by Gina Mapua
photos by Lu-Ann Fuentes-Bajarias and Maia Tanedo
Tubbataha reefs have been known to divers since the 70’s as a great place to get under. Proof of the richness of marine life at the marine park is obvious even to anyone who perversely manages to remain above water level. One look through pristine clear waters and various corals and massive sea cucumbers come to view. Then schools of surgeon fish and jacks and neon-blue fusiliers appear. Turtles, sharks and one curious young whale shark as well.
But I’m here to write about the birds of Tubbataha.
From April 24 to 28, in only the second ever diving-AND-birding expedition to Tubbataha, WBCP members Lu-ann Fuentes-Bajarias, Gawin Chutima, Maia Tanedo, Hernan Mapua and I found ourselves aboard the M/Y Zamerdius with no less than seabird expert and WBCP member, Arne Jensen, as our guide.
We left the port at Puerto Princesa in the afternoon of the 24th and were moored within sight of Bird Islet, which is in the northeastern corner of the North Atoll by dawn. After breakfast (and a dive and a snorkelling), we all piled onto the chase boat and headed for Bird Islet. As we came close, the glorious aroma of a thousand seabird’s dinners assaulted our olfactories. That only added to our appreciation of the significance of Tubbataha with regard to seabirds. Bird Islet is essentially a composite of sand, salt and guano and it is eroding too quickly.
When naturalist Dean Worcester came to the islet in 1911, he reported that the islet was approximately 400 meters by 150 meters. When Robert S. Kennedy visited the islet, it was reduced to 268 x 70 meters. It is less than that today. Only in Tubbataha do certain seabird species breed in the Philippines. These are Brown Boobies Sula leucogaster, Red-footed Boobies Sula sula, and Black Noddies Anous minutus. Think about that for a moment.
Bird Islet was covered in birds! On the sand, in tufts of grass, on the sad tattered bushes that were once tall trees, on the bamboo frames that serve as a shelter for the research teams, and on the depressed area at the center of the islet. It seems that Red-footed boobies were not breeding in Tubbataha for a number of years. When they returned, the combination of their nesting habits (they shred leaves for their nests) and the El Nino killed off the large trees on the islet.
At the edge of the water were thousands of Greater Crested TernsThalasseus bergii with their crests fully expanded, bills clacking simultaneously, all of them screeching as we neared. Mating season was in high gear for them. A little further in were masses of Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus immatures guarded by a few adults. Arne called them nurseries and that is exactly what they were.
On the tufts of grass were Brown Noddies Anous stolidus in their nests, in the bushes were the Red-footed Boobies and in the depression at the center of the islet were the Brown Boobies, each of them the exact pecking distance away from each other.
Our goal was to find the Masked Booby Sula dactylatra in all of this. We circled the islet slowly, craning our necks and balancing on the chase boat to see that one booby. Masked Boobies were last recorded in 1995 and it was a great surprise to see one lone adult male appear suddenly last year. According to Arne, it had booted out a male Brown Booby and had taken over its nest and its mate.
The sun was unrelenting and we could see many birds almost falling off their roosts, looking comatose. We continued to circle in a distance of the island and just as we were about to call it quits, Arne sees the prize! It was in almost the same place it was last sighted – in the middle of the sunken section of the islet.Everyone stood on the gunwales of the boat and had a satisfyingly long look at Mr. Masked Booby before heading back to M/Y Zamerdius.
The next day, the 26th, we birded the islet again but the Masked Booby was not there anymore. The park rangers, whom we saw collecting garbage on the islet earlier, may have scared it off or it had gone off fishing. Aside from the boobies, noddies and terns, there were also Black Noddies, Great Frigatebird, Pacific Reef Egret, Chinese Egret, Striated Heron, Grey Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Phalarope, Ameline Swiftlet, Yellow Wagtail, a pipit and, (Why am I not surprised?) Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
In the afternoon, we went to the ranger station located at the southeastern end of the North Atoll. The station is located on a huge shifting sandbar. Our purpose: to put our names in the ledger of visitor and to buy the exlusive only-in-Tubbataha T-shirts. And to play volleyball with the rangers. No birds roost or breed here. Spotted were Greater Crested Terns, Little Terns, a wagtail, a swallow, and some frigatebirds overhead. Then we were off to the lighthouse located at the southern end of South Atoll.
On the 27th, we explored the birds of on the “islet” of the lighthouse. This may have once been a coral and sand accretion much like Bird Islet but it was now all walled up in cement. And it was crumbling and falling apart. One wall had collapsed and waves now lapped at a beach. At the opposite end, the sand had leaked out of a crack in the wall. The trees were also suffering greatly under the assault of leaf-shredding Red-footed Boobies (which were in larger numbers here) and too much nitrogen from guano. Again, the bird’s roosting and breeding area is under threat.
Here tall trees still survived and this is where the Greater and Lesser frigatebirds roosted. We saw quite a number of them roosting the evening before. Now there were less but enough to give us many satisfying views of them soaring or roosting or harrassing other seabirds.
On board the chase boat, we were able to have good views of the seabirds of the South Islet that host the lighthouse. Along the islet’s seawall, some very low tree branches extended over the water. At the end of one branch sat a Red-footed Booby pullus – so young it was still covered in down – all by itself. Soon enough, its mother scrambled over and perched beside her huge pullus, and glared at us. The Tubbataha regulation not to touch anything was in our mind, but Arne’s vivid description of the boobies serrated bills was also strongly remembered.
Nearby, we spotted a Brown Noddy making a nest from a shred of vegetation in a depression on the wall. We could see she had an egg. Everyone was upset as a crab approached, but the crab scuttled off. On our second approach to the spot, we saw she already had two eggs!!
At the lighthouse, we also saw Brown Boobies, Black Noddies, Greater Crested Terns, Pacific Reef Heron, Barred Rail, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Ruddy Turnstone, Sooty Terns.
In the afternoon, as we waited for the diving group to come back, Maia and I were on the top deck when we spotted a commotion in the sky. Three frigatebirds were harrassing a Red-footed Booby. The booby had landed in the water to escape. In a while, we saw it take off, trying to escape. One frigatebird swooped down to attack. Just as the predator was about to pounce, the booby turned around and presented the frigate bird with its serrated bill. Frigatebird backed off immediately.
Good thing we didn’t pet that pulli.