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A Sampling of Philippine Birding – Todd R. Pepper

A Sampling of Philippine Birding – Todd R. Pepper
Date
: November 23, 2003 – December 12, 2003

My 3 week schedule of work in the Philippines allowed some time for birding on the weekends. The weather was good throughout with no rain, and temperatures in the 28C range during the entire period. A total of 43 life birds were seen, marked with a °, and another 6 species were added for the Philippines, marked with a *.

Coastal Road – Tambo Mud Flats - Manila Bay – Sunday, November 23

Birded the Coastal Road grassland and Tambo mud flat areas with Mike Lu, Nilo Arribas Jr. and Mark Villa of Philippine Birdwatch. Species seen are as follows:

1. Little Egret – 100+
2. Intermediate Egret – 4
3. Grey Heron – 1
4. Purple Heron – 2
5. Great Egret – 4
6. Little Heron – 1
7. Black-crowned Night-Heron – 8, plus one juvenile bird with a broken wing that a local Pinoy was going to take home as a pet
8. Yellow Bittern – 1
9. Barred Rail – 8
10. ° Common Greenshank – 1
11. Little Ringed Plover – 24
12. Kentish Plover – 6
13. ° Lesser Sand Plover – 12
14. ° Marsh Sandpiper – 8
15. ° Asian Golden Plover – 10
16. Common Moorhen - 2
17. Whiskered Tern – thousands
18. Zebra Dove
19. Common Kingfisher – 2
20. ° Siberian Rubythroat - 1
21. Bright-capped Cisticola – 1
22. ° Zitting Cisticola - 1
23. Eurasian Tree Sparrow


Triboa Bay Mangrove Park – Subic – Wednesday, November 26

Up early on my own to catch the dawn chorus at Triboa Bay. By 8:00 a.m. the chorus had ended and it was back to the office. Birds seen were as follows:

1. Sooty Woodpecker – 4
2. Collared Kingfisher – 3
3. Blue-throated Bee-eater – 2
4. Guaiabero – 1
5. Blue-naped Parrot – heard only
6. Asian Palm-Swift – 20
7. Fork-tailed Swift – 24
8. Zebra Dove
9. Pompadour Green-Pigeon – 2
10. White-breasted Waterhen – 1
11. Long-tailed Shrike – 4
12. Large-billed Crow – 2
13. Black-naped Oriole – 4
14. Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike – Coracina striata striata – 2
15. ° Scarlet Minivet – 6
16. ° Black-naped Monarch – 1
17. Blue Rock-Thrush – 1
18. Asian Glossy Starling – 6
19. Yellow-vented Bulbul
20. Arctic Warbler – 1
21. Eurasian Tree Sparrow


Hill 394 – Subic – Saturday, November 29

Hiked Hill 394 on Subic with Tim Fisher and then did a quick trip to the Marong Gate and the Ocean Adventure area of the base.

BIRD LIST:
1. ° Philippine Duck – 100+ in the bay at Ocean Adventure, needed a scope to see them
2. * Northern Shoveler – 2
3. Philippine Woodpecker – 1
4. White-bellied Woodpecker – 1
5. Sooty Woodpecker – 2
6. Coppersmith Barbet – Heard Only
7. Tarictic Hornbill – 20
8. Blue-throated Bee-eater – 6
9. Rufous Coucal – 4
10. Guaiabero – 4
11. Green Racquet-tail – 4
12. Blue-naped Parrot – Heard Only
13. Glossy Swiftlet – Collocalia esculenta – 1,000+
14. Grey-rumped Swiftlet C. e. marginata – 2
15. Asian Palm-Swift - 6
16. ° Philippine Eagle-Owl – Heard Only
17. ° Great Eared Nightjar – 1
18. Emerald Dove – 1
19. White-eared Brown-Dove – 2
20. Pompadour Green-Pigeon – Heard Only
21. Philippine Hawk-Eagle – 1
22. Philippine Falconet – 9
23. Brown Shrike – 6
24. Large-billed Crow – 2
25. White-breasted Woodswallow – 24
26. Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike – C. s. striata – 1
27. Blackish Cuckooshrike – 1
28. Balicassiao – 3
29. Blue Rock-Thrush – 1
30. Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 3
31. White-browed Shama – Heard Only
32. Coleto – 3
33. Barn Swallow
34. Pacific Swallow
35. Yellow-vented Bulbul
36. Philippine Bulbul – 4
37. Arctic Warbler – 1
38. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
39. Richard’s Pipit – 1

On the same day, on the drive back to Manila, I also observed a ° Little Grebe and 4 flocks of ° Black-winged Stilts, totaling some 70 birds, in the rice fields of the Candaba Marsh along the National Highway.


Mt. Makiling – Sunday, November 30

I was supposed to bird Mt. Makiling with a group from Philippine Birdwatch today, but we got mixed up on what hotel I was staying at. After waiting for about 45 minutes I just hired a car and driver for the day and headed there on my own. Neither the driver nor I really knew where to go so we headed up the road towards Peak 2. Very quickly the road became impassable to anything but a high-clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle, so the driver pulled over to the side of the road and had a nap while I set out to hike the 8.6 kilometres to the top. After walking for a while I was able to hitch a ride in the back of a 4-wheel drive pickup truck to the mud bath area, and then continued my hike. Most of the bird activity, except the Kingfisher, was above the mud-bath area.

BIRD LIST:
1. Philippine Woodpecker – 2
2. Coppersmith Barbet – 2
3. Spotted Wood Kingfisher – 1
4. ° Scale-feathered Malkoha – 1
5. Island Swiftlet – 100+
6. ° Philippine Swiftlet – 24
7. Philippine Fairy Bluebird – 1
8. Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike – C. s. kochii – 2
9. Black-and-white Triller – 2
10. Blue-headed Fantail – 6
11. Balicassiao – 6
12. Black-naped Monarch – 1
13.
Elegant Tit – 2
14. °Yellowish White-eye – 6
15. Black-crowned Babbler – 2
16. ° Olive-backed Flowerpecker – 12

On the way back from Mt. Makiling I asked the driver to stop by the American Cemetery as I had been advised that a flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets had taken up residence. Birds seen during the short stay were as follows:

1. Collared Kingfisher – 5
2. *Rose-ringed Parakeet – 4
3. Barred Rail – 9
4. Pied Fantail – 12
5. Lowland White-eye – 30
6. Striated Grassbird – 2
7. ° Singing Bushlark – 2, although one wasn’t singing, it was dead.
8. Brown Shrike


Puerto Princesa City, Palawan – December 4, 2003

Met up with Arnel Mallari in Palawan for 4 days of birding. After going to inspect the Puerto Princesa dump site we birded in the immediate vicinity of Puerto Princesa City.

BIRD LIST:
1. ° Chinese Egret – 12
2. Little Egret – 50+
3. Great Egret – 6
4. Reef Egret – 4
5. * Grey Plover – 2
6. Unidentified Shorebird (perhaps a Tringa species) – 16
7. * Whimbrel – 1
8. Common Greenshank – 6
9. ° Black-naped Tern – 6
10. Collared Kingfisher - 5
11. Palawan Shama – 1
12. Chestnut Munia – 40
13. Olive-backed Sunbird – 4


Rasa Island – December 4, 2003

That afternoon we drove south towards Rasa Island and took a boat over to the island for the dusk return of the Philippine Cockatoos.

BIRD LIST:
1. Chinese Egret – 50+
2. Black-naped Tern – 1
3. ° Philippine Cockatoo – 50+
4. ° Mantanani Scops Owl – 1 seen and another heard


Iwahig Prison – December 5, 2003

Our car broke down on the highway heading back to Puerto Princesa and we had to be towed by a jeepney all the way back to the City. After Arnel secured a jeepney of our own we headed off to do some late day birding in the rice fields and Balsahan Forest areas of the Iwahig Prison just south of the City.

In the rice fields we had:

1. Asian Golden-Plover – 12
2. ° Asian Dowitcher – 1
3. ° Long-toed Stint – 4
4. White-breasted Waterhen - 1
5. ° White-browed Crake – 2
6. Little Egret – 1,000+
7. Cattle Egret – 3,000+
8. Marsh Sandpiper – 8+
9. Common Greenshank – 12+
10. Green Sandpiper – 12+
11. Little Ringed Plover – 6+
12. Kentish Plover – 12+
13. Malaysian Plover – 4+
14. Lesser-Sand Plover – 12+
15. Black-winged Stilts- 30+
16. Spotted Dove – 50+
17. ° Yellow Wagtail – 12+
18. Scaly Munia – 50+

(It should be noted that the count numbers for the above list of species represent a sample of the total number of these species in the rice fields on the prison. We only stopped to truly count the birds in one open flooded field with no rice planted in it, while there were many more shorebirds, waders, Doves, Wagtails and Munia in the other open flooded fields and planted rice paddies along both sides of the10 kilometre road on the prison grounds westerly from the National Highway to the Balsahan forest.)

In the forest area we had:

1. Great Slaty Woodpecker – 2
2. Palawan Hornbill – 3
3. Chestnut-breasted Malcoha – 2
4. Blue-naped Parrot – heard only
5. ° Spotted Wood-Owl – heard only in response to tape
6. Javan Frogmouth – heard only in response to tape
7. Large-tailed Nightjar – 20
8. Yellow-throated Leafbird – 3
9. Slender-billed Crow – 2
10. Spangled Drongo – 3
11. Blue Paradise-Flycatcher - 1
12. Rufous-tailed Tailorbird – 3
13. ° Plain-throated Sunbird – 2
14. Ashy-headed Ground Babbler – 5
15. Palawan Flowerpecker – 4
16. Black-headed Bulbul – 4


Iwahig Prison – December 6, 2003

We headed back to the Balsahan forest area of the Prison in the wee hours of the morning in hopes of seeing a Palawan Scops Owl, a bird that evaded me during my last trip to Palawan. Unfortunately, no luck again, although the bird was heard responding to our tape. The surprise happened at the end of the day when we found 3 Black-faced Spoonbills in the fish ponds on the prison. The details of the Spoonbill sighting are the subject of a separate report. It was a big day by Philippine standards with 62 species seen.

BIRD LIST:
1. Palawan Hornbill – 2
2. Dollarbird – 2
3. Common Kingfisher – 1
4. Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher – 1
5. Collared Kingfisher – 1
6. Asian Drongo Cuckoo – 1
7. Chestnut-breasted Malkoha – 3
8. ° Lesser Coucal – 2
9. Blue-naped Parrot – heard only
10. Palawan Swiftlet – 12
11. Palawan Scops Owl – heard only in response to tape
12. Javan Frogmouth – heard only in response to tape
13. Long-tailed Nightjar – 4
14. Spotted Dove – 20+
15. Emerald Dove – 1
16. White-breasted Waterhen – 1
17. White-browed Crake – 1
18. Common Moorhen – 2
19. Common Redshank – 12
20. Marsh Sandpiper – 12
21. Common Greenshank – 8
22. Green Sandpiper – 6
23. Common Sandpiper – 8
24. * Sanderling – 2
25. ° Red-necked Stint – 6
26. Black-winged Stilt – 30
27. Asian Golden-Plover – 4
28. Kentish Plover – 36
29. Malaysian Plover – 4
30. White-bellied Sea-Eagle – 1
31. ° Crested Serpent-Eagle – 2
32. ° Chinese Goshawk – 1
33. Little Egret – 1,000+
34. Purple Heron – 3
35. Great Egret – 12
36. Cattle Egret – 3,000+
37. Little Heron – 1
38.° Black-faced Spoonbill – 3
39. Yellow-throated Leafbird – 2
40. Brown Shrike – 8
41. Slender-billed Crow - 4
42. Black-naped Oriole – 1
43. Ashy Drongo – 4
44. Spangled Drongo – 6
45. Black-naped Monarch – 1
46. Blue Paradise-Flycatcher – 2
47. Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 2
48. White-vented Shama – 1
49. * Hill Myna – Gracula religiosa palawanensis – 12
50. Palawan Tit – 6
51. Barn Swallow – 4
52. Black-headed Bulbul – 4
53. Rufous-tailed Tailorbird – 4
54. ° Yellow-breasted Warbler – 2
55. Melodious Babbler – heard only
56. ° Falcated Ground-Babbler – 1
57. Palawan Flowerpecker – 4
58. Olive-backed Sunbird – 3
59. Lovely Sunbird – 2
60. Yellow Wagtail – 12
61. ° Grey Wagtail – 6
62. ° Pechora Pipit – 8


Montible Highway – December 7, 2003

I wish I had a picture. There I was sitting in the spare tire on the roof of the jeepney as we passed through the second growth forest on both sides of the Montible Highway, scope in hand, scanning the tree tops for pigeons and thumping on the roof for the driver to stop whenever we encountered something interesting. A great day with 6 more life birds, and the 3 Spoonbills again.

BIRD LIST:
1. Barred Buttonquail – 1
2. ° Plaintive Cuckoo – 1
3. Lesser Coucal – 3
4. Blue-headed Racquet-tail – 4
5. Palawan Swiftlet – Collocalia palawanensis – 24
6. Javan Frogmouth – heard only
7. Large-tailed Nightjar – 8
8. Spotted Dove – 50+
9. ° Pink-necked Green-Pigeon – 10
10. ° Thick-billed Green-Pigeon – 12
11. White-browed Crake – 1
12. ° Watercock – 6
13. Common Moorhen – 2
14. Marsh Sandpiper – 20
15. Common Greenshank – 8
16. Common Sandpiper – 10
17. Black-winged Stilt – 20
18. Asian Golden-Plover – 2
19. Kentish Plover – 36
20. Malaysian Plover – 4
21. White-bellied Sea-Eagle – 2
22. Yellow Bittern – 1
23. ° Rufous Night-Heron – 1
24. Little Egret – 500+
25. Purple Heron – 1
26. Great Egret – 12
27. Cattle Egret – 1,000+
28. Little Heron – 1
29. Black-faced Spoonbill – same 3 birds
30. Yellow-throated Leafbird – 1
31. Slender-billed Crow - 2
32. ° Dark-throated Oriole – 1 seen, 2 others heard
33. Black-naped Oriole - 2
34. Pied Triller – 1
35. Pied Fantail – 1
36. Ashy Drongo – 2
37. Spangled Drongo – 2
38. Common Iora – 1
39 .Asian Glossy Starling – 6
40. Barn Swallow – 6
41. Pacific Swallow – 24
42. Black-headed Bulbul - 1
43. Zitting Cisticola - 1
44. Copper-throated Sunbird – 2

Black-faced Spoonbills, by Todd R. Pepper
December 14, 2003

On Saturday, December 6, 2003, I had spent a very productive day of birding on the property of the Iwahig Prison on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines with local guide Arnel Q. Mallari and his 9 year old son Danel. The day started early in the Balsahan forest area of the prison with Palawan Scops-Owl (Otus fuliginosus) and Javan Frogmouth (Batrachostomus javensis) heard as dawn was breaking. Throughout the morning we encountered such Palawan endemics and specialties as Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus curvirostris), Palawan Hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), Falcated Ground-Babbler (Ptilocichla falcata), Palawan Tit (Parus amabilis), Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa palawenensis), Yellow-throated Leafbird (Chloropsis palawanensis), Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus) and Yellow-breasted Warbler (Seicercus montis).

The afternoon in the rice fields on the prison farm brought me life birds in migrating Yellow and Grey Wagtails (Motacilla flava and M. cinerea), Pechora Pipits (Anthus gustavi), Long-toed and Rufous-necked Stints (Calidris subminuta and C. ruficollis), and resident birds in Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea), White-browed Crake (Porzana cinerea) and Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis). Who knew the best was yet to come.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. our jeepney turned into the lane leading to the Iwahig Prison fish farm. At first glance all looked very ordinary. Common and Collared Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis and Halcyon chloris), Great, Little and Cattle Egrets (Egretta alba, E. garzetta and Bubulcus ibis), and Common Moorhens (Galinula chloropus) were all around the first ponds. The second set of ponds produced at least a dozen each of Marsh and Green Sandpipers (Tringa stagnatilis and T. ochropus) and Common Redshanks (T. tetanus).

We continued walking south through the trail between the fish ponds towards the mangroves on the far side. Our objective was a Mangrove Whistler or Mangrove Blue Flycatcher when 3 large white birds caught my attention in the last fish pond, approximately 200 metres from our location on the trail. This pond, unlike the others, had very little water in it, with lots of exposed mud flats.

The posture of the three birds was the first thing that caught my attention with the naked eye. They were sweeping their heads through the shallow water, while all the adjacent Great and Little Egrets were standing with their heads up in their typical posture of what appears to be listening for their dinner instead of looking for it. Even before I brought my binoculars up to my face the next thing that caught my attention was their size and shape. These three birds were rounder in body than the Egrets, a good 30 cm smaller than the Great Egrets and perhaps 7 or 8 cm bigger than the adjacent Little Egrets. With the binoculars now at my eyes I immediately zeroed in on the large black spoon shaped bills and hollered to Arnel, “there are 3 spoonbills out there”. Arnel quickly got on them with his binoculars and excitingly called out “Black-faced Spoonbills”. Danel catching our excitement quickly went about setting up my Bushnell Spacemaster 60 mm spotting scope. Meanwhile Arnel is shouting out that these are “a Palawan first” and a life bird for him.

Having studied A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Kennedy, Gonzales, Dickinson, Miranda and Fisher (Oxford Press, 2000) many times during my 6 trips to the Philippines, I was well aware how rare Black-faced Spoonbills were so I took my time studying the birds through the scope at a 40x magnification. The bill was solid black on all three birds, as was the facial skin between the bill and eyes. The legs were also solid black on all three birds. Eyes were red. There was no sense of a crest or plume on the head. The head, neck and body feathers were all white, although on the one bird there was a tinge of black edging on the primary feathers. Having satisfied myself that these were indeed Black-faced Spoonbills, I turned the scope over to Arnel who conducted an equally thorough examination of the birds. As we reveled in the significance of this sighting, I lowered the scope for young Danel telling him that he should have a good look, as this may well be a bird he will never again see in his life given the limited breeding population now identified at just over 1,000 birds .

At this point, it is probably worthwhile making a few comparisons between Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) and other Spoonbill species in support of the conclusion that these were Black-faced Spoonbills seen in Palawan on December 6, 2003. There are only 5 white-feathered Spoonbill species in the world, all of the genus Platalea. None of the other 4 species, Eurasian Spoonbill (P. leucorodia), Royal Spoonbill (P. regia), African Spoonbill (P. alba), and Yellow-billed Spoonbill (P. flavipes) has ever been recorded in the Philippines.

Eurasian Spoonbill nests in many countries of Europe, such as Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, and as far east as Iraq. They winter typically in Mauritania in North-Africa and vagrants have been known to show up during migration in more western locations, such as Britain and the Azore Islands of Portugal. Adult Eurasian Spoonbills can be separated by Black-faced Spoonbills by the orange tip on the bill, while immature Eurasian Spoonbills have pink bills.

African Spoonbills are distinguished from Black-faced Spoonbills by their purplish-red bills, facial skin and legs, and are a least 30 cm taller than the Black-faced Spoonbill. Yellow-billed Spoonbills are distinguished from Black-faced Spoonbills by their yellow bill, in both adult and immature birds, the lack of facial skin above the bill, and the fact that they are endemic to Australia.

The closest potential genus that might be confused with Black-faced Spoonbill is the Royal Spoonbill. The Royal Spoonbill has expanded its range over the years, and is now found in Australia, New Zealand and has been reported as far north as Sulawesi and Borneo. In both their breeding plumage and in immature plumage Royal Spoonbills have many field marks similar to their Black-faced cousins. In breeding plumage, for example, both have crests and a yellowish or buffy colouring on the breast. However, the Royal has yellow eyelids and a red crown as part of its breeding plumage. The immature Royals, like the immature Black-faced also have dark wing tips. The two species, however, can be differentiated by size. Royal spoonbills average 12 – 13 cm larger than their Black-faced counterparts, putting them closer in size to Great Egrets than the 3 birds observed. The other distinguishing feature is the shape of the brow in the two species. In the Royal the black of the face extends almost directly upwards over the top of the crown and completely encloses the eyes, giving a convex black shape to the brow, while in the Black-faced the forecrown is covered in white feathers and the eyes are at the edges of the black facial skin, giving it a concave form to the brow. Arnel Mallari re-attended to the fish ponds to double check this field mark and has confirmed that the 3 birds have a concave form to their brow.

Finally, given the migration patterns of Black-faced Spoonbills between their breeding grounds on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast China, and their wintering grounds in Tiawan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, and the history of sightings of Black-faced Spoonbills in the Philippines, including unconfirmed sightings for Northern Luzon in each of the last two years, both Arnel and I were confident that we in fact had 3 Black-faced Spoonbills in our midst.

As dusk was arriving, the birds tucked their spoonbills across their backs and appeared to be settling in for the evening. We forgot about our target Mangrove birds and headed home.

We returned to the fish ponds on the Iwahig Prison at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, December 7th. The three spoonbills were still present, but now even closer than the day before at only approximately 100 metres off the trail.

A half hour of observation of the birds led me to conclude that this was likely an adult breeding pair with an immature bird. Two of the birds never strayed more than a metre apart from each other, while the bird with black tips on the primaries tended to wonder freely around the fish pond often moving 100 or more metres from the pair. During preening the two birds that stayed together would bring their bills close to the feathers of the other, but did not exhibit mutual preening behaviour common to paired Macaws or Parrots.

Still anxious to get to the mangroves we moved forward and unfortunately flushed the Spoonbills. They flew in an inverted V with the “pair” at the front of the V and what was now more clearly a juvenile bird at the back of the V. In flight the black primary tips on the one bird were very evident, while there was no black on the wing tips on the front two birds. Fortunately, they just flew to the far side of the fish pond and commenced feeding.

With no Mangrove Blue Flycatcher or Mangrove Whistler in the mangrove trees we took out our lunches and continued to observe the Spoonbills for another hour, as we rested and relaxed in the company of these extremely rare and magnificent birds.

Todd Pepper is General Manager of the Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority in Ontario, Canada. He is a member of the Ontario Field Ornithologists and the American Birding Association. He has been birding for over 12 years, including squeezing in a day or two of birding during his 6 work related trips to the Philippines over the past 3 years, and has a Philippine life list of 227, including 59 endemics. Todd has published many trip reports and articles on birding that can be found by searching his name on the internet and has been a previous contributor to Ibon Magazine published by the Haribon Foundation.