by Juan Mesquida
The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines has conducted bird counts as part of Asian Waterbird Census in Bani, Pangasinan since January 2012. Juan Mesquida encourages more birders to visit. Read his article to learn more about the waterbirds, raptors, beaches, the best watermelon in the Philippines, and more!
2012 – Bani Becomes an Asian Waterbird Census Site
In January 2012, Rene Calado formed a team from the WBCP to carry out the first bird count of Asian waterbirds in Bani, Pangasinan. Rene knew the mayor of Bani, Mayor Cel Navarro, who was interested in promoting ecotourism in his district and had agreed to sponsor the expedition. Rene managed to get among the best bird experts from the club: Alex Tiongco, Tere Cervero, Adri Constantino, and Trinket Canlas. He also invited me, for sure not because of my expertise but so that I would learn a little about waterbirds, of which I knew hardly anything.
As soon as we arrived in Bani on a late Saturday morning we were brought to the waterbird sanctuary in Barangay Bangrin. Located in the Lingayen Gulf, Bangrin covers an extensive area of wide water avenues separated by large mangrove forests and man-made dikes. We were taken by boat to a two-storey house situated in the middle of the bird sanctuary and close to the feeding grounds of the birds. Nearby, in the more open sea sections, there are fish pens of bangus (milk fish). After a lunch of local products we set the spotting scopes to check more than twenty Ospreys perched in the poles of the fish pens; afterwards, we moved to a bamboo walkway connecting the building to a viewing hut near mudflats. The tide was high and the sun scorching, so it was not the time to expect much. After a while, we went by boat to make a reconnaissance tour in preparation for the following day. We spent the night in a beautiful resort, Old Woods by the Sea, belonging to Mr. Navarro in Barangay Olanen, by the West Philippines Sea.
The following day we were in Bangrin before sunrise. As the first sunlight shone, I witnessed something never experienced before: hundreds, soon becoming thousands, of egrets and herons on top of our heads flying in the opposite direction of our boat. Different kinds of egrets and herons were transferring from their roosting areas to their daytime habitat. It was also my first time to see birdwatchers busy, each counting a specific type of waterbird. In the middle of this aerial spectacle we were given a bonus sight when, in the beautiful morning sun and just a few meters away from our boat, a flock of fifteen Black-winged Stilts overtook us in a jet squadron precision but with a ballet troop grace. After the “birds’ peak-hour” passed, we headed to the mudflats, where we saw flocks of Common Greenshanks, Common Redshanks, Whimbrells, Grey Plovers, and others. By mid-morning we returned to the mainland where we had taken the boats in Barangay Apurao and had some extra time to look at more birds that were feeding in some empty fish pens in the vicinity. We counted more Black-winged Stilts, Little-ringed Plovers, and Wood Sandpipers. I have not mentioned the terns but we got to count hundreds of them. After the counting was over, we assembled at a restaurant to enjoy Pangasinan food courtesy of the mayor and fill up the census form, leaving one copy to the representatives of Mr. Navarro. There were more than 11,000 birds in Bangrin, making it to the pool of bird sanctuaries of the Asian Waterbird Census held yearly in January, where only sites with more than 10,000 birds are included. Shortly after lunch we left back for Manila.
2013 Asian Waterbird Census
One year later, Rene requested me to organize the waterbird census in Bani, as he would not be able to join the team. Alex, Tere, and now Mr. and Mrs. Adri Constantino were in the team. This time, Boy Ochavo, the driver of Alex was happy to join us since Mayor Navarro sponsored us again but could not offer us transportation. I also invited a newbie, Max Africa. This time, having to drive myself one of the cars helped me get a better feel of what it takes to reach Bani. The town is 250 km away from Manila, that is, the same distance as going to Baguio. It also takes between five to six hours with a generous stopover. We left early Saturday, January 19, 2013, taking NLEX, then the SCTEX, and exited in Tarlac City to take the Pangasinan route crossing the bridge towards the north. We had a short stop in Camiling to visit the ruins of the old church and pray for a good job in the new church. At the next important fork, we drove left towards Alaminos and made it to Bani for a late lunch. Instead of going to Bangrin again, we spent the afternoon in the Masidem SRIP Dam where we saw several hundred ducks: a large contingent of Philippine Ducks mixed with Tufted and Garganey Ducks, and Northern Pintails. Thanks to the expertise of the seasoned birders and the help of the always-reliable Swarovski scope, Adri was able to spot a female Gadwall and a male Euresian Wigeon. Three of them were lifers for me. In the late afternoon we unwound in beautiful Old Woods after some second growth forest birding around the house. A dinner in their house overlooking the sea with the sound of waves and a January breeze prepared us for the following day.
Our second census was as successful as the first one, although the number of birds decreased a little but was still large enough to make it to the Asian census. In the mudflats, a flock of Black-tailed Godwits feeding and flying made everyone’s delight. They mixed with the same gamut of waterbirds we saw the previous year. The Ospreys had transferred inland, where some of the fishponds in Apurao had been revived and Adri was able to film a few impressive Osprey’s dives hunting fish. The dry fishponds gave us more opportunities to count more waterbirds. The census ended with the final count after lunch. Our second Bani census experienced ended with mid-afternoon snacks in Pancake House, Luisita on our way home. Once again, it had been a rewarding experience, while we added our little grain of sand to the Asian Waterbird Census.
2014 Asian Waterbird Census
Early January this year, I got a text from Alex inquiring about the Bani census. It seems the responsibility of organizing had gravitated toward me. I inquired from former Mayor Navarro who referred me to the new administration. Fortunately enough the new mayor, Mrs. Gewn Palafox-Yamamoto, is as much interested in promoting ecotourism in the municipality and agreed to support our stay and take care of the census logistics. This time Adri and Trinket had previous commitments during the days set for the census, so we needed more birders ready to count. Rene was still unavailable. Alex invited old timer Mads Bajarias who, after some time busy with other matters, dusted his old Kennedy (which is full of very specific notes he had made himself in some olden days) and quickly enough honed his waterbird skills. Tere was still very much part of the team. Fellow-birders and great travelling buddies Jude Sanchez and Krees Castañeda signed up for counting. Our trip was scheduled to take place on January 25 and 26, 2014.
Even if this was my third time, I found the counting experience very rewarding. On our way there we decided to exit SCTEX in Luisita to avoid the traffic we had encountered in 2013 in the Tarlac market by the river. On Saturday afternoon we revisited the Masidem Dam, although this time it had little water and only a few Philippine Ducks were around. To make up for the lack of ducks, the almost magical eyesight of Alex discovered two Peregrine Falcons and an Osprey perched in no so near trees around the Dam. At night, Mayor Palafox-Yamamoto graciously hosted us in her compound near the town. The new accommodations shortened our travelling time to Bangrin before daybreak. Witnessing the sunrise the following day while riding the boat in the calm waters proved as thrilling as in the past two times, as Krees’ pictures can attest. But what beat all the previous experiences was the non-stop river of mostly egrets flying in the opposite direction on top of our heads as if running late for the office. I counted 1,600 of the in the first fifteen minutes until our boat turned towards the mudflats. Alex in the other boat counted eleven thousand by the time the flow stopped. I have seen it before but it still had a great impact on me. Mads’ skills identifying shore birds in the mudflats proved that he had lost nothing of his previous glory. Later on we all gathered in the bamboo walkway and the viewing hut, from where we saw more than five hundred Philippine Ducks and an assorted array of shore birds. From the walkway we could also see another mudflat where there was a flock of Whimbrels avidly feeding. The counting continued in the fishponds where I had my day’s lifer when Mads identified several Green Sandpipers. Back in the house of the mayor, we had lunch, filled up the census, and left a copy for the mayor. Before departing, we filled up the trunks of the car with water melons from Bani, courtesy of Mayor Gwen who wanted us to enjoy and shared with others what is reputedly the best pakwan of the Philippines (It is indeed the sweetest I have tasted). On our way back we stopped again in Pancake House, Luisita to rest from the trip, even if the lively conversation with Jude and Krees made it very enjoyable time.
After everything I have said, the logical finale would be to ask whether I will still go next year: I am looking forward to it. But this article is not yet over since my real purpose for is not just to share our experiences but to attempt to place Bani in the birding map of the birders of the WBCP, especially those living in Metro-Manila and central and northern Luzon. As of now, the most popular sites for waterbirds around Metro-Manila are LPPCHEA, Candaba (Pampanga), and Balanga (Bataan). Bankong Malapad in Masantol and Tanza in Navotas are also choices nearby the grand metropolis. All of them are half a day or a full day. Bangrin needs at least two days but the morning aerial spectacle makes it worth going because I have not seen like that in any of the other places. On top of that, the boat ride is awesome and even if there are not as many species as in Olango, one must be ready for surprises every year. Bani has is fair share of resorts and pensions to fit all pockets. Nearby Bolinao with its famous beach can complete a birding trip of three days. As of last January, Mr. Rodel Quiboyen (+639209167433) had been assigned by the mayor to oversee the birding sites in the municipality. As an alternative, it is also possible to contact the Tourism Officer of the municipality of Bani, Mr. Emman Olores (Tel. +639174592998), who took good care of us in our last trip. Both can help arrange the boats and the guides to Bangrin and Masidem.