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Food basket of 'feathered tourists'

By Ross Harper-Alonso, Tonette Orejas
Philippine Daily Inquirer
01/18/2009

MANILA, Philippines—Before the sleeping people of Balanga City started to stir and begin their day, members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) made their way to the coastal villages in the chilly, early morning of Jan. 11, to conduct a valuable survey whose results would reflect the state of the world’s environment.

Birdwatch
Thousands of egrets and terns converge
on the drained fishponds in Bgy. Sibacan, Balanga City
That morning, thousands of egrets, whiskered terns and black-headed gulls filled the sky as if ushering in the sunrise. It was a magnificent sight for seasoned and beginner birdwatchers in Balanga City in Bataan.

“We feel so blessed,” said Rodolfo de Mesa, Balanga’s provincial administrator, looking at the wild birds feeding on tiny fish and crustaceans just a few meters from where he stood.

“The birds have been coming for years but we didn’t give them a second thought or realized how their annual visits could benefit our city,” De Mesa said. “We realized our city has a healthy ecosystem that must be protected if we want our ‘feathered tourists’ to continue to return every year.”

The city of Balanga is a residential and agricultural city. It is the newest, but one of the most frequented birdwatching sites in the Philippines, with at least 35 species and 15 families of birds recorded.

The WBCP members were joined by thousands of volunteers across Asia and Australasia, who also trooped to wetlands in their respective countries to count waterbirds. It marked the first day of the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), an annual program coordinated by Wetlands International in the Netherlands, a global organization that monitors the status of wetlands and waterbird populations.

The census is held annually for two weeks during the second and third weeks of January, since it was initiated in 1987 in the Indian subcontinent. Today it covers the regions of Asia, from Pakistan eastward to Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia. It also runs parallel to other international census of waterbirds in Africa, Europe, West Asia and Neotropics under the umbrella of the International Waterbird Census.

“The data we submit to the AWC has international and national importance,” said Carmela Española, a wildlife biologist and founding member of the WBCP, who gained international acclaim in 2004, when her team discovered a new bird species—named the Calayan Rail—in the Babuyan island group.

Carmela Espanola (R) being interviewed by Ross Harper-Alonso (L)
Carmela Espanola (R) being interviewed
by Ross Harper-Alonso (L)

“It feeds into an international program to maintain an overview of the waterbird population size, status and trends. The census provides an opportunity for us to forge healthy working relationships with local governments and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and to increase public awareness of the role of waterbirds and the need to protect their wetland habitats,” she said.

“It’s important to get more people involved to help identify the birds, validate their numbers and properly educate the people about avian flu,” Española added. “Because the waterbird sites are now monitored, it is easier for the authorities to pinpoint possible hotspots. We also remind them that there is still no conclusive evidence of infection from migratory birds. Human infection and wild bird contamination have been traced to close contact with infected domestic fowl.”

Migration pattern

From September to March, massive numbers of birds all over the world leave their breeding grounds in winter for warmer places in search of food. It is an annual north-south migration pattern that takes them halfway across the world.

The Bataan peninsula is part of the East Asian-Australian flyway or the main migratory routes these birds have used for ages. Balanga City’s thick mangrove forest, wetlands, grasslands and mudflats have provided a natural food basket for both migratory and endemic bird species for years, making the area one of the most populated bird sites in the Philippines.

Birdwatching tours

This year, the total count submitted to the AWC is 15,251, making it to the prime list of birdwatching destinations in the country. Despite the positive change in attitude towards the wild waterbirds in Balanga, there are still those who do not welcome their large flocks.

“The birds eat the fresh fingerlings the owners buy to stock their fishponds and the farmers blame the birds whenever they have a poor harvest,” said Orly de Guzman, a fisherman and resident of Barangay Sibacan, who is also a bird guide volunteer.

“They used to kill these birds but since the birdwatching tours started, it is now prohibited to harm them. I tell the pond keepers to just shoo the birds away with loud noise. I hope to be trained to become a proper bird guide because this will give me another source of income,” he said.

Rare birds spotted in Candaba Swamp

DENR Sec. Lito Atienza peers through the spotting scope as Candaba Mayor Jerry Pelayo looks on
DENR Sec. Lito Atienza peers through the spotting scope
as Candaba Mayor Jerry Pelayo looks on

Last year, Tourism Secretary Ace Durano said birdwatching could be the next big ecotourism draw, after WBCP president Michael Lu presented data showing that approximately 600 bird species have been sighted in the Philippines, of which 200 are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. This suggests that the country may have the highest number of indigenous bird biodiversity in the world.

In the Candaba Swamp, Pampanga, two rare migratory birds—the black-faced spoonbill and pied avocet—were seen for the first time during the Asian Waterbird Census yesterday, notching new records for this wetland in Central Luzon.

The black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) was last seen in 1914 in Manila Bay, according to Lu, WBCP president, citing information from the book “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines,” by Robert S. Kennedy et. al.

The WBCP also received reports that the species was spotted in Palawan between 2003 and 2004, and in Batanes in 2005, Lu said. “Probably because of the long cold months [in Taiwan], it came for the first time in Candaba,” he said, adding that there are less than 2,000 black-faced spoonbills in the world.

The first recorded sighting of the pied avocet (Recurvirostoa avocetta) was in March 1991, in Puerto Princesa City. It was again spotted in the coastal lagoon of Parañaque City in 2007, latest data from the WBCP showed.

Only one bird for each of the two rare species were seen.

The Candaba Swamp, stretching 36,000 hectares, straddles eastern Pampanga, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan. Although past census results continued to prove that the swamp has been supporting a large population of migratory birds from October to February and drawing more rare species, it has never been declared a protected area by the government.

What the local government did was to ban bird poaching, Mayor Jerry Pelayo said.

Fewer birds this year

The WBCP and DENR recorded 12,613 birds out of 41 species in Candaba. The count is 5,000 lower than last year’s tally of more than 17,000, according to Lu and Rogelio Trinidad, chief of the DENR’s protected wildlife unit.

Saturday’s tally was similar to records in 2005, it was learned.

The current bird population at the Candaba Swamp was not too dismaying, said Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, who was present during the AWC.

He thanked Pelayo for converting his ponds as sanctuaries for birds, and urged local officials to protect and preserve the natural environment.

The Candaba Swamp is one of five wetlands in Central Luzon. The others are the Paitan Lake in Cuyapo, and Pantabangan Dam, both in Nueva Ecija; Puerto Rivas in Balanga City; and Consuelo in Macabebe, also in Pampanga.