The Philippines, an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, stretches across a vast swathe of the South China Sea and has been geographically isolated for 50 million years. Culturally distinct from most of Southeast Asia, it is predominantly Catholic, and the culture feels more American than anywhere else in the Far East, making it an easy place to visit for many. The archipelago boasts high levels of endemism: 258 of its 600+ species are found nowhere else, leaving all first-time visitors with heaps of lifers. By visiting just a handful of islands, one can score a superb list, including a huge proportion of the endemics, making it a must for world listers who enjoy chasing endemic birds. Sadly, much of the habitat has been destroyed, and it holds one of the highest concentrations of threatened endemic bird species on Earth. The Philippines are frequently considered a priority to visit sooner rather than later, whilst many of the birds can still be found.
The Philippines has a reputation as a tough tour, with extremely early starts and gruelling hikes. This is partly true but only really applies to Mindanao. This has led us to restructure our trip into a smart design trip, making the main tour easy and accessible to almost any birder, and netting an enviable collection of endangered endemics in comfort. Our tour is modular, so that you may tailor the trip to your exact needs: the main tour covers the islands of Luzon and the richly-forested western island of Palawan. Extensions are offered to the Visayas before the main tour, and another ‘tougher’ extension to Mindanao after the main tour. All islands boast healthy numbers of endemics, many of which are specific to those islands. The dramatic Philippine Eagle, flashy endemic hornbills, breath-taking pittas, striking kingfishers, a cacophony of woodpeckers, a myriad of night birds (the archipelago supports 19 species!), and the potential endemic families are all mouth-watering fare.
Day 1: Arrival in Manila, Luzon. Following your arrival in the Philippine capital you will be picked up and transferred to a comfortable hotel in Manila.
Day 2: La Mesa Park to Los Banos, Luzon. The tour begins with an early departure from Manila to visit La Mesa Ecopark in nearby Quezon City. This site is particularly good for the endemic Ashy Thrush, and we will look for this and several other species including the oddly-named parrot, the Guiabero, Philippine Woodpecker, Philippine Pied-Fantail and if we are really lucky, Hooded or Blue-breasted pittas. After a few hours birding, we travel southeast to Mount Makiling, where there should be some time in the afternoon to search for grassland species like Barred Buttonquail, and the Luzon endemic, Spotted Buttonquail. We spend the next two nights in the nearby university town of Los Banos, famed for its natural hot springs.
Day 3: Mount Makiling, Luzon. Some of the best-looking birds in the Philippines can be found on the flanks of this mountain that borders the chilled-out university at Makiling. Crazy-looking Scale-feathered and Red-crested Malkohas roam the forests, and the beautiful endemic Spotted Kingfisher can often be found. The extremely shy Luzon Bleeding-heart has been found here although we would need much luck to see that, and the quiet streams around the mountain are more reliable for the endemic Indigo-banded Kingfisher. We should be able to do some owling here and will target Philippine Scops-Owl and Luzon Boobook. After a day birding the mountain and surrounding campus we will return to Los Banos for the night.
Day 4: Mount Makiling to Infanta, Luzon. We’ll have more time this morning to continue scouring Mount Makiling for other species like Spotted Kingfisher, and another bird confined to Luzon, Gray-backed Tailorbird. As the morning heats up, we will head to Infanta where we spend the next two nights in a fairly basic hotel.
Day 5: Infanta. The endemic Whiskered Pitta used to be a bird only seen by doing a very tough hike. In recent years, it has been regularly seen in forest along the road near the town of Infanta, and we have a decent chance to see it. Other birds we will look for along the Marilaque Highway include Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove, Philippine Serpent-Eagle, Rufous Hornbill, Philippine Hanging-Parrot, Blue-headed Fantail, Yellow-wattled Bulbul and Philippine Fairy-Bluebird.
Day 6: Subic Bay via Candaba Marsh, Luzon. We’ll have more time this morning to continue scouring the Infanta area for targets. As the morning heats up we will head to a nationally important wetland area, where freshwater pools and marshes play host to massive numbers of ducks and wetland species. Chief among them is the uncommon Philippine Duck, while Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Barred & Buff-banded Rails, White-browed Crake, Yellow & Cinnamon bitterns, and our first shorebirds may also be in attendance. The scattered trees surrounding the marsh can also hold Island Collared Dove. Next, we head to the steamy lowland jungles surrounding the naval base at Subic. Here we will be searching for Luzon specialties like Green Raquet-tail, White-lored Oriole, Blackish Cuckooshrike and other more widespread endemics like Philippine Falconet and Philippine Woodpecker.
Day 7: Subic Bay, Luzon. We have a full day birding the forest-covered naval base at Subic, giving us time to search for more of Luzon’s lowland species like Rufous Coucal, Northern Sooty-Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, and White-fronted Tit. We may also get our first taste of the endemic Philippine Creepers (a unique genus of uncertain familial affinities), as Stripe-sided Rhabdornis is regular in these lowland forests.
Day 8: Subic Bay to Manila, Luzon. We have a final morning checking the lowland jungle at Subic, giving us further time to search for Luzon´s lowland species. Other species encountered may include Blue-naped Parrot, Luzon Hornbill, Luzon Flameback and Purple Needletail. Then we will head back to Manila for an overnight stay.
Days 9: Manila, Luzon to Sabang, Palawan. After a short flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital of the lushly forested island of Palawan, we drive towards the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River NP. There will be some time along the way to start searching for our first island specialties, like Palawan Tit, and the Blue Paradise-Flycatcher. We will head to a new site that has been increasingly reliable for Philippine Cockatoo. This extremely rare and endangered bird will require some luck to see, but we have had considerable success in the past. Our next two nights will be spent in the beach town of Sabang, with turquoise waters offshore, and bird rich rainforest running down to the shoreline. We will search at dusk for the special Palawan night birds, including Palawan Frogmouth and Palawan Scops-Owl, either around the resort or close by along the approach road.
Day 10: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River NP, Palawan. The birding on Palawan can be surprisingly easy, and we should find many of the island endemics including Palawan Hornbill, Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, and Palawan Blue Flycatcher without too much trouble. Others may require some luck, like the dazzling Palawan Peacock-Pheasant. This lush national park is one of the most scenic spots on the tour, with its white sandy beaches are flanked by towering limestone peaks cloaked in rainforest. The national park has a long list of birds that includes almost all of the Palawan endemics that are our main focus, including Blue Paradise-Flycatcher, Palawan Tit. Ashy-headed Babbler, White-vented Shama, Palawan Flowerpecker, and Yellow-throated Leafbird. However, the park offers our best chance of another choice Palawan specialty, the striking Falcated Wren-Babbler. Along with the endemics we will seek out a host of other South East Asian species like Hooded Pitta, Oriental Hobby, the monstrous Great Slaty Woodpecker and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. The national park is also home to a bunch of different kingfishers including Blue-eared, Rufous-backed and Stork-billed Kingfishers. After a morning in the park we will spend the afternoon birding the forest-lined road nearby.
Day 11: Sabang to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. We will have a final morning to look for any remaining targets, whether it be in the park, or on the approach road. In the afternoon we will travel back towards Puerto Princesa city slowly birding for Copper-throated Sunbird and anything else we might still need. We will also have the option of returning to the Puerto Princesa beach late afternoon if desired for Chinese Egret and other shorebirds if the tides and birds were not favorable for our first visit.
Day 12: Balsahan Trail, Palawan to Manila, Luzon for departures or to start extension. The Balsahan Trail is a quiet track that runs through rainforest that offers our best chance for the endemic Palawan (Melodious) Babbler and the reclusive Palawan Flycatcher, both of which are absent from St. Paul’s. Although these will be our main quarries, Balsahan has plenty of other species; including most of the Palawan specialties should we still be missing any. It also provides more chances for Palawan Scops-Owl, Hooded Pitta, and many others. Occasionally Ruddy Kingfisher can also be found there too. At the end of the day we will again return to the Palawan capital Puerto Princesa, where we catch a flight back to Manila, where we connect with international flights home or start the post-tour extension.
Visayas Extension (Pre-tour 6 days)
This visits the central Philippine Visayan islands of Negros, Cebu, and Bohol. While diversity is limited, spectacular local endemics include Flame-templed Babbler, White-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, the amazing Visayan Broadbill, and an incredibly cute primate, the goggle-eyed Bohol Tarsier. A short stop in Cebu ought to reveal Black Shama, Cebu Boobook and ever-hopeful for the possibly-extinct Cebu Flowerpecker.
Day 1: Flight from Manila, Luzon to Tagbilaran and Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol. Today we start our Visayan adventure by flying from Manila to Tagbilaran, on the island of Bohol, then drive to Rajah Sikatuna NP where we will start our Philippine birding in earnest.
Day 2: Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol. We will have a full day to explore the Rajah Sikatuna National Park. In the early hours of dawn, we might hear the distinctive whistles of a Rufous-lored Kingfisher. Bohol now has its own endemic species, Bohol Sunbird, after the decorosa race of Metallic-winged Sunbird was elevated to species status. There are also several species endemic to Bohol, Leyte & Samar, which include Samar Hornbills, Northern Silvery Kingfisher, Visayan Broadbill, Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, and Visayan Blue Fantail. We will search for all of these, along with several Bohol endemic subspecies including local races of Striated Wren-Babbler, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Black-crowned Babbler and Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, plus some other juicy targets like Everett’s Scops-Owl and the stunning Azure-breasted Pitta.
Day 3: Rajah Sikatuna N.P. to Tarsier Sanctuary and ferry to Cebu City, Cebu. After a final morning of birding on Bohol looking for any remaining targets, we will take the ferry across to Cebu where we will spend the night.
Day 4: Tabunan, Cebu to Bacolod, Negros. On our morning of birding on Cebu, we will start early and search for the island endemic Cebu Boobook before dawn. The most important site to visit today will be Tabunan, a tiny relict patch of forest high in the hills above Cebu City. This was previously the site for the Cebu Flowerpecker, which hasn’t been seen for some years, and if not already extinct, must be close to it. We will look carefully for this species, along with the endemic Black Shama. Other birds we might find in the area include Streak-breasted Bulbul, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, White-vented Whistler, Magnificent Sunbird and the Cebu endemic subspecies of Coppersmith Barbet. In the afternoon, we will fly to Bacolod where we will spend the next two nights, using it as a base to explore the island of Negros. We may have some time for some local birding, and could find Visayan Bulbul, Yellowish White-eye and Philippine Tailorbird.
Day 5: Mt. Kanlaon, Negros. We have a full day to explore Mt Kanlaon, one of the premier birding sites on the island. Almost all the Negros endemics can be found on this mountain where the inaccessibility of the site has meant that some good forest has been spared. This also means that we have a long walk to get to good habitat and this will require an early start. On occasion, we are granted permission to use a private road up the mountain which makes things a lot easier, but unfortunately this cannot be guaranteed. We aim to get to the forest in time to give ourselves a chance for the Negros Scops-Owl, only to be found on this island. Today we will be focusing on several restricted-range endemics including Flame-templed Babbler and White-winged Cuckooshrike, although we will also be looking for Visayan Hornbill, Visayan Fantail, Lemon-throated Leaf Warbler, White-vented Whistler and the white-bellied form of Balicassiao. In the afternoon, we may visit the hot spring resort at Mambukal in search of the rare Dimorphic Dwarf-Kingfisher and the diminutive Black-belted Flowerpecker, endemic to Negros and Panay.
Day 6: Flight to Manila, Luzon for departure. Depending on flight schedules, we may have time to visit the Gawahon Ecopark where we will search for the localized endemics Negros Jungle-Flycatcher, White-vented Whistler and Visayan Fantail. We will then fly back to Manila to begin the main tour.
Mindanao Extension (Post-tour 8 days)
This extension takes in the more rugged and physically demanding parts of the Philippines and so is only suitable for those with good physical fitness and a willingness to put up with some very basic accommodation and late nights and early-starts. The main tour and pre-extension do not really present any great difficulty and you can see the vast majority of the islands’ great birds on that itinerary. However, if you can handle the Mindanao heat, there are some spectacular birds on offer including the phenomenal Philippine Eagle, Giant Scops-Owl and Bukidnon Woodcock.
Day 1: Manila to Mount Kitanglad, Mindanao. We depart Manila early and fly to Cagayan de Oro (Mindanao), from there we’ll travel into the mountains, and the lair of the fabled Philippine (Monkey-Eating) Eagle. We will take a two-hour drive to the tiny village of Dalwangan, from where we will begin our hike up to our tented camp on Mount Kitanglad. The hike takes around an hour and a half, and we will be accompanied by horses that will carry our luggage up the mountain. Mount Kitanglad is one of the most important sites in the Philippines and our base for the next three nights. We will begin birding the mountain in the afternoon searching for Mindanao specialties like Cinnamon Ibon and Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis. As we camp up here, we have a shot at some of the very special night birds that haunt the mountain, including Philippine Frogmouth, Mindanao & Giant Scops-Owls and the recently described Bukidnon Woodcock.
Day 2: Mount Kitanglad, Mindanao. We have two full days to explore the mountain and will cover a range of elevations searching for a number of Mindanao mountain specialties like Apo Sunbird, McGregor’s Cuckooshrike, Mindanao Raquet-tail, and a whole bunch of other new birds. The ultimate focus though will be to chase down one of the world’s rarest raptors, the monstrous Philippine (Monkey-Eating) Eagle, which competes with South America’s Harpy for position as the world’s largest eagle, for which this remains one of the most reliable sites on Earth. Some time will be spent at a lookout (3km up from our lodging) surveying the forest canopy for this giant amongst raptors gliding conspicuously over the treetops. We will also take a hike higher up from there (a further 3km) in order to have a shot at some of the highest elevation species on the mountain like the striking Gray-capped Shrike, handsome Apo Sunbird, White-cheeked Bullfinch, and the bizarre, punk-crested Apo Myna that will leave you in no doubt you are in a very unique birding area indeed.
Day 3: Mount Kitanglad, Mindanao. Kitanglad hosts a bewildering variety of nectar-eating birds and we will check flowering shrubs on the forest edge for the Mindanao endemic Gray-hooded Sunbird, higher up for the aforementioned Apo Sunbird, as well as for Olive-capped, Flame-crowned, White-bellied, and Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers. The dense shrubby areas on our walks up the mountain will also be checked carefully for the reclusive Red-eared Parrotfinch, which we will see if we are lucky, and the Mindanao-endemic Rufous-headed Tailorbird. Montane feeding flocks that roam Kitanglad also hold a number of Mindanao target species like the striking MacGregor’s Cuckooshrike, Mindanao White-eye, and the beautiful Black-and-cinnamon Fantail. The lower areas of the mountain may also produce the striking Mindanao Hornbill, more subdued Brown Tit-Babbler, and we will also check areas for the very elusive Blue-capped Kingfisher. In the evening we will survey an area for roding Bukidnon Woodcocks that may be seen displaying at dusk and have further searches for the many night birds that grace the mountain.
Day 4: Mount Kitanglad to Davao, Mindanao. After some final birding at Kitanglad, we will go down the mountain and drive across Mindanao, breaking up the long drive to Bislig with a night near Davao city.
Day 5: Davao to Bislig, Mindanao. We will spend some time this morning looking for two extremely localized endemics: Cryptic (or Russet-tailed) Flycatcher and Whiskered Flowerpecker, before continuing on to the town of Bislig, our base for exploring the richest area of accessible lowland forest on the island. There may be time for some birding in late afternoon around a deserted airfield, where we will cruise the runway for water birds and other species in the marshy grasslands that flank this old airstrip. Possibilities include Philippine Duck, Watercock, Black Bittern, Greater Painted-Snipe, Wandering Whistling-Duck & Blue-breasted Quail. As dusk falls, we will scan the marshes for Australasian Grass-Owls and check the runway for Philippine Nightjars.
Days 6-7: PICOP, Mindanao. Very early (4 am) departures will be in order for us as we head into the lowland forest patches of the Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines (PICOP). They had a concession here, although sadly despite that officially logging is now over, the area has undergone rampant and well-publicized recent deforestation by illegal loggers. However, at least temporarily, many key targets of the lowlands of Mindanao will still be on offer and we will focus on tracking them down. On some days we will leave early enough to search for night birds along the way, like Great Eared-Nightjar, Philippine Frogmouth, Mindanao and Chocolate Boobooks. We will spend full days in the area, with lunch in the field, due to the distances required to get to and from the area (2 hours or so).
Some of the specialties that we will be looking for include Rufous, Writhed and Mindanao Hornbills, Celestial and Short-tailed Monarchs, and on the forest floor Azure-breasted Pitta. Indeed the Philippines is home to many spectacular kingfishers and PICOP also offers our best chance at two other very special ones: the diminutive Southern Silvery-Kingfisher that can often be found hanging out by a pond in the area, and the larger Blue-capped Kingfisher that usually requires much more effort to see. Other endemics we hope to find, include Philippine Honey-Buzzard, Pinsker’s Hawk-Eagle, Black-bibbed Cuckoo-shrike, Blue-crowned Racquet-tail, Yellowish Bulbul, Rufous-fronted Tailorbird, Blue Fantail, the secretive Striated Wren-Babbler, Mindanao Pygmy-Babbler, Rusty-crowned Babbler, Naked-faced Spiderhunter, Olive-backed Flowerpecker, and Philippine Oriole. Although some of these have become increasingly rare with the removal of large tracts of their habitat, we will still find many species that we will not see anywhere else.
Day 8: PICOP, Mindanao to Manila, Luzon. We have a final morning at PICOP searching for remaining targets. Other endemic possibilities also include Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo, Southern Sooty-Woodpecker, Stripe-sided Rhabdornis, Metallic-winged Sunbird, Bicolored, Pygmy, White-bellied, and Red-keeled Flowerpeckers. After our final birding, we will return to Davao in the evening from where we will fly back to Manila to connect with international flights.
PACE: Moderate (Main tour and Visayas extension) to Intense (Mindanao extension). The sun comes up around 6am and sets about 6pm giving about 12 hours of daylight. The early morning is the prime birding time, so expect to be out in the field at dawn throughout the tour. Where our accommodations are distant from the birding site (up to 2 hours away at PICOP in Mindanao), we will leave early enough to get ourselves there at dawn or before. This will mean starts of 4am or earlier on several days of the Mindanao extension. Other sites may have 5am starts. The Philippines has many interesting nocturnal birds, some which we will look for predawn and others after dark. At some birding sites, the distance to get there will mean that it makes sense to stay out for the whole day. As you can imagine, this can mean some long days in the field. There are drives of 6-8 hours on the Mindanao section and 4-6 hours on the main tour. It would be wise to catch up on sleep on these longer drives, so bring a comfortable travel pillow.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy-Moderate (Main tour and Visayas extension) to difficult (Mindanao extension). The main tour to Luzon and Palawan, where birding is mainly on roads or wide tracks that are drivable by a vehicle, is fairly easy. The Visayas pre-tour involves a moderate hike on Cebu and a possible tough hike on Negros, although we will do our best to get permission to use an access road which makes things much easier. The Mindanao post-tour extension (especially Kitanglad) involve significant hiking on tough trails. One needs to be in good physical shape to fully enjoy this extension. In addition, the birds are skittish, requiring patience and persistence.
CLIMATE: Cool in mountains, such as at Banaue (mostly 59°-77°F, 15°-25°C); hot and humid in the Palawan lowlands (mostly 70°-90°F, 21°-32°C). Although this is one of the driest times of year, rain can still be common and frequent. Bring rain gear.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to moderate hotels throughout, with the exception of Kitanglad (Mindanao extension), where we can either camp in tents or stay in the loft of the bunkhouse. Bathrooms are shared at Kitanglad, there is no electricity and water for bathing is cold. Elsewhere there is 24-hr electricity, and en-suite bathrooms.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Rainforest bird photography can be difficult here as anywhere in the world and together with the fact that birds here are skittish means that taking pictures will be challenging. It is definitely worthwhile bringing an easily portable camera though, to get at least record shots of the many rare birds we will find. We will visit some areas of outstanding beauty so clients may want to take scenery shots too.
WHEN TO GO: Trips between November and April are generally the most productive, bird wise and weather wise. Many birds are breeding in this period, and it avoids the troublesome monsoon and typhoon seasons that come outside this period.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: Please check the Philippines Government department regulations regarding COVID and health requirements for visitors. A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A return or onward ticket is also required. Currently, a visa is not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries for stays of 30 days or less. Travel requirements are subject to change, and it is a good idea to double-check your entry requirements at least six weeks before you travel; contact the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 12 if taking only the main tour, from the night of day 1 to the night of day 5 on the Visayas extension, and the night of day 1 to day 7 of the Mindanao extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 13 if taking only the main tour, from dinner on day 1 of the Visayas extension, and to lunch on day 8 of the Mindanao extension; safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; a Philippine resident guide and Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 13 if taking only the main tour, throughout the Visayan extension, and to the afternoon of day 8 of the Mindanao extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); domestic flights; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour, though electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; medical and travel interruption insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.