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Philippines vital for survival of migratory birds

Groups counts 18,000 waterfowl in Balanga City

By Anna Valmero
First Posted 19:48:00 01/11/2010

BATAAN, Philippines—Almost an hour before sunrise here, 20 volunteers armed with their spotting scopes, binoculars, cameras and other equipment visited Sunday the three wetland sites in Balanga City to count the number of wintering or migratory birds that flock the area for breeding or a quick stopover.

The event dubbed the Asian waterbird census, is held every second and third week of January and forms part of the global census for wintering shorebirds visiting the wetlands and coastal sites across the Americas, Africa and Asia.

“As early as 5 a.m. we head to the identified sites where the migratory birds are roosting. We count and record their numbers per species and comparing this data over those culled in previous years, we analyze if there is an increasing or decreasing trends in bird populations and make recommendations to address the threats to survival such as habitat loss, food scarcity and diseases,” said census volunteer Mike Lu, president of nonprofit birding group Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP).

WBCP and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) are the lead agencies holding the waterbird census in over 50 coastal sites in the country.

Specifically, the data collected from the sites form part of the global waterbird monitoring program called the International Waterbird Census, which is being coordinated by conservation group Wetlands International.

The collected data is used to raise awareness on waterbird conservation issues and to monitor the status of wetlands along flyways or the migratory path followed by wintering birds between September and April, said Lu.

The Philippines is a common pathway for birds using that pass by the Asian flyway or the general route of migratory birds in East Asia that span the coastal areas from New Zealand and Australia in the south and Eurasian mainland in the north, said ornithologist Arne Jensen, who is also one of the 12 founders of WBCP.

The presence of migrating birds in the country’s wetlands and forests signal that the environment is “healthy” to support both wildlife and human needs, Jensen added.

On Sunday, the group counted 18,679 waterbirds in the sites of Sibacan and Puerto Rivas beachfront communities and Tortugas wetland park in Balanga City—which is up by 3,000 from the bird count last year, said Lu.

Although there was no unusual bird sighting, Lu said the group and the local government was glad because the count surpassed last year’s bird count of 15,521 by over 3,000. This year, the team recorded 2,042 black-winged stilts, 903 Asian golden plovers, 3,992 Kentish plovers and 4515 whiskered terns.

Jensen, who headed the team of bird census volunteers said while the numbers does not reflect the exact number of birds in the area, it gives a “representative estimate” of a “sizable bird population” in the area that might be around 20,000.

“In numbers, we had about 18,000 birds today (Sunday) from the three sites. Based on my old notes since my first visit here in 2004, the bird population appears to be stable or around that number. This is a positive sign because most bird populations in wetlands are decreasing,” said Jensen, who has been recording waterbird populations along the Manila Bay coast line, which extends up to Balanga City.

This “stable population” of waterbirds in Balanga City can be attributed to several factors, including the support from community and local government leaders, who prohibit hunting and implement ordinances on how to utilize the wetlands without having too much negative impact on the environment and wildlife, said Jensen.

Lu added “The people of Balanga City were able to maintain old-growth mangroves facing the sea along with their fishponds. In most parts of the country, once there are fishponds all the mangroves are cut and gone to give more space for fish pens and finally, the wildlife supported by this is threatened or worse, disappears.”

“Coastal and freshwater wetlands, mudflats and mangrove areas provide stopover and shelter for migratory birds so that accounts for the steady population. If they (mangroves) are gone, then there would be less birds and that is a clear indication that the environment and its resources are below optimum level to sustain life,” added Jensen.

Jensen said the success of wetland conservation in Balanga City must be replicated in other communities along the Manila Bay coastline, of which 95 percent of the original 120-hectare of mangroves, mudflats, marshes and forests have been destroyed to pave way for reclamation projects and fishponds.

“Manila Bay is the largest coastal wetland in the country and can be dubbed the most important as it holds a sizeable bird population, both resident and migratory that pass by the country to rest as they continue their flight up in the Eurasian continent or down in Australia,” said Jensen.

He added the site also shelters threatened species such as the endemic Philippine duck and the green-legged Chinese egret that is critically endangered so conservation efforts while maintaining reasonable livelihood projects must be priority for communities and leaders.

Aside from Balanga City, other sites with recorded high bird counts include Candaba marsh in Pampanga, Paoay Lake in Ilocos Norte and Olango Island in Cebu.