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Philippines - Expedition Birding, 9 Jan - 15 Feb 2005,
Luzon, Palawan, Samar, Mindanao
Frank E. Rheindt
University of Melbourne
at most sites in the pleasant company of:
This year, I decided to invest my entire year's leave - i.e. a month's birding - into a long-due trip to the Philippines. A single month is not nearly enough time to do this complex country justice and I knew that these islands will eventually deserve a second and third visit. Therefore, I decided to concentrate my efforts on a just a few islands and skip others entirely, rather than attempt to cover too many sites in too little time. My priority was to visit mostly some of the more difficult sites and to check out areas that have so far been neglected on birdwatching itineraries. I left many well-known birding sites, such as Mt Makiling or Mt Kitanglad, for future visits because I eventually ran out of time.
After a half-day at the American and Philippine Cemeteries in Manila, I took a night bus to Isabela Province (Luzon) in my failed attempt to gain access to Ambabok. I still managed to get to the lower camp at Hamut that same day, where I spent the following six days. A full day's bus ride to Baguio (Luzon) was ensued by another full day spent in a bus travelling on narrow winding roads towards Mt Pulog, around which I hiked in a 3-day loop, meeting up with R.O. Hutchinson and J.A. Eaton in the process. Meanwhile, new knowledge had emerged about another site in the Sierra Madre Mountains called Masipi, so subsequently we headed straight there, taking in a day at Mt Data and Bay-yo Village along the way. After only one day at Masipi, we managed a record run of 24hr on public transportation to end up in Brooke's Point (Palawan) at the base of the Mt Mantalingajan massif, where we spent two entire days. On the way north-east to Palawan's capital Puerto Princesa, a late afternoon and a morning were invested into a roadside stretch known as Zigzag Rd, and finally we had an amazing 2 ½ days' birding at the superb St Paul's Subterranean River National Park. An eventless late afternoon and the following morning saw us checking out Garceliano Beach in Puerto Princesa, whereupon we boarded the plane to Cebu City. We met up with J. Hornbuckle and his charming and youthful friend Jen, whose delightful company we were going to enjoy for the next six days on Samar. That afternoon, before our Samar ferry departed, we had an unsuccessful go at Olanggo Island, and though we made it on the island, we failed to reach the waterbird sanctuary. The overnight ferry ride to Samar culminated in some fragmentary shorebird watching in the harbour of Calbayog the next morning. Our actual destination, however, turned out to be Catbalogan (Samar), another two hours down the road, where we met our contacts Boying (Renato Fernandez) and Joel B. Adko. We lost little time on our way to Malinao in Eastern Samar, which was our base for the next 5 ½ days birding along the Taft - Catbalogan Rd in the Central Samar Spine. Bidding farewell to Boying, Joel, Jon and Jen one by one, we finally emerged in Trento (Mindanao), our base for a one-day sortie to Mt Pasian. My time on the Philippines ran out, but I am glad I managed to fit in a final 1 ½ days of spectacular birding at PICOP (Mindanao) before my return flight.
English is widely spoken and understood as a consequence of U.S. political dominance throughout the entire 20th century. Spanish - the colonial language until 1900 - now only survives in people's and place names and in the form of vocabulary left-over in local languages, though - to my surprise - one Philippine travel companion actually came from a family in which some curious vestigial Spanish is still spoken. All the native languages, including the national language Tagalog, are Austronesian and share similarities in their core vocabulary with Bahasa Indonesia. For birding in remote areas (like Mt Mantalingajan, Mt Pulog, Central Samar), it helped knowing a few basic words in Tagalog or the respective regional language (Ilocano in northern Luzon, Visayan in Samar/Mindanao). Note however, that most Philippine languages seem to be much harder to get a quick grasp of than Bahasa Indonesia, since their verbs require complex affixes or suffixes to indicate tense and mode.
Though only superficially Spanish, something about the Philippines quickly makes you feel like you are somewhere in Latin America rather than next door to China.
Where to eat:
The Philippines undoubtedly deserve the cake for having some of the most gruesome food in Asia. Given proper time investment, you may be able to find some good-value food, but as a birder on the run it is highly unlikely you get away satisfied all the time. Much less refined than in neighboring countries, the Spanish influence seems to have stripped Philippine cuisine bare of its sauces and curries and vegetables and left it with plain rice and chicken, a recurring theme on menus in most Andean hill towns likewise. The severeness of this situation is especially pronounced in mid-sized towns, where street hawkers have given way to fast-food chains, and even fond connoisseurs of shifty street-food such as myself were left with little to choose from. Philippine fast food chains such as Jollibee Burger and Chowking must be avoided at any rate!
Acknowledgments and contacts:
This trip would not have turned out so successful without the help, assistance, inspiration and support of many people:
- First and foremost, I am greatly indebted to the incomparable Robert Owen Hutchinson (ROH; Address: 26 Sutton Avenue, Chellaston, Derby DE73 1RJ, England; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; www.birdtourasia.com) and the great James Alexander Eaton (JAE; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.birdtourasia.com) (in reverse alphabetical order) for their superb field company throughout most of this trip. Being used to birding on my own, it was a fantastic experience to team up with two such fine gentlemen, and their company made the trip twice as enjoyable. The credit for many a specialty on my trip list goes to the eagle-eyes of these two exceptional birders. Their night-birding skills left me standing in the rain. Additionally, credit goes to Rob for providing tape recordings from his previous trip to the Philippines. Rob is a gifted field acoustician and James is a dedicated photographer with an eye for things beautiful and gross. Check out his superb photo shots of many a trip rarity on their webpage. Moreover, Rob and James deserve warm thanks for letting me share the ride to some of the sites that they had essentially staked out themselves by writing to local contacts, such as Mt Pulog, Mt Mantalingajan and Central Samar. Last but not least, birders are referred to Rob's excellent trip report of his 3-month trip to the Philippines in 2003 for much essential information on many sites not outlined in this trip report. Note that their trip report (written by Sam Woods, Rob O. Hutchinson and Andy Adcock) is not freely available on the internet.
- I would like to thank Tim Fisher (129 C.M. Recto St, Manila; home phone: (2)-850-3411; monile: 0927-445-0191; email@example.com ) for providing tape recordings. Tim received me in his Manila home, letting me copy many of his tapes and even lending me some for part of my trip. His great hospitality didn't even wear thin when we found out that I had over-taped part of his tape through a mix-up. Tim is also acknowledged for passing on crucial information about some of the birding sites visited in the course of my trip, most notably Masipi and Mt. Pasian.
- Thanks to the Collaerts Team from Belgium, i.e. the two Collaerts Brothers (Peter.Collaerts@scarlet.be; firstname.lastname@example.org ), as well as Hans Matheve (Hans.Matheve@ugent.be) and Martin, for good company in the field during nearly a week at Hamut Camp and for all the information on sites they had visited (such as Mt. Pasian). Credit also goes to these boys for staking out Masipi and letting Rob, James and me know about it (through Tim Fisher).
- I am indebted to Adam Walleyn (email@example.com; www.borealbirding.com) from beautiful Manitoba for great birding companionship in the field at Hamut Camp. Although failing to meet up again towards the end of my trip as we had intended, I am sure our birding paths will cross again some time in the future.
- Jon Hornbuckle was instrumental in arranging our stay in Samar. His charming Filipina field companion Jen is acknowledged for providing initially welcome distraction from the hardships of everyday hardcore and list-driven twitching - i.e. before she actually developed into a liability.
- I am grateful to Renato E. Fernandez (=Boying) (12336 Road, 1 Bernardo Village, Mayondon, Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines; firstname.lastname@example.org ) and Joel B. Adko (Malinao, Taft, Eastern Samar 6816; Philippines) for making possible our week's birding in Samar.
- Roldan Dugay (email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: 09196607624) from the University at Cabagan deserves warm thanks for organizing our stay in Masipi. He promised to arrange access to Ambabok at the end of my trip, an offer that I had to turn down because I ran out of time. When he can't be reached because he is out in the field, try contacting his department's secretary Joylin Gumarang (phone: 09195764424).
- Though unable to arrange a short-notice visit to the Penal Farm at Iwahig, Arnel Malliari is acknowledged for coming up with alternative suggestions. He is the guy essential to contact if you want to go to Iwahig (get his phone number from other trip reports).
- Zardo Goring (Address: Security Operations, PICOP Resources Incorporated (PRI), Tabon, Bislig City 8311; cell phone: 09207168379; email@example.com) was extremely helpful in organizing transportation to the PICOP concession - even upon very short notice and for very unconventional times of day. He is a must to contact for anyone considering birding in PICOP.
American and Philippine War Cemeteries, Manila - 9 Jan 05
On my first full day in the Philippines, meeting arrangements with contact people in Manila were such that I had a free morning and early afternoon to kill. Therefore, I decided to spend the best part of that day around the two cemeteries at Fort Bonifacio (easily reached by taxi).
Logistics and birding: The Philippine Cemetery opens much earlier than the American counterpart and is - as anyone would guess - less sterile, more overgrown, and probably much more ideal for birdwatching. Yet I made the mistake of openly displaying my binoculars at the military entrance checkpoint, and instantly aroused the suspicion of the guard. With the expenditure of considerable charisma, the latter could be persuaded into granting me 30 minutes within the premises - on condition that I leave all my belongings at the gate. With utmost cunning, I managed to smuggle my binoculars past him, which ensured a highly successful half-hour in the cemetery and enabled me to identify Colasisi, Pied Fantail, Golden-bellied Gerygone, Red Turtle Dove, Spotted Dove, Zebra Dove, a flock of Island Swiftlets and Yellow-vented Bulbul.
The gate to the American Cemetery is only 3-5km from the Philippine Cemetery, and I made it there by public jeepney just in time for its opening at around 9am. The core part of the cemetery, where thousands of crosses and David's stars are aligned side by side, is made up of well-watered lawns and neatly trimmed bushes. The unkempt peripheral margin of the cemetery is much more inviting for birdwatching, but the wardens were quick to whistle me back and made it unequivocally clear that this area is out of bounds. Best addition to my day list was Barred Rail (common). The big trees around the top of the hill (monument) held two Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers, White-collared Kingfisher and flocks of the sought-after Lowland White-eye. Some subdued migrant action was encountered in the form of Arctic Warbler, a lone Gray-streaked Flycatcher and a female Blue Rock Thrush.
Ambabok (Luzon) - 10 January 05
Ambabok is a deserted hamlet in San Mariano township where ROH found Isabela Oriole in 2003 (M. van Weerd, R.O. Hutchinson. 2004. Observations of Isabela Oriole Oriolus isabellae in the Sierra Madre, Luzon, Philippines, with descriptions of the call. Forktail 20, 133-136). Additional rarities such as Spotted Imperial Pigeon, Celestial and Short-crested Monarch, Furtive Flycatcher and Rabor's Wren-Babbler make this area well worth a journey, and birders are advised to peruse the trip report written by Sam Woods, Robert O. Hutchinson et al. I wanted to make this the first site on my journey and arrived in San Mariano in the morning on a night-bus from Manila. I had to get permission to enter the area from the town hall, which was easy enough to find before the town gates. However, the local authorities declined to give me entry permission in view of a local military operation to "purge" the area of New People's Army (NPA) militia. The NPA - or locally dubbed the "Nice People Around" - are a communist military organization that are in armed conflict with government authorities. After lengthy discussions with the mayor, he acceded to let me talk to the head of the military operation to convince him of my good intentions. A government jeep took me up the hill to the military base, where I had the pleasure of talking with various army personnel, last but not least with Colonel Marcos, who interrogated me as to the purpose of my visit. However, he finally declared that under no circumstances was I allowed to enter the area, since he did not want the first western hostage on Luzon to be taken in his backyard. He regretted that I had come such a long way only to turn around, but he said that their operation was over by mid-February 2005, and that access was again negotiable after that date. It is worth noting that other birders who came after me in January 2005 were equally turned around, among them the Collaerts Team (see Acknowledgments), who instead opted to check out a newly emergent site near Masipi (see below), which came to great advantage to all of us.
Please note it is recommended birders contact Roldan Dugay (see Acknowledgments) who can organize a visit to Ambabok.
Hamut Camp (Luzon) - 10-16 Jan 05
The Sierra Madre Mountains provide some of the last large contiguous areas of rainforest on the island of Luzon. Access to good forest is difficult, though, and none remains within easy walking distance of settlements. The area most ornithologists have concentrated on in the Sierra Madre is a hunters' camp that has become known as Hamut among birders (though many locals are not familiar with this name).
Logistics: To reach Hamut, go to Tuguegarao (north Luzon) and take a local jeepney to the village of Baliuag (40min). Be careful not to confuse it with the town of Baliwag, which has regular bus connections to Tuguegarao. Chances are you have to hire a jeepney (as I did for 300 P). Basic food supplies can be bought in Baliuag, though anything fancy would have to be brought in from Tuguegarao. The people in the village are well used to birders, and it is best not to be skimpy and to hire one or two porters to carry food and the bulk of your baggage (in 2005: 400-600 P / porter / day; expect higher rates when you get there). This keeps the local economy alive and lets you concentrate on the birding. From Baliuag, it takes about 2-5hr (depending on pace) to reach Palay, a settlement comprising two local families with adjacent campsite at the stream. (Be sure to pronounce the "-ay" as in "eye", not as in "aye"). Palay is still quite low, but the first forest fragments can be found around here. Hamut Camp is a tough 4-9hr hike up from Palay. The area around Hamut is at about 700-900m. The valley around Hamut boasts lush forest, but most of the immediate surroundings along the path up to Hamut look more like orchard with some relictual forest.
Number 1 target for most birders is Whiskered Pitta, for which this may well be the most reliable site. However, my stay here was quite frustrating in that I only managed to get split-seconds' glimpses of Whiskered Pittas (on about 5 occasions) despite using tape playback and investing considerable time during dawn and dusk vigils. Of course I did not know that I was unexpectedly going to get much better views of one at a later stage of my trip at another site (see below). Whiskered Pittas were vocalizing on every day, though some days more fervently than on others, all around the valley at Hamut as well as down the access path as low as 1 hr uphill from Palay (probably around 350m). Unfortunately, playback would shut them up, and active individuals would just go cryptic as soon as they heard the tape. I guess I was still lucky, since 3 out of 4 Belgian birders that stayed at Hamut during the same time didn't even get a glimpse of one.
One of my favourites at Hamut included Short-crested Monarch (a male in a mixed flock with Black-naped Monarchs and others) about ½ km down from the highest point toward Palay. I am not aware that this species has been recorded at Hamut before.
I saw Blue-breasted Flycatcher on about five different occasions mainly in the Hamut Valley. One single Furtive Flycatcher came in to tape about 1/3 up the way from Palay in degraded bamboo, and the same area provided "good flushed" views of a Luzon Bleeding-heart as well as a perched female Black-chinned Fruit-Dove. The Bleeding-heart was additionally heard on most days next to Hamut Camp.
Some good species proved common over the days, whereas others were only seen a limited number of times: Rufous Coucal (2 occ.), Philippine Trogon (4 occ.), Spotted Wood-Kingfisher (seen once, heard often), Rufous Hornbill (4 flocks seen, heard daily), Tarictic Hornbill (1 occ.), Sooty Woodpecker (2 occ.), Scarlet Minivet (4 occ.), Yellow-wattled Bulbul (1 occ.), Chestnut-faced Babbler (2 occ., ridge trail), Luzon Striped Babbler (10 occ.), White-browed Shortwing (a pair at Hamut Camp), White-browed Shama (commonly heard though only 1 seen), Scaly Thrush (1), Mountain Verditer Flycatcher (5 occ.), Snowy-browed Flycatcher (1 female), Green-backed Whistler (2 occ.), Gray Wagtail (3 occ.), Pechora Pipit (1).
On a more or less common basis, I encountered the distinct Luzon race of Greater Flameback, as well as Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, White-eared Brown Dove, Golden-crowned Babbler, Citrine Canary Flycatcher, Philippine Bulbul, Elegant Tit, Philippine Fairy Bluebird, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Arctic and Lemon-throated Warbler, Philippine Tailorbird, Blue-headed Fantail, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Flaming and Handsome Sunbird, Olive-backed, Bicolored, Red-keeled and Pygmy Flowerpecker, Yellowish White-eye, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and Buzzing Flowerpecker (the latter heard only). Especially on the descent, Barred Honey-buzzards and Crested Serpent-eagles provided good views.
The forest patches closer to Palay held a few lowland birds that were not (or rarely) encountered higher up, most notably a White-fronted Tit at the campsite, two White-bellied Woodpeckers, two Coppersmith Barbets, Blackish Cuckooshrike (6 occ.), Scale-feathered Malkoha, a few Lowland White-eyes and one taped-in Philippine Hawk-Owl (though additional individuals as well as calling Philippine Scops Owls refused to come in).
On the way out from Palay in the more degraded areas, a Philippine Falconet, a Buff-banded Rail, a Reddish Cuckoo-Dove, flocks of Glossy and Pygmy Swiftlets, a Black-naped Oriole, 4 Eastern Yellow Wagtails, a dozen Paddyfield Pipits, 2 Coletos, 2 Crested Mynas and Colasisi were of note. Other open-land birds included Red Turtle Dove, a Great Eared Nightjar as well as Barn, Pacific and Striated Swallow, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Tawny Grassbird, Bright-capped Cisticola, White-breasted Wood-Swallow, Long-tailed and Brown Shrike, Scaly-breasted, Chestnut Munia and Philippine Coucal (latter only heard).
Generally, the impression that I and some of the other birders at the camp gained was that mid-January may not be the most active time of year to visit Hamut, and late March to April may actually be better as birds are getting into the courtship mode. According to other trip reports, pittas were much easier to pick up around that time, whereas in January most species - not just pittas - responded to tape very reluctantly. Concomitantly, I missed a few crucial species that require me to visit Hamut again on my next Philippine trip: Rabor's Wren Babbler was heard daily in good numbers, even in the crappiest of treefall gaps, but its extremely high-pitched sound requires good-quality equipment to tape it in successfully. This species turned out to be extremely uncooperative during my visit, and only 2 unsatisfying views of a creeping shadow were obtained by me. Cream-bellied Fruit-Dove was heard on five occasions and Slender-billed Crow (of the distinct sierramadrensis race) was heard once, but neither was seen by anyone in the camp. Ashy-breasted Flycatcher and Grand Rhabdornis - for which this is easily the best site - were missed by me, though each species was seen on one occasion by some of the five other birders present at the camp.
Mt Pulog (Luzon) - 18-21 January 2005
The big chunk that forms the northern and central part of the island of Luzon is dominated by two mountain ranges: the smaller Sierra Madre, running like a spine along the island's east coast, and the huge Cordillera Massif, rising up to 2922m at Mt Pulog. Deforestation has been especially severe in the Cordillera, and all Luzon montane endemics have accordingly become very rare. Mt Polis near Banaue is the place birders visit these days to see Montane Racquet-tail, Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove and other montane Luzon endemics, but one species - the Luzon Jungle-Flycatcher - has become rather unreliable here and is now a very difficult species to see. ROH and JAE (see Acknowledgments) e-mailed various people and staked out Mt Pulog as a promising site for this appealing species. On 17 Jan 05, they embarked on a 4-day hike to see this species, and - calling them before their departure from Baguio - I decided to follow them a day later, meeting up with them in the field, skipping Mt Polis on my itinerary and saving it for some other trip.
Logistics: Mt Pulog requires substantial time and energy. In view of its limited potential to add only 1-3 very special birds to your trip harvest, people on a short itinerary should carefully consider whether they really want to do Mt Pulog. On the other hand, for birders that wish to cover the Philippines exhaustively, Mt Pulog is likely to emerge as one of the "must-go" sites, since you can no longer count on Luzon Jungle-Flycatcher at Mt. Polis these days. In Baguio, go to the local terminal where buses depart for Kabayan once a day (around 9am but double-check). Though the distance on a map looks minute, this bus trip will take you along never-ending serpentines and will take up the best part of the day. Essentially, there are two different ways to bird Mt Pulog, differing slightly in their degree of difficulty and species potential:
1.) Ambangeg - Babadak - Lusod (the main mountain): You can get off the bus at Ambangeg well before Kabayan. This is where the main national park headquarters is located. At the headquarters, a US$15.- entrance fee and a compulsory guide have to be paid. The rates for the guide will amount to several hundred pesos for a few days, but I accidentally circumvented this expense by taking the second route (see below). From Ambangeg, it is a tough 4-7 hr ascent through cabbage fields and pine plantations to the hamlet of Babadak, where a basic park shelter is located that houses mountaineers on their way up to the summit. The bus should get to Ambangeg around late noon, so there is enough time to hike up to Babadak in the afternoon, but you'd better hope it's a cloudy day. Birding along this stretch is low-key, but I did see Philippine Swiftlets mixed with Striated Swallows, as well as Crossbills in the pines. Babadak marks the approximate beginning of primary mossy forest, and it is another 1-3 hr through good habitat to a fork at the pass, from where the main path dips down the other side of the mountain on its steep 3-6 hr forest descent to Lusod, whereas a side trail takes you up 30min into the grassland area around the summit. Agricultural land starts to take over once again at about 3km (40-70min) above Lusod. Luzon Jungle-Flycatchers seem to be mostly encountered around the lowermost belt of good-looking forest towards Lusod, and this is where we saw a single individual (presumably the same?) on four occasions (among three observers). To cover this area, rather than staying at Babadak you are much better off basing yourself in Lusod or - optimally - with one of the families living in scattered houses up to 2km above Lusod (as we did). There is a good possibility that most of the remaining forest around Mt Pulog is too high for the flycatcher, and that it cannot be found on the Babadak side of the mountain at all because habitat conversion has reached higher.
In the course of searching for Luzon Jungle-Flycatchers, an amazingly low number of other specialties were encountered: a single male Flame-crowned Flowerpecker of the distinct Luzon race was seen about halfway up the mountain from Lusod, and Island Thrushes were common - though hard to see - at higher elevations. Dawn birding along the path from Babadak to the summit produced good views of some elusive species that were otherwise mostly heard, such as Long-tailed Ground Warbler, White-browed Shortwing and Brown-headed Thrush. "Benguet" Bush Warbler - sounding essentially like mainland Russet Bush Warbler - sang unseen from a field near the lower forest edge at Babadak. On misty days, Montane Racquet-tails were commonly heard around this same stretch of path. On a final sunny morning, when I hoped to actually see them, they failed to re-surface. One of the most sought-after montane endemics, Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove, was missed entirely by us, and was encountered only once or twice during a 1-month survey of Mt Pulog by the Univesity of Copenhagen a couple of decades ago. Chances are that Mt Polis remains a much more reliable site for this species.
2.) Ballay - Tawangan - Lusod (side ridges): Alternatively, the jungle-flycatcher can still be encountered in smaller forest patches remaining on some of the side ridges further away from the mountain. Some of these patches are much easier to reach than the Lusod population, and they may therefore be the target of choice for people that wish to concentrate on this one bird species. Having said that, general birding may have much more potential in the main forest bloc around Mt Pulog (see above), therefore birders should carefully weigh their options or combine both sites (as I did). To reach some of these smaller forest patches, take the bus to Kabayan and stay on it all the way to its final destination, the small village of Ballay (Kestrel and Common Buzzard around town). From here, there is a rough track to the village of Tawangan (3-6hr) that is sometimes used by cabbage trucks. Most parts along this track have been converted into cabbage fields, but some good roadside forest remains near the pass about halfway between Ballay and Tawangan (beyond a roadside lagoon called Tabayo Lake), only a 2hr walk from Ballay.
Arriving at Ballay about 4pm and deciding to hike to Tawangan the same day, this pass is where I readily encountered a Luzon Jungle-Flycatcher in a bird wave before dusk. The same flock contained three White-cheeked Bullfinches (though JAE and ROH had this species near Mt Pulog's summit on their first day). Base yourself in Ballay to bird only this fragment, or combine it with Lusod by walking through to Tawangan, from where a path leads across yet another pass to Lusod. In Tawangan, you can stay with (and say hello to) the friendly local school teacher (Marcos M. Luciap, Tawangan, Kabayan, Benguet 2600, Philippines; satellite phone: 0985414521; cell phone: 09182049239). On the far side of Tawangan, I heard but failed to see a "Benguet" (=Russet) Bush Warbler in a field. The remaining forest around the steeper upper parts of the path from Tawangan to Lusod also looked promising. I did not find the Luzon Jungle-Flycatcher here, but there is no reason it should not be around, and the forest held most of the species listed below for all Pulog sites. From Lusod (where "town birding" produced Scale-feathered Malkoha and Blue Rock Thrush), of course, you can complete the circuit by hiking back via Babadak and Ambangeg (Route 1), taking in more Luzon Jungle-Flycatcher habitat en route.
Birds that were more or less commonly encountered in most forest sites at Mt Pulog (some in flocks, some solitarily) include: Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Glossy Swiftlet, Philippine Bulbul, Elegant Tit, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Chestnut-faced Babbler, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Mountain Tailorbird, Luzon Bush Warbler, Mountain Verditer, Snowy-browed, Citrine Canary and Little Pied Flycatcher, Blue-headed Fantail, Green-backed Whistler, Metallic-winged Sunbird, Pygmy Flowerpecker, Mountain White-eye and Mountain Shrike. Other birds included Pied Bushchat, Large-billed Crow, Gray Wagtail, Paddyfield Pipit, Olive Tree Pipit, White-breasted Wood Swallow, Tree Sparrow and Tawny Grassbird (the latter heard only).
There are additional hiking trails / local trails within the national park that lead up to the summit and give access to forest, such as "Akiki Trail" from Todikap (village along the road) to the summit. These trails may be in disuse or may be a lot more inconspicuous or difficult than the trails outlined above. There is a booklet with a good map of the park available from the headquarters or DENR.
Mt Data (Luzon) - 22-23 January 05
A small and crappy remnant of secondary forest adjacent to Mt Data Hotel along the road from Baguio to Bontoc was the site of an unparalleled instant in the history of avifaunistic documentation, when Vladimir Dinets - in three nights in 2001 - obtained photos and described the vocalizations of the long-lost Brown-banded Rail, reported a sighting of the puzzling Whitehead's Swiftlet, provided details of the observation of a presumed Worcester's Button-quail (a species never seen alive by any ornithologist) and encountered several great local rarities that have sharply decreased in past decades, such as Philippine Eagle-Owl, Whiskered Pitta and Grand Rhabdornis (V. Dinets. 2001. Ornithological records from Luzon during January-February 2001, including a description of the voice of Luzon Rail Lewinia mirificus. Oriental Bird Club Bulletin 34, 40-41). Others have come after Dinets, but none of the above species have ever re-surfaced at this site. However, ROH and his companions (see Acknowledgements; see trip report by Sam Woods, Robert O. Hutchinson et al.) did have a good run at night-birds here in 2003, recording Philippine Frogmouth and Luzon Scops Owl. This was reason enough to stop over at the Mt Data Hotel for a late afternoon, a night, and the following morning on our way from the Cordillera to the Sierra Madre.
Logistics: Beware of freezing winds! This is one of the more pleasant sites in the Philippines in that accommodation is within easy walking distance from the birding area. Mt Data Hotel (known to all bus drivers) is somewhat expensive unless you come in a group, but we haggled the price for a triple room down to 800 P. A cheaper but colder dormitory is available. Pines line the driveway and the picnic area around the hotel, but secondary broad-leaved forest is not far away. Access into the forest fragment is along unmarked and inconspicuous trails, and it is best to gain some familiarity with them at daylight before you do any night-birding. The best of these trails starts from the field to the left of the picnic area where Dinets photographed the Brown-banded Rail in 2001. Walking up the main one of these trails to the top of the ridge (ca. ½ km), you finally emerge at cabbage fields around the radar station at the highest point, from where you gain a better appreciation of the actual extent of this forest patch (views permitting).
General birding: The actual forest fragment - though good for night-birding - is secondary and dead throughout the day. Best songbirds were numerous Brown-headed Thrushes in the field by the hotel and around the radar station, with the occasional Eyebrowed Thrush mixed in. Mixed flocks in the forest contained common species such as Mountain White-eye, Little Pied Flycatcher, Mountain Verditer Flycatcher, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Elegant Tit, Luzon Bush Warbler (heard only) and Philippine Bulbul. We concentrated most of our efforts on the radar station at the top, scanning the skies for swiftlets. In the course of our afternoon swiftlet vigil at the radar station, we also had Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Striated Swallow, Blue Rock Thrush, Pied Bushchat, Tree Sparrow, Olive Tree Pipit, Gray Wagtail, Tawny Grassbird (heard only) and Crested Myna.
Woodcocks: At pre-dusk, we had glimpses at a flushed but silent individual of woodcock. Despite playing the tape of Bukidnon Woodcock, the bird did not re-emerge. Presumably, this individual belonged to the newly described Bukidnon Woodcock, which has been recorded from various mountains in Luzon and Mindanao, but not so far from Mt Data (R.S. Kennedy, T.H. Fisher, S.C.B. Harrap, A.C. Diesmos, A.S. Manamtam. 2001. A new species of woodcock (Aves: Scolopacidae) from the Philippines and a re-evaluation of other Asian/Papuan woodcock. Forktail 17, 1-12). The only other possible species (wintering Eurasian Woodcock) is only known from two historic specimens collected in the lowlands of north Luzon. Unfortunately, both species are not identifiable on the basis of fleeting glimpses.
Swifts: In the late afternoon and - less so - in the morning, congregations of swifts were hovering around the neighbouring summits, mostly in great distance, but occasionally coming close to the radar station and affording better views. Apart from a couple of House Swifts, the overwhelming majority comprised Philippine Swiftlets, but occasionally individuals belonging to a second swiftlet species could be seen that differed in appearance from Philippine Swiftlets in several ways (thanks to ROH and JAE for granting me the privilege of their input, which was instrumental to forming a collective opinion on these swiftlets): (1) Their flight style was much less erratic / bat-like / Collocalia-like and much more calculating and Apus-like than the flight style of Philippine Swiftlets. (2) Their underparts looked much darker than those of Philippine Swiftlets, which always showed a strong and uniform light reflection on their breast and throat that sharply contrasted with the dark upperparts. (3) They appeared slightly bulkier and sturdier than Philippine Swiftlets. All these differences agree with the field characters of "Whitehead's Swiftlet", a poorly known species whose only Luzon breeding grounds are presumed to be at Mt Data. Therefore, I have reached the personal conclusion that the swiftlets in question belong to this enigmatic species, and I suspect that my field companions ROH and JAE arrived at the same conclusion. Note that not all these character differences were discerned on all the individuals in question; the sturdier built, for instance, was very hard to make out, and several individuals that displayed both other field characters did not look that much "heavier". Our observations differ from Vladimir Dinets's observation of Whitehead's Swiftlet at Mt Data in important ways: Among other characters, Dinets identified "his" Whitehead's Swiftlets based on their ".large size." and ".paler underparts than in the much smaller Philippine Swiftlet.". Though we knew about the difference in measurements (131cm <-> 104cm), we failed to note any conspicuous and instantly obvious size difference between "our Whitehead's Swiftlets" and Philippine Swiftlets. Considering that even the House Swifts (138cm) that were present made just a slightly bigger appearance, I would assume that size difference is just a very minor field mark that should not be over-emphasized (though shape or built may actually be helpful). Note also that Dinets contends that "his" Whitehead's Swiftlets looked lighter on the underparts than Philippine Swiftlets, which is in stark contrast to our observations and to the literature. Additionally, Dinets mentioned that he saw his Whitehead's Swiftlets in association with "Grey-rumped Swiftlets" (Collocalia marginata), though the local taxon of the Glossy Swiftlet superspecies is Collocalia esculenta isonota, which does not belong to the grey-rumped lineage. Furthermore, at Catubo (2200m) near Mt Data, Dinets allegedly saw Whitehead's Swiftlets in association with Grey Swiftlets (Collocalia amelis) (=Island Swiftlet Collocalia vanikorensis amelis), a species that is thought to be restricted to lowlands below 900m and that poses major identification problems with Philippine Swiftlet. If Dinets's records are to be accepted, I suggest he put forth his rationale for identifying Island Swiftlet at that elevation. Realizing that swiftlet identification in the field requires much care, I guess the best course of action is to accept records only if they have been substantiated by specimens. Having said that, that doesn't keep me from personally believing that what I saw at Mt Data was Whitehead's Swiftlet.
Night-birding: Considering the phenomenal species harvest by Vladimir Dinets in 2001 and the still-remarkable harvest by ROH and his campanions in 2003, it appears as though we picked a bad night for birding: Despite protracted effort, neither Luzon Scops Owl (of which a few individuals were calling) nor Philippine Scops Owl (of which about two were calling) could be lured into view. Philippine Frogmouth was completely unresponsive. No other night birds were encountered.
Bay-yo Village (Luzon) - 23 January 05
On our way to Cabagan and the Sierra Madre from Baguio and Mt Data, we got stranded in Bontoc in the early afternoon with no onward transportation towards Tuguegarao. In hindsight, the route via Banaue to Cabagan would have been the plan of choice, but you never know beforehand, do you? With a late afternoon to go, time sufficed for taking a tricycle to Bay-yo Village, world-renowned amongst ornithologists for easy views of Luzon Water-Redstart. Actually, the plan was to try also for some pre-dusk birding at the traditional site near the pass known to birders as "Mt Polis" along the road towards Banaue (though the "real" Mt Polis is somewhere else). However, that pair of Redstart put on a show like on a catwalk, and certain people with ambitions in photography couldn't cut themselves loose from their avian model J.
Logistics and birding: Easy! From your base in Bontoc or - much more likely - in Banaue, take transport to the Bay-yo turn-off (60-80min from Bontoc by tricycle), from where you have to walk the remaining 500m to the village and take the steep stairway down to the stream. A pair of Luzon Water-Redstart showed well at the metal bridge at the bottom of this stairway. Other birds recorded around here include Mountain Leaf Warbler, Gray Wagtail, Pied Bushchat, Glossy Swiftlet, Mountain Tailorbird (heard only) and Common Buzzard.
Masipi (Luzon) - 25-26 January 2005
The erratic Green-faced Parrotfinch is doubtless one of the most sought-after species in the Philippines. Confined to bamboo in the Sierra Madre, an irruption of this species took place in late 2004 at Ambabok and Palay (Hamut), but at Hamut they seemed to be gone by 2005, and Ambabok was at war. The Collaerts Team (see Acknowledgments) had been turned away at Ambabok due to the same military operation that had prevented me from going. Instead, Tim Fisher organized a stay at Masipi for them, a newly emerging site near Cabagan that held promise for finding parrotfinches. Soon after their visit, we heard about the success of their quest for this avian ghost through Tim Fisher. Needless to say, Masipi was instantly added to our itinerary.
Logistics: Birders who wish to visit Masipi should seriously consider contacting Roldan Dugay (see Acknowledgments) from the University at Cabagan. He can organize the visit and arrange porters if desired. Make sure you agree on a price for his services before you set out. Masipi is the name of a small village, a few kilometres to the east of the main Manila-Tuguegarao highway about 5km south of Cabagan. From Masipi Village, however, a trail leads further east via small settlements to the foothills of the Sierra Madre. We camped in a clearing past one of numerous stream crossings where there was an abandoned bunkhouse in which the porters could sleep. The walk here took 3-4hr from Masipi but was level and pleasant.
Looking at the list of birds we saw at Masipi, this site evokes images of lush green forest shrouding the slopes of the Sierra Madre foothills and eventually giving way to lowland patches of secondary growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good forest is miles away, out of sight and not within birders' reach in Masipi. All habitat on level land has been entirely cleared, and the slopes are trashed beyond recognition. Bamboo abounds, trails are hard to walk and big trees are a rarity. This was the only site that had leeches on my trip, and mosquitoes were prominent at most day times, raising fears of malaria among those that foolishly came unprepared.
Birding: Essentially, there are two trails that can be followed to gain access to heavily disturbed second growth. One is the continuation of the trail that leads all the way to the bunkhouse. This trail, which eventually forks and peters out, has a lot of bamboo stands and little habitat that resembles intact forest, and this is where - on the first and only morning - we were treated to the lucky sighting of a group of about 10 Green-faced Parrotfinches. We also caught up with some good activity at the interface of bamboo stands with tree groves, with species such as Spotted Wood-Kingfisher, three Rufous Coucals, Red-crested Malkoha, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, Colasisi, White-eared Brown Dove, Rufous Hornbill and Greater Flameback (the latter heard only). A ground pigeon that was presumably a Luzon Bleeding-heart was flushed around here; subsequently, the species was heard singing from a nearby perch. Some mixed flocks around here contained Luzon Striped Babbler, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, White-bellied Munia, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Black-naped Monarch, Blue-headed Fantail, Philippine Tailorbird, White-browed Shama (heard only), Arctic Warbler, Elegant Tit, Philippine Bulbul and Yellowish White-eye.
The other trail was only found with the assistance of our porters, who had also participated in various wildlife surveys of the same area. It can be reached by following the trail that leads left at the fork before the stream crossing at the bunkhouse (as coming from Masipi), and by taking an inconspicuous fork to the right and up the hill from here into some trashed forest. There is less bamboo and more stretches of path that make a forest-like impression. This is where - at a mere 230m above sea level - we had a completely unexpected encounter with a Whiskered Pitta. The bird stayed around long enough at its perch so that all of us, even the last people in the file, had good views of it. Other forest birds on this side were Red-keeled, Olive-backed and Bicolored Flowerpecker.
Plain Bush-hen was heard in habitats as varied as degraded bamboo and stream crossings. Philippine Scops Owl vocalized close to our tents at night but was unresponsive in the morning. The clearing around the bunkhouse was dead at most times, but during the last hour before departure developed into a prime site, with a multitude of good large canopy species showing up, such as Tarictic Hornbill, two White-lored Orioles, Black-and-white Triller, Blackish and Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, Coleto and Balicassiao. Birds in the open agricultural country between Masipi and the bunkhouse include Chestnut and Scaly-breasted Munia, Tree Sparrow, Olive-backed Sunbird, Long-tailed and Brown Shrike, White-breasted Wood Swallow, Tawny Grassbird (heard only), Paddyfield Pipit, Gray Wagtail, Pied Bushchat, Oriental Magpie Robin, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Pied Triller, Striated Swallow, Asian Palm Swift, Pygmy and Glossy Swiftlet, Great Eared Nightjar, Philippine Coucal, Zebra Dove, Common Moorhen, White-breasted Waterhen, Cattle Egret and Little Heron. Philippine and Savannah Nightjar were heard only on our way out after dusk.
Robson's Peak / Mt Mantalingajan Massif (Palawan) - 28-29 January 2005
Caution: This is one of numerous sites whose local name differs from that employed by birders. The name "Robson's Peak" is used by some - but not all - birders to denote one of the two side-peaks of the Mt Mantalingajan Massif near the village of Mainit (see below), though locals do not employ this name at all or very infrequently.
Large masses of birdwatchers have made their pilgrimage to see the endemics of Palawan in past years, yet most have foregone looking for the island's sole montane endemic, the Palawan Striped Babbler. The bird occurs in Palawan's south, well away from the regular birders' haunts at St Paul's, in montane forest above 1000m (none of which is easily accessible). We knew our best bet at it was the Mt Mantalingajan Massif (2100m), though the bird has also been recorded from Victoria Peak much closer to Puerto Princesa.
Logistics: A mini-bus from Puerto Princesa to Brooke's Point, our base for Mt Mantalingajan, took the best part of an afternoon. In Brooke's Point, consultations with the local DENR office and a detailed local map showed that a road leads about 10km inland from Brooke's Point to the village of Mainit, from where local paths give access to two side-peaks of the Mt Mantalingajan Massif. One of these side-peaks towers above 1400m and has become known as Robson's Peak among a selected circle of birdwatchers. We preferred to concentrate our efforts on Robson's Peak rather than Mt Mantalingajan proper, since the main mountain would have required a much longer hike from Brooke's Point itself. One major draw-back, however, was the fact that a previous expedition had tried to find the species at Robson's Peak in the recent past but had to turn back unsuccessful at a landslide at 1200m elevation. In Mainit (25min by tricycle from Brooke's), the village captain pointed us to two men who would act as our porters for the ascent. (A third porter was picked up along the way). Deforestation has crept up the slopes to about 600-700m, so the first part of the ascent (through open country) was quite exhausting. Good forest was reached by late noon time. Upon entering forest, however, it became progressively harder to gain elevation, and so we reached our camp site at about 850m by late afternoon. Fortunately, from our campsite at a stream, a steep path took us straight up to a ridge at 1000m, where it followed the ridge and slowly ascended Robson's Peak to lofty heights.
It is absolutely necessary to hire locals at this site. Otherwise, frequent forks and inconspicuous turn-offs will ensure that you won't find your way to Robson's Peak.
Birds: The first afternoon, we managed to find brief access to the ridge at 1000m and had a quick scan through a couple of mixed flocks, but failed to locate the striped-babbler. Therefore, general demeanour was tense on the morning of the following day, before we were finally treated to the relieving sight of about five groups of Palawan Striped Babbler between 1150m and 1350m, usually associated with other species in mixed flocks. Some of them showed up well, even posing at the rim of a water-filled tree cavity for a bird bath photograph.
Puzzling was the occasional sighting of birds that we thought to be Mountain Verditer Flycatchers. Only later did we realize that the species is not supposed to occur on Palawan, and that this would indeed be a quite remarkable range extension of this Philippine endemic. In retrospect, it is now difficult to establish whether the Verditers we saw belonged to the Philippine Mountain Verditer clade or the equally sedentary Bornean/mainland Verditer Flycatcher. We ask future visitors to keep an eye out for them.
The ridge trail (from 1000m upwards) was generally lively with Crested Serpent-eagles and mixed flocks containing Pygmy and Striped Flowerpecker, Shelley's Sunbird, Mangrove Whistler, Arctic, Mountain Leaf and Yellow-breasted Warbler, Eyebrowed Thrush, White-browed Shortwing (heard only) and suite of interesting wintering flycatchers, including Narcissus Flycatchers, Mugimaki Flycatchers (apparently hitherto unrecorded from Palawan!) and Blue-and-white Flycatchers.
Mountain White-eyes, Striped Tit Babbler and Mountain Tailorbird were commonly seen up here but also as low as 600m (lower forest edge). Equally Palawan Tits were sighted in some of the higher mixed flocks but also heard as low as 750m. Slender-billed Crows of the distinct Palawan/Mindoro race were common on this mountain, whereas the endemic Yellow-throated Leafbird was only seen in the lower forest belt. Other species in the lower forest belt above 600m include Small Minivet, Gray-cheeked Bulbul, Ashy Drongo, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Citrine Canary Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Hill Myna, Little Spiderhunter, Black-chinned Fruit-Dove (heard only), Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (heard only), Blue Paradise Flycatcher (heard only) and Falcated Ground Babbler (heard only). The endemic Palawan Flowerpecker was common from highest mountain to lowest gardens and agricultural land. Other garden birds include the distinct aurora race of Olive-backed Sunbird, as well as Tree Sparrow, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Zebra Dove and Greater Coucal (latter heard only).
Zigzag Road (Palawan) - 30-31 January, 4 February 2005
The road from Puerto Princesa to Narra and Brooke's Point has quite a few bits of roadside forest left the further you get from settlements. The nearest roadside forest to Puerto Princesa is at KM 34-36 at a small hillside along a stretch of road some people have come to call "Zigzag Road". Though the forest along here is quite trashed, it has produced a few rare Palawan lowland endemics in recent times, most notably Melodious Babbler and Palawan Flycatcher. Both species are not usually recorded in St Paul's, and the flycatcher seems to have dropped out from Iwahig Penal Farm (near Puerto Princesa) lately. Iwahig is the site birders have turned to in the past to see both these endemics. With access to the Penal Farm being problematic, birders may now opt to skip it altogether from their itinerary and instead go to Zigzag Road. Having said that, the Penal Farm still seems to be the easiest place to see (as opposed to hear) Palawan Scops Owl, so if you want to go, contact Arnel Malliari (see Acknowledgments).
Logistics: It may be easiest to stay in Puerto Princesa and take the first morning bus to Brooke's Point, which should drop you off at KM 35 around the break of dawn. We tried to beat the morning bus by arranging a turbo tricycle at 3am, but just as we disembarked from it at KM 35 the first busses zoomed past. Note that Puerto Princesa is now blessed with a brand-new bus terminal (inaugurated in late 2004) that is inconveniently located 20min out of town and has a miserable food infrastructure.
Birds: Palawan Flycatcher was found in trashed bamboo about 400m down the road from the KM35 marker towards Puerto Princesa after playing its song. It hesitatingly responded to playback but soon fell silent. It came in to tape reluctantly after playing its song for several minutes and eventually afforded good views. Melodious Babblers were much more responsive (mainly a little further down the road) and put on a great show. Ashy-headed Babblers were seen directly at the KM35 marker and also at the Palawan Flycatcher site. White-vented Shamas were common and readily responded to the recordings of all kinds of different species. Swiftlet flocks also contained a Brown-backed Needletail. Night-birding was rewarded with the vocalizations of Javan (=Palawan) Frogmouth, Spotted Wood Owl and Palawan Scops Owl, but none of them cooperated by coming into view. Other birds picked up at Zigzag Road included the distinct Palawan races of Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike and Spangled (=Hair-crested) Drongo, as well as Green Imperial Pigeon, White-collared Kingfisher, Black-headed Bulbul, Ashy Drongo, Striped Tit Babbler, Black-naped Monarch, Brown Shrike, Purple-throated Sunbird, Shelley's Sunbird, Palawan Flowerpecker, Greater Coucal (heard only), Chestnut Munia, Cattle Egret and Tree Sparrow.
St Paul's (Subterranean) National Park (Palawan) - 1-3 February 2005
St Paul's surely must be the most idyllic setting for birdwatching on any Philippine itinerary, and this national park is likely to stick in your memory as one of the highlights. The park is a good place to see most Palawan lowland endemics, with the exception of Melodious Babbler and Palawan Flycatcher (see above). Habitat is excellent and birding infrastructure is good, though the boat rides to the ranger stations complicate things a little.
Logistics: From Puerto Princesa, take a bus to Sabang (none after 2pm!). This route is supposedly less than 100km but takes a gruesome 4-6hr to complete. In Sabang, plenty of accommodation is available for tourists, mostly along a 1 ½ km stretch of beach. If you plan on using boats a lot, pick some accommodation that is fairly close to the harbour; if you intend to hike into the park every morning, choose a resort closer to the park entrance. There are two ranger stations: The far one at the subterranean cave entrance (where the famous male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant can be seen around the kitchen) and the main ranger station roughly halfway between the cave and Sabang. A trail leads from the beach at Sabang through beach forest to the main station (about 40-80min), where it splits into a "Jungle Trail" (through great habitat) and a little-birded "Monkey Trail" (through beach forest). Both trails eventually end up at the far ranger station. Both ranger stations can alternatively be accessed by "bangka" (boat) from the harbour at Sabang, which is a good idea if you want to do early morning birding around the far ranger station (which would take 90-250min to reach on foot). Another excellent birding trail (Stream Trail) exists in the vicinity of the main ranger station. It is difficult to find the entrance to this trail, which leads up the hillside and eventually joins another trail (Mangrove Trail) that starts at the mangrove river at Sabang Beach and leads deep into the park. You could walk the Stream Trail as a loop from the main station to the Mangrove Trail (best not to do it the other way around as you will probably miss the fork onto Stream Trail from Mangrove Trail). To find the trailhead of Stream Trail, either walk a bit through the vegetation at the dry stream (with a wooden bridge) at the main station, or follow the inconspicuous path that goes off to the right at the intersection of Jungle Trail (straight up) and Monkey Trail (left).
Birds: A famed male individual of Palawan Peacock-Pheasant has become accustomed to humans and hangs around the ranger station at the subterranean cave with Tabon Scrubfowls. It has become even tamer in the past year than it used to be, and it readily approaches people that disembark at the ranger station and poses for photographs. Once this individual dies, the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant will once more become a very difficult species to see - though not impossible: ROH managed a glimpse of 1-2 birds along Stream Trail during our 3-day stay, and Adam Walleyn, who left shortly before we arrived, had a female along the beach forest trail to the main station.
The first few hundred meters of Jungle Trail (from the main station end) were great for larger canopy birds, and this general vicinity produced great views of Blue-headed Racquet-tail, Blue-naped Parrot (towards the station) and Palawan Hornbill. Palawan Blue Flycatcher and Blue Paradise Flycatcher were encountered a few times along Jungle Trail and Stream Trail. I saw Hooded Pitta twice in forest near the beach, and Red-bellied Pitta once near the intersection of Stream Trail and Mangrove Trail. This is also one of two areas where I saw Falcated Ground Babbler, the other one being along Stream Trail 100m down from the highest point towards Main Station. The first 2km of Stream Trail slowly ascend a hill, and much time was spent in treefall gaps around here, producing short but conclusive glimpses of a flying Philippine Cockatoo, Thick-billed Green Pigeon, good views of a pair of Palawan Tit (also heard elsewhere), Striped Flowerpecker and Slender-billed Crow. Night-birding in trashed forest on the other side of Sabang was rewarded by the calls of Spotted Wood Owl and good views of a Palawan (=Javan) Frogmouth. The habitat in the national park may be too pristine for the frogmouth as it was not heard in the park. Palawan Scops Owls were heard only along the first few hundred meters of Stream Trail, but were uncooperative. Other birders have apparently recorded them along Monkey Trail.
Other birds seen in forest, mostly along the Jungle or Stream Trails, include White-bellied Munia, Pygmy and Palawan Flowerpecker, Little Spiderhunter, Shelley's Sunbird, Hill Myna, Mangrove Whistler, Black-naped Monarch, Citrine Canary Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, White-vented Shama, Striped Tit Babbler, Ashy-headed Babbler, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Dark-throated and Black-naped Oriole, Spangled (=Hairy-crested) and Ashy Drongo, the endemic Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, Gray-cheeked and Olive-winged Bulbul, Yellow-throated Leafbird, Small Minivet, Common Flameback and the distinct Palawan subspecies of Greater Flameback, White-bellied Woodpecker, Stork-billed Kingfisher (at the cave entrance), Rufous-backed Kingfisher (regularly heard but hard to get a glimpse of), Glossy Swiftlet and Island Swiftlet (especially near the cave entrance), Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Emerald Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon, Crested Serpent Eagle (heard only), Red Junglefowl (heard only) and Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (heard only).
Birds in the beach vegetation (palms, gardens) as well as fields around town included Purple-throated, Plain-throated and Olive-backed (race aurora) Sunbirds, Asian Glossy Starling, Brown Shrike, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Gray Wagtail, White-collared Kingfisher, Zebra and Spotted Dove, Common Sandpiper, Little Heron, Cattle Egret, Little Egret and Eastern Reef Egret.
Garceliano Beach (Puerto Princesa, Palawan) - 3-4 February 2005
The mangroves of Garceliano Beach around Aventura Resort in Puerto Princesa have long stimulated birders to a brief visit to see Chinese Egret, which regularly winters here. Access is easy on city tricycles, but the tide may complicate things if time is short. If it's too low, birds may be too spread out, if it's too high, birds are off roosting somewhere inaccessible. The latter was the case on our first visit in the afternoon of 3 February, and waterbirds were completely absent. The next morning, things looked better, and though we had to take our shoes off and wade through ankle-deep mud, we were finally rewarded with good views of about three Chinese Egrets, foraging in the mangroves with other waders. Shorebirds included about 20 Gray-tailed Tattlers, a lone Rufous-necked Stint, Common Sandpiper, a Common Redshank, a Whimbrel and Lesser Sandplovers. Stork-billed and White-collared Kingfisher, a Pied Triller, Pied Fantail and Asian Glossy Starling were equally present.
Olanggo Island (Cebu) - 4 February 2005
Eager to bridge our waiting time for the Samar ferry with some dowitcher-watching, we took a mid-afternoon ferry from one of the harbours in Cebu City to Olanggo Island. Arriving at the island's harbour, we realized that the waterbird sanctuary is 45min away and that our last ferry back would depart in 2hr, so we decided to hang around the harbour instead. Birding here was absolute wank, with a Whiskered Tern the only bird of note.
Catbalogan Harbor (Samar) - 5 February 2005
A night ferry from Cebu City to Catbalogan arrived on time at 7am. The harbour area in Catbalogan held a few gulls and distant shorebirds. Most notable among these was an immature Black-tailed Gull, apparently only the second record for the Visayas, and the first one for Samar, though we suspect that this species may turn out to be more regular on this hopelessly under-birded island. This gull was associated with about 5 Black-headed Gulls. About 10 Whimbrels and a few distant Charadrius plovers (incl Lesser Sandplovers) were also noted.
Central Samar Spine (Samar) - 5-11 February 2005
Samar has been neglected by ornithologists to a criminal extent! Generations of birders have contented themselves with visiting Bohol to try for the Eastern Visayan endemics, thinking they could thus evade this big unknown in the Philippine equation. Satellite photos show that Samar is the island with the largest remaining forest cover in the archipelago, and a Haribon Survey in July 1998 added many fantastic species to the island list, including Greater Mindanao endemics such as Philippine Leafbird and Giant Scops Owl (see e.g. N.A.D. Mallari, M.J. Crosby, N.J. Collar. 2004. Unexplored Philippine forests as revealed by point-locality mapping. Forktail 20, 124-128). But Samar has some endemicity in its own right, such as a likely future split from the Mindanao race of Pygmy Babbler that cannot be found on Bohol either. Another factor that enticed us to visit Samar was a rumour of healthy populations of Mindanao Bleeding-heart, Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher and Miniature Tit Babbler, some of the most enthralling Philippine birds. ROH, JAE and Jon Hornbuckle (see Acknowledgements) sorted out this visit to some remaining forest in the Central Samar National Park with Renato ("Boying") Fernandez and Joel Adko. Boying is an experienced Filipino field researcher who has taken part in many surveys all over the country, including the Haribon Survey in Samar in July 1998, during which Miniature Tit Babbler was recorded. Anyone interested in visiting Samar is advised to contact him for assistance (see Acknowledgments).
Logistics: We were based in the house of Joel Adko in the little town of Malinao in Eastern Samar Province along the road from Catbalogan to Taft, not too far from the latter. Half our birding was done along roadside forest west of Malinao around the highest area halfway between both coasts, and the other half was done in forest along paths south of this road from the township of San Rafael (Taft, Eastern Samar Province). We bought some of our provisions in Catbalogan City, but basic food was available in Malinao. From Malinao, it was about 3-5km along the road through degraded habitat and converted land west to a village called Binaloran, but from here forest got progressively better up the road (in a westerly direction) toward the village of San Rafael (Taft). Beware of name confusion: The next village along the road due west from San Rafael (Taft, Eastern Samar) is San Rafael (Hinabangan, Western Samar). They used to be one and were divided.
Pre-dawn tricycles or not-so-pre-dawn tricycles took about 30min to get us into some decent roadside forest above Binaloran. On different days we tried out various side trails from this road, some of which yielded excellent birding, but none took us too far. San Rafael was reached in about 45min from Malinao on tricycles. The trail from San Rafael gave access to an entire (and very confusing) trail system through good-looking (though hopelessly dead) forest all the way to a large river. Note that on our last morning we had to refrain from entering this trail system as the local illegal woodcutters had become alarmed at our presence and contacted a former NPA member who questioned Boying about us. Instead, we stayed along the road on that day.
Birds: Birding here in Central Samar was a curious mixture of joy, ecstasy and deep disappointment. The first few days (especially along the road) yielded a few great rarities to everyone's excitement, but the longer our stay protracted, the more activity would drop from low to sub-zero, to the point where we had to ask ourselves how such a lush and pristine forest could just be so dead and devoid of avian life. On some of the later days, the peculiar composition of our little "Samar travel group" (consisting of ROH, JAE, myself, Jon Hornbuckle and his lively companion Jen) brought about some human dynamics that were unfavourable for successful birdwatching, to the point that those people who couldn't / didn't cut themselves loose from the travel group ended up missing out big-time. Generally, the mood got tenser towards the end because of our failure to connect with the main target, Miniature Tit Babbler.
Best bird of the site was doubtless Mindanao Bleeding-heart, a species that appears to occur in good numbers (once its call is learned). Among the four birders, we had good looks at about 6-8 individuals along the road and - mostly - the trail system at San Rafael. Additional individuals were heard and - potentially - flushed, though confusion with Emerald Dove should not be discounted light-heartedly!!! Other good species along the road included a very cooperative Steere's Pitta in trashed habitat and a single pair of Pygmy Babbler of the local Samar race, which is really different from the Mindanao race and will certainly be split some day if current trends in taxonomy prevail. As far as other rarities are concerned, ROH had a really good day out on his own, his eagle-eyes spotting a Japanese Night Heron and a Visayan Wattled Broadbill along an obscure side-trail, while the rest of us indulged in wank wildlife-watching along the main trail. The lack of any other broadbill sightings during the remainder of our stay (though Boying says they're easy at certain times of year) was particularly bitter for some of us. Moreover, Jon Hornbuckle mist-netted a pair of Little Slaty Flycatchers (besides a Red-bellied Pitta) in degraded habitat close to Malinao. The rest of us had decided to go birding instead on that day.
One of the side trails along the road led into a gully where Streaked Ground Babblers came in to imitations. Night-birding along the road produced excellent looks at two different Philippine Frogmouths and calls of the Philippine Scops Owl. Both the range-restricted Yellow-breasted Tailorbird and the distinct frontalis race of Philippine Tailorbird (=Rufous-fronted Tailorbird) vocalized regularly but took some effort to see. The first big stream crossing along the San Rafael Trail had Silvery Kingfisher of the quite distinct Samar subspecies. Raptors were represented by at least one Philippine Hawk-eagle, one potential and one certain Rufous-bellied Eagle, Crested Serpent-eagle and almost a dozen Philippine Falconets. Flocks of Glossy Swiftlet were occasionally joined by larger Island-type swiftlets (presumably Island Swiftlets, but latter hitherto unrecorded from Samar), as well as Pygmy Swiftlets, loads of Whiskered Treeswifts and beautiful Philippine Needletails. Apart from bleeding-heart, this site was generally good for doves and pigeons, with Pompadour Green Pigeon, White-eared Brown Dove, quite a few Amethyst Brown Doves, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove and frequent (though elusive) Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeons. One overflying Blue-crowned Racquet-tail and a few Colasisi of the distinct local race were the only positively identified parrots, with quite a few caged Blue-backed Parrots indicating that the free and vocalizing Tanygnathus parrots were probably of the same species. Both Tarictic and Rufous Hornbills were still around in good numbers, especially along the road. White-bellied Woodpecker and the distinct Samar race of Greater Flameback were seen on few occasions. At one roadside spot we had a group of three very confusing crows that displayed an equivocal flight style and had quite high-pitched croaking vocalizations that clearly differ from recordings of Large-billed Crows, and possibly (fide ROH) from Slender-billed Crows on Mindanao. A large and conspicuous bare patch behind their eyes indicated their identity as Slender-billed Crows. The Samar population of this species is subsumed under the Mindanao race, so future acoustic work on them will either uncover a surprise or reveal my own impaired judgment.
Note that activity was average to low along the road and bordering catastrophic along the trail system. Boying indicated that the beginning of the rainy season, particularly July, may be better to sample the birds of this ultra-low-density avifauna. Activity during the Haribon Survey in July 1998 had apparently been better. Many of the best species at this site, even those in mixed flocks, were only seen very few times within a week (such as Black-crowned Babbler, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, Philippine Oriole, Black-faced Coucal, Philippine Leaf Warbler, Striped Flowerpecker, Rufous Paradise Flycatcher, Naked-faced Spiderhunter) and even some species that are common at other sites only showed up sparingly, such as Elegant Tit, Scarlet Minivet, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Black-naped Monarch, Plain-throated Sunbird, Everett's White-eye, Bicolored Flowerpecker and Arctic Warbler.
Other species were recorded with more regularity within that week, including Brown Tit Babbler, Blue Fantail, Coleto, Brown Shrike, Yellow-wattled, Yellowish and Philippine Bulbul, Spangled Drongo, Philippine Fairy Bluebird, Gray Wagtail, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Purple-throated and Metallic-winged Sunbird, Red-keeled, Buzzing and Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Great Eared Nightjar, White collared and White-throated Kingfisher, Dollarbird, Pacific Swallow and Philippine Coucal.
Mt Pasian (Mindanao) - 13 Feb 2005
Renowned among birders as the only site for the recently described Lina's Sunbird, and home to other rarities, such as Cryptic Flycatcher and an undescribed Shortwing, Mt Pasian is an inconspicuous crest ever shrouded in mist and fog. Though still part of the PICOP Concession, and visited by many birders from their PICOP base at Bislig, Mt Pasian is essentially a separate site. Independent birders with limited resources are much better off visiting Mt Pasian on their own and based in Trento, rather than on an expensive hire-jeepney from Bislig. As past trip reports appropriately assert, ".it always rains on Mt Pasian." This is a gruesome site to get to, as the access road seems to have deteriorated considerably. Accordingly, we only spent the best part of a single day here, not - as intended - 2-3 days.
Logistics: Trento, an enchanting little town with a peculiar "Amazonian frontier" feel, is the nearest place that boasts accommodation. There are no real hotels available but rather "lodges", essentially wooden shacks of the lowest standard. Note that Bislig is at least another 2-3hr away from Trento, and that you have to go through Trento if you want to access the mountain from Bislig. Note also that Trento is conveniently located along the main Surigao - Davao highway, so in the unlikely event you want to skip Bislig/PICOP altogether, you can just stay along the highway. To get up the mountain, we organized two motor-cycles (with drivers) for the three of us the previous evening. Motorists in Trento were very reluctant to offer their services for a fair price, and it took us major negotiations to get them down to 500 P / motorbike / day. I doubt that the road to the radar stations on Mt Pasian could have been navigated by any means other than a motorbike.
From Trento, it is just 20-30min along good roads to Salvacion Gate, the entry to the PICOP concession around Mt Pasian. From Salvacion Gate, however, a terrible road leads up to the radar stations around 1000m on top of what birders call Mt Pasian (though the real Mt Pasian is actually about 1600m high and can probably not be accessed with ease). In the past, it must have taken birders only one hour to get to the radar stations from the Gate, but it took us the best part of a morning. One particular landslide along the first third of the road blocked all four-wheeled traffic, though motorbikes could be heaved across with difficulty. The remaining track was treacherous at best, and both our motorbikes fell more than once. Early morning birding on the mountain is probably only feasible with camping gear, but beware of the rain!
Birds: Forest is fairly degraded or entirely cut along most of the track. Towards the end of the track, there are three "stations" about 1km apart from each other. From the uppermost station (at roughly 1000m), an inconspicuous path leads into some intact mossy cloud forest along a ridge. This forest tends to be dead unless you hit upon a mixed flock. Our only mixed flock contained Lina's Sunbird besides other good species, such as Flame-crowned and Olive-capped Flowerpecker, Mountain Verditer and Citrine Canary Flycatcher, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Brown Tit Babbler and Mountain White-eye. The undescribed Shortwing was seen once or twice by each of us, but heard much more commonly in some of the bits of roadside forest remaining below the second radar station, and down a few kilometres from here. This is also the area where others have recorded Cryptic Flycatcher (which we missed). Other birds in this area included Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, White-eared Brown Dove, a female Red Junglefowl, Eyebrowed Thrush, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Elegant Tit, Arctic Warbler, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Philippine and Yellow-wattled Bulbul as well as Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker. Furthermore, Glossy Swiftlet, Purple Needletail, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Large-billed Crow, Tawny Grassbird, Gray Wagtail and Brown Shrike were seen.
PICOP Concession (Bislig, Mindanao) - 14-15 Febraury 2005
With 1 ½ days left to go in the Philippines, I was immensely happy that some time was left for PICOP. This site fully lived up to high expectations, and birding was fantastic. PICOP produced a fair amount of specialties in a short time, though being in a group of three ensured that not all three of us saw all the goodies. Needless to say, this short time is not enough to cover this site exhaustively, and I am certain to be back soon.
Logistics: Contrary to other trip reports, Bislig has a range of accommodation, some of it much cheaper than the Paper Country Inn (PCI). Nonetheless, birders are advised to treat themselves to the PCI, because this hotel has hosted generations of birders and can cater to their special demands. PCI can also easily set you up with Zardo Goring, a nice bloke that has reliably arranged early-morning transport to the concession for years now (see Acknowledgements). Hiring a jeepney for 24 hr was costly (2000 P) but seems to be the only viable way of birding the concession. It is recommended to split costs among several birders. Some of Zardo's drivers are familiar with the birdwatching spots, others need to be instructed. Note that - for time constraints - we opted to skip the entire airfield area, where birders regularly see Grass Owl and Philippine Duck.
Birds: As habitat destruction continues apace, birders have to go further and further away from Bislig in their quest for good forest. All the forest along Road 1/4 has fallen victim to the chainsaw, though birders still occasionally stop along here at selected spots to tape in Philippine Frogmouth (which we had good looks of) or to see Silvery Kingfisher (which we skipped for time constraints). Road 4 still has one stretch of less than 1km with fairly good and intact forest right along the road. Additionally, extensive parts of Road 4 go through degraded forest. The good stretch is where we spent most time and saw the best species: The far end of this stretch seems to have been reliable for both Short-crested and Celestial Monarch in the past and produced them again this time. Both monarchs like to associate with mixed flocks, but occasionally tend to stay high and rarely afford long views. Knowing their voice will help immensely (Thanks, ROH!). This area produced good pre-dusk views of Blue-capped Forest-Kingfisher when I was not present (and hearing its vocalizations afterwards in the dark was of little consolation!). To our great astonishment, night-birding along here produced the call of a Giant Scops Owl, which was unresponsive to tape. In the adjacent clearing, ROH managed to see a Philippine Leafbird.
In the vicinity of the near end of this roadside stretch, three Mindanao Wattled Broadbills (presumably a family) showed up well. Additionally, JAE managed to tape in a Little Slaty Flycatcher in the gully on the opposite side of the road from the children's graveyard that looks like a hunters' camp at the near end of this forest patch. Unfortunately, this species eluded others on repeated visits to this same spot.
This year (2005), Zardo has staked out an additional site as more and more areas close to Bislig become degraded: Road 42 verges off of Road 4 roughly 8-15km from the good patch towards Bislig. Going along Road 42 for a while (40-80min), you get to two side-roads that provide some roadside forest along the first few kilometres. The first side-road goes off to the right from Road 42 and can be done with a jeepney. The second side road goes off to the left from Road 42 only a few hundred meters past the first side road, but it initially climbs up a steep slope and is therefore not navigable for a jeepney. The forest along both these side roads is less intact than the patch along Road 4, though some bits along the steep side road look fairly good. This area proved better for larger birds and canopy dwellers, and we had good views of Rufous-lored Kingfisher, all three hornbills (Tarictic, Rufous, Writhed), Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon, Guaiabero, Philippine Trogon, Greater Flameback, Philippine Oriole, Rufous-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher (1), Streaked Ground-Babbler (heard only) and Steere's Pitta (2 seen). One spot along the first (level) side-road about 1km in from the intersection produced the song of a Little Slaty Flycatcher, but only ROH managed a glimpse of the female before the male shut up forever. Mixed flocks were thrilling, especially along the steep (second) side-road, where one flock contained both Celestial and Short-crested Monarch again, and where Pygmy Babbler seemed to be the main constituent species of flocks (though this species was also present at the other side-road and at Road 4).
Black-headed Tailorbird was common by sound, and my confidence that it would eventually show up by itself, accompanied by my reluctance to tape it in, was eventually punished by failing to see it during these 1 ½ days.
Other species found in PICOP Concession during our stay included: Everett's White-eye, Red-keeled, Olive-backed, Buzzing and Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Little and Naked-faced Spiderhunter, Plain-throated, Purple-throated, Metallic-winged and Handsome Sunbird, Brown Shrike, Crested Serpent-eagle, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Black-naped Monarch, Rufous Paradise Flycatcher, Blue Fantail, Philippine Leaf Warbler, Brown Tit Babbler, Rusty-crowned Babbler, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, Large-billed Crow, Spangled Drongo, Yellow-wattled, Yellowish and Philippine Bulbul, Scarlet Minivet, Black-bibbed Cuckooshrike, White-bellied Woodpecker, Philippine Falconet, Purple Needletail, Pygmy and Glossy Swiftlets, Great Eared Nightjar, Philippine and Black-faced Coucal, Plaintive (heard only) and Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (also heard only), White-eared Brown Dove and Philippine Tailorbird (the latter also heard only).