually anywhere in the country there are people, either settlers or native tribes, encroaching on remnants of habitat in each of the islands. This pressure can be so intense that within a short period of time most of a habitat in an area can vanish taking with it what was possibly a large percentage of the remaining local population of several bird species in one fell swoop. Hence many visiting birders are told – visit now before it is too late.

The list of non-endemics reaches around 420 species although this has been increasing each year as more people regularly birdwatch and more foreign tours visit the islands. It is important that trip reports be relayed to the recording body (click on Birding Records: Submission of Records) so that valuable data may be gathered to add to what is currently a largely ‘word-of-mouth’ list of sightings and numbers.

Geographical insights
Three regions – Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao, typically politically refer to the country although for birdwatchers the area of Palawan is a 4th region that must be treated separately.

Luzon

The largest island with a limited number of associated islands off the north and east coasts, Luzon contain all the major habitats from mossy forest to wetlands. Due to logging there is extremely limited lowland forest left but within most mountainous areas remnants of forest can be found.

The island is relatively easy and safe to move around and with fairly good transportation links. There are a few birdwatching sites within or close to Metro Manila but most endemics are found scattered a day or two’s travel away.

Visayas
The belt of the Philippine archipelago, the Visayas consist of the majority of the islands. In ornithological terms there are two or three major areas – the Negros/ Panay complex in the west, Cebu in the center and the Bohol/Samar/Leyte group to the east, which have many shared species with Mindanao to the south.

Environmental degradation in this region is extreme – especially in the west where several species are located in very small forest patches and some subspecies may even be already extinct or in non-sustainable situations.

Travel is again not difficult and the area is generally peaceful and easy to access. With most of the islands being small, travel time to sites is normally a day although there are no ‘organized’ transportation links and most visitors use local guides.

Mindanao
A large island close to Borneo, Mindanao is also all too often seen in the news or travel advisory lists as a place to avoid. Instability does occur in the western parts but in general it is within certain areas and other regions are peaceful and the people receptive. With a host of endemics, and being the holdout for the Philippine Eagle, one can see why most people still want to visit but some areas are restricted and travel mainly must be done with prior organization or with extra days on hand to move about.

Palawan
Some of the easiest birding in the country and set in a truly tropical setting, Palawan is a favorite for anyone. With its own set of birds quite distinct to the rest of the country and a good set of migrants it makes a pleasant change from the hard work it can be to bird the rest of the Philippines.

Other wildlife
As with other tropical countries the forests abound with insects and reptiles making a pleasant diversion while waiting to see a bird. Orchids are also abundant and as with the birds, endemism is also common across all the biological communities.

The weather & other considerations
Although Mindanao has a more equatorial climate to the northern areas in general the islands are governed by a dual season climate – wet (June-October) and dry (December – April). Temperatures range normally from 25-35 Celsius although the mountains can be cold at night in the early part of the year.

Malaria remains in a very few areas but is not a major problem and other diseases are not significant. Most normal facilities (food, health care, airports etc.) are available within a day’s trek of any of the birding sites.

Within Metro Manila are two sites easy accessible to the visitor, the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City and the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area near the airport. The former is set on sprawling grounds of the university good for water birds and surprising appearance of some forest birds such as Coppersmith Barbet, Crested Serpent-eagle and Ashy Ground Thrush. The latter hosts about 200 hectares of coastal wetlands including the only mangrove forest in southern Manila Bay. During migration season it teems with migrant waterbirds such as Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed-plover, Little Egret and Grey Heron. The globally-threatened Philippine Duck also has a small population here.

About two hours to the south of Metro Manila lays a forested area known as Mt. Palay-palay National Park although a reference to Caylabne Bay or Puerto Azul (beach resorts) would be more likely to get you there. A dry lowland forest it has many shared species with Mt. Makiling and also a few others, which are not.