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Birding in Paradise with Ballpoint Pens

by Patricia L. Adversario
Philippine Explorer
Date: 19 July 2005

SINGAPOREANS love to travel, but very rarely would they even consider spending three weeks in the land of kidnappings and the Abu Sayyaf. Not Yong Ding Li, a 21-year old Singaporean birder-illustrator, who did just that. Two days before going back to Singapore, he was hoping to stay another day more.

"There's so much to see here," he enthused as he sat on his foldable chair with a sketchpad on his knees. He had been sketching Manila Cathedral and San Agustin church with his fine ballpoint pens and wanted to spend his last day, sketching the walls of Intramuros on a hot humid afternoon.

Weeks before, Ding Li who's an enthusiastic birdwatcher, spent time birding in Bohol, Benguet and Palawan, racking up an impressive 84 lifers for this Philippine trip alone. (Lifers in birdwatchers jargon refer to an avian species one has seen for the first time.)


Ding Li, a first-year life science student from the National University of Singapore, has been birding since he was 12. Home is Bukit Batok, Singapore, which is near a nature park.

When he was in Primary 6, an audacious bird with bright yellow plumage, black nape and wing tips and red bill, flew in during class. He was quite keen to find out what it was -- it turned out to be a black-naped oriole, a common garden bird with a melodious fluty whistle. That started his interest in birds.

At aged 12, he joined the Nature Society of Singapore to be among kindred souls who shared his passion and interest in birds.

His first birding trip outside Singapore was in Malaysia when a friend took him for a day trip to Panti Forest in Johor Bahru. That was the start of his birding adventure overseas which has taken him to other parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, and now the Philippines.

His trip to the Philippines has been his longest time away from home. "My parents and my sister think I'm mad. Why the Philippines? Why not go to Japan or Hong Kong?"

Ding Li has a fascination for European architecture and he wanted to sketch Philippine churches built during the Spanish times. "I like Spanish culture very much. In the Philippines, it's like I've gone to Spain without going too far away from home. Things are different here -- the people, culture, scenery, biodiversity -- but not too different from home."

Ding Li also thought there was a good chance he could see at least 50 more lifers to add to his lifers list of over a thousand bird species, mostly Oriental birds.

But during his first week here, he wanted to advance his departure date because he thought he'd get homesick. He soon changed his mind when he visited Mount Makiling, Laguna, which he birded for three days with Mark Villa, a fellow birder from the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. At Mt. Makiling, he already racked up 34 lifers, more than half of his original target.

Next stop was Rajah Sikatuna National Park, in Tagbilaran Bohol, to see the rare Steere's Pitta which can be found only in Bohol. For four days, he stayed at the park with a cook who prepared him fried water buffalo meat and boiled rice for lunch and dinner. On his last day, he had egg and canned sardines as a treat. He missed red chillis with his meals as it would have spiced up the bland buffalo.

Steere's Pitta

But birders' luck was with him -- the rare pitta was the first bird he saw on the trail shortly after he had just arrived.

"The Steere's Pitta is the bird of my dreams," he says unabashedly. "It's a gem because of its rarity and its beauty."

The rare bird is also called Azure Pitta because of its unnaturally bright azure and red wings. "When I saw it, my hands shivered while I was holding my binoculars. I felt an adrenalin rush and held my breath for some time."

Palawan Peacock Pheasant
Apart from pittas, pheasants also give him the shivers. Next on his Philippine bird list was the endemic Palawan Peacock Pheasant. And not even reported cases of celebral malaria will stop him from going to Palawan.

Vicious mosquitoes which didn't know OFF lotion devoured him and Villa while they were birding at Sabang's forest in Palawan, but the trip yielded a record 75 species including, of course, the Palawan Peacock Pheasant.

Showing his sketch journal, he says he has run out of pages to sketch the birds he has seen in the Philippines. Ding Li sketches his birds with colored ballpens and highlighters.

Why ballpens? First of all, they're very economical, he says with a grin.

"They're also exceptionally versatile. When you're sketching a bird, its shape is made up of feathers which are made up of thin fine lines. A ballpen can give you a very accurate depiction of a bird's shape," he explains.

Ding Li, who has been sketching since he was 6, says he started with colored pencils until a friend introduced him to ballpens at 12. Most of his sketches have structured lines. "I think my style is closer to Realism which emphasizes accurate form and shape in drawing."

Art and Conservation

Ding Li doesn't want to be called an artist, but a drawer. He says artists have their own imagination, and they inject their thoughts into their work.

"But I translate what I see into a visual image. Because I just draw what I see, I'm an illustrator, not an artist."

"I'm still searching for my own style and interpretative method, but more or less, I've found my preferred medium in ballpens and pencils," he adds.

Apart from personal expression, his drawings are also meant to promote conservation. By sketching what he sees in the forest, he hopes people will realize what they're killing with each tree they destroy.

Frankly speaking, he says, "people here know very little about conservation. In Sikatuna Park, I thought the park rangers didn't feel for what they were doing. Things were done as a job, as a routine chore."

He relates: a pond was built at the park, but halfway through it seemed there wasn't enough funds to finish it. So, it was left a mess.

"There's not enough strong will to get things done. I think an important thing for the conservation movement is the will to have it progress," he says.

He strongly advocates that "all politicians should go through an environmental course before they become politicians because in general, in Southeast Asia, politicians are corrupt. In Indonesia, there's no respect for boundaries. People plant vegetables at national parks.

"Understandably, people are poor because they need to use the land. But they need to have some punishment even in little things. People think it's an insignificant thing to chop off a tree, and another and another? Anyway there'll be another tree. Before you know it, there's a landslide and people die. These things are happening too often," he says.

"We're not learning from our past whether in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore."

If governments and politicians can't preserve natural resources, he hopes to preserve the birds and the treasures that he has seen here through his sketches. He wants to see more and vows to come back, perhaps, next year.

Wattled Broadbill

He rattles his wish list: he'd like to visit Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon, Mount Apo in Davao, PICOP Resources Corp's logging concession at Bislig, Surigao del Sur, and of course, birding sites in the Visayas like the Tabunan Forest in Central Cebu and Mount Kanlaon National Park in Negros Occidental.

What will he tell friends and family when he goes back home? A prompt reply: "I will tell them I've been to paradise. Go there before it's lost."