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Mount Halcon, Mindoro

James McCarthy
Date: April 12 — 14, 2003

This trip was organized through the Ayala Mountaineers group though in theory it wouldn’t be necessary in future to do so. Having said that, leaving the organizing to someone else when you don’t have the time is always a good alternative provided it’s relatively cheap.

The group consisted of myself, Tim Fisher, Rob Hutchinson (a visiting UK birder) and two non-birding friends who just came along for the climb. We had 3 guides and 3 porters — in fact we could have done it with 1 guide and 3-4 porters since none of us intended to carry our packs.

Halcon is as steep and as full of leeches as stories portray it. The forest line is at about 950 meters on the main trail in from the Calapan side and it took us about 4-5 hours to reach that point. From the entry the trail only rises about 300 meters in the next 2-3 hours following the side of a large valley before rising steeply again to a ridge from where the summit is viewed and is a full day’s walk away.

Itinerary

We left Sta Rosa, Manila at 5am and arrived at Batangas pier at 6.30. We then had to hang around till 8.15 for the Supercat to Calapan, which was efficient and smooth. We then took a jeep for the drop-off about an hour away — 40 minutes on the main road west and then 20 minutes on a dusty track into the base of the mountain. These jeeps are irregular and need arrangement.

From the jeep terminal it’s a straight climb upwards on a fairly exposed trail with two good water stops (at about 3 hours and 4 hours). After that the next water is 6 hours at 1,080 meters above sea level.

Campsites are few and far between except much higher up — we camped by the stream at 1,080 meters and only just managed to fit. The small site is offset by it being right in the middle of excellent mountain forest and close to water (and leeches). Returning was fast— we left the campsite at 9 am and were in Sta Rosa by 6pm.


Birding

Nothing much was seen before reaching the mountain. Cattle Egrets and Long Billed Crow were the only birds but as soon as we started climbing it was clear we were not in Luzon as both Elegant Tits and Olive Backed Sunbirds began calling with distinctly different variations on their ‘usual’ calls.

On the climb up few birds were seen or looked for — it being blisteringly hot at 12 noon and a 45-degree slope sapped ones enthusiasm. Rests along the way produced a Asiatic Honey Buzzard, Chinese Goshawk, a juvenile Hawk Eagle sp. (both are on the island), Purple Needletails and the local race of Philippine Bulbul which was very grey in the throat and breast and again had a distinct call. A single Whiskered Tree Swift close to the tree line was probably the best bird of the first 1000 meters and was only rivaled by the fantastic view back over northeast Mindoro towards Lake Naujan. Seen badly at the ‘first water source’ was a single Scarlet-collared Flowerpecker — the Mindoro endemic, which takes over from the Red Keeled. This bird was again present on the way down when we saw it much better and watched a pair by the ‘swimming pool’ about 500 meters lower down (the male feeding the female berries!).

We reached the tree line at about 5, a bit late and we were extremely tired. A calling Yellow Breasted Fruit Dove raised our hopes but we were unable to find a vantage point to look at the forest until much later. Other calling birds included Island Thrush, Elegant Tit, and Shortwing in the very good forest. A viewpoint just before the campsite produced 2 Racquet-tails just as the light was going.

After setting up camp and collapsing into the tents we all fell asleep!

Two hours later I awoke to a soft whistle call — our first target species — Mindoro Scop’s Owl. We all immediately left out of the tent and started up the mountain trail past the camp. The calling had long stopped — leaving us wondering if we had almost imagined it. We walked around for a further hour without another whisper although we did manage to see a lovely pair of Mindoro Hawk Owls and hear a lot more calling up and down the forest. Back to the camp and a long overdue meal — our first since 7:00 that morning!

1.30 am and the Scop’s Owl begins calling again. Pulling myself forcibly from bed I followed Rob without a torch in the moonlight — an awesome experience with fireflies, phosphorescent fungi and the noises of montane forest all around. Just 100m from the camp we located the owl calling from the middle of a bamboo thicket and try as we might for the next 2 hours except for a single ‘flutter-by’ none of us were satisfied with to say we had seen the bird well enough to tick it.

3.30 am and despite the owl still calling it was back to camp to try and get some sleep in a freezing tent (we had been told a light blanket would suffice — it was not!!!).

5 am and up again and along the trail to a nice vantage point that gave a 180 degree view of the valley. On the way we ran into the same few species that were in this forest — Elegant Tit, Shortwings, Yellowish White-eye, Island Thrush (of a particularly lovely variation), Mountain Leaf Warblers and one superb view of a singing male Snowy Browed Flycatcher — a beautiful but extremely elusive bird.

At the viewpoint we were disappointed to find no flocks of pigeons circling the skies…a single Imperial type crossed the horizon and remained unidentified (probably Spotted) to be followed by a Metallic Pigeon and then very little else. A single Rufous Bellied Eagle failed to lift our spirits much even if it gave great views!

However all was not lost as a deep Imperial Pigeon call drew us up the valley. The call at a distance sounded like a turbo-prop plane at extreme distance when you just here a drone fade in and out. Closer up though one could here a distinct 3-syllable call with the first two notes closer and the third following — a sort of wu-rump ugh…that’s the only way I can write it down!

Creeping ahead Rob was able to tape the bird and play the recording back. Unbelievably the Pigeon moved just enough for us to see it across a small valley — wonderful! A large fat Mindoro Imperial Pigeon enjoying the morning sunshine!

We watched it through the scope for a few minutes and I was able to take — probably — the first photo in history of a bird in the wild (not certain of that claim!). Probably the most noticeable feature was how much red was around the eye — obviously in museum specimens this has dried up. The lovely bronze back was also very evident.

Trying to get closer we flushed two doves and then the Imperial gave me a fly-by to see the pale band on the tail — very obvious. What more could I ask for?

We walked on to the bottom of the ridge and found more of the same birds (few species but quite plentiful) and managed to add Cuckoo Dove, Rusty Breasted Cuckoo (calling only), Yellow Bellied Whistler and another Mindoro Imp. For good measure. Very happy — it was back to camp for breakfast.

10 am & 3 pm

After that it was all fairly anti-climactic — I went out two more times to watch the same species of birds (though no more pigeons) — especially Island Thrushes which were lovely. In one mixed flock I managed to find a stunning Mountain Shrike — which at the time I didn’t know was on Mindoro — a bird I have missed elsewhere and was very happy to see. I also saw our only Scaly Thrush of the trip.

6pm

An early dinner and we were ready to go out for an all-night Scops Owl hunt. Even before we had washed up the bird closest to camp was calling so off we went back up the trail again (its amazing how quickly you learn the roots and rocks of these trails). 200 meters from the camp and we were wondering if it would be a repeat of the previous nights efforts….play the tape and bingo! The bird flew right up to us and perched just 4-5 feet away! So close it immediately turned around when the torches went on and flew away! Play the tape again ….bingo! This time we managed to see it for a few seconds longer and over the next 2 hours we managed to get several brief but excellent views of this extremely local species. A tiny owl that — I am running out of time for this report! — looked very much as it does in the Handbook

Neither the Scops nor Hawk Owls were uncommon — we could hear 3 Scops at the same time and 2-3 Hawk Owls too. Walking further along the trail brought more birds and just as we were going to bed we saw our last Scops owl right behind the tent!

5am Tuesday

Another cripplingly freezing night (for me anyway) and a walk along the valley in what proved to be our only rain of our stay on the mountain (super lucky). We only had a few hours and the main objective was to get voice tapes of the Imperial Pigeon. Low fog mad things harder but as we were coming back down it cleared enough to give us good views of a flock of 5 Metallic Pigeons, another Mountain Shrike and the ever present but ever elusive Raquet-tails.

We recording the pigeon but didn’t see it — leaving us to realize how lucky we had indeed been.

9am

We quickly packed up the camp and it was off down the mountain. Leeches were everywhere but the lure of catching the 3pm vs 5pm boat kept us going. As we got lower the temperature started to rise and we passed the first groups of mountaineers going up for Holy Week. I wouldn’t like to see the trail now — probably a morass of muddy slides.

1pm

Down at the bottom and only one thing to do — rip all our clothes off (down to the briefest essentials) and leap into the beautiful natural 5 foot deep pool in the river at the village — aaaaagh sarap!!!!!!!!!

3pm

Sitting on the boat I get the following text from my wife "Finally I can tell you — yaya left yesterday for Leyte where her mum is sick. I hope you are ready for baby Tim!"

Back to reality!