The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
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Birding in the Visayas- The Holmes Journal - April 23, 2005
by Bruce Glick

If you look at a map of the Philippines, you'll see that there are three main sections of the country: Luzon and the northern islands, Mindanao and the southern islands (where we live), and a group of mid-sized islands in the middle called the Visayas. Several of our Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers live on the island called Negros, while two others work across the straits on northern Mindanao.

So it made sense to hold our latest unit retreat on a tiny island just off the coast of Negros. We knew that Apo Island is home to only a few hundred people, and that it boasts some of the best coral reefs in the country. There are only two places to stay on Apo, and both have a few rooms built close to steep cliffs and at the edge of the water. We were able to have our meetings on one of the porches or in the open-air dining area, both of which look out over the beach.

Travel to Apo is via small outrigger boats. Ours was big enough to hold 10 people, and only those seated at the front caught the breaking waves from time to time. When Helen and I went out to check the place out several months ago, we went on a very small boat and were totally drenched within the first five minutes! It's only a 45 minute trip and water if warm!

After a good opening meeting, excellent food and a good sleep, three of us got up early and hiked up the steps and trail to the lighthouse at the high point of the island. On the way up we saw 6-8 Pied Imperial Pigeons, a bird that I had about given up finding in the Philippines. Almost all white with black wing tips, the birds are quite impressive in flight. Evidently this species has retreated to small islands such as Apo, shunning the larger islands for some reason.

As we approached the last stretch of wooded area before the summit, I saw a flock of birds overhead. At first I had no idea what they were, but as I watched I could see that they were small goshawks. The time was just after 6:00 am - much earlier than I had ever seen migrating hawks. My adrenalin surged - hawk migration! We hustled up the last slope to the open ground around the lighthouse. By then there were more than 100 birds overhead, and others were coming up out of the trees on all sides. They were Chinese Goshawks, a species known to migrate in large numbers. These birds had obviously come in the day before, rested overnight on the little (one mile by quarter- mile) island, and now were ready to island-hop through the Philippines and on to Taiwan and points north.

As the hawks came up from the trees, we were able to get close looks at them. The majority were beautiful adult birds with crisp, sharp markings. Interestingly, their wing patterns are similar to the Pied Imperial Pigeons, white below with black wingtips. The tails were banded and flashed in the sun as they twisted and turned their way upward, looking for the lift in the early morning air. There were also lots of immature birds with more subtle markings, but with shape and behavior exactly like the adults.

Soon there were upward of 800 Chinese Goshawks overhead, basically staying in the same place in the sky but gradually getting higher and higher. The wind was from the north, a headwind for them, but gradually they began to move to the northwest, making the short jump across the water to the island of Negros. Maybe the winds were more favorable at the higher altitude. I could barely make them out as they disappeared, mere specks in the binoculars.

Thinking that the show was over, I turned and saw that there were more rising from the different parts of the island. This time the numbers were smaller and the birds easier to observe. Small groups of 8-10 would work their way higher in the sky, meeting up with others until there were again hundreds of them readying for the flight across the water. I was surprised that all of these hawks seemed to just hold in formation, gradually gathering altitude, without the "kettling" (circling around and around to gain altitude) that we see in Ohio.

We watched them for over an hour until at last there were no more hawks in sight. The time was only 7:30. Even in the Philippines, I had not heard of any hawk-watchers starting at 6:00 am. I wonder if this was an unusually early departure. I also marvel that a total of 1400 Chinese Goshawks had spent the night on this little speck of an island! What might the total number be that are migrating through the Philippines? Is this a normal stop-over, or did it just happen to be the first land they saw as they made the jump from Mindanao to the Visayas? I'd be happy to spend a few weeks on Apo Island checking it out next year!