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
“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
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
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
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)