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Manila Zoo Arroceros

A Birder looks at the City by Ned Liuag

Location: Manila Zoo, Arroceros Forest Park & Pasig Riverbanks
Date: January 11, 2003
Birders: Ned Liuag, Mike Lu, LuAnn Fuentes, Dindo Llana, Mads Bajarias, Kitty Arce, & Andrew Galano
Photo members: JMOng, Roland Roldan, Carlo Tecson, Van Calingasan, Bert Dimson, Eli Agabin, & others

Trip Pix Links:
Roland Roldan:, login ID: afterglow777, password: zoo, & zoo2
Van Calingasan:,

A Birder looks at the City

Manila, dubbed the Ever Loyal City under the decrepit Spanish Empire of old, has always fascinated me. There are always pockets to explore and snippets of history to learn. Sometimes I try to reconstruct from one grand uncle's account an image of what Manila looked like in my grandparents' time, before the Allies decided that in order to 'liberate' the city it was necessary to bomb the place to bits.

On Saturday, January 11, Mike Lu and Kitty Arce organized a day for both birders and camera enthusiasts at Manila Zoo. It was a trip that decidedly not only succeeded in plumbing childhood memories but also in providing glimpses of Manila's architectural, cinematic and banking history. Manila Zoo is a tree covered oasis tucked in the shadow of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas bounded on three sides by Harrison on the west, Quirino Highway north and Adriatico on the east. Open daily from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, the Zoo charges a mere P6.00 admission.

I arrived at the parking lot a quarter of an hour before admission time and found Mike and a couple of PH Photo e-group members already waiting there. The sun had scarcely risen above the line of trees in the nearby playground when the first busload of primary school kids drove in, signaling the start of another busy day.

Mike and I got permission to enter and check around the dome aviary for the Zoo specialties - herons that had escaped their cages during a blow-down and were now breeding in the surrounding trees. Sure enough, we saw two RUFOUS NIGHT HERONS - an adult and a juvenile - and a wintering BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON sunning on top of the Dome Aviary. Mike said this is the first time he has seen the Black-Crowned species in the Zoo during his past visits.

PIED FANTAILS, YELLOW-VENTED BULBULS and EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS are common here. Two winter visitors I did not see but heard on a number of occasions in the Zoo were ARCTIC WARBLER and BROWN SHRIKE. But this time we were able to get some looks at GOLDEN-BELLIED GERYGONE in the now leafless narra tree near the enclosure holding 25 year old Mali, the Zoo's Indian and only elephant.

Though only six PH Photo members had originally signed up to bird with us this morning, an hour into the visit, there were over a dozen of us exploring the Zoo with MyZoo volunteers Kitty Arce and Andrew. Gil Dy-Liacco and Mads Bajarias joined us shortly beside the lagoon, where we got good close-up views of the PURPLE HERON on the island that used to house the Zoo's gibbons. On the island were two WHITE-COLLARED KINGFISHERS that we watched diving for prey from overhanging branches. Mike, Gil and I separately reported seeing a single PIED TRILLER in a tree farther in.

While the photographers were busy capturing subjects on film and disk, we went around the cages to admire and familiarize ourselves with the captive endemic species.

There were two problematic birds in separate cages that we could not easily identify. Kitty asked us about one black rail with a hint of white edge to the wings that was caged with bleeding hearts and other doves. Gil, Mads and I had a short discussion about it. The rail might have been an immature moorhen (wrong color of bill and apparently no frontal shield), a plain bush hen (missing the lime-green bill) or a water cock (had the white edges to the wings but the wrong color for an immature bird or female). It's most likely to be a watercock, except this one measures only about 12 inches bill tip to tail.

The other was a heron kept together with the Philippine pond turtles and red-eared sliders. Kitty and Andrew said the heron was already there when they started the MyZoo volunteers program. I concluded this was an undersized Black-Crowned Night Heron; but after another go at three guides by Kennedy et al, Fisher and Hicks and Strange I am inclined to think that we were looking at a Little Heron. What cued me on to this was the wing pattern, but the size - only two-thirds or less than the ones we've observed around Manila Bay - really threw me off. We had been thinking that perhaps confinement was stunting the growth of both these birds and broached the idea of introducing them to the Dome aviary.

Besides birding, our discussions turned to reptilian behavior and breeding. I was surprised to see that a five-year old endemic Philippine crocodile hardly measured more than four feet. Kitty said this is the main reason it isn't being farmed. Usually, when we think of crocodiles, what comes to mind is the aggressive seagoing estuarine crocodile. Andrew related how the adult bull Estuarine croc nearly got its jaws on him while bringing nesting material to the Philippine crocodile enclosure. Missing him, the bull croc turned on its mate and tore off a limb. One is thankful that Philippine forests are not home to cassowaries, flightless birds that can slice open a man's belly with a blow from its blade-like claws. A look at the one in Manila Zoo is enough to give it a lot of respect.

On the way past the reptile displays, Gil and I noted with amusement that this part of the Zoo always seemed like an endless stretch to cover when we were kids. Among the most interesting animals I thought was the 90-year old tortoise, which is according to Kitty and Andrew the oldest living animal there, in fact it is older than the Zoo. I am certain that everyone was mulling privately about the sorry state these animals were being kept; poorer in fact if private volunteers did not donate their Saturdays to help with the upkeep and care.

During our tour, we were introduced to another MyZoo volunteer, professional photographer John Chua who starts his volunteer hours by feeding Mali the elephant. I got my once in a lifetime opportunity to feed Mali by hand (though my thoughts were more focused on consuming the banana myself since I hadn't had breakfast yet, thus the desire to distance myself from the sight of all that fresh fruit and bread in hand.) Dindo (who recently submitted digital images of a male Olive-Backed Sunbird feeding in their Quezon City garden) and Lu-Ann Fuentes of Haring Ibon magazine spent the longest time with Mali; with Lu-Ann rubbing crushed watermelon pulp on Mali's tongue before feeding.

As we walked to the cars, we found a bird peddler just outside the Zoo gates selling juvenile Scaly-Breasted and Chestnut Munias. But what was most interesting was that his inventory included up to eight healthy looking Colasisis (philippensis ssp) selling for P350 a pair.

From Manila Zoo, we drove to Arroceros Forest Park, an enclosed island of greenery at the foot of Quezon Bridge that the city government wants to build over. On the drive there, Mads, Lu-Ann and I discussed if it was possible to organize another trip to Mount Makiling, centrally to spot Luzon Bleeding Heart, or to bird in Quezon National Park.

Arroceros Forest Park is located where the old Ministry of Education and Culture building used to stand and is the result of a private urban forestry initiative. We wanted to visit the park, which to my knowledge is only open once a year on Earth Day, hoping to catch sight of the site specialty - a flock of Asian Glossy Starlings. Perhaps because of the late hour or overcast skies, we missed out on the starlings this trip.

While Mike took the photographers around the site, Mads, Lu-Ann and I ventured off the road into the woods infested with day-biting mosquitoes.We spotted the usual yellow-vented bulbuls and a few pied fantails. Again, we heard the tzick-tzick of an Arctic Warbler but could not draw our sights on it. Mads got a good look at a Brown Shrike in the tangled branches and pointed out to us a single White-Collared Kingfisher, which brought relief to tired eyes. After sometime, Lu-Ann reminded us of the risk of contracting mosquito-borne dengue virus which was enough reason for us to walk back to the ring road. I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of the first Long-Tailed Shrikes for the New Year, but they were absent here too.

While Mads was scanning the trees for interesting species - we didn't see any butterflies, but cicadas had started their chorus in the middle of the wood - Lu-Ann and I took a look at the Pasig. What I thought was fish surfacing to capture insect prey turned out to be bubbles of marsh gas escaping from the bottom. We were looking out to the Muslim quarter when Lu-Ann pointed to a small blue-green shape dipping into the water before disappearing in the trees to our right. A few moments later, we heard a high-pitched call and saw a blue-green jewel whirring upriver a few inches above the water surface before going down again and disappearing in the direction of Quezon Bridge. By its call, size, hint of chestnut plumage and low-level whirring flight suggested we had flushed out a COMMON KINGFISHER that had sought winter quarters in the park. A look under the bridge with binoculars revealed a colony of PACIFIC SWALLOWS flying in and out from among the girders.

Waiting for Mike and the photographers to wrap up their part of the tour, the caretaker told us that there were days when the park was teeming with birds. He mentioned four "large brown ones" that regularly roosted in trees beside the Pasig and pointed out the Rufous Night Heron in the Kennedy Guide. The caretaker also reported regular occurrence of Glossy Starlings, some yellow-colored birds (Black-Naped Orioles) and "kingfishers." As we talked, I stared at a majestic narra tree, perhaps the oldest in the park.Already a mature tree when its neighbors were but saplings, old narra was a quiet witness to many storms, the atmospheric as well as political.

We left the park at 11:00 am and made our way to Riverside Drive behind the Bureau of Immigration Building. As we pulled up, we could see scores of LITTLE TERNS - numbers probably strengthened by winter arrivals from the north - hovering above the murky water. Flocks of five or six WHISKERED TERNS were observed arriving from the direction of Manila Bay before gaining altitude as they passed Jones Bridge and heading upriver. I saw one GULL-BILLED TERN flying high above the rest. Its heavy build, large size and almost all-white appearance distinguished it from the other terns. A few Little Terns would fly within a few meters from our position, allowing us very nice views of these graceful and uncommon residents. As we watched the terns in graceful flight, we talked about the river and how its currents and seasonal floods had created the rich delta on which the city now stands.

From the embankment, Mike pointed across the water to two of the oldest buildings in Manila, considered architectural landmarks during their heyday. The one on the right was the first Citibank headquarters in the Philippines, now an abandoned shell. Its neighbor, still in use, was used as the set in a number of top-grossing Philippine films. Behind that, though not visible from our position, stood the building which housed the first Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank office. As we were talking, I was picturing in my mind what this stretch of river must have looked like back in the mid-Thirties when my paternal grandfather, the journalist, used to pilot his boat Lake Clipper Lil upriver to Pansol, Calamba. I liked the idea that the same terns I was watching were perhaps the descendants of the same terns my grandfather from the Lil. It gave a sense of connection with the man I only knew from news fragments and a few faded photographs.

I turned from my reverie to listen to Mads enthuse about the idea of renting a boat (a big one, Lu-Ann hoped) which could take us from mouth to source of the Pasig. I, too, liked the idea of riding the river on (muscle) power (and the current) alone; but not the thought of getting swamped in the wake of a passing barge. I was thinking that we might want to follow the route of Rizal's fictitious Bapor Tabo as it made its way to Los Banos (and stop by Talim Island to check out the large concentration of egrets reported there). I am curious to take a look at the supposed crocodile that was transformed into a rock somewhere along the Makati stretch of the river.

We were about to wrap up for the day when Mike posed the question why the terns never foraged beyond Jones Bridge. He noticed that they would only fly over Jones, Quezon and Nagtahan, but never feed along that stretch of the Pasig. Seeing this for myself, I found it curious indeed.

Listening over lunch to birders and camera buffs discuss the merits and shortcomings in Mano Po, the cinematic portrayal of Chinese immigration in the Philippines, I brooded over the anti-immigrant backlash sweeping across the world. I found it ironic that we chose to watch for winter migrants behind a building that houses the immigration police.


January 11 BIRD LIST:
1. Purple Heron - 1 on Monkey Island in Manila Zoo
2. Black-Crowned Night Heron - 1 on top of Dome Aviary in Manila Zoo
3. Rufous Night Heron - 2, including a juvenile
4. Gull-Billed Tern - 1 on Pasig downriver of Jones Bridge
5. Little Tern - 20-30+ on Pasig
6. Whiskered Tern - Flocks of 5-6, but not more than 10 passed through
7. Common Kingfisher - 1 seen in Pasig River from Arroceros Forest Park
8. White-Collared Kingfisher - 2 on Monkey Island in Manila Zoo, 1 in Arroceros Forest Park
9. Pacific Swallows - several under Quezon Bridge
10. Pied Triller - 1 on Monkey Island in Manila Zoo
11. Yellow-Vented Bulbuls - Common in Manila Zoo and Arroceros Forest Park
12. Golden Bellied Gerygone - 1 seen but easily heard in Manila Zoo, not evident in Arroceros
13. Arctic Warbler - Heard in Manila Zoo and Arroceros Forest Park
14. Pied Fantail - Common in Manila Zoo and Arroceros Forest Park
15. Brown Shrike - Common but only heard in Manila Zoo, 1 seen in Arroceros Forest Park
16. Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Common, nesting in big cat enclosure.