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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Follow that Bird!

By Elvira Mata
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 14:15:00 05/22/2010

Filed Under: Animals, Environmental Issues, Lifestyle (House & Home)
WORK wear for Nicky Icarangal consists of Columbia hiking boots, convertible pants, quick-dry rip-stop shirt and an outback-style hat. He carries a Swarovski 80-mm spotting scope on his shoulder, binoculars around his neck, and various accoutrements on his waist – an iPod of birdcalls, shotgun mic and recorder, LED flashlight, Leatherman knife, and water bottle.

He’s not a photographer or a hunter. Nicky is a bird guide. His hearing is sharp, eyesight extraordinary and his sense of humor, wry. The last one is essential for the job, especially if his clients have been standing under a tree since 4 a.m. with no coffee, no mouthwash, and still no sign of the Philippine Scops-Owl.

Nicky quips: “Perhaps the owl was out late last night and it’s still asleep.” He plays a track from his collection of greatest hits (bird calls): Oiik oiik oiik oiik! And in the cool, pre-dawn darkness, an owl oiiks back, finally. Nicky whips out a laser pointer and shows expectant birders where to look.

“Just above the laser light – to your left,” he whispers. Sighted, the owl sits scowling, orange eyes unblinking. It’s a Harry Potter moment.

If you’re a serious birdwatcher with a see-now-or-die-trying list of Philippine birds, call Nicky, who happens to be the premier Filipino bird guide in the country.

Mike Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), gave him the title “because there’s no other Filipino with the same amount of experience in birdwatching as Nicky.”

The 37-year-old bird guide has been birding since the ’90s. In 2003, he turned professional and started co-leading bird tours with Tim Fisher, the British-born bird guide who pioneered birdwatching in the Philippines, and Ben King of the New York-based Kingbird tours, that specializes in Asian bird tours.

Since the late ’80s, Lu says, foreign birders have been coming to the Philippines, where 200 of the over 600 bird species in Southeast are endemic—the largest number in the region. Avibase, the world bird data base, and partner of BirdLife International, counts 195 endemics in the Philippines while Malaysia has only 11 left, Taiwan, 15, and China, despite its vastness, has only 54 endemics.

For years, foreign birders who came to the Philippines were led by foreign bird guides. The locals simply booked hotels for the birders and drove them to the site. At best, rangers at the forest reserve would point to a clump of trees or an area by the river where a rare endemic species can be found. Just don’t ask them for the English name, much less its scientific name.

Then came Nicky, an excellent bird spotter whose knowledge of birds is vast. He can name most birds, simply by their call or their flight pattern. He has guided countless groups (from casual to hard-core birders) to Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon to see the critically endangered Philippine Eagle, and has gone to Calayan Islands up north, spotting the newly-discovered Calayan Rail, not once, but three times. He knows the secret hiding places of the Falcated Ground Babbler in Palawan – but he’s not telling.

Nicky, born and raised in Barangay Balian in bucolic Pangil, Laguna, has been interested in wildlife, birds in particular, since he was 5. “My father taught me how to stalk birds. He was a hunter,” he reveals.
His father, Nicandro A. Icarangal Sr., was a naturalist and a taxidermist who worked for the National Museum. He collected bird specimens for museums abroad, including the Delaware Museum of Natural History and for its founder, John du Pont, ornithologist and author of “Philippine Birds.”

Icaringal Sr. brought home work – birds of varying colors and sizes carefully wrapped in paper cones – taxidermy specimens to be sent to local and foreign museums.

“My father lined up the birds in a row and I thought: ‘Oh, how colorful!’ I learned to distinguish one from the other by looking at the beak, legs, size and wingspan, the color and distinguishing marks,” Nicky recalls. At 5, he could identify birds, and by 7 he was skinning them, preparing them for taxidermy.

It was no surprise that he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a taxidermist for the National Museum. It was here that Nicky met Robert S. Kennedy, primary author of the Oxford-published “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines,” the first modern field guide for the Philippines.

“Kennedy is my guru,” he says. “I met him in the early ’90s. He was doing a biodiversity survey for the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, a joint project with the National Museum, where I was working as a taxidermist. I accompanied him to different islands in the country, gathering data for a month.”

When Kennedy returned in 1998, this time to work on the Philippine field guide and to collect bird specimens for the Cincinnati Museum and the National Museum, Nicky was again one of his guides.

“I learned a lot from him,” he says, “like how to properly label a bird, including information such as when and where you collected the specimen, its length and weight. We also took DNA samples which were sent to the Cincinnati Museum. I was able to enhance my skills in identifying birds. We also recorded bird calls in the wild and used them as playback to attract birds.”

Kennedy himself was impressed with Nicky’s abilities and natural affinity for flora and fauna. In his field guide, Nicky gets a special mention under Kennedy’s “Personal Acknowledgements.”

More importantly, Kennedy convinced Nicky to go back to school and even arranged for a scholarship fund courtesy of George and Jean Perbix of Cincinnati. “If you want to work in the National Museum, you need a science degree,” was Kennedy’s advice.

In 2004, Nicky graduated with a B.S. in Applied Biology from De La Salle University Dasmariñas, Cavite. But he did not end up working in a stuffy old museum – he went back to the wildlife, birds in particular, working full-time with foreign bird tour operator Tim Fisher, coordinating trips and sharing his birding experiences.

Last year, Nicky and WBCP friends Alex Tiongco, Maritess Cervero,Trinket Canlas, Adrian Constantino, Felix Servita and Arnel Telesforo put up Birding Adventure Philippines, the first local tour operator specializing in birdwatching. Telesforo has since left for personal reasons, but the fledgling company continues to thrive.
Nicky, who is president and lead guide, says the company was set up at the right time. In November last year, the Department of Tourism launched birdwatching as the country’s latest tourist attraction at the World Travel Mart in London.

As the fastest-growing outdoor activity in Europe and America, birdwatching could be “our next big tourism draw,” notes Tourism Secretary Ace Durano. Foreign tour operators charge between $3,000 dollars per person for two weeks of birding (6 to 10 people max) to $8,000 per person for four weeks. The package includes all expenses (hotel, transfers, food and guide) except for the roundtrip airfare to the Philippines.

Nicky charges roughly the same rates, but unlike the usual bird tours where you’re given an itinerary and you have to stick to that itinerary or else, Nicky’s tours are more personal.

“His tours are planned around the clients’ preferences,” says Tiongco, one of the partners. “You can choose to go really high-end or you can sleep in a tent. Either way, Nicky will find all the birds on your must-see list and make sure you enjoy your stay in the Philippines.”

In Bohol, for instance, birding became really good – all the target birds were seen in due course. This left the group with an afternoon free so Nicky treated them to lunch and a boat cruise along the Loboc River. It beat eating sandwiches on the field.

“Nicky will make sure everyone in the group will see the bird. Even if you’re somewhere else, taking a nap or peeing behind a bush. He will find you and drag to the scope to take a look. He will not move on to the next bird on the list until everyone has seen it,” says one grateful birder who joined one of his tours.

“His tours are an experience in friendship – how do you charge for that?” Tiongco says.

Nicky recalls leading a group of foreigners to Mount Kitanglad. One birder left for a minute to relieve himself and missed the Philippine Eagle. His companions not only saw the eagle, they took pictures of it on the scope (called digiscoping). The late birder started to cry.

“Man, I can’t go back to my country without seeing the Philippine Eagle,” he said, and bawled like a child.
The following day, Nicky gave him a treat. He found a nest of the Philippine Eagle. Not only that, a mother was feeding her eaglet. Again, the birder started tearing up.

“Why are you crying?” Nicky asked. “You should be happy. This is a rare sight.”
“Man, these are tears of joy.” •

(Check out Nicky’s website at www.birdingphilippines.com)