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Agusan Adventure

BARANGAY: San Marcos
PROVINCE: Agusan del Sur
ISLAND: Mindanao
START DATE: 4/3/2008
END DATE: 4/5/2008
OTHER BIRDERS PRESENT: Edmundo Balcazar, Trinket Canlas, Tere Cervero, Adri,Constantino, Nicky Icarangal, Felix Servita, Jr. Arnel & Christine Telesforo, Alex Tiongco
Ms. Divina Áµata Lagumbay - Tour Coordinator, Office of the Governor, Mr. Johnvie Goloran - Development Management Officer I, Mr. Nathaniel Lamzon Forester, Mr. Nestorio Dizon - Senior Environmental Specialist
ENVIRONMENT CONDITION: Mostly sunny with scattered rainshowers, 50-60% cloud cover, high humidity
TRIP NOTES: The Agusan marsh is 89,359 hectares, roughly the size of Manila . It has been declared a wildlife sanctuary under the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project (CPPAP) and is listed under the United Nations List of Protected Areas. In 1999, it was declared a RAMSAR site. The marsh is composed of freshwater swamp forest (49%), secondary scrub (14%), herbaceous swamp (7%), lakes, pools and rivers (10%), rice paddies and other agricultural land (6%), and currently 18 of mostly ethnic Manobo communities live there (6%). The lake perimeter is 9 km. long and its total area is 158 hectares. During the drier months, Lake Mihaba shrinks to 7 smaller lakes. It is the first of four areas being eyed for eco-tourism. Upon the invitation of Gov. Maria Valentina Plaza, the WBCP members were its pioneer visitors to the proposed site.

Trip report

Buwaya! Buwaya! The operator of the pump boat Arnel, Christine, Felix, Alex and Tere were riding shouted. A crocodile was spotted. Its amber-colored eyes glowed from a distance as the strobe of the flashlights struck it. Alex missed the whole show as he was too busy bailing water (or so he claimed).

We arrived in the late afternoon at Bunawan Wharf en route to our designated birding site. It would take 90 mins. to complete the 28 km ride into the interior of the marsh. Firefly-covered trees provided a welcomed distraction and acted like beacons through the dark. We soon left the Agusan river and snaked our way into a smaller tribunary, so close to the banks that grasses brushed against our faces. We soon arrived at our destination amidst childrenĂÔ voices singing our welcome. A quaint floating school would double as our home base for the next 2 nights.
Early morning found us gingerly climbing into dug-out canoes. As I looked around, the mood was eerie. There were no colors to speak of, only washed-out shades of gray. The light drizzle added to the mood as set out in the mist.

Sunrise at the marsh was almost a surreal experience, maybe even spiritual. It was soothingly quiet, the water still, and mists blanketed the distant trees. A lone Yellow Bittern flying silently. A silhouette at a distance, Purple Heron. Flying duck- Anas luzonicas. Wait! What was that ? Pompadour or Pink-necked pigeon? As the sun rose, the marsh slowly transformed itself. Life started to stir. More ducks flew ahead, Phil.Coucals hooted at the fringes. White-browed crakes fluttered in the weeds. A rather unusual sight of a pair of Philippine ducks perched on top of a tree provided a unique surprise. I had my first of many sightings of the Black Bittern. After a while, it was time to head back for breakfast.

Not long afterwards, we were on a boat to the Manobo village of San Marcos which we had passed last night. My untrained eye missed the first Silvery Kingfisher of the trip but there were many opportunities to learn where and how to spot them. An unexpected sighting of two Javan Pond Herons in breeding plumage surprised the group. In the village, we were welcomed by a traditional Manobo dance called Panawag-tawag. One of the villagers brought a raptor chick he had been caring for to be identified. Initially, the group narrowed it down between a Hawk-eagle and an Osprey. Some members of the group recalled seeing an osprey hunting on Lake Balinsasayao in Sibulan, Negros Oriental last June 2007 and bringing its catch to a nearby tree to feed a sub-adult. The sub-adult was also observed jumping from one branch to another, and it was from this experience they drew their conclusion from. They also noted the size and absence of feathers on its legs, and factored in these observations as well. When asked which nest, the chick was taken from, the caretaker pointed to the Osprey at the Kennedy guide book. The photo has been uploaded under the Agusan folder and we are waiting for confirmation to its identity. The forester who accompanied us explained that it wasn't the first time the man had cared for a chick. When they grew strong enough, they were allowed to fly free, he explained. While waiting for lunch, the familiar White-collared and White-throated Kingfishers made their appearances.

Our ride back to our house was far from uneventful. More sightings of the Silvery Kingfisher, Phil.Coucals, pigeons and a Javan Pond heron.

The highlight, a sighting of a Grey-headed Fish-Eagle not 5 meters away. Our boat tilted precariously as the group rushed and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the perched eagle. The boat operator vainly tried to stop and reverse the engines but instead had put it into gear in the excitement. By this time, the eagle had flown to the opposite bank and the group in unison moved to the portside, in time to see it glide into the trees beyond.

Our floating accommodations really just offered us a seat to watch the marsh and its inhabitants go on with life. Sometime during the day, someone discovered a Pied Triller's nest with two chicks a few meters from the house.

Lake Mihaba

We would watch Ospreys fishing in the lake, Purple Swamphens tramping in the waterlillies or White-breasted Waterhens flirting through the hyacinths. Even a feasting Pink-necked pigeon was unperturbed by the commotion it was causing despite its close proximity to its noisy neighbors.

In the afternoon, we explored the narrow waterway by canoe. I was learning to distinguish between the Pompadour and Pink-necked pigeon in flight when Guiaberos flew past. The chunky small parrots were hard to make-out once they landed. But it was thrilling to see these birds in the wild rather than in cages in wet markets. At sunset, the violet and pink skies were soon dotted by thousands of flying foxes or fruit bats on their way to their feeding grounds.

We craned our necks for an hour awed by the spectacle before us. Who said birding had to be confined to our feathered friends only?

In this day and age, where technology rules and concrete jungles abound, the Agusan marsh is a refreshing change. It is a venue for renewal and reverence. It is a testimony to the Manobo communities that live there to have kept the marsh relative untouched as it had been for generations. I added 8 lifers to my list and gained a lifelong appreciation and admiration for the inhabitants of the marsh, humans and otherwise.

Happy birders (L-R): Felix Servita, Trinket Canlas, Adri Constantino, Nicky Icarangal

Bird List by Trinket Canlas:

1. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 1
2. Purple Heron Ardea purpurea 7
3. Great Egret Ardea alba 1
4. Little Egret Egretta garzetta 8
5. Javan Pond-Heron Ardeola speciosa 3 breeding plumage
6. Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis 2
7. Black Bittern Dupetor flavicollis 7
8. Wandering Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna arcuata 2
9. Philippine Duck Anas luzonica 35+
10. Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
11. Grey-headed Fish-Eagle Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus 1
12. Raptor sp. Accipitridae/ Falconidae sp. 7
13. Barred Rail Gallirallus torquatus X heard only
14. Plain Bush-hen Amaurornis olivacea 2
15. White-breasted Waterhen (White-breasted Bush-hen) Amaurornis phoenicurus 3
16. Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio 3
17. Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 3
18. Pompadour Green-Pigeon Treron pompadora 19
19. Pink-necked Green-Pigeon Treron vernans 25+
20. White-eared Brown-Dove Phapitreron leucotis 1 heard more
21. Island Collared-Dove Streptopelia bitorquata 5
22. Spotted Dove (Spotted-necked Dove) Streptopelia chinensis 5
23. Guaiabero Bolbopsittacus lunulatus 3
24. Colasisi Loriculus philippensis 1
25. Philippine Coucal Centropus viridis 18
26. Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
27. Silvery Kingfisher Alcedo argentata 12
28. Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda 1
29. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis 4
30. White-collared Kingfisher (Collared Kingfisher)
Todirhamphus chloris 2
31. Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica 8
32. Pied Triller Lalage nigra 7 including pair with 2 chicks
33. Yellow-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus goiavier 20+
34. Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis 2 heard more
35. Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos 1
36. Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis 3
37. Striated Grassbird Megalurus palustris 1
38. Mangrove Blue Flycatcher Cyornis rufigastra 2 heard more
39. Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica 9
40. Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea 3 heard more
41. White-breasted Wood-swallow Artamus leucorynchus 9
42. Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 2 heard more
43. Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis 15+
44. Olive-backed Sunbird Cinnyris jugularis 7
45. Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus X common at the pier