By Ross Harper-Alonso,
Philippine Daily Inquirer
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.
Thousands of egrets and terns converge
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.
on the drained fishponds in Bgy. Sibacan, Balanga City
“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)
“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
“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.”
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 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.
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,”
Rare birds spotted in Candaba Swamp
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
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
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
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
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.