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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One for the Birds
By Jacqueline L. Ong

What's On Expat Magazine, www.whatson-expat.com.ph
December 4-10, 2005 issue

Our avian friends landed on November 18 for a festival held in their honor. They were greeted by flocks of children and adults alike in an event marked by animal shows, photo exhibits, film showings, lectures, and other activities.

The First Philippine Bird Festival, organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), took flight at the Crossroad 77 Covenarium on Mother Ignacia Ave., Quezon City. Taking part in the day-long campaign that sought to raise environmental awareness among the general public were environmental groups and government agencies, as well as that general public.

Foremost in the campaign was the promotion of birdwatching as an effective way to imbue environmental consciousness. "Birdwatching" is the art of viewing, identifying, and understanding flying birds in their natural habitats, with or without the use of binoculars or a short-tube refracting telescope.

Why Birds?

Because birds live in trees, changes in the bird population reflect the status of the environment. Thus, bird enthusiasts also consider themselves environmentalists. "Birdwatchers are the most ardent of conservationists, because they'll do anything to preserve their favorite," said Tim Fisher, a British businessman in the Philippines when he is not being a birdwatching tour leader.

The term "birdwatching", to the uninitiated, connotes a passive and leisurely activity without much consequential benefit to the community. However, this venture into the wild advances scientific knowledge as well. In their weekly sessions, the "birders", as they call themselves, track the birds' migratory patterns, identify new species, and report them to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The National Museum, being the country's repository of cultural and environmental treasures among others, would consequently place them in reference for subsequent research studies. Presently, the ornithology section of the museum's zoological department has 19,000 specimens in storage and display, a sizeable proportion of which were contributed by bird enthusiasts.

Calayan Rail

For example, the Calayan Rail, a small, dark, low-flying bird, was sighted and identified by bird enthusiast and wildlife biologist Carmela Española. A volunteer member of the Isla Biodiversity Conservation, Inc. (IBCI), she saw four of the newly identified species in May 2004 while conducting survey research.

The Calayan Rail is only found in Calayan Island, the biggest in the Babuyan Group of Islands in Northern Philippines. At the present time, it falls under the "vulnerable" group of the Red List Threat Categories compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. (The other classifications in the continuum are "extinct," "extinct in the wild," critically endangered" "endangered," "near threatened" and "least concern".)

Critically Endangered Eagle

In the "critically endangered" category is the Philippine Eagle, the Philippines' national bird, considered one of the rarest eagles in the world since it is only found in the Philippine islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao. The Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), in its mission to conserve the eagle that has the broadest wingspan (up to 7 feet) in the world, has employed captive breeding. "We propagate them, breed them, then soon we release them, " said Tanya Hotchkiss, Manila Liaison Officer of PEF.

It may be recalled that in April of last year, the organization released Kabayan, a captive-bred raptor, but the 17-month old eagle died after 261 days in the wild. Asked if captive breeding is indeed a viable solution to prevent the extinction of one of the rarest eagles in the world, considering Kabayan's plight, Hotchkiss replied that it is the only long-term solution to restore the eagle population in the wild. The thick rainforests, which the eagles consider as their habitat, are already denuded, preventing their natural reproduction.

The organization presently keeps Pagasa, the first captive-bred Philippine eagle, now 13 years old. He will be kept captive to serve as the organization's educational mascot for nature conservation, Hotchkiss added.

The IBCI is another environmental organization which showcased its advocacy during the Bird Festival. Its thrust is exploring small islands such as the Babuyan, where Espanola sighted the Calayan Rails. President Carl Oliveros explained that species in smaller islands are mostly endemic, that is, found in just that one place. Thus, when these birds become extinct-for reasons that could range from hunting to habitat destruction-they are most likely gone forever from this world. Besides, bigger and more established organizations tend to work on the country's larger islands; "we work on gaps that are not yet filled," he added.

Biodiversity

Birders, like Fisher, Española, and Oliveros, regularly take a peek through their handheld devices to view the country's 570 bird species, of which 180 exist only in our 7,107 islands. These figures reflect the country's remarkable level of rich biological endemism in relation to its land area, according to Mads Bajarias, Jr., co-founder of the WBCP and himself a bird enthusiast.

Some popular sites where birds abound are the Candaba Swamp in Pampanga, El Nido in Palawan, Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, Sierra Madre Nature Park in Cagayan, Sagada in the Mountain Province, Olango Island in Cebu, and Mt. Apo in Davao.

Mega-diverse as our country is, threats to its sustainability are a reality. Logging, mining and hunting pose great risks to the environment, thereby affecting the ecosystems that survive on them. This was the message the First Philippine Bird Festival sought to convey. In its series of activities, the event broadened the public's knowledge about nature-that caring for mother earth goes beyond not picking flowers in the backyard garden or hurting animals in the zoo. Instead, it is a concerted effort to conserve an intrinsically linked community of wildlife and its various habitats.

Mike Lu, president of the organizing club, looks forward to the time when birdwatching will be a required subject in schools. Through such education campaigns, the people will know what to save and why-to preserve the environment. "And if they know what to save, they will save," he said.