By Cheta Chua
Before the world changed for good, Allan, Jao and I were able to partake in one last major trip . Little did we know that this would be one of the last adventures before we’d begin the 100+ days and counting lockdown.
On Feb 21-25, we journeyed to Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park in Occidental Mindoro in hopes to see the critically endangered tamaraw in the wild. This dream of mine actually started around four years ago (with me inviting Jao) before I was even into birding but nothing really came into fruition thanks to a lack of hiking experience, difficult logistics and lack of time.
Fast forward to December 2019 on the day that we met in Infanta, I mentioned to Allan that I wanted to do a trip like this and he quickly accepted my invitation despite the absence of a solid plan. As late January came we still didn’t have any plans and I was resigned that this trip would not happen for another year. I had made peace that this trip was not going to happen until I saw a tour group that would make the logistics of this trip simple enough.
Allan and I tried to temper our expectations regarding the birding in the area since we would be hiking most of the time and that we weren’t here for the birds but for the tamaraw. I had also heard that the forest was denuded and it would be difficult to bird during a long hike. However, being the excited target birder that I am, I couldn’t resist hoping to see 2-3 Mindoro endemic lifers. Jao and I would listen to calls of each Mindoro endemic and familiarize ourselves with the proper ID of each species. I’d spend my days dreaming of tarictics, racquet-tails and my top target – the scarlet collared flowerpecker.
We started our hike up the mountain at the unholy hour of 1pm – facing the full brunt of the scorching sun. Before starting the hike, we managed to get some birding in and Jao and I immediately got our first lifer – the Mindoro bulbul. After a bit, we even heard the scarlet-collared flowerpecker but we had no choice but to start hiking as our group had already left a few minutes earlier. A few hours of hiking in the intense heat and we stopped by a heavily vine-d area. We saw a black-naped monarch which interestingly enough the Kennedy guide says they’re not present in Mindoro. We even saw an emerald dove flyby but we joked that it was actually an extremely rare Mindoro Bleeding-Heart. I saw movement in the vines and I saw the distinct red slashes of the scarlet-collared flowerpecker. However, in my excitement, I spoke too loud and flushed the bird so Jao and Allan both missed out on it.
The rest of the day proved fairly unproductive but still yielded the Mindoro ssp of the colasisi , Philippine coucal and a tantalizing flyby of the Mindoro Racket-tail. We ended up a few hours behind the group as we’d stop looking for birds. As the sun started to set, we heard the tarictic and we’re treated to great views. Out of all tarictics, the Mindoro is the most distinct of the five because the female has Male colors.
After dinner in Camp 2, we decided to look for the Mindoro scops and Hawk-owl. Interestingly enough, despite being just 400masl, we did hear the scops owl but it did not show up. We changed targets and with a lot of persistence we finally saw excellent views of 3 Mindoro Hawk-owls.
The next day, before hiking up to the next station, we birded around camp and we were lucky to find 4 Mindoro Racket-tails.On the way to camp 3 where the main tamaraw viewing station is, we even saw a group scarlett-collared flowerpeckers but Jao and I were still not satisfied with the views.
After a long nap and lunch in camp 3, we waited for the sun to calm down and we did a quick hike to the viewpoint. It was incredible that there were so many tamaraws just downhill. I really did not expect it to be that easy. I’d estimate that we saw at least 20-30 tamaraws which is incredible considering there are less than 500. To see them was a dream come true for the three of us .It was incredible seeing this animal that I had only read about in HEKASI and Social Studies in the flesh.
On the third day when we were about to descend, I saw a pale gray shrike. It didn’t fully hit me that it was a mountain shrike after it left so I did not call the attention of my companions. I’d come to regret this as I’d later come to find out that there are no pictures of this ssp of mountain shrike.
During our descent, we’d kept on stopping to look for the flowerpecker but had no such luck. I had already started asking Allan where I can do a day trip for better views of the flowerpecker. Our fortunes changed when Jao suddenly pointed out that we had arrived in the spot where we initially saw the flowerpecker and luckily enough we were treated to excellent views of our megalifer. Allan also saw a changeable hawk eagle but the heat had already sapped my energy that I wasn’t able to go and look at it due to exhaustion. Looking back, I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t will my body for another lifer.
We ended the trip seeing 5 Mindoro Endemics – way above my initial target of 3. After the entire trip, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s some indescribable feeling of both wonder and dread when you see a critically endangered animal. I first felt this when I saw the Isabela oriole. To think that such beautiful creatures facing extinction is a scary prospect. Like the oriole’s champion in Joni, the tamaraw has the rangers of the Tamaraw Conservation Program as beacons of hope. Within just a few years of patrolling, they’ve managed to help the tamaraw population rise from 150 to 500 heads. I recently saw a post on the native trees group looking into reforesting the park. Hopefully, we’d see Iglit-Baco be reforested and turn into an even better home not just for its keystone species but all other wildlife too.