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
For 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.
Seven 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.”
This 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
Birding, 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
Birding 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
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.
Sarenas 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.”
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
Beginning 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.
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
- 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.