By Ann Corvera
The Philippine Star 01/21/2007
If you keep real quiet and have a keen eye open, ignore the trash
on the ground and the stench of urine in the area at the back of the Film Center, you're
going to see some pretty surprising things. No, not ghosts, but birds a-plenty: night-
herons, egrets, terns flying low skimming the bay, kingfishers and crested mynas
sunbathing, and a brown shrike perched atop a garbage railing in search of food.
This wetland area leading to the murky waters of Manila Bay is the habitat of some
of the more than a hundred species of birds in Metro Manila.
This figure was recorded in 2003 alone, part of nearly 600 species of
resident and migratory birds in the entire archipelago. In places within the metropolis
where one won't normally expect to find birds other than the maya, there are varied
species surviving in this urban wild, including the migratory peregrine falcon and the
endangered Chinese egret.
They are among us, we just don't take time to notice.
"If the Filipinos don't know how to appreciate these birds or keep
its habitat safe, endangered species will become extinct," warns Myckle Lu, a 41-year-old
"birder" who heads the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
Birders, or those who observe wild birds, won't hesitate to wade
through mud or garbage just to get to the spot where they could birdwatch, like in
Navotas or along the coastline of Parañaque, to keep track of the bird treasures we
have. You'll also find them at a parking lot watching a pair of peregrine falcons
resting on top of the Welcome Rotunda in Quezon City as it searches for prey.
"It comes every year. Without binoculars you can see it, but people
pass by and they don't take notice," says Lu, delighted that there's still wildlife in
Lu took us birdwatching one very early morning at the Film Center.
Even before we got settled, a distinct sound pierced the air and Lu points to a juvenile
black-crowned night heron that disappeared in the trees as soon as it soared above us.
Not long after, Lu found a rufous night heron, brown in color with a
white belly, green crown and looking tranquil like it just had breakfast.
I thought to myself that this one I must write down as the first
"life bird" on my "life list."
"In birding, a life bird is a bird you've seen for the very first
time and we have what we call a life list. We carry that around with us," explains Alice
Villa-Real, vice president of the Bird Club who, in only two years of birdwatching, has
gotten so skilled at identifying birds she can do so just by listening to the sound it
makes. And bird sound is definitely music to her ears: her ringtone is a recording of a
red-bellied pitta singing.
Like all other dedicated birders, Villa-Real writes down her
observations like bird behavior, weather conditions, time and area then reports it
to the club's e-group specifically put up to keep the records updated. "A lot of
foreigners check this out and that's one of the reasons why they come here to our
country," she explains.
Lu says that foreign birders apparently know more about the
country's birds than we do.
"The Philippines has one of the highest biodiversities in the world,
especially with endemic birds or birds found only in the Philippines. Foreigners come
here, and they would say go and see it before it's too late, before it's all gone.
They know what to look for and they even know the sound different birds make, tapos
tayo mismo hindi natin alam."
Lu sets up an 8x60 telescope and hands me binoculars as my bird
education begins at the Film Center. While I struggle to focus on… anything, he spots
a bird, focuses the powerful telescope and excitedly gestures for me to come take a look.
A flock of seabirds, known as terns, circle around what could possibly be a school of
fish in the bay. Nearby, a fisherman sits still in his boat. Man and bird both looking
for a catch.
Then a little egret comes flying, as another one glides around.
Later, we see a dark brown shrike, a "black-patched eye" shrike that Lu says preys
on insects, frogs and other birds. Shimmering under the sunlight is bright blue-green
common kingfisher while an orange and blue-headed one hides in the grass. Crested mynas,
swallows, spotted doves and a moorhen-which I fail to see-complete the show.
Telescopes and binoculars are expensive, which is why the Bird Club
offers to rent their own equipment out for only P50 on their guided bird walks. Beyond
its regular club trips, the group conducts monthly guided bird walks on weekends within
the metropolis for the public free of charge.
The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines started as an e-group.
"A book called Guide to the Birds of the Philippines came out in
the late '90s. We found it in a bookstore and were surprised that there are so many
species of birds in the country. I got in touch with a biologist friend, who has
contacts with people who were birdwatching on their own. We started e-mailing each
other then we eventually met up. At first it was only four of us. We would report
what we saw and the group grew," Lu recalls.
In 2002 the group began building its records that is open to the
public, and a year later the club was established in July. They have foreign advisers
who help keep the records accurate.
These birders are ordinary folk who work five days a week, but on
weekends are brought together by their passion for the beauty of Philippine wild birds
in their natural habitats.
"Our membership is so diverse. We have biologists, students, bankers,
doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, IT professionals, law enforcers, parents, kids," says
Lu, an importer of industrial tools.
The club is funded through the members' own pockets. "We don't get
paid to do what we're doing," says Lu.
Apart from its bird trips, the club organized the first ever bird
festival in the country in 2005.
Like Lu, Villa-Real laments the fact that the country's birds are
not taught as much as they should be in schools. "I wanted to reach out to kids also.
As I started reading, I found out that wow, we have one of the highest endemisms in
the world, why don't I know this? If we educate kids about birds, what happens next
is that they would begin to appreciate the Philippine environment and conservation
eventually, they would love this country and wouldn't want to leave," she explains.
But as the project pushed through, birders found themselves faced with a
"When we had the bird festival, dun pumutok yung avian flu.
Schools did not want to join the bird fest! So what we did was we held a bird flu
forum and the press came even without us inviting them," Lu recalls.
The forum, he says, helped in clarifying common misconceptions
about avian flu and birdwatching.
"Our stand has always been that wild birds may be carriers but
in birdwatching, we encourage people to watch from a distance, not go near them and
touch," Lu says.
In Taiwan, where a bird fest has so far been held for eight years
already, the avian flu issue forced public attendance to drop to 5,000 from previous
highs of 30,000.
"When you birdwatch, you could actually spot sick birds then report
it to concerned agencies and so it actually helps in the monitoring," Lu says.
The first bird fest in the Philippines eventually became a very well
attended event with young and old enjoying activities that included contests, scientific
lectures for high school and college students, face paintings, exhibits of photographed
birds and paintings, among others.
"We have artworks because we try to incorporate the arts to educate
children. The more you do it in a fun way, the more it would remain in their minds,"
Architect Joven Ignacio found therapy in painting when his father
was suffering from a terminal illness in the late 90s. He first started painting flowers
in his dad's hospital room, then birds caught his attention. He bird-watched recently
with Lu and company, and has since then been captivated more by birds and observes them
in his garden, where we saw fantail birds playing in the trees. Yes, even in your own
garden you can birdwatch, spotting birds you simply thought were mayas, otherwise known
as the Eurasian tree sparrow.
Ignacio's painting of a blue-tailed bee-eater was used on a limited
edition set of dinner plates that the Makati Garden Club is selling to raise funds for
the victims of the San Bernardino landslide in Leyte.
And this month, Ignacio will hold an exhibit entitled Aruga: Sining
Para Sa Agham from January 26 to February 2 at the Powerplant Mall in Rockwelto raise
funds for the scholarship program of the Philippine Science High School and as well as
to raise public awareness about the country's birds in support of the Wild Bird Club's
These days, the club is busy with the water bird census, going out to
the country's 60 identified wetland sites to estimate the bird population there and
migratory patterns. This is done throughout Asia, and in the Philippines it has been
going on for at least 10 years.
They started in Metro Manila and have gone on to Pagbilao in Quezon
and the Candaba Marsh in Pampanga, which has been declared a bird habitat by the local
government. In Metro Manila, the water bird census targets three sites: the Parañaque
coastal road, Navotas and Valenzuela.Other areas in Metro Manila perfect for birdwatching
are the American Cemetery, Libingan ng mga Bayani, the La Mesa Dam watershed in Quezon
City. Just outside the city where the club holds day trips are Mt. Makiling in Laguna,
Mt. Palay-Palay in Cavite and the Candaba Marsh.
In the '80s, birder and author of several books about birds Tim Fisher
used to birdwatch in the wetlands of Parañaque where a mall now stands. Indeed, I used
to see a flock of birds hovering near the asinan on my way to school in the mornings.
A portion of the wetlands still exist and there, birds fly around
reminiscent of the old days. Along the coastal road, Lu says there's still a mangrove
where there could be up to 3,000 birds.
In Navotas, Lu says that when they started three years ago they
counted 19 Chinese egrets there. The following year it became 30 plus and in 2006,
there were 85. "Compared to Olango in Cebu, a protected area, their record is only
19 birds for that species."
Last year, the club held birdwatching trips for schools and
universities that even saw a class of the Philippine Military Academy going all
the way from Baguio to Candaba.
Lu and Villa-Real marvel at how "dynamic" the Philippine
environment is. "We have special birds only found in Mindoro but they have
related species in Luzon. In Cebu, which is a very small island, they have
two birds only found there and nowhere else in the world. It's different in
Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao so we have a very high diversity," explains Lu.
What started as a hobby for a handful of bird enthusiasts is now
a movement for the protection and preservation of wild birds and their habitat. Even
with only 150 members nationwide and not more than 20 as active volunteers, there's
no sign of stopping for the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines in its quest to let the
people feel one with our own birds, and with nature.
Email the Wild Bird Club at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit www.bird watch.ph