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Birds of Coastal Lagoon

By: Dennis P. Liuag
Philippine Daily Inquirer
July 17, 2011

Metro Manila could lose the remaining wetlands and last refuge for endemic Philippine Ducks on its southern coastline if the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) pushes through with extensive reclamation and real estate development plans in that part of Manila Bay.

The proposed Three Island Reclamation and Development Project, a P14-billion joint venture of the PRA and Cyber Bay Corp., involves 635 hectares of upscale private residential, commercial and tourism estate. The project is beside the protected mangroves, lagoons and ponds designated as the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA).

The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) considers the reclamation project a serious menace to the mangroves and lagoons. The site is an important feeding and rest area for endangered birds that migrate south to escape the harsh winter in China, Japan and Siberia. The mangroves also serve as natural barriers to storm surges, provide spawning grounds for marine life and filter pollutants from the water.

Delightful break

“In the past years, the lush open spaces of these coastal wetlands have provided residents and commuters with a delightful break from the incessant assault of concrete, glass and steel which have become poor substitutes for an authentically uplifting bayside view,” said urban planner Anna Maria M. Gonzales.

Gonzales, who has worked closely with conservation groups in promoting the 175-hectare protected habitat, said “counterparts around Asia take care to preserve natural habitats yet the PRA conveniently ignores public interest and basic science while agreeing to haphazard development leading to destruction of environmentally critical sites.”

Furthermore, the PRA plan threatens to erode the already precarious situation of fisherfolk and shellfish gatherers who depend on the conservation of mangroves and mud flats for livelihood in eight coastal barangays of Las Piñas and Parañaque Cities, she said.

Breeding ground

In the 1970s, more than 28,000 waterbirds were recorded in the coastal areas of Pasay, Parañaque and Las Piñas. Today, only an average of 5,000 waterbirds (migratory and resident) have been recorded in the area since the annual census began in 2004.

The WBCP surveys made early this year listed 80 species of birds known to breed, feed or take up temporary residence in LPPCHEA. (See list.)

Forty-four species are migrants and seven species have resident and migrant populations.

Migratory flyway

As a feeding and rest stop along the East Asian Migratory Flyway, the lagoons shelter 2.2 percent of the global population of Black-winged Stilts, 0.5 percent of the worldwide population of Common Greenshanks and the rare Chinese Egret.

Several shorebird species start arriving from northern Asia and even Alaska in August and September.

The lagoons are the only place in Metro Manila where the Philippine Duck (Anas luzonica), also known as Philippine Mallard, maintains a breeding colony.

Because of the diversity of species it offers, LPPCHEA is one of several bird sites named by the Department of Tourism in “Birdwatching in the Philippines,” the two-volume book promoted at the 2009 World Travel Mart in London, and at the British Bird Fair and Taipei International Birdwatching Fair held last year.

Manuel S. Sabater, a community environment and natural resources officer assigned to the Metro Manila office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, prepared a vulnerability assessment report in 2010 that sparked concerns about threats to the habitat.

The coastal barrier islands in the area, known as Freedom and Long Islands, are significant parts of an ecosystem, the report said. It noted that development along the lines of the PRA plan would greatly impede circulation of saltwater, while a proposed channel to extend the mouth of Parañaque River westward would cut across the bird roosts and breeding areas in the northern section of Freedom Island.

Beach-front development on this island would allow land access to more predators and the resulting storm-surge area in the present lagoon is expected to adversely affect habitat functions.

A recently discovered aerial photograph of the site, dated 1982, showed the existence of a “third” barrier island, which has since disappeared as a result of wave erosion, sea level rise and quarrying for reclamation material.

Critics of the reclamation project point out that the PRA seeks to create real estate in the same site where its earlier activities contributed to the loss of this island.

Flooding

The reclamation project will likely worsen flooding in Metro Manila, according to former Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar. Environmentalists expect an increase in sea levels and extreme weather events as a result of rapid climate change over the next decades.

“Research by the Tyndale Center in the United Kingdom suggests we need a 10-percent increase in green space in our cities to combat climate change,” said Gonzales. She expressed concerns over increasing urban heat-island effect resulting from new urban sprawl.

Not against development

Michael Lu, an entrepreneur and regular visitor to the site since 2004, said birdwatchers like himself were not opposed to development in the area. “But we are for development with nature, sustainability and natural heritage in mind,” he said. “The WBCP wishes to underscore that these mangroves and lagoons are important, not only as a birdwatching site but also as a natural barrier, marine nursery, pollution filter and carbon sink.”

Gonzales said the land reclamation project would “change soil and water quality and could eventually kill off the mangroves and crustaceans, worms and mollusks on which birds feed” by choking off the entry of seawater from Manila Bay in the two lagoons.

Lu, who helped document birdlife in the grassland and wetland ecosystem before its destruction to make way for Pagcor City to the north of the coastal lagoons, said disturbance by landfill and construction operations as well as increased vehicular traffic and light pollution would pose unnecessary stress to breeding herons, waterfowl and grassland species like owls and warblers.

“The coastal lagoons are the last refuge of the Philippine Duck along the Metro Manila coast,” said Christian Perez, a Frenchman who settled in the country after retiring from the Asian Development Bank. “It will be a tragedy if reclamation plans should push through,” said Perez, who took up birdwatching a few years ago.

Threat to air travel

Some quarters have questioned the existence of the protected area, saying the migratory birds that congregate there pose a threat to air traffic. But birdwatchers Carl Burke and Mark Wallbank disagree.

Burke, a retired fire operations supervisor who was responsible for bird abatement at the Sacramento International Airport in California, said bird strikes were a global problem and any successful bird abatement program required good science.

Wallbank, a British-licensed pilot, who had joined several nature trips to the lagoons, noted that London Heathrow airport had a large reservoir directly to the west of its main runways. Thousands of migratory ducks, more than the numbers in the coastal lagoons, take up residence on the reservoir near Heathrow during winter but these are not considered a problem, Wallbank said.

Hazard plan

Open spaces at airports naturally attract birds, according to Burke. He proposed a partnership consisting of airline officials, airport managers and community-based organizations to develop wildlife hazard management plans, which involve regular bird-dispersal activities using dogs and nonlethal firecracker bursts.

“What the Naia [Ninoy Aquino International Airport] management should do as a matter of urgency is to cover any open ditches on the field with wire netting to deter egrets from feeding and posing a danger to aircraft,” Wallbank said.

Success stories

The WBCP and other conservation groups hope to replicate environmental success stories, like the Mai Po Reserve and Hong Kong Wetland Park in China, Guandu Nature Park in Taiwan and Bang Poo in Thailand.

While opposed to further reclamation and heavy construction in and adjacent to the mangroves and lagoons, the birdwatchers and conservationists have a ready alternative. Gonzales and her fellow advocates are proposing the protection and expansion of the sanctuary.

Nature trail

Conservationists plan to establish a nature trail through the beach forest, walkways in the mangroves, as well as bird observation hides and towers. The main feature in the built-up area will be a modest natural history center and laboratories.

Amenities will include a hostel for overnight visitors, dining areas, washrooms and a parking lot. Sections of the lagoons will also be set aside for local subsistence fisheries.

Win-win situation

“The nature sanctuary is a win-win situation. This will be a sanctuary for birds and marine life, a center for science education and environmental research, a local source of livelihood and certainly a recreational haven where city dwellers can escape the stress of urban life,” Lu said.

Civil engineer Jun Osano recently spent Sunday afternoons with his 11-year-old daughter Yana, picking up plastic wrappers and Styrofoam fragments from Freedom Island beach. “Our children deserve to grow up in a city with green public spaces,” he said while observing a flock of Night Herons.

“Malls are great places,” Osano said. “But our kids also deserve alternatives to concrete and steel, like the opportunity to be immersed in nature and appreciate our diversity of life on our planet.”

The coastal lagoons are open to the public. To reach the site, take the Manila Coastal Road from Roxas Boulevard and turn right at the service road just before the toll plaza. Visitors must show IDs and register at the gate before being allowed access. For guided visits, please contact WBCP at www.birdwatch.ph.

(Dennis P. Liuag works for a private development bank in the Makati Central Business District, where flocks of Night Herons regularly fly past office buildings at sunset.)