Trip report: The Philippines with Sierra Madre extension (April 2012)

Guided by Keith Barnes. This was a custom tour with a similar itinerary to our set-departure tour, though it also included a few days in the Sierra Madre of north Luzon.

With our Asian office in neighbouring Taiwan, the Philippines is becoming an increasingly popular destination for Tropical Birding and we ran two different custom tours to the islands in March and April 2012, this trip report covers one of these tours. This tour took the form of three distinct stages, concentrating on the three most accessible, endemic rich islands in the sprawling Philippine archipelago, that encompasses more than 7,000 islands in total. We began first on Mindanao, the second largest and most southerly of the main islands, that is especially noteworthy for birders as the last stronghold of the Philippine National Bird, the magnificent Philippine Eagle; we then hit the ‘main’ island of Luzon and managed a special expedition to the tough to reach forests of the Sierra Madre mountains. Luzon is the largest of all the islands and where the bustling capital Manila is located; finally we ventured to the thin tropical island strip of Palawan, that sits between the Sulu Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the west, dividing this paradise island from the huge island of Borneo farther west. Biogeographically Palawan is very interesting, sharing more in common with the typically southeast Asian avifauna of Borneo to the west than the other Philippine islands to the east. However, despite this, there are almost 25 endemics on this lush forested island that is bordered with pristine white sandy beaches that make it an idyllic holiday retreat for birders, snorkelers and backpackers alike. We ensured we spent time in both montane and lowland areas on both Luzon and Mindanao to target the endemics particular to those elevations, before finishing on the idyllic beach-covered island of Palawan, for some of the Philippines’ easiest and most satisfying birding.

Any bird tour to the Philippines inevitably focuses on endemics, as these islands are packed with hundreds of spectacular birds found nowhere else on Earth. However, endemism is a relative thing these days, with some taxonomies being far more liberal than others in their applications. This tour was no exception where we recorded somewhere between 131 (conservative taxonomy) and 146 (liberal taxonomy) endemics, including some of the Philippines’ (and indeed southeast Asia’s) top birds. The Sierra Madre section was of course the highlight of this trip, and although getting there required some serious effort, the magical and intact forests here produced many seldom-seen gems of the archipelago, including stellar views of the bulky Whiskered Pitta (we finished the trip with great looks at all four of the Philippines pittas), an amazing Luzon Bleeding-Heart, Cream-breasted Fruit-Dove, the cute and very seldomly-seen Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher and Furtive Flycatcher, the high-pitched Rabor’s Wren-Babbler, Golden-crowned Babbler, Bicolored and Buzzing Flowerpeckers, Black-and-White Triller, White-lored Oriole and Philippine Fairy Bluebird. Another of the trip’s major highlights was finding the increasingly rare Mindanao Wattled Broadbill (in fact we had a nest which seems to have never been formally described) and day-roosting Philippine Eagle-Owl (another serious rarity). However, we also did amazing well at the other birding sites racking up a great selection of Philippine endemics. Among these were 12 species of birds of prey including the leviathan Great Philippine Eagle, Luzon Hawk-Eagle, Steere’s Honey-Buzzard and the diminutive Philippine Falconet. Parrots are a huge feature of this trip and we recorded all 4 species of endemic racquet-tail amongst the seven parrots. An incredible collection of endemic cuckoos were a major feature of this trip, and despite having to put in hard work to see them, we eventually scored great looks at Philippine Drongo-cuckoo, the startling Red-crested Malkoha, elegant Scale-feathered Malkoha, the bizarre and gregarious ‘giant-babbler-like’ Rufous Coucal, incredibly pretty Black-faced Coucal and widespread and common Philippine Coucal. We spent considerable time out night-birding and amongst the twelve species of nightbird recorded we had to be satisfied with looks at Philippine Nightjar, the fabulous and very scarce Philippine Eagle Owl, Philippine ‘Everett’s’ Scops-Owl, Giant Scops-Owl, Chocolate Boobook, Philippine Hawk-Owl, Mindanao Hawk-Owl and the evil-eyed Philippine Frogmouth. Amongst the seven swiftlets we listed four endemics, and we saw all seven endemic species of Filipino Kingfisher including great views of the stellar Indigo-banded, Silvery and both Blue-capped and Spotted Wood Kingfishers. All five possible endemic hornbills were seen including the immense and gorgeous Rufous and scarce Writhed Hornbills, and we also did very well for woodpeckers including all six possible species, and great views of both traditional endemics Sooty and Philippine Woodpecker, as well as the two additional endemic and distinctive Flameback taxa! The fantail and flycatcher groups were another where we maximized the endemic possibilities, including the cute Black-and-cinnamon Fantail, bizarre Blue Paradise-Flycatcher, and the striking Short-crested Monarch. Slightly less spectacular, but still highly local, we saw all eight traditional species of bulbul (six endemic), and five species of endemic tailorbird including the spectacular Rufous-headed and White-browed Tailorbirds. The forest understory was enlivened by the songs of the gorgeous Palawan Blue-Flycatcher, White-browed and White-vented Shamas, all of which were seen well. We did well with babblers scoring ten species, nine of which were endemics. Nine species of flowerpecker and 12 sunbirds including 14 endemics was a major haul of this colorful and playful group of birds. We also saw both species of expected Rhabdornis and Leafbird, as well as the two odd endemic starlings, the Apo Myna and Coleto, not to mention several local white-eyes including the Cinnamon Ibon which is increasingly recognized as another endemic Filipino family. The incredible, fairly-recently described Bukidnon Woodcock, and very rare Philippine Cockatoo, seldom-seen Ashy Thrush, stunning Red-eared Parrotfinch, good views of the rapidly vanishing Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon, White-cheeked Bullfinch, spectacular Philippine Trogon, and awesome Steere’s (Azure-breasted) Pitta, and ever active Sulphur-billed Nuthatch were all added to the burgeoning endemics list. Added to the endemic-haul we also had great views of many scarce if slightly more widespread species like Malaysian Plover and Blue-breasted Quail. However, amongst these simply amazing bird species we were also struck by the beauty of the limestone forests of Palawan, and the fragile nature of much of the remaining fragments of forest at PICOP and on Mt Kitinglad. The Philippines undoubtedly holds some of the finest birds in Asia, and by extension, the world, and chances to see these disappearing jewels are unfortunately rapidly ebbing away.

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format (3 MB file).