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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Extreme Birdwatching

GET READY FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF "AVIAN FEVER" THAT IS STARTING TO TAKE FLIGHT IN MANILA. TARA FT SERING GETS ON THE BIRDING TRAIL

BirdwatchFor most of us, the phrase birdwatching recalls images of old women in sensible, square-toed shoes, whiling away their afternoons scanning the sky for birds in a benign backyard wilderness. A park, or a farm.

But the fact is, birdwatching these days is not just for the birds. The “avian fever” has swooped upon the US, where it’s reportedly the fastest growing outdoor activity. In fact, according to a survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 51.3 million birdwatchers, of varying levels of devotion to the activity, and in Europe, its exploration has always been a preoccupation. Judging by the local buzz it’s been generating in the Philippines — Philippine Tourism Secretary Ace Durano calls it “the next big tourist draw” — birdwatching, also called birding, is poised to soar in the country.

QUANTITY AND QUALITY

This flush of attention to the local birds and their aerial antics is long overdue, considering that the Philippines is home to approximately 600 bird species, around 200 of them endemic to the country. Only two other countries in the world.

BirdwatchSeven years ago, this piece of information so amazed Mike Lu, who is now president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.

Realising there was still an immense variety of feathered fauna out there in the air, apart from the common brown city-dwelling Maya and the Philippine Eagle, compelled Lu to take up birding and form the club along with 11 other birding enthusiasts. This vast local diversity, Lu says, makes the Philippines, all 7,107 islands of it, one of the world’s prime birding destinations.

“Sometimes, you’ll even discover that one kind of bird is different from one island to another,” he explains. “For instance, you can find five varieties of the Tarictic Hornbill as you go from north to south!” According to Lu, one seasoned birder from the West said it best when he christened the country’s birding possibilities as, “the Galapagos, times ten.”

BirdwatchThis diversity has drawn seasoned birders, scientists, conservationists, and even international cable news teams, like CNN and the BBC, into the country. Dr. Bob Kennedy, international expert and author of local birding bible, Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, launched his book in Manila, at the Museum of the Filipino People (formerly the National Museum). And on a curious thread, CNN and the BBC arrived in the Philippines to pursue the story of the Calayan Rail, a rather interesting species found in one of the Babuyan Islands, on the northernmost end of the Philippines. The Calayan Rail is the size of a chicken and has feathers, but curiously enough, it cannot fly.

BIRDS IN PARADISE

BirdwatchBirding, which is essentially observing birds in their natural habitat as opposed to viewing them in cages at the zoo, is equal parts hunting, taxonomy, and meditation. As our grade school biology textbooks have taught us, we know that birds generally nest and reside in trees, so birding requires journeying to forested areas where they abound. Birds fly off when they hear alien sounds, such as human chatter, so getting within viewing range of them requires not only a hunter’s keen eye, but also a very quiet approach.

And yet, birds are also attracted to familiar sounds, which is why birders send out birdcalls to draw their attention. Birdcalls are the sounds birds make, and there are about as many kinds of birdcalls as there are birds. Birding guide Nicky Icarangal, considered the foremost guide in the Philippines, can distinguish the kinds of birds hovering in the area, even without seeing them, just from the calls they make.

BirdwatchBirding also includes taking precise note of the minute details that distinguish one species from another, and mastering the skills of identifying characteristics for documentation as well as contribution to the body of knowledge regarding winged creatures. This means sitting for hours, frequently crouched and hidden in true bird-watcher stance. Birders that get a high from this often travel to far off places, waking before the crack of dawn, and treking for hours to find wild birds that have yet to be, in a sense, thoroughly profiled.

Adventure photographer Ivan Sarenas has recently caught the birding fever, and is currently on a quest to photograph the elusive Cebu Flowerpecker, which he describes as, “one of the world’s rarest birds, if not the rarest.” The bird was last sighted in the early 1900s, and was listed as extinct in 1971 until 1998, when a Discovery Channel Canada crew heard its calls: thin, high-pitched, with clicking sounds like “pebbles tapping each other”. Tom Hince, a naturalist and member of the crew, spotted one feeding on berries, but in his overwhelming excitement at finding the bird still exists, he couldn’t hold a camera steady and failed to photograph it.

BirdwatchSarenas is taking up the challenge of finding success from Hince’s missed opportunity. “Part of the pull of birding is the romance of the hunt,” he explains. This quest comes with an urgent note — with the forest cover gradually diminishing no thanks to deforestation, the birds are losing their homes. And without their homes, eventually they will cease to exist.

Conserving the forests and other natural bird habitats, such as marshlands, is what drives the country’s leading bird photographer Romy Ocon. “It’s important to know and see what kinds of wonderful wild birds we have,” he says, “and to protect the areas where they live.”

FLY ZONES

These are the top birdwatching spots covered in the Department of Tourism’s Birdwatching in the Philippines Vol. 1 project

  • Mt. Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna
  • Subic Bay, Zambales
  • Candaba Marsh, Pampanga
  • Northern Sierra Madre Nature Park, Cagayan
  • St. Paul’s National Park, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
  • Rasa Island, Narra, Palawan
  • Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Cebu
  • Rajah Sikatuna National Park, Bohol
  • Mt. Kitanglad, Bukidnon
  • Mt. Apo National Park, Davao

BIRDERS OF THE SAME FEATHER

BirdwatchBeginning birders can start birdwatching in the city, just to get the hang of it, before traveling to rural and forested areas. In the urban areas alone, Lu explains, there are roughly 90 species, many of them migratory birds. They are mostly white, gray, brown and black, but as you move further away from the bustling areas, the more colorful and majestic they become.

If you’re interested, you can join a tour group, which travels in parties of approximately ten, or you can also be part of the local birding community. Just log on to www.birdwatch.ph, the official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.

BIRDING GEAR

Birdwatching is an environmentally friendly outdoor activity that is quite literally a cheap thrill. Here’s what you’ll need:

- Binoculars Unless you’re doing scientific research, you don’t need anything fancy. The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) recommends one with 8 x 25 optics.

- A field guide It lists the birds you can expect to see in a particular area. The WBCP recommends Dr. Bob Kennedy’s Guide to the Birds of the Philippines and the Department of Tourism’s Birdwatching in the Philippines Vol. 1

- A hat You’ll be walking and waiting under the sun for long periods of time, so head cover is essential.

- A notebook This is for writing down your birding observations as well as any instructions to find.

- A birding vest Sometimes, it’s hard to juggle a notebook and binoculars, and still keep a hand free, so do buy a good, lightweight vest with storage pockets for all your birding stuff.