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Owls in the city

(The Philippine Star) Updated April 21, 2012 12:00 AM

This Philippine Eagle Owl, perched atop a tree beside the Manila Water cooperative office, at the MWSS compound, along Katipunan Road, Quezon City. An adult owl like this can grow as big as 40-cms. in length and has a wingspan of about 120-cms.

MANILA, Philippines - There it was, peacefully sitting on a branch of a tree  big yellow eyes, big sharp claws, brown face and wings, reddish upper chest becoming lighter at the belly with dark brown streaks and grayish beak.

The stories are true: A Philippine Eagle Owl was perching in the city.

Also known by its scientific name Bubo philippensis, the Philippine Eagle Owl is a rare bird type, which was declared vulnerable and decreasing in number. Endemic only to the Philippines, this type of owl has been categorized likely endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Since it is said to be very “secretive,” little has been known about the Philippine Eagle Owl, especially its breeding habits. But studies reveal that these owls either live in the heart of the forests or at forest edges in the lowlands, which are near rivers and lakes.

This baby Philippine Eagle Owl was seen flapping its wings.
According to the bird watchers who saw that moment,
they said the owl was practising to fly.

That’s why it was a mix of surprise and thrill for Manila Water employees who are birders or otherwise, when they saw with their own eyes a Philippine Eagle Owl right in the heart of their office in Quezon City.

A bird sanctuary in the city

The quiet office compound of the country’s various water agencies became a haven to bird-watchers and enthusiasts when news about the Philippine Eagle Owl’s existence in the area, spread in their circle. Sitting on the stretch of the bustling Katipunan Road, the MWSS Compound, which houses the Manila Water Company office, was such an unusual place to find a rare and endangered species.

But it made sense to Karen Ochavo, Manila Water’s program manager and bird-watcher, to find a Philippine Eagle Owl in the compound.

It was said that Philippine Eagle Owls sat on trees during the
day and hunts for food at night. Seen in this photo is a pair
owl perched side by side each other at sunset, and seem
to be getting ready to hunt.

“The open water channels at the Balara filter plants are just nearby,” said Ochavo, pertaining to the water filter facilities operated and managed by Manila Water to serve its East Zone concession area. “And the big old trees and patches of secondary forest within the compound seem to be a suitable habitat for the owl.”

The bird watching community of Metro Manila arranged for a one-day bird watching expedition to see this special creature. So special is this owl that members of the World Bird Club of the Philippines, the Philippine Bird Photographer’s Forum and Netherlands Ambassador Robert Brinks trooped to the MWSS compound recently to get a rare sighting.

But the watchers were in for more surprises. At sunset that day, the watchers saw a second smaller owl learning to fly. And shortly after that, a third (adult) owl came into the scene. “The first adult owl then perched next to the other adult owl before both finally flew in different directions,” Ochavo described of the moment. “It was amazing to observe wild life in action, something we only see on the National Geographic channel, right here in Quezon City.”

The bird watchers and photographers
view the rare bird perching on the tree
near Manila Water’s cooperative office
in MWSS compound, Quezon City.

A safe haven

The privacy and cleanliness of the area is one of the contributing factors why the area is a safe haven for the owl family. Managed by Manila Water, the facilities in the compound are ensured to be guarded meticulously by Manila Water’s trained personnel, to ensure that water that pass through the facilities are clean and safe. The birds benefit from this protection, thus making them safe from hunters and poachers, and they can live quietly in the patch of forest that is part of Manila Water’s treatment facilities.

Netherlands Ambassador Robert Brinks,
a bird watcher with Karen Ochavo

And to further ensure the owls’ protection, Manila Water created safety measures especially for the owls’ welfare. All security guards under the Manila Water Security Management Group received a standing mandate to keep an eye on the owls and protect each one from impending danger.

“Based on the stories I have heard about the birds, I am sure these owls have been around here for some time now, but had not been given much attention until they were positively identified,” Ochavo said. “And through the measures that Manila Water are intending to do, through the cooperation of some bird watchers like us, we hope to cradle these owls and make them stay.” 

Manila Water does feed the owls because they are healthy and well enough to hunt and feed themselves. It maintains the natural ecosystem by taking care of the lush vegetation and flora in the area to allow the owls to thrive. It is better to let them live as they would in the wild. Security measures are in place, however, to make sure that they are not harmed in any way by unnatural or man-made incidences.