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WBCP Trips Committee Member Christian Perez highly recommends visiting a new bird-rich site near Manila that combines birding, a relaxing boat ride, and a chance to see rare and uncommon birds.

by Christian Perez

“Caspian Terns on an island somewhere in Manila Bay!”
I had been hearing that for a couple of years, but somehow nobody could ever tell me the name of the island, where exactly it was located, and how to get there. For a long time it just remained a mysterious island in my mind. All I knew was that the island was covered by the annual Asian Waterbird Census conducted by DENR in Sasmuan, Pampanga. So I decided to volunteer for the AWC in Sasmuan, only to be told that DENR had not yet scheduled one this year. I had to try to find that mysterious island by myself. I called Arne early January, who told me that the best way to reach the island was from Orani, Bataan, and that it was at the mouth at the Pasak River. I consulted all my maps and Google Earth, but the Pasak River was nowhere to be found. Still, by then I had a pretty good idea of where the mysterious island might be.

Bangkong Malapad

First trip: Exploration
And that is how Tonji, Sylvia and I found our way to Orani very early in the morning of 22 January 2012. It took a while to find a boat in Orani, and by 11am we rode a bangka which took about one hour on a due east course to reach the island. The numbers of Black-headed Gulls (more than 3000) and Whiskered Tern (about 5000) were overwhelming, particularly in the fish pens on the west side of the river mouth. To use Tonji’s words, “it was raining terns”! Our numbers were surely underestimated as this is a large area and we did not make a systematic count of the whole area. We landed on the island at the end of a bamboo walkway leading to a hut which is used as an observation deck. The birds can be seen all around from the hut. Most of the birds were on the tidal flat on the south side of the island, mostly Kentish Plover and Common Redshank, a lone Eurasian Curlew, and of course Whiskered Tern which were everywhere. We did not see any Caspian Tern on that day. During a subsequent trip a week later Tonji and Sylvia saw several Caspian Tern flying low over the water between Orani and the island, and a few Little Tern at the island. They also witnessed the amazing “bird wave”, thousands of gulls taking flight in a wave at sunrise.

Bird wave of mostly Black-headed Gulls. Photo by Tonji Ramos.
Whiskered Terns flying over a fishpond. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.
Asian Golden Plovers. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Second trip from Masantol: Caspian Tern
Looking at the maps, I figured that there should be a way to go to the island from Masantol or Macabebe, Pampanga. So in the early morning of 12 February, Mark Wallbank and I drove to the usual birding site in Masantol to try to find a boat to the island. In Barangay Bulacos, Masantol, we found a long narrow boat that took about one hour to reach the island going first down the Pampanga River, and then among fish pens along the coast, a very scenic route. Once on the island we spotted six Caspian Tern among about 3000 Black-headed Gull sitting on the tidal flats on the north side of the observation hut. There were also thousands of Whiskered Tern and countless waders, herons and egrets, and at least one unidentified larger gull flying overhead over the river. The boatmen from Masantol called the island Pulong Malapad, but I was later informed by Linda that it is known in Sasmuan as Bangkong Malapad, which is the name I now use for trip reports. The mysterious island finally had a name!

Caspian Terns among the Black-headed Gulls. Photo by Christian Perez.
Black-winged Stilts. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

Club trip from Masantol: Black-tailed Gull
A week later I invited Club members to join me on a Club trip to the newly discovered site, using the Masantol route. Our group consisted of Leni, Felix, Jude, Patty, Yannie, Mike Bowman (a visiting British birder), and myself. There were hundreds of waders on the left side of the hut, and the usual 3000 Black-headed gulls on the right side. While scanning the gulls with a scope, I spotted one gull that was a bit larger and much darker than the others. We could not identify it with certainty while it was perched among the other gulls, but as soon as it flew, Mike Bowman exclaimed “Black-tailed Gull!” I took a few poor shots at this point and it was later confirmed to be a Black-tailed Gull, a lifer for all of us, except for Mike who was familiar with the bird in Japan. Near the hut we also saw three Little Egret with black feet instead of the usual yellow feet. They turned out to be the race nigripes (meaning black foot) of the Little Egret. That race is not mentioned by Kennedy, but is documented in other books (such as A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia) as a Philippine resident. We also spotted a few Common Tern perched among the Whiskered Tern on the south side of the island.

Black-tailed Gull flying over the Black-headed Gulls. Photo by Christian Perez.
Little Egret nigripes race.Photo by Christian Perez.
Our group on 22 February 2012. Photo by Christian Perez. From left to right: Leni Sutcliffe, Mike Bowman, Yannie Valmero, Patty Adversario, Felix Servita, Jude Sanchez, Christian Perez

Practical information
Bangkong Mapalad Island is part of Barangay Batang 2, Sasmuan, Pampanga and is located at the mouth of the Pasak River that runs South from Sasmuan town. It can be reached from Orani, Sasmuan, or Masantol.  Best is to be there very early on a day when the tide is low in the early morning. Leave Manila at 4am to be at the island by 7:30am, or even earlier if you can. Most birds disappear at high tide later in the day. Many birds can also be seen flying around during the boat trip. The boats from Masantol and Sasmuan are long narrow boats that are low on the water. There is some splashing, so bring plastic bags or dry bags to protect your equipment. They have no roof, so bring protection for sun and rain. You will have to wade a bit in the mud from the boat to the boardwalk at low tide, and you might decide to walk around the island, so bring hiking sandals.

Felix Servita and Patty Adversario on the boardwalk. Photo by Christian Perez.

From Orani, Bataan
The following is from Tonji Ramos: It is very easy to get to Orani. Just take the NLEX till the end and then take the SCTEX going to Subic. Exit on Dinapupihan which is the last exit before Subic. Turn right on the Bataan Provincial Highway. You will come to a fork in the road soon after stay on the left and continue on the Bataan Provincial Highway. 5.8kms after the fork there will be an intersection. Turn left. After 4.75km you will hit an intersection, turn right into Zulueta St.. After .74 km you will cross a bridge and turn left on A Mabini St. Stay on the right side when it splits and it turns into Trece Martirez Street. Follow the road till it ends in a basketball court. Parking is behind the basketball court. This is Barangay Pantalan Luma.
The boatman we used is Alvin Pascual. His phone number is (909)4010403. He charged us P1000 for the boat ride. We added an additional P100 for fuel.
If you are going and you want to see the maximum number of birds go way before dawn. Even before the sun starts to rise the birds start to leave. We saw a steady stream of birds flying away from the island just as the sun was rising. On our first trip we went midmorning and there were much less birds. The second time we went out before sunrise and the numbers were stunning. I think the number of birds is not dependent on the tide but rather one the time of the day.

From Sasmuan, Pampanga
The following is from Linda Gocon: Sasmuan is a few kilometres south of the San Fernando-Olongapo highway between Guagua and Lubao. Once in Sasmuan, drive to the town’s pier area. Best is to ask people once you reach Sasmuan.  The pier is behind the mayor’s house, which is hidden behind other houses, after the Municipal Hall.  Linda and the DENR people rode with the mayor in a big boat that took 20 minutes to get to the island, but the distance is much longer than from Masantol or Orani and according to Arne a rented boat takes 2 hours. No information about cost.

From Masantol, Pampanga
Go to our usual birding site in Masantol and Macabebe. After the left turn just before the mayor’s house, there are three bridges. The first bridge is high over a canal. The next two are small bridges near water gates a few kilometres away from the first bridge. The road is a bit rough in places but was dry when we were there. Stop at the third bridge in Barangay Bulacos, Masantol, and ask around for a boat to the bird island. The people there are friendly, know the way to the island, and are easy to deal with. One of the boat owners is Jerry Laxamana 0908 1127541. The boat ride takes about one hour and the trip costs P1500. The boats can take a maximum of four birders (eight locals can ride, but I don’t recommend more than four birders with bins and camera gear). There is safe parking. This is my preferred route.

Long narrow boat used in the Pampanga River delta. Photo by Christian Perez.

Highly Recommended
Bangkong Malapad Island is a highly recommended easy day trip from Manila on a day when the tide is lowest in the very early morning, between November and April. There is always a very good chance to see unusual gulls, terns and waders during those months.

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