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Birding adventures in Luzon, Philippines

Date: 7 and 13-15 February 2010
Sites: Mt. Palay-Palay, Candaba March, Subic and Mt. Makiling in Luzon, Philippines
Birders: Juan Areces (Spain), Teresa Cervero (Philippines), Isabel Lorenzo (Spain), Mike Lu (Philippines), Paulo Paixão (Portugal), Melanie Tan (Philippines), Julia Vera (Spain)
Trip report by: Paulo Paixão
Bird lists by: Paulo Paixão (not including the full list of species registered by the group, but only those species actually identified by the author)

When I first wrote to Mike Lu two weeks ahead of an official trip to the Philippines, I could not have imagined that I was about to embark on a fascinating birding experience. All started when I googled for birdwatching tips on the Internet in order to plan what to do near Manila during my days off before and after the meetings. I came upon the official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) www.birdwatch.ph whose President Mike Lu invited me as a guest for a guided birding tour for WBCP members to Mount Palay-Palay. Mike is committed to promote birdwatching, nature conservation and biodiversity in the Philippines, either through the WBCP on their own or providing expertise to the environment and tourism departments of the Philippines government. Mike made it possible for me to meet a group of friendly people sharing the same interest as me in birdwatching and nature conservation. He also arranged for two experienced birders and Club members, Teresa Cervero and Melanie Tan, to accompany me on birding tours to Candaba, Subic and Mount Makiling. All these bird sites are situated in the island of Luzon, about 2-3 hours drive from Manila, although it can take longer to get there, as the traffic in Metro Manila is intense and quite challenging. The two volumes of the book "Birdwatching in the Philippines”, which were co-published in 2008 and 2009 by the Philippine Department of Tourism, the WBCP and Recreational Outdoor Exchange, contain excellent illustrations and practical information on the best birdwatching destinations.

Three Spanish friends (Juan Areces, Julia Vera and Isabel Lorenzo) joined us on the trip to Candaba and Subic. Not only did we see many birds but we had fun and spent a good time together, too. Teresa and Mel planned all these activities in detail. Both have excellent knowledge of the Philippine bird species and their habitats and can easily identify species by plumage, behaviour and vocalizations. Teresa took care of the programme, itinerary, transportation, driver, accommodation, food, drinks and technical gear, such as scope, binoculars and Kennedy's book “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines”. Multi-skilled Mel drove the van and made sure that we would never get stuck in traffic jams and would always be on time. She also surprised us with her ultra visual capacity for scanning the trees on both sides of the road while keeping an eye on the road and another on the rear-view mirror. Her laser pointer proved to be an essential tool to show us, common people, where to find a small bird perched 30 meters away beneath a mass of green foliage. She also assisted in identification of species by playing back bird vocalizations from her mobile phone. Teresa and Mel were always happy and ensured that there was plenty of chilled beer, sandwiches and snacks available at every birdwatching break.

I added 60 lifers to my bird list, many of them endemic, out of 72 species seen and 2 heard only. This in addition to a few more species not identified at the species level. I also saw three mammal lifers and many different ants, butterflies, spiders, lizards and plants previously unknown to me.

Mount Palay-Palay, Cavite 7 February 2010

Mike fetched me at 4.30 a.m. and we travelled by car to Mt Palay-Palay at the southern end of Manila Bay. Mt Palay-Palay, also known as Pico de Loro, is the highest of a series of small mountains situated on the southern end of Manila Bay. The site has good patches of secondary growth tropical rain forest. Access to the site is controlled and we had to report at a checkpoint. On arrival to a dirt road we met other WBCP members and I was greeted by many of these birdwatchers that were really keen on showing to me the abundant endemic bird species. This was considered as a good birding day, as many species came out to our sight, some of them in pairs. Fellow Club members expressed concerns about the conservation of the site, in particular because of an encounter with a group of people who looked like hunters and due to the adverse impacts of recent road building.

Birdwatching started at daybreak soon after 6 a.m. and lasted until 10 along a less than 1 km long stretch of dirt road. The Balicassiao and the Coppersmith Barbet could be heard in the forest and the latter was also spotted at some point. We soon came across a Brahminy Kite soaring over the trees and a pair of Philippine Falconets perched on a dead tree. We also scoped a perched Philippine Serpent-Eagle that showed up several times soaring over us. I was told that the rooster-like distinctive call was from a male Red Junglefowl. The parrots were represented by flocks of Guaiaberos and Colasisis flitting or feeding on small fruits. The bird that most impressed me on that day though was the Greater Flameback. Being a large woodpecker and taking its time to drill the same trunk, it allows the birder to appreciate every single aspect of its plumage and shape. The coloration of the local subspecies is well shown in Kennedy’s bird guide and can be easily distinguished from the other subspecies. A number of other species paraded throughout the morning along the tropical scenery. These included: Blackish Cuckoo-Shrike, Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike, the bald Coleto and the three cuckoos Philippine Coucal, Scale-feathered Malkoha and Red-crested Malkoha.

We had an open-air lunch at Puerto Azul seaside resort, by a beach lined with coconut trees and facing Corregidor Island. I tasted several Philippine dishes, of which I liked in particular the milkfish. A few Striated Swallows flew constantly above the swimming pool, while some Yellow-vented Bulbuls sitting on the trees did not seem too bothered with our presence. The birders took their time to enjoy the meal, chat and write down the day’s bird list for the whole group, which in the end comprised about twice as many species as I had identified myself.

After the lunch break we went back to the car and checked for more birds on nearby roads, but then I fell asleep and only woke up on the way back to Manila. The countryside bird fauna was dominated by Cattle Egrets and terns scattered over the rice fields. However, we also passed by several ponds, canals and water bodies, some of which heavily polluted from runoffs or litter, but that could have been worth exploring.

List of species:

Haliastur indus Brahminy Kite
Spilornis holospilus Philippine Serpent-Eagle
Microhierax erythrogenys Philippine Falconet
Gallus gallus Red Junglefowl heard only
Bolbopsittacus lunulatus Guaiabero
Loriculus philippensis Colasisi
Megalaima haemacephala Coppersmith Barbet
Chrysocolaptes lucidus haematribon Greater Flameback
Coracina coerulescens Blackish Cuckoo-Shrike
Coracina striata Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike
Hypsipetes philippinus Philippine Bulbul
Dicrurus balicassius Balicassiao heard only
Oriolus chinensis Black-naped Oriole
Sarcops calvus Coleto
Centropus viridis Philippine Coucal
Lanius cristatus Brown Shrike
Monticola solitarius Blue Rock Thrush
Phaenicophaeus cumingi Scale-feathered Malkoha
Phaenicophaeus superciliosus Red-crested Malkoha
Hirundo striolata Striated Swallow
Pycnonotus goiavier Yellow-vented Bulbul

Candaba Marsh, Pampanga, 13 February 2010

When Teresa and Mel met with us at 4.30 a.m. just outside our hotel in Manila, we were ready for a well-deserved weekend break after a week of long and and late negotiation meetings. We arrived at Candaba marsh at dawn and were welcomed by many birds of different species, all very active under the overcast sky. The Candaba marshes have been drastically reduced as the land has been converted mainly to agriculture and taken over by rice and watermelon production, as well as fishponds. From the original 32,000 ha of swamp, it is likely that only a maximum of 1,000 ha of swamp fragments remain today. The rest of the wetland comprises about 1,000 ha of fishponds, while the remainder is seasonably flooded farmed land. One or more hunters were active since early morning. Although we could not see any, every now and then the sound of a shot cut through the peaceful landscape. A Pheasant-tailed Jacana shivered each time a shot was heard.

The dirt road lined with sparse trees produced species such as Striated Grassbird, Tawny Grassbird, Zebra Dove and Brown Shrike. The embankments constitute a good viewpoint into the marshes. A reed fence was built to shelter birders away from the bird’s sight. Although some openings allowed for privileged close range looks at the birds, all these windows are situated at the same height, which is adequate for the average adult with a scope mounted on a long-legged tripod, but totally inappropriate for children and short people in general, which is a pity as this place is a site of major importance and can be used for actions aiming at raising environmental public awareness. There were nice views of grazing domestic Water Buffalos, too.

On the marsh, I was a bit disappointed with the sighting of the Philippine Duck, as the colours produced little contrast under the dim lighting conditions. The same can be said of the Garganey and the Common Teal that shared the same place, but the diving Tufted Duck was clearly showing off its black-and-white plumage and obvious head tuft. More vibrant were the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters perched on sticks or making short flights, the small Chestnut Munias shifting about on reeds, the active Pied Fantail with the wings drooped and the occasional flight of a Yellow Bittern or less often of a Black Bittern. Other waterbird species present included the nervous Common Moorhen, the elegant Purple Swamphen, the shy Barred Rail, the beautiful White-breasted Waterhen and the unmistakable Pheasant-tailed Jacana even if the non-breeding males lacked the long tail. However, the highlight of this site consisted of the numerous herons that were present either alone or in loose colonies in every marsh, such as Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Egret and Little Egret, or perched on trees bordering the rice fields.

At a nearby pond, water lilies floating on calm waters, a flock of hundreds of domestic ducks foraged on the banks, while Pacific Swallows took off from some shrubs. A flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a pair of Yellow-vented Bulbuls and one Arctic Warbler moved around the trees close to a house. A Richard’s Pipit disappeared before I could spot it. More Zebra Doves at close range and the call from a Clamorous Reed Warbler hidden in the reeds completed the picture. At this point, some of us were a bit tired and took a siesta on a quilt stretched on the ground and later on the car seat. I would like to go back to Candaba marsh, especially on a sunny day to get the most of the colourful bird fauna and to explore the area by boat.

List of species:
Ixobrychus sinensis Yellow Bittern
Ixobrychus flavicollis Black Bittern
Nycticorax nycticorax Black-crowned Night-Heron
Bubulcus ibis Cattle Egret
Egretta garzetta Little Egret
Ardea alba Great Egret
Ardea cinerea Grey Heron
Ardea purpurea Purple Heron
Anas crecca Common Teal
Anas luzonica Philippine Duck
Anas querquedula Garganey
Aythya fuligula Tufted Duck
Gallirallus torquatus Barred Rail
Amaurornis phoenicurus White-breasted Waterhen
Gallinula chloropus Common Moorhen
Porphyrio porphyrio Purple Swamphen
Hydrophasianus chirurgus Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Chlidonias hybridus Whiskered Tern
Alcedo atthis Common Kingfisher
Lanius cristatus Brown Shrike
Megalurus palustris Striated Grassbird
Megalurus timoriensis Tawny Grassbird
Geopelia striata Zebra Dove
Lonchura atricapilla Chestnut Munia
Acrocephalus stentoreus Clamorous Reed Warbler heard only
Rhipidura javanica Pied Fantail
Hirundo rustica Barn Swallow
Hirundo tahitica Pacific Swallow
Merops philippinus Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Passer montanus Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Phylloscopus borealis Arctic Warbler
Pycnonotus goiavier Yellow-vented Bulbul

Subic, Zambales, 13-14 February 2010

We had lunch at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, which is an industrial and commercial area on the former site of the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay. The whole afternoon was dedicated to birdwatching along the many roads of the Subic Bay hills. The first special birding opportunity was a breeding colony of Blue-throated Bee-eaters, some of which shuttled in and out of roadside burrows while others stood sentinel.

I was hugely impressed with my first ever sighting of an enormous roosting colony of Flying Foxes hanging from every single branch of a group of trees. We also had a close encounter with a troop of Long-tailed Macaques, the most fearless individuals being brave enough to come down from the forest along an exposed open grass slope and cross the road to scavenge on food leftovers from the litter bins. These containers proved not to be monkey-proof and some dominant individuals feasted on boiled rice.

The forest greeted us with the sight of new bird species, such as Green Imperial Pigeon, Blue-naped Parrot, Rufous Coucal, Pygmy Swiftlet, White-collared Kingfisher, Luzon Tarictic Hornbill, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Sooty Woodpecker and White-bellied Woodpecker.

We checked in at Mountain Woods resort, where we had a dip in the swimming pool after dusk just before a candlelit dinner at the balcony. The food was excellent. By chance we met the Philippine biologist and ornithologist Aldrin Mallari who overheard us talking about Chestnut Munia over dinner and told us about his work on the identification of Important Bird Areas in the Philippines. We also revised the bird checklist of that day.

We started up the following day at 6 a.m., fully recovered after some hours of sleep and ready to find more birds. Valentine's came to being a prolific birding day in particular for some close-ups of perched birds, such as Large-billed Crow, White-breasted Woodswallow, Whiskered Treeswift and Oriental Dollarbird. The highlight of the day was the finding of a flock of elusive Green Racket-tail getting to grips with a tasty fruit meal from an almost leafless tree.

Walking along the Hill 394 trail we came across a male Red Junglefowl. Further on, a small creature moved fast and vanished in the undergrowth before we could realise what species it was. Believing that it had not gone far, we stalked and waited in silence for a couple of minutes when suddenly a second individual, probably a buttonquail, erupted from the old leaves on the ground.

Left behind to take pictures of insects, I came to the top of the hill just short of missing the Purple Needletail, but still watched the swiftlets flying around in circles, coming very close to my face but changing course at the last moment.

Back in the van, we celebrated the birding morning with a couple of beers. Then, before leaving the area I suggested a quick look at the mangrove. This proved to be productive as I found a White-throated Kingfisher. In addition it was a nice place with pretty views of the bay. We had another great lunch, this time by the beach. Leaving Subic Bay Freeport we still saw the Crested Myna perched on cables and a Red Junglefowl hen on the roadside not far from the highway tolls just after leaving the Subic Bay Freeport area. The way back to Manila was slow due to traffic jams on the causeway and congested Metro Manila, where fireworks painted the skyline above Pasay City Mall of Asia in celebration of the Chinese New Year, the year of the Golden Tiger. When about to reach our destination we had a great laugh listening to the GPS unit gave the final direction “Turn left WHERE POSSIBLE”, sounding like a last wish of an exhausted device.

List of species:

Anas luzonica Philippine Duck
Haliastur indus Brahminy Kite
Falco peregrinus Peregrine Falcon
Gallus gallus Red Junglefowl
Ducula aenea Green Imperial Pigeon
Bolbopsittacus lunulatus Guaiabero
Tanygnathus lucionensis Blue-naped Parrot
Loriculus philippensis Colasisi
Centropus unirufus Rufous Coucal
Collocalia troglodytes Pygmy Swiftlet
Hemiprocne comata Whiskered Treeswift
Eurystomus orientalis Oriental Dollarbird
Halcyon smyrnensis White-collared Kingfisher
Todiramphus chloris White-throated Kingfisher
Merops viridis Blue-throated Bee-eater
Penelopides manillae Luzon Tarictic Hornbill
Dendrocopos maculatus Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker
Mulleripicus funebris Sooty Woodpecker
Dryocopus javensis White-bellied Woodpecker
Chrysocolaptes lucidus haematribon Greater Flameback
Coracina striata Bar-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike
Pycnonotus goiavier Yellow-vented Bulbul
Dicrurus balicassius Balicassiao
Oriolus chinensis Black-naped Oriole
Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis Large-billed Crow
Artamus leucorynchus White-breasted Woodswallow
Lanius cristatus Brown Shrike
Sarcops calvus Coleto
Prioniturus luconensis Green Racket-tail
Turnix spp buttonquail
Acridotheres cristatellus Crested Myna

Mammals:

Acerodon jubatus Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox
Macaca fascicularis Long-tailed macaque

Mount Makiling, Laguna, 13-14 February 2010

Whilst the three Spanish friends departed for Europe, I spent my last day in the Philippines birding at Mount Makiling Forest Park with Teresa and the driver Boy. We left Manila by 4.30 a.m. as usual and arrived to the campus of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños when it was still dark. We parked in front of the Trees Hostel and tried without success to listen to hooting Phil Hawk Owls and Scops Owls. We could hear the Spotted Wood Kingfisher calling, but did not manage to see any. A pair of Glossy Swiftlet was nesting on the roof ledge of the Trees Hostel.

This was the least productive day of all in terms of seeing bird species. A possible reason for this could be that the flowering season was over for many plants. Nevertheless I still enjoyed the walk along the Mount Makiling trail where I saw many butterflies, spiders and lizards. At 6.40 a.m. we saw a fury mammal at close range, took some pictures of it while it slowly walked away and climbed a small tree. It was later confirmed to be a Southern Luzon Giant Cloud Rat.

I saw a couple of new species: White-eared Brown Dove and Ashy Minivet. But it took a long time before seeing the first canopy pollinators, sunbirds and flowerpeckers, but could not see them well because they flitted very high and quickly. Near station number 6 we rested and refreshed with coconut water, before visiting the plant nursery.

Back in LosBaños we had lunch at a small Thai restaurant. In the afternoon we still checked for kingfishers and other species by the river from the bridges, but we had no luck this time. We also tried to visit the botanical garden but this had been closed for a long time and had not re-opened yet. Finally, some time after coming back to the front of the Trees Hostel, the Philippine Falconet and several Stripe-headed Rhabdornis showed up at a dead tree nearby and a Scale-feathered Malkoha visited the vegetation on the background.

List of species:

Spilornis holospilus Philippine Serpent-Eagle
Microhierax erythrogenys Philippine Falconet
Gallus gallus Red Junglefowl
Phapitreron leucotis White-eared Brown Dove
Phaenicophaeus cumingi Scale-feathered Malkoha
Collocalia esculenta Glossy Swiftlet in the nest
Actenoides lindsayi Spotted Wood Kingfisher heard only
Penelopides manillae Luzon Tarictic Hornbill heard only
Megalaima haemacephala Coppersmith Barbet heard only
Dendrocopos maculatus Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker
Pericrocotus divaricatus Ashy Minivet
Pycnonotus goiavier Yellow-vented Bulbul
Hypsipetes philippinus Philippine Bulbul
Dicrurus balicassius Balicassiao
Rhabdornis mystacalis Stripe-headed Rhabdornis
Nectariniidae spp sunbird
Dicaeum spp flowerpecker

Mammals:

Phloeomys cuming Southern Luzon Giant Cloud Rat

More to come on the international agenda

In mid March 2010, WBCP members will be attending the Raptorwatch in Tanjung Tuan, Malaysia which is an annual festival organized by the Malaysia Nature Society.

The Philippine Bird Festival will be held on September 24-25 in Davao City in cooperation with the Davao City government and the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Different environmental NGOs such as WWF-Philippines and the Philippine Cockatoo Foundation, as well as bird clubs in Asia, including the Nature Society of Singapore and the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand will be joining this annual festival.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank to the WBCP, in particular its President Mike Lu, Teresa Cervero and Melanie Tan for making this bird trip possible. Special thanks to Mike Lu and to the Philippine Department of Tourism for the sets of the book “Birdwatching in the Philippines”, Vol 1 & 2 and the WBCP’s 2009 publication “Ibong Dayo, Kaibigan Tayo: the 5th Philippine Bird Festival Balanga, Bataan”.