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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Watch, not Catch Wild Birds in the City

By Margaux Ortiz
Inquirer
Last updated 06:54am (Mla time) 05/31/2007

MANILA, Philippines - White-collared Kingfishers, black-naped orioles and blue-tailed bee-eaters. Who says you can't see any of these spectacular feathered beauties in the busy, polluted metropolis?

White-collared Kingfishers
White-collared Kingfisher, the "blue bird"
that got WBCP VP Alice Villa-Real into bird watching

Contrary to what most city dwellers believe, there's more to the urban eye than the once ubiquitous maya-which has also been noticeably disappearing from the streets.

According to Michael Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, there are actually more than 100 species of birds in Metro Manila alone.

"These birds, wary of humans who trap and hurt them, are very shy and thrive in selected areas in the metropolis," Lu told the Inquirer.

He explained that the club has identified good birding sites in Metro Manila, and these are located on school campuses of the University of the Philippines in Diliman and Ateneo de Manila University on Katipunan Avenue, graveyards like the American Cemetery in Taguig City and undeveloped reclamation sites in Parañaque City.

"We identified these areas shortly after forming the club in 2003," Lu explained. He recalled that it was by taking out a map and identifying the green areas in the metropolis that they were able to discover the wealth of feathered species still thriving despite the rife urbanization.

"We also found out that there are many, many kinds of birds in the Philippines which are not shown in our school textbooks," Lu said.

WBCP members bird watching in Olango Island, Cebu
WBCP members bird watching in Olango Island, Cebu

There are actually 580 species of birds in the country, 30 percent of which are endemic or found nowhere else in the world, according to Lu.

"Sadly, if you show their pictures to people, they cannot identify these birds," he added.

Lu, a businessman, said he was inspired to form a bird watching club after he came by chance upon a book, "The Birds of the Philippines," showcasing the country's feathered wildlife five years ago.

"As a child, I was a nature lover. I was baffled why there were not that many wild animals in the provinces I went to during summer," Lu recalled, laughing.

"I was surprised to learn that there were actually pelicans in Laguna Lake in the early 1900s," Lu said. "I wondered if I would ever see these birds. It was then that I decided to join an environmental organization," he added.

But Haribon Foundation's annual bird watching activity was not enough for Lu. With another companion from the organization, he decided to explore Metro Manila for possible birding sites.

Their first bird watching "expedition" at Ateneo amazed Lu. He and his companion found out that there were at least 10 species of birds on the campus.

"I remember listening to my friend in disbelief when she excitedly told me about a woodpecker sighting," Lu said with a laugh.

Keen on finding other bird enthusiasts, Lu searched the Internet and was disappointed to find out that most articles about local birds were written by foreigners. However, he felt a glimmer of hope when he chanced upon an online bird watching forum where some Filipinos were participants.

"I sent e-mails to all the Filipino participants, asking them if they wanted to go bird watching with me," Lu said. A year after, the Wild Bird Club was formed.

"We realized that we had to form an organization for people to talk to us and treat us seriously especially whenever we would go to other places," Lu said, adding that he was also encouraged to form the club by British bird watchers.

From only a few members, the club eventually expanded as word about their activities spread. The organization now has more than 100 members, with ages ranging from 8 to 80, according to Lu.

Club vice president Alice Villa-Real, a human resource development officer, said she joined the organization after an accidental encounter with a blue bird in the countryside.

Villa-Real, who is also into astronomy as a hobby, was fiddling with her refracting telescope in Batangas when she saw an astonishing sight.

"The bright blue bird was just flying around, practically within reach. I had never seen anything like it," she recounted. It was a pivotal moment for Villa-Real, who at that moment became a bird enthusiast.

Upon reaching home, she immediately went to a bookstore and looked up books on the subject. In "The Photographic Guide to Philippine Birds," she learned the name of the beautiful bird she had just spotted-a white-collared kingfisher.

Not contented, she searched the Internet for related topics and found the club's web site. She immediately became a member after contacting Lu, she said.

"Bird watching is a good way to relax and appreciate the wealth of bird species we have in the country," Villa-Real said.

Aside from weekly bird watching trips for all the members, the club also conducts a guided trip for the general public once a month.

"The trip is free; interested bird watchers only need to pay a P50 rental fee for the binoculars if they do not have their own," Lu said.

The club also maintains records of the number and kind of bird species seen on each of their trips, according to its president.

"At first, our maintenance of a bird database was just for fun," the Wild Bird Club president said. He explained that they would take note of the migratory and resident birds seen on each bird watching activity.

However, what started as a hobby eventually became a serious task for the bird watchers. Lu said that an inquiry with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) a few years ago showed that the government has no records of bird populations in Metro Manila.

“We just wanted to cross-check our data on Manila Bay birds with the DENR but they said they had no information on birds thriving in the area,” Lu recalled, adding that the club then contributed their first data on birds found in Navotas and Parañaque.

He added that the DENR had kept records of bird species in 70 sites throughout the country but none in Metro Manila.
“Apparently, people never identified Metro Manila as a possible bird habitat,” Lu said. “They were surprised when we told them that the average number of birds we have seen in Parañaque was 5,000 in one morning.”

Lu said the mangrove island behind Coastal Mall in Parañaque is a rich bird habitat. At low tide, a variety of birds would perch on the mudflats and feed on crabs, shells and fish.

“Between the Coastal Mall, Macapagal Boulevard and that area, I was surprised to note more than 100 species, 70 percent of which are migratory,” Lu said. He explained that the migratory birds flock to the Philippines to escape from the cold winters in China or Siberia.

The club’s database on birds again proved invaluable when they were asked to provide data to the DENR on the coastal lagoons of Las Piñas and Parañaque.

“Last March, we wrote Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes and asked him to help save the lagoon,” Lu said.

WBCP VP Alice Villa-Real and President Mike Lu in a discussion with DENR Sec. Angelo Reyes during the 2nd Philippine Bird Festival
WBCP VP Alice Villa-Real and President Mike Lu in a discussion
with DENR Sec. Angelo Reyes during the 2nd Philippine Bird Festival

Last April 20, Lu said the DENR chief called up the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau and asked them to make the proper documentation on the birds thriving in the particular site.

“On Earth Day, April 22, President Macapagal-Arroyo declared the lagoons a protected area,” Lu said, smiling.

With the proclamation, the 175-hectare area spanning the two southern Manila cities will be known as the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area.

Lu said it was an award that the club received from the World Bank as an “environmental champion” in 2004 that prompted them to create other important activities such as the annual Philippine Bird Festival and the Raptor Watch.

The annual festival, first held in November 2005, was conceived to educate children and the general public on the different species of birds in the country and the importance of preserving their habitats.