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DO WE REALLY NEED ANOTHER MALL?

Date: August 10, 2004
By Mark Villa
Young Blood Section, p. 3
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I have taken up bird watching as a hobby for about a year now and what I have learned about birds and continue to learn about them are just remarkable. Birds come in all sorts, from small metallically colorful sunbirds to the majestic eagles.

Some are excellent singers, rendering some of the sweetest tunes in nature, while others are such characters, exhibiting some of the most interesting behaviors known to nature. Of all their characteristics, I think what is most fascinating about birds is their ability of flight, and the seeming effortlessness with which they travel.

To travel long distances, humans have invented the aircraft, but birds' morphological features like their feathers, a lightweight skeleton, and a highly efficient circulatory and respiratory systems among others, have enabled them to transcend geographical boundaries
with ease.

Barred Rails

Barred Rails

Not surprisingly, they have used these features to their advantage. Every year, across the world, people witness the incredible phenomenon of bird migration. In preparation for the cold weather, when food, such as insects, become scarce, birds across the northern hemisphere stock up and migrate, traveling thousands of miles to reach their winter homes in the tropics.

As I learned last year, birds from as far north as Siberia and northern China winter in the Philippines. As early as August, the birds begin to arrive, and one of their favorite sites is the Tambo Mud Flats.

Situated along Macapagal Boulevard in Tambo, Parañaque, Tambo was one of my first birding sites. I got wind of the place through the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), a group of nature and bird
enthusiasts that regularly monitors the birds there.

People drive by in their cars everyday without knowing that just beside the road is a haven in the city, where birds take refuge. The Tambo site has an expanse of tall grasses and shrubs about the size of two football fields. Upon reaching the place, the call of the resident grassbirds and cisticolas could already be heard. Walking through the trail, dozens of munias would flit by, as if to greet us. Complementing the grasslands are dense bushes, thick vegetation, mangrove plants and narrow stretches of estuarine canals that double as a mud flat when the tide is low. The mudflats provide the water birds a habitat and feeding area.

Common Greenshank

Common Greenshank

In less than a year, our group has recorded over eighty species in all, over forty of which are migratory species. There are white terns flying low over the water; small plovers and sandpipers running about the mud, hundreds of which could sometimes be seen flying simultaneously as if choreographed. Aptly named rubythroats hop on the ground like stout sparrows while bright blue-green and orange kingfishers dive to the water. Occasionally too, we see rare birds --like the common ringed-plover, which despite its name, has only been sighted in the country twice, or the Chinese Egret, an endangered species, which number only a few thousands in the world.

To call the Tambo a haven is to call a squatter's house a mansion. Tambo does not resemble a park where people can stroll and enjoy a Sunday afternoon. Colored plastic bags float on the canal, garbage litters the mud flats, and the water is almost black. It is a wonder that there are fish at all, but the presence of tall, white egrets and stocky, yellow bitterns indicate that there must be fish. I once asked my friend how the birds could possibly feed on such polluted water. I suppose that the acids in their digestive systems are stronger than ours.

Whether Tambo looks like a dump or not, an estimated thousand individual birds cannot be wrong. With the absence of any other suitable alternative, I surmise the birds have learned to settle with what is available to them.

The big problem, though, is what is available now may not be available in the near future. There are plans to reclaim the tidal mud flats for industrial and other infrastructure developments. We see changes happening all the time. Nearby land areas are already under construction and mechanical cranes dominate the landscape. One site is set to become The Mall of Asia, said to rival the biggest malls in the world.

Little-ringed Plover

Little-ringed Plover

A recent survey from the Environment Research Center of Hokkaido University came out with findings that the population of several species of migratory birds have rapidly declined including that of the Brown Shrike, one of the most common migrant birds found in the country. They believe that degradation or loss of habitat at the wintering countries maybe the cause of the declines. This is not surprising, since birds depend heavily on their wintering sites for food and habitat, without which birds are unlikely to be able to migrate back north.

The Tambo Mud Flats is ecologically linked to the 380 hectares of coastal lagoons and mangroves at the nearby Coastal Road, Parañaque. Together with the coastal wetland of Tanza in Navotas, the coastal tidal areas and mangroves of Tambo, make up the largest, but also the LAST, mangrove and tidal areas left in Metro Manila.

Given this, there should be no reason why it should not be protected. The WBCP participated early this year in the Asian Waterfowl Census and estimated that the two Parañaque wetlands support at least a daily minimum of 4,000 birds. Thousands of birds depend on these areas to survive. Our club ornithologist, Arne Jensen, believes that the waterbirds are treating the areas as one area. During low tide, they use the mud flats of Tambo as feeding area but they are fully dependent on the presence of high tide roosts in and around the mangroves of Freedom Island in the Coastal Lagoon during high tide. Conservation of the said areas will be of huge importance for the birds and for the environment.

Birds do us a great service. They are extremely efficient insect- eaters and keep their numbers at bay. They are also strong indicators of the general health of an environment. The absence of birds in an area says a lot about the deterioration of the environment. If that is not economically important enough, there is a huge potential on birding and bird sites as a tourist attraction. People from around the world would travel to see birds in their natural habitat.

With the amount of help birds give us, I think they deserve at least a decent place to stay for the winter. Besides, do we really need another mall, or whatever it is that they are planning to build? It will be a big loss if there comes a time when there would be too few birds to continue the wonder of migration. Discovery Channel always says that there is only one place we call home, only one earth to protect. I say there is only one Tambo Mud Flats. Let us protect it.

Mark Villa is a member of the WBCP and a recent graduate of Ateneo de Manila University. To learn more about bird watching and/or the Tambo Mud Flats, please visit the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) website at www.birdwatch.ph.

All photos taken on-site, courtesy of WBCP bird-photographer Romy Ocon. To see more photos, click www.pbase.com/liquidstone