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- 26th March 2007
The sensational STEERE'S (AZURE-BREASTED) PITTA
- a dazzling Philippine endemic, one of 3
pitta species seen very well on the tour.
Report and all photos by Sam Woods/Tropical Birding
Any bird tour to the Philippines inevitably focuses on endemics, as these islands are packed with many spectacular birds found nowhere else. This tour was no exception where, from our total species list of over 330 species, we recorded just under 130 endemics, including some of the Philippines', (and indeed southeast Asia's), top birds. Among these were at least seven species of endemic flowerpecker (depending on taxonomy), all six endemic species of kingfisher, six species of endemic sunbird, five species of endemic hornbill, five species of endemic tailorbird, at least four species of endemic owl, four species of endemic bulbul, two species of endemic leafbird and a stunning endemic pitta and equally spectacular broadbill. Some of the highlights included Luzon Bleeding-Heart, Rufous Hornbill and Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove on Luzon; a brace of stunning pittas at PICOP in Mindanao with both Steere's & Red-bellied Pittas seen extremely well, along with great looks at a Mindanao Wattled Broadbill there also; in addition to breathtaking views of the national bird of the Philippines - the mighty Monkey-eating (Great Philippine) Eagle, at a new nest site in a remote area of Mindanao ; and Palawan, as ever, weighed in with all the possible endemics recorded there including Palawan Flycatcher, Palawan Hornbill and the exquisite male Palawan Peacock-pheasant that performed extraordinarily well at the Underground River National Park. Several Hooded Pittas on Palawan completed the trio of pittas we were seeking on the tour, all of which performed in an exemplary fashion for us. As well as being an endemic hotspot, the Philippines is also a nightbirders paradise. This sprawling archipelago has a diverse set of nightbirds, many being endemic to the islands. A few early starts and finishes were required to get a shot at these, although with such birds as Luzon, Mindanao & Palawan Scops-Owls, Chocolate Boobook, Philippine Hawk-Owls and Philippine Frogmouth to show for it at the end of the tour, the lack of sleep seemed more than a little justified!
The 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 the 'main' island of Luzon, the largest of all the islands and where the bustling capital Manila is located; then 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; and finally the thin tropical island strip of Palawan, that sits between the Sulu Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the west, that divides this paradise island from the huge island of Borneo further 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, in spite of this there are almost 20 endemics on this lush forested island, that is bordered all around with pristine white sandy beaches that make it an idyllic holiday treat for birders and backpackers alike. We ensured we spent time in both montane areas 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, where we 'cleaned up' on all the available endemics.
Part 1: LUZON
March: CANDABA MARSH (LUZON) Marshes and
The tour began much as it continued, with a traditional early start to take advantage of the higher bird activity in the cooler early mornings. Shortly after dawn we arrived at Candaba Marsh, where the distinctive triangular, volcanic cone of Mount Arayat made for an impressive backdrop to our first birding excursion. As soon as we jumped out of the car we immediately logged our first of the endemics that would be the focus of the tour - as several large rafts of Philippine Ducks were found loafing around the watery margins of the marsh. The other of the marsh's main targets took a little more digging to find, although several trip exclusive Island Collared Doves were found with a little leg work. As expected this recently protected marsh was packed with waterbirds, from Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, White-browed Crakes and Barred Rails to Eastern Marsh Harriers and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, while the marsh was positively loaded with Yellow Bitterns that seemed to be perched on every available reed stem. After loading up on these and other waterbirds, including Long-toed Stint, Pacific Golden Plover and Oriental Pratincole, we headed north towards the mountainous Cordillera, that would be our base for the following few days. With little birding time after arrival we satisfied ourselves with views of Striated Swallows and an impressive Great-eared Nightjar over our Banaue hotel at the close of the day.
March: MOUNT POLIS (LUZON) Montane Forest
Having recently found a cooperative pair of the scarce Luzon Scops-Owl on Mount Polis, I was keen to try for them the first chance we had. So our tour on Polis began with our bleary-eyed group making the chilly pre-dawn walk up this short trail under cover of darkness, with the promise of this rarely seen nightbird. Sure enough, as the first glimmers of sunlight penetrated the gloom, a single scops-owl responded and then appeared suddenly in a close gnarled mossy tree, glaring back at the spotlight with the angry yellow irides that separate this small scops owl from its much larger congener, Philippine Scops-Owl. It was a good night bird to kick off the tour with, although unfortunately did not linger for long, leaving some of us longing for more. The remainder of the morning was spent targeting the high montane birds of Luzon that would only be possible at this site on the tour, as this was to be our only high mountain site on the island of Luzon. Soon after dawn we were surrounded by calling Philippine (Luzon) Bush-Warblers as we would be throughout our time on Polis as this is a very commonly heard sound in Luzon's high mountains, and we managed to get some several close views during the morning. However the Long-tailed (-Ground) Bush-Warblers were far less cooperative taunting from every roadside bush it seemed, and it would make us wait until late in our tour on Mindanao before finally putting us out of our misery. On the road a short time after dawn we found a few Island Thrushes feeding actively in the post dawn mist, while several Scaly (White's) Thrushes were also found during the morning, the former being one of our high mountain target birds. Although we would have further chances later in the tour for it, we were well pleased to catch up with one of Luzon's more bizarre looking endemics - the fantastic Scale-feathered Malkoha so early on. Overhead, among the more common Glossy Swiftlets, we found some of the larger endemic Philippine Swiftlets, another high montane target at Polis that would also be possible in the high mountains on Mindanao later in our tour. Other non-endemic mountain species that were fairly common on Polis included Mountain Tailorbird, and most flocks held a Mountain White-eye or two, Mountain Leaf-Warblers and some of these also contained the inconspicuous Luzon montane endemic, Green-backed Whistler. Perhaps the most highly sought bird of the morning however was a fine Luzon Water-Redstart found feeding in their traditional spot on a rushing mountain stream in the small mountain village of Bay-yu on the far side of the pass at Polis. A localized montane endemic that is increasingly under threat from rising levels of water pollution. Aside from the birds we also passed by some of the best examples of the spectacular and famous mud-walled rice terraces in the area, some of which date back 2,000 years when the most feared headhunters of the cordillera at the time, the Ifugao, built them. These have aided in Banaue being long considered the number one tourist destination in the Philippines.
The spectacular, World Heritage listed, mud-walled terraced wet rice paddies near Banaue. Understandably, the number one tourist attraction in the Philippines.
There are a number of examples of these amazing terraced paddies in the area around Banaue, this one was near the Luzon Water-Redstart site at Bay-yu. Some of these
were first built by the Ifugao people almost 2,000 years ago.
March: MOUNT POLIS (LUZON) Montane Forest
For our second day in the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon, we again searched through roadside flocks of Elegant Tits and others for any hidden endemics, some of the flocks containing Chestnut-faced Babblers, an endemic species to Luzon's high mountains, in addition to the very handsome and more widespread endemic, Metallic-winged Sunbird (the first of six endemic sunbirds recorded on the tour). A few of the flocks also contained lone Blue-headed Fantails, to kickstart our list of endemic Fantails for the trip. In addition to the flock birds we picked up another thrush - Brown-headed Thrush - that chose to feed on the open road shortly after dawn, much as the Island Thrushes had done the day before and were also found doing again a little further down from the Brown-headed. By searching some dead snags around the edge of the cabbage fields near the pass we came across another cool montane endemic that Polis gave us our best shot at, with superb prolonged views of Mountain (Gray-capped) Shrike. However, patience was required for the days star bird as we scanned the treetops for any large doves perched up in the morning sun, before Nicky had us running towards him as the shout went up only for the bird to elude us all by slipping back into the foliage. Finally though Mark pulled out a fantastic Flame-breasted Fruit-dove perched up high above the canopy on a protruding branch so that we could all lap it up with the aid of a scope. Aside from that much of the birds were similar to the day before, although a stop by some terraced paddies on the way down Polis produced good scope views of one of the most elusive of all the Philippine endemics - a pair of Plain Bush-Hens that was a massive relief to 'get out the way' so early in the tour, as this bird can often take some serious leg work to see.
CHESTNUT-FACED BABBLER Mount Polis
- a Luzon montane endemic
MOUNTAIN SHRIKE Mount Polis
- an endemic of the high mountains.
March: Subic Bay (LUZON) Lowland Forest
Having begun the tour in the high Cordillera Mountains of northern Luzon we headed south, heading for the distinctly more humid lowland forests around the naval magazine at Subic Bay, on the Bataan Peninsula. However before reaching Subic we made a designated stop for another Luzon specialty - Indigo-banded Kingfisher, a pair of which were found perched out in the open on some riverside rocks along a rushing mountain stream, just as we hoped. While a small group of endemic Pygmy Swiftlets that circled above were the first encountered on the tour. Formerly a bustling US naval base, this area has long since lost many of the naval personnel formerly residing there, leaving behind a near-deserted, stretch of superb, endemic-rich lowland forest. Arriving in the late afternoon from Polis we did not expect to find much, but quickly stumbled upon some of the key endemics of the area, that included a handsome pair of Sooty Woodpeckers, that showed for us on all of our 3 visits to Subic, in addition to several sightings of the other of the pair of endemic woodpeckers in the Philippines with Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker in the same general area. Best of all though was getting superb, 'on the deck' views of a Green Racquet-tail (complete with a fine pair of racquets), a key Subic species that is confined to these rare patches of lowland forest on Luzon. A brief walk down a deserted road there saw us enjoying great views of a colony of the exquisitely marked Blue-throated Bee-eaters and some of the other more widespread endemic species that would feature heavily on the tour, like our first individual from the Philippines's sole endemic family - the Philippine Creepers - with a pair of Stripe-headed (-sided) Rhabdornises, Coletos, Guiaberos; and our first of several sightings of the formidable Philippine Hawk-Eagle. We also got great perched views of Colasisi or Philippine Hanging-parrot, playfully hanging upside down while feeding on a scarlet treetop blossom. Although no one was complaining about some of the supporting cast of non-endemic species, like the showy pair of Whiskered Treeswifts, that were using the low roadside wires to hawk insects at the close of the day.
STRIPE-HEADED (-SIDED) RHABDORNIS
- the commonest species from the Philippines's sole endemic family,
the Philippine Creepers or Rhabdornises.
March: Subic Bay (LUZON) Lowland Forest
Dawn found us on the US naval base at Subic, searching for more of Luzon's specialist lowland species. Endemics came thick and fast with White-eared (Brown) Doves, and a superb Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, surely one of the most attractive of all the doves in the Philippines and indeed of all the endemics, with its sulphury washed breast and striking blood red face patch. Searching the dead snags around the parking lot pulled in several examples of the Philippines's smallest raptor, with 2 or 3 tiny Philippine Falconets found hawking insects from their high vantage points. Other notable raptors included a fine adult Rufous-bellied Eagle that passed low overhead and good prolonged of an adult Philippine Hawk-Eagle perched right beside the van, and the first of many migrant Chinese Goshawks (Sparrowhawks) recorded on the tour. On the passerine front we soon found one of our main targets - Blackish Cuckoo-shrike, a vocal lowland endemic confined to the island of Luzon, that is not especially common at Subic, although easy to find largely due to the fact they hang about in very noisy parties that helpfully draw attention to themselves with their bold, far-carrying calls. One of the other lowland targets, Rufous Coucal, proved typically shy though passing by only briefly on this occasion. White-browed Shamas were heard giving their melodic, fluty calls all around, although seeing one of them proved a little more challenging: the first few point blank refused to cooperate, before finally one came straight in and perched within a few feet from us. A beautiful songster and endemic, that was much appreciated by all. Some of the more strange looking endemics in the Philippines are the two Malkohas that are confined to Luzon, we had already had a taste of one of these, with the seriously bizarre Scale-feathered Malkoha seen at Polis early on the tour. The second of these two Luzon specialties - Red-crested Malkoha, was recorded first here at Subic and later at Makiling. Malkohas are always a popular family in southeast Asia, although this one with its distinctive red crest that begins just above the eyes, giving the impression of some seriously overgrown bright scarlet eyelashes, is hard to top. Blue-naped Parrots were also in evidence, a near-endemic that also just reaches the islands of Sulawesi and Borneo, although the Philippines remains the best chance at catching up with this handsome parrot. Other notable additions included Balicassiao, the Philippines's sole endemic drongo, a Philippine Tailorbird found skulking in a dense thicket of bamboo (that was to be the first of five different species of endemic tailorbird on the tour), and a fine male Black-and-White Triller. One of the families that is always a big draw card in Asia is the hornbills and indeed the Philippines has its own set of interesting and unique hornbills. Subic brought us our first of five different endemic species recorded on the tour, with first some Luzon (Tarictic) Hornbills around the car park, and later the undisputed 'showstopper' of the morning was the large honking group of Rufous Hornbills, that provided our only tour sighting of this impressive hornbill, that for me is the very best of all the Asian hornbills.
- the Philippines is loaded with colorful doves and pigeons (see photo of the stunning Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove below for further proof). This one (like the next) is listed for many islands, although due to rapid recent declines in their respective populations, are both very hard to come by on Luzon and still both best looked for (like this one), at PICOP on Mindanao.
This is one of the tougher endemics, a totally unexpected
find on the tour at Makiling, where it is very rare.
March: Subic Bay
am only and Mount Makiling (LUZON) Mid-altitude forest, PM.
Our final session on the naval magazine at Subic produced few new species, as by then we were not looking for many more. Although we did run into the hoped-for White-fronted Tit, typically seen singing from a dead snag up in the canopy. While along the trail a pair of noisy Philippine Fairy-Bluebirds were also new, as were a pair of the near endemic Philippine Cuckoo-dove that flashed past the van. It was then off south to the chilled out Makiling university campus, near to the town of Los Banos that has numerous resorts for visiting Filipinos, wanting to explore the many natural hot springs in the area. We saved the forested mountain of Makiling for the next few days, as our afternoon arrival was perfectly timed to search for buttonquails that emerge from the long grass at this time of day to feed on an open track right on the campus. The bird we were after was the Luzon endemic Spotted Buttonquail, and while we initially found only a few of the non-endemic Barred Buttonquail, we eventually picked up the bolder markings of the distinctly larger Spotted Buttonquail, and in the end enjoyed repeated views of both species, scuttling on and off the track to feed in the waning sunlight. Our first welcome encounter with Philippine Coucal also occurred on campus, after they had earlier frustrated us around Subic.
One of the most beautiful of the many colorful endemic pigeons and doves in the Philippines and also thankfully widespread. We picked them up at a number of sites including Makiling on Luzon, and also at both PICOP and Kitanglad on Mindanao.
March: Mount Makiling (LUZON) Mid-altitude forest.
Dawn saw us once again on the hunt for endemic nightbirds. Right at the base of the mountain we were soon hearing a number of our targets - Philippine Scops-Owl (that frustrated throughout the tour), and a number of Philippine Hawk-Owls that frustrated us for a while before finally, Shirley saw a bird fly up onto an open limb, where we could all get an eyeful of our second endemic owl of the trip. Star bird of the morning was however a bold Spotted Imperial-Pigeon found perched right above the bumpy mountain road, a tough endemic anywhere in the Philippnes and one that is very rarely encountered on Makiling. Other new birds, some special to Makiling, for the tour included a pair of Gray-backed Tailorbirds found calling in a roadside vine tangle; several Yellow-bellied Whistlers; several noisy parties of Ashy Minivets moving through the treetops, Philippine Serpent-Eagles were found calling overhead making for an interesting comparison both in plumage and call with the Crested Serpent-eagles recorded on Palawan later on the tour. Bulbuls are not a group that often gets the adrenaline flowing, although the endemic Yellow-wattled Bulbul has a subtle beauty lacking in most of this generally uneventful family, several of which were added to our trip list on Makiling. Other birds seen included more Philippine Pygmy-Woodpeckers, that were a regularly recorded endemic on the tour, and a lone male Black-naped Monarch. There are a whole host of endemic nectarivores on the Philippines and Makiling provided four new ones on our morning walk alone, with a male Flaming Sunbird (another Luzon endemic), a male Lovely Sunbird, Red-striped Flowerpecker (that was to be our first of seven endemic flowerpeckers) and a single Striped (Thick-billed) Flowerpecker. In the afternoon we left the forest behind birding some open trees on the campus for another Luzon lowland specialty, the aptly named Lowland White-eye that was found soon after feeding in some large open trees.
March: Mount Makiling (LUZON) Mid-altitude forest.
Another early start was necessary, as Spotted Wood-Kingfishers had haunted us all tour until that point, being heard almost daily with nothing more than brief flight views to show for it. So for our final push for this bird we got on site early, as these almost crepuscular kingfishers have the frustrating habit of calling almost exclusively at dawn and dusk, often being largely silent outside these times when they become much less responsive and a lot harder to pick up. Having been singularly unresponsive up until then for us, one bird performed in exemplary fashion flying straight into playback on several occasions, giving us all great views just as it became light enough to be able to really appreciate the stunning plumage of this fantastic 'fisher. This was to be the first of six different species of endemic Kingfisher recorded on the tour. Other birds included some great views of upto three separate Black-chinned Fruit-doves, a near-endemic that's range just reaches some small outlying islands off Taiwan. However, the star dove for the day was found when bird activity had dropped off dramatically in the late morning and therefore was far from expected at the time. Mark and I flushed a dove off the bumpy mountain road, that fortuitously landed in full view for Mark who exclaimed, incredulously it was a Luzon Bleeding-heart Although this shy denizen of the forest floor initially slipped back into the undergrowth before others could get a look, it quickly responded unusually well to playback, giving two further showings as it strolled into view. On one of these occasions the bird alighted on top of a close rock in full view for Don to exclaim 'there it is - perfect!' - it is not often one can claim perfect views of this shy, ground-dwelling Luzon endemic. Other notable birds included a pair of Philippine Hawk-cuckoos that came in and checked us out a number of times, another sighting of the crazy-looking Luzon endemic Red-crested Malkoha, further views of Stripe-headed (-sided) Rhabdornis, a pair of the endemic haematribon race of Greater Flamebacks and another Flaming Sunbird for those who had missed it the day before. It was then back to Manila for a little earlier finish than we had come to expect, although with the earliest start of the tour looming the next day (necessary for our early flight to Mindanao), one that was much needed.
Part 2: MINDANAO
Bislig Airfield (MINDANAO)
Grasslands and marshy pools.
An extremely early start was necessary due to the unfriendly scheduling of the domestic flights to Davao on Mindanao, the largest city in the Philippines and indeed in terms of geographical area, one of the largest in the world. From there we boarded our vans and headed to the small city of Bislig in the eastern province of Surigao Del Sur, that would be our base for exploring the lowland forest patches of the PICOP concession over the coming days. Although we skirted some of PICOPs forests on the way, the long traveling time meant we arrived by the time the heat of the day had laid most of the birds to rest although an 'emergency' stop had to be made for a squadron of low-flying needletails, that proved to be a group of 15 or so Purple Needeletails that had somehow eluded us on Luzon, so particularly pleasing to get them then. We also bumped into our first Barred Honey Buzzard of the tour, that we had been expecting to see over the coming days around PICOP. After our afternoon arrival we spent the latter part of the day birding the grasses and marshland that border Bislig airfield, that despite apparently being an active airfield clearly must have very little traffic judging by the number of locals exercising and fishing around the edges of the it! A quick kick about the grassy margins produced the hoped for Blue-breasted Quail, along with a few Paddyfield (Oriental) Pipits. While a few Wandering Whistling-Ducks and Philippine Ducks flying around the airfield betrayed the presence of some hidden pools in the area, while Oriental Reed-Warblers sang from beside the reed fringed runway. From our vantage point on top of our jeepney that would be our vehicle over the coming days, we scanned the marshes as dusk approached for our main quarry that appeared well before the sun began dropping over the horizon, when the first of three Australian Grass-Owls appeared quartering the marshes; although waiting until after dark was required for our other night quarry - when a pair of 'chonking' Philippine Nightjars were watched flying around the runway a short time after dark.
PICOP is potentially one of the most depressing places to bird in the Philippines, as the lowland forests here are part of a large logging concession. So the birding is within an area that is largely theoretically doomed to the chainsaw anyway, and to add to that hundreds, (if not thousands) of illegal settlers are also working there way to deforesting the area further. Thus every new trip to PICOP can be full of surprises due to to the rapidly changing nature of the habitat there. For this reason we were grateful for the services of the local guide Zardo Goring, whose up to-the-minute information helped us concentrate our efforts on the best available forest patches. Despite all this gloom, for sure I would say any Philippine bird tour would be foolish to miss this place as it is the key site for many endemics and specifically for some very cool Mindanao lowland specialties, many of which are not possible elsewhere, and are often contenders for birds of the trip on any tour. This tour was no exception and we had three really good days birding in the area, and despite some heavy rain on two of these days, we left little behind due to some extraordinary luck and Zardo's intimate knowledge of the site. For our first day we concentrated on one of the most well-known birding sites at PICOP - road 1/4, that has changed markedly since my first visit there only a few years previously. However despite appearances, the forest fragments there still hold some of Mindanao's most highly sought after birds. Before light we tried for some of the key nightbirds in the area, and although we were initially frustrated by a nearby calling boobook, eventually Zardo picked the bird up as it flew in and positioned his beam right on a Chocolate Boobook, a near-endemic recently split from the the widespread Brown Hawk-Owl . Soon after it got light we started seeing some of the Mindanao lowland specialties that were our prime targets at PICOP. The soft, but distinctive whistles of Little Slaty Flycatcher were soon heard from the roadside and after this hyperactive pair initially frantically circled us eventually the male gave up the ghost and sat out on an open perch, allowing us all to soak up the subtle plumage features. In the open trees along the road there, we found a number of Philippine Orioles singing from the open treetops, a few Rufous-fronted Tailorbirds (a recent split from Philippine Tailorbird) feeding in some high vine tangles, while in the undergrowth another pair of key Mindanao tailorbirds - White-browed Tailorbird were found with a little strategic use of playback. Coucals are another bird group that few get excited about when pouring through the field guide before coming to the Philippines, although Black-faced Coucal, with its distinctive sulphury yellow head, dusty blue tail and bold black face mask must be a contender for the world's finest coucal being completely different from any others out there. The artificial open nature of the forest along this road (due to the recent deforestation) can be advantageous for picking out some birds that otherwise would be tricky - like a canopy dwelling pair of Naked-faced Spiderhunters, a few Philippine Drongo-cuckoos perched out on some open dead snags, several Yellowish Bulbuls; and several calling Winchell's (Rufous-lored) Kingfishers were easily found in the canopies of this artificially open forest there; while the pair of inconspicuous Philippine Leafbirds chose a heavily-leaved canopy to hide in, where their green plumage matched exactly the color of the surrounding leaves making the birds incredibly hard to find, even when fully framed amongst the leaves in the scope! Overhead the distinctive silhouette of a pair of Philippine Needletails with their characteristic 'butter-knife' wings were picked out easily as they flew low over us, that even allowed us to catch a glimpse of their clean white armpits. This was probably our most bird-packed day of the tour with many new endemics coming thick and fast, including a pair of Philippine Trogons over breakfast, a stunning Silvery Kingfisher (a highly localized endemic) hanging out on its usual small, dirty roadside pool, and several noisy gangs of Mindanao (Tarictic) Hornbills. Rain dogged us every time we talked about trying for the regular Red-bellied Pitta, meaning we had to call off the attempt on several occasions and retreat to our jeepney, while the rain (very slowly) passed. Eventually with time getting on and the rain giving us another short respite we ventured out to a small clearing amongst the bamboo understorey where we hoped we could coax the bird into. On playing the tape we initially heard nothing, then a brief, seemingly distant call back before, suddenly, the bird flew in and brazenly perched out in front of us just where we could all conveniently soak it up for the next few minutes. A perfect end to what had been a breathtaking taste of some of the very best birding in the Philippines.
The first of a dazzling brace of pittas at the PICOP concession - this beautiful emerald and scarlet RED-BELLIED PITTA was soaked through following a recent bout of
very heavy rain.
One of only two endemic pittas in the Philippines (and the only one that we had a realistic chance of on the tour) - the breathtaking STEERE'S (AZURE-BREASTED) PITTA, PICOP.
For our second full day in PICOP, we concentrated our efforts on a different road - road 4/2, that in complete contrast to road 1/4 has some good continuous unbroken stretches of forest along it (largely by default, as the limestone substrate does not lend itself to farming after clearing, so that the settlers have, for now at least, left this bird-rich forest alone). We spent the best part of the day birding this deserted forest-fringed road, in between the bouts of heavy, unseasonal rain. Things were a little slow initially as the rain was heaviest in the morning, although things picked up later as they rain moved off and we logged some of PICOP's very best birds in our day there. Soon after arriving and with the rain coming down heavily at the time, we focused our efforts on the road itself, and soon after found our main target - the stunning Steere's (Azure-breasted) Pitta feeding right out in the middle of the road. The bird continued to feed on the road, as we followed, over the following 5-10 minutes allowing us all to great looks at one of PICOP's sexiest birds. Two days in PICOP and two pittas down - for a site with such a depressing backdrop to the birding, PICOP can still however produce the goods and some of the best Philippine birding is undoubtedly still within this concession. Many of the birds we were hoping for on that day were flock species, and although we never really got the one big flock we had been hoping for we managed to find some small flocks along the way and pick up these key endemics in these bird parties, like Rusty-crowned Babbler, Pygmy Babbler and several superb bright orange Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers. The main flock species we were keen to get however was the pair of endemic Monarchs - the distinctive metallic series of notes soon had us homing in on a pair of Short-crested Monarchs, that circled us several times allowing everyone a look or two, although the divine Celestial Monarch, clearly the sexiest of this pair proved a little more challenging as it appeared they may have reached the end of their calling season. However in one of the last flocks of the morning, as we neared the van again we heard its distinctive call, although it was a good 10 minutes or so before Mark managed to not only find, but scope up a spanking male complete with the flashy celestial headdress that gives the bird its name. Before we had hot on the celestial however, and just after having bagged the pair of Short-crested Monarchs we heard the first calls of a Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher, a scarce Kingfisher that was originally thought to be endemic to mid-high elevation forests on Mindanao, although has recently also been found in the lowland forests of PICOP. We had tried several known territories for this bird throughout the morning and even got a response at one, that was then thwarted by a bout of extremely heavy rain, before this bird called right by the short-crested Monarchs and I finally began to think our luck was in. The bird then proceeded to circle unseen for the next 15 minutes, before finally Doris calmly announced she had the bird, seemingly mocking us by being perched at extremely close range. Just one of a trio of sexy kingfishers we had come across at PICOP. The kingfisher haul was not over however, as on the route back on passing by a recently known area for Philippine Dwarf-Kingfisher, this rarely recorded bird flashed by us calling all the while, to bring our tally of endemic kingfishers at PICOP to an impressive four species. Both Monarchs and both Pittas in the first two days, and all the possible kingfishers, what were we going to look for over the next day?! - there was nothing left to do but focus our efforts on PICOP's last sexy resident - the unbelievable (and more than a little tricky) Mindanao Wattled Broadbill. Unlike the other sexy species we had already seen, the broadbills are basically silent and generally spend very long periods being inactive in the understorey. This makes them really, really difficult to find unless they come by in a passing flock.
For our last full day we again moved our efforts on another fragment of forest, this time along road 4. The main purpose for our visiting this area was to try and pick up some hornbills as we were missing one species that is special to these lowland Mindanao forests. Once again the unseasonal weather dealt us a low blow and we hung out around some fruiting trees in an attempt to pick up the hornbill that can sometimes be found in this area in the early mornings. However with the heaviest prolonged burst of rain coming at this time, the weather seemed to have ruined our chances at picking up this key species. With nothing doing and finally the rain easing we headed off for some of the other species we were missing, and then typically as we had just turned the corner, leaving Nicky behind to answer a call of nature we heard his frantic shouting from where we had just been standing. We all raced back, rapidly negotiating our way around a deep muddy puddle in the process to find Nicky trained on a group of 20 Writhed Hornbills (a record count for the site according to Zardo), that had chosen to fly into the very trees we had been looking at just as we had turned the corner and were just out of sight! Still we were not complaining as we could then soak them up in full detail as they hung about in the treetops to dry off their rain-soaked wings. That brought our tally of endemic hornbills for the trip to four, all the possible species we could have seen until then, just the one on Palawan to go. We then headed back out of the open areas to focus on the forest understorey where we belatedly picked up Streaked (Striated) Ground-Babbler hopping about amongst the large limestone mossy boulders, that give the forest an almost Tolkeinesque feeling in this area. Aside from that this was our slowest;west days at PICOP, partly due to the fact that we had picked up many of the species we were looking for remarkably quickly in the first few days and also because the rain dogged us more on this day than any other. Our attempts at the Broadbill and Blue-crowned Racquet-tail both fell flat, meaning we were sure to be returning here for our final few hours at PICOP the following day. However, we did pick up Blue Fantail, Bicolored Flowerpecker, another Short-crested Monarch, Steere's Pitta and Rufous-lored Kingfisher although best of all was a pair of Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeons, one of which eventually showed extremely well, flying in and perching on an open limb right over the road.
In our last few hours at PICOP before we headed to the mountains of central Mindanao, we once again returned to road 4 in our last efforts to pick up the rarely encountered Broadbill and for another shot at the racquet-tail. Before we reached there however we made a stop before light and for Philippine Frogmouth and Philippine Hawk-Owl. The frogmouth proved elusive again, although we all got good looks at Mindanao (Philippine) Hawk-Owl (still unbelievably officially considered a subspecies of Philippine Hawk-Owl, although very different in both plumage and voice and therefore a surefire species in its own right). Before we headed to our best site for the broadbill, Zardo recommended checking out an area where the racquet-tails have nested in the not too distant past. On getting onto the trail we soon heard the distinctive high-pitched calls of the Blue-crowned Racquet-tail and looked up to see one of these impressive endemics fly in and conveniently land on an open snag above the clearing we were standing in, where we could admire the needle-fine racquets in full detail. With new birds running out fast there was nothing left to do but head into the forest to an area where the broadbill has been found nesting in recent years. In spite of this site being a good one, and where I had seen one shortly before the tour, many a tour misses them here due to their shy reclusive nature. On top of that the area of forest, while not far off the road has no real trail in and is set on the top of a spiny limestone outcrop, meaning the short walk in is not the most comfortable. Forewarned everyone was keen to try anyway and we soon reached the area where the birds nest hoping for a flock to be in the area, that would be our best chance of picking up this unobtrusive endemic. Unfortunately aside from a lone Blue Fantail there seemed little evidence of a bird party in the area and we started to settle ourselves so we could wait for a passing flock, when a muffled cry went up from Zardo behind. No one seemed to be sure what he said but we legged it anyway and on reaching him found he was watching a superb female (Mindanao) Wattled Broadbill, perched inconspicuously in the understorey that remained there for around 5 minutes so we could all get fantastic looks at this truly unique member of a family (complete with its striking blue wattled eye ring) that does not have a single bad looking bird within it. Job done we headed off to Davao for some welcome rest before we trekked up into the mountains in the Central Mindanao province of Bukidnon, to search for one of the rarest and certainly most celebrated of all the endemics - the Philippine national bird - Monkey-eating or Great Philippine Eagle.
Not the greatest of shots, but what a superb Mindanao endemic, Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher. We recorded it at both the recently discovered site for the species, PICOP, and
also at the more traditional site of Kitanglad.
Bukidnon Philippine Eagle Nest site & Mount Kitanglad (MINDANAO)
With the Philippine Eagles not breeding this year at Kitanglad, and the birds proving difficult for other tour groups before our tour, I decided with Nicky that if we had the opportunity to visit another nest site we should jump at the chance at seeing this impressive formidable raptor at close quarters. Nicky used his contacts to get us privileged access to a new nest site, that the Eagle Foundation had recently set up watch on, not too far from our intended destination of Kitanglad. As we headed up the trail to the new site alarmingly two adult birds passed briefly overhead, not giving anyone a decent look through the closed canopy above us. Sure enough when we reached the nest the adults were nowhere to be found and the chick was hunched low down in the nest, with only the odd feather in view! With this dismal showing the first group ascended the purpose built tower to have a better look at the nest. A long while went by and just as the first group were going to leave with only marginally better views of the chick obtained the loud distinctive whistles of a close adult were heard close by and then two birds cruised by at eye level, allowing those on the right position at the time to get a real eyeful of this immense eagle at close range. For those who missed it better was to come as the eaglet in the nest then stood up fully revealing its massively oversized bill, and one of the adults was found perched up a short distance away from our lofty position in the canopy. Having experienced Harpy Eagles several times before, that are equally impressive in their huge bulk, and perhaps more so in terms of their formidable claws that are close to the size of a bears, the Harpy simply cannot match the huge bill that gives the impression that the Philippine Eagle is a much larger, more formidable raptor. Instantly Richard and Mark were talking of the bird of the trip, in spite of that fact we had seen several pitta species, a bagful of colorful endemic kingfishers, and a host of multicolored Fruit-doves and pigeons! Unfortunately after the first group descended the tower Don and Doris had a fruitless search for the adults while up there. Although they had enjoyed impressive views of them in flight from their position on the ground, the absence of in your face views of the adults left them wanting and I am sure they are extremely grateful to Nicky who arranged a second trip to the nest a few days later free of charge, when they were then treated to unbeatable, prolonged views of these impressive birds at close range from their position in the canopy. On the ground around the nest a passing flock had us homing in on some of the Mindanao endemics we had come to the mountains for including most notably a stunning McGregor's Cuckoo-shrike, in addition to the more expected fare of Cinnamon Ibons, Black-and-cinnamon Fantails and Mountain White-eyes. With the morning distraction and changed plan for the eagle we headed out to Kitanglad a little later than expected, leaving little time for birding after our late afternoon arrival at Del Monte Lodge (sometimes referred to as Eagle Camp), although with our unforgettable experiences with the eagles in the morning there were few complaints. After dark we made our first foray for the many nightbirds in the area, and although proving a little more difficult than planned the Philippine Frogmouth eventually performed in exemplary fashion perching right over our heads, making up for missing it at PICOP the day before.
The funky-looking APO MYNA, a bizarre endemic confined to just a few high mountains in northern and central Mindanao. With the strange 'punk' hairstyle and very long tail certainly a very unique
March: Mount Kitanglad (MINDANAO) Montane forest.
Shortly after dawn we began the trek up the mountain towards the 'eagle watchpoint', around which many birds can be found, aside from the obvious, biggish raptor. When birding Kitanglad it is necessary to cover a number of elevations on the mountain, as some of the specialist species can only be found at either low or high altitudes on Kitanglad. So as we made our way up the mountain, along the gently rising track we passed through some cleared areas where cabbage fields, often packed with Eastern Yellow Wagtails, border the montane forest that harbors many of the most special species. On these lower sections we visited a number of bright red blooming trees that held some of the endemic nectarivores we were after - notably Flame-crowned Flowerpecker (a scarce bird that seems to be rarely encountered these days at our other possible site on the tour - Mount Polis); several Pygmy Flowerpeckers and the Mindanao endemics Gray-hooded Sunbird and Olive-capped Flowerpecker; in addition to a few of the more widespread Fire-breasted (Buff-bellied) Flowerpecker. As we made our way up the mountain we picked up our last possible Rhabdornis of the trip - with the high elevation Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis found perched on an open dead snag where it remained obligingly for five whole minutes. Our first (of many) Eye-browed Thrushes flew out from the open trees on the way up, giving their distinctly Redwing like calls as they flew out. The Philippines has a whole host of endemic tailorbirds with three species possible on Mindanao alone. Two of these are found in the lowland forests and were seen already at PICOP, although the third one, Rufous-headed Tailorbird, (a split from Mountain Tailorbird), is as suggested from its close congener's name, a high elevation species. They seemed to be calling from every available thicket of secondary scrub as we moved our way up the mountain, and a pair soon gave us good, close views, to complete the trio of possible endemic tailorbirds we were looking for on Mindanao. In one of the larger clearings we saw a distant adult Philippine Eagle circling higher up the mountain that made us ever more grateful for the incredible views we'd had the day before. It was necessary to trek up to some higher sections for a few species, notably for a mob of fantastic Apo Mynas, that are unlike any other myna in southeast Asia what with their weird Mohican hairstyles, formed by their unique crest of fine black filaments, and bold yellow patch of bare facial skin around the eye. Also up higher was a single White-cheeked Bullfinch, a brilliant Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher (a big relief for Mark who had been unsighted for the bird at PICOP, a few days before); and a superb male APO Sunbird was found singing from an open perch deep within the forest at our highest point on the mountain. The latter always requires a bit of a hike to reach the elevations necessary for the species, so once this bird had been safely seen we turned around and headed back to the more navigable sections of the trail lower down, where all the other remaining species we were after could be found. Other species picked up included a few of the strangely named Mindanao or Black-masked White-eye in some feeding flocks quite far up the mountain. This species completely lacks the distinctive white eye-ring typical of the other white-eyes, that leads many to believe the species would be far better named simply Mindanao Ibon. Other notable birds included our first Short-tailed Starlings, Oriental Honey Buzzards and Black-shouldered Kite of the tour, a number of Island (Mountain Verditer) Flycatchers, and a few endemic Sulphur-billed Nuthatches in some of the feeding parties lower down on Kitanglad (an endemic 'form' of Velvet-fronted Nuthatch that has now been given full species status); and a brief sighting of the large Mindanao form of White-browed Shortwing.
March: Mount Kitanglad (MINDANAO) Montane forest.
For our last full day on the mountain we were to concentrate our efforts along the same mountain track, although focusing specifically on areas where we may pick up the few missing species we were now after. While settling in for breakfast before we started up the mountain again, (and a little untimely as some of us were at the time answering an urgent call of nature!), a Mindanao Scops-Owl began calling within spitting distance of the camp. With full light approaching fast I sent out the alert and the local guide Carlito and I headed into the bamboo stand, where within seconds it seemed Carlito had this tiny scops owl lined up in the beam for everyone present. The few people there got great views before I turned and realized some of the party were still missing so I dashed back up, picking up the missing persons and returned just in time as Carlito picked it up again on a different perch before it quickly fell silent with the onset of daylight. Things after that initial early morning thrill were a little slower than we'd hoped, with Mindanao Racquet-tails only heard once we were hidden from a clear view under the forest canopy, and try as we might we just simply could not coax in a Long-tailed Ground-Warbler, that was rapidly becoming a nemesis bird for us on the tour, as we'd heard it's distinctive song almost constantly at Polis at the start of the tour and were still waiting for even a glimpse of this notoriously shy skulker. However, we did see a fine juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle, several Philippine Cuckoo-doves, more Colasisis, Coletos, Black-and-cinnamon Fantails, APO Mynas, Gray-hooded Sunbirds and Brown Tit-Babblers, although the migrant Mugimaki and Snowy-browed Flycatchers were both new additions.
March: Mount Kitanglad (MINDANAO) Montane forest.
For our final few hours on the mountain before we made our way out of Mindanao and back to Manila for our final leg of the tour, the group decided to split. Still smarting from the tales of close perched views of adult eagles, Don and Doris returned with Nicky to the eagle nest site nearby, while Richard, Mark and I made a final foray up the mountain for some of the species we were lacking. Two such species made a mockery of our previous efforts further afield on the mountain by appearing almost right in the camp. First up a Pechora Pipit was found feeding right on the trail, inches from the camp, and then just beyond that an almost rodent-like figure crossed the trail behind - it could only have been our nemesis bird! Some tactical pishing from Carlito worked unbelievably well as he persuaded the extremely shy Long-tailed Ground-Warbler to perch out for us really well, within a stone's throw of Del Monte Lodge. This was just one of those times when a final few hours on site paid off really well, and despite some heavy rain that had us sheltering for some time higher up the mountain, I let everyone know that a little rain was a good omen for the racquet-tails, that seem to revel in this weather and are much more frequently seen flying about during a bout of prolonged drizzle. After one of these bouts of heavy rain Richard and Mark spotted a large powerful pigeon flying in, that landed close by giving us fantastic prolonged views of a Metallic Pigeon, a species that is hard-to-come by on Kitanglad where they exist only at very low densities. As the heavy rain faded to drizzle we kept our ears open for the racquet-tails high-pitched calls, and after several teasing periods of hearing some of these distant parrots, we finally picked up a group of three calling Mindanao Racquet-tails as they sailed overhead. With another wave of rain coming in we headed back down the mountain, packed up our things, loaded the horses and made our way back to Damitan where we picked up our vans again for the drive to Cagayan de Oro. From there we met up once again met up with Don, Doris and Nicky, who were full of tales of dramatic close up views of 'on-the-deck' Philippine Eagles that had remained perched by the nest throughout the long bouts of heavy rain. We then boarded our so-called Cebu Pacific 'fun flight' (complete with the on board game that is typical of these domestic flights), and returned to Manila for a last night in the bustling Philippine capital before our final, Palawan leg of the tour.
Part 3: PALAWAN
March: Puerto Princesa to Underground River National Park, Sabang
(PALAWAN) Lowland, coastal limestone forest and mangroves.
Another early start was required to take the only daily flights to the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa. We had originally planned a stop for Chinese Egrets and shorebirds at Garceliano Beach near the capital, although when we arrived there were horrified to find an extremely high tide rendering the whole area birdless - we quickly changed the plan, ate an early lunch and then boarded our vans to make the journey to Sabang that would be our base for exploring the endemic-rich coastal, limestone forests of St. Pauls (recently renamed Underground River National Park). Palawan often turns out to be most people's favorite Philippine island, due to a combination of easy endemics, some of the largest most in tact tracts of rainforest and frankly, because much of it is an idyllic paradise island of beaches, mangroves and lush bird-rich rainforests. Between Puerto Princesa and our resort in Sabang we passed by some deserted scenic beaches with superb vistas over the South China Sea, and along the way we encountered some fabulous stretches of forest and tree-lined limestone outcrops that are good spots for some of Palawan's coolest endemic birds. A few weeks before I had checked out some areas in preparation for the main tour, when an unplanned stop for some emergency car repairs, alongside a scenic tree-lined river, had caused me to stumble onto some superb flowering trees that had proved a real boon for nectarivores. And so it was we made our first stop there along the way in the hope that some of the trees would still be in bloom. Thankfully they were and it did not take long to find our main target, with a stocky male Copper-throated Sunbird and Palawan's own endemic nectar specialist, with the aptly named Palawan Flowerpecker, in addition to a whole bunch of other nectar feeders including Pygmy Flowerpecker, Little Spiderhunter, several stunning scarlet-breasted trochilus race Purple-throated Sunbirds, and a few Olive-backed Sunbirds. Our next, 'emergency' stop was made alongside a stretch of Palawan's idyllic western coastline for another low-flying squadron of needletails, this time a group of Brown-backed Needletails, to add to the Purple and Philippine Needletails already recorded on Mindanao earlier on the tour. All along the way we ran into small vocal groups of the endemic pusillus 'race' of Slender-billed Crow, heard giving their instantly recognizable, high-pitched and distinctly un-crow like calls, a subspecies that many believe should be given full species status, and so is frequently referred to simply as 'Palawan Crow'. We then rose up onto a scenic forested ridegtop, where the hoped-for Ashy-headed Babbler that had been present there only a few weeks previous failed to show, although we did begin seeing our first Palawan endemics with several Yellow-throated Leafbirds, high flying flocks of Palawan Swiftlets (a recent split from Island or Uniform Swiftlet), a White-vented Shama was observed giving its fluty song from a low roadside perch; and best of all a gorgeous Blue Paradise-Flycatcher popped up on the opposite side of the road to the showy Shama. A short walk further down the road and we picked up another of the Palawan specialties, when we found a pair of lemon-yellow and black Palawan Tits singing in a bare roadside tree. Only a few hours within Palawan and we were getting a real taste of some of its very best birds. Aside from this haul of endemics, we also heard our third target pitta species of the trip, when a Hooded Pitta called closeby, that Don at least got fantastic views of. The others were not left smarting for long over this though, as I had another territory lined up a little further down the road, that paid off handsomely, when on playing the tape only briefly, the bird came crashing in and perched up within a few feet of our stunned, beaming faces. One of the main reasons for taking time on the way into Sabang was to stop for Palawan's endemic nightbirds along the way, so we needed to ride out some time waiting for dusk. Some of this time was spent scanning some huge tree-lined limestone outcrops that jut out above the surrounding coastal forests, giving a truly magnificent backdrop to birding this quiet coastal road. A short time later I picked up the gleaming ivory casques of a small party of Palawan Hornbills that we had been hoping for and can sometimes be found roosting in this area. We then got ourselves in position for the nightshow, although with light not yet fading a pair of calling Ashy-headed Babblers (that had failed me earlier in the afternoon) were fair game and typically gave excellent views when responding to a little gentle playback. As we waited along the deserted road for the onset of dusk, the first bats appeared and soon after we were treated to the sight of an Oriental Hobby hunting the bats low over the road, catching three bats in under 30 minutes, not a bad way to while out the time until the time for owling! Soon after dark our first night bird appeared with a pair of calling roadside Large-tailed Nightjars. The frogmouths we were after were also soon calling, although the first of these gave us the run-around until we found a nice cleared area where we found a much more cooperative individual that just sat there growling back at us from its low perch. This funky bird with its ridiculous oversized whiskers continues to confound birders as to exactly what it is, currently listed as Javan Frogmouth, this island form gives a call that is not known in other populations of the widespread Javan that may itself warrant splitting into several different species. To add to the confusion some have also considered this 'Palawan' Frogmouth as a unique form of Sunda Frogmouth, while others of which the majority of opinion seems to be weighing behind consider the frogmouths on Palawan to be another as yet undescribed species, being referred to widely as simply Palawan Frogmouth. Whilst soaking up the frogmouth our final night quarry, Palawan Scops-Owl uttered its own quiet, almost inaudible growl. The call of this bird is completely deceptive as you can be standing right in front of one, and the call can be difficult to hear even then, so the toughest thing is not to risk flushing the bird as you can walk right into it. Which is basically what happened initially when I went towards the source of the quiet growling and failed to notice the bird, perched vertically on a low vine until I was right on top of it, so that when everyone else came in for a look the bird flew with only me getting one unforgettable view. Thankfully after an initial, panicked period of silence the bird began calling once more and we managed to find it a short distance from its original perch, where the eyes glowed bright red back at us while we lapped up this impressive endemic scops owl. 3 target nightbirds, all 3 seen so we headed to our resort for celebratory beers and to plan tomorrow's 'assault' on one of the most stunning birds in the Philippines - as we would be seeking the breathtaking Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.
YELLOW-THROATED LEAFBIRD near Sabang
- One of nearly 20 endemics confined to the island of Palawan. This one, like many others, is easy to find and was picked up a number of times in just a few days there.
JAVAN ('PALAWAN') FROGMOUTH near Sabang
- Confusion still reigns over the identity of the Palawan Frogmouths: some say they should be lumped within Sunda, some call them Javan, although many others believe they deserve full
endemic species status.
March: Underground River (St. Paul's) National Park, Sabang
(PALAWAN) Lowland, coastal limestone forest and mangroves.
The sparsely populated sandy white beaches of Sabang on the western coast of Palawan provide a peaceful, idyllic setting and base for exploring the bird-rich coastal forests of St. Pauls National Park, that holds all but three of Palawan's 19 or so endemic species. For the most sought-after among these we would have to take a short ride in one of the many 'bancas', a typical Filipino boat that is characterized by the large 'stabilizers' on each side. A short wade out from Sabang saw us boarding the banca and heading straight to the park's star attraction - the 8km long Subterranean (or Underground) River for which the park has recently been renamed. However, although most tourists alight there to take the tranquil boat ride along this geological wonder we were tracking a very different attraction, Palawan's (and perhaps the Philippines's as a whole) undisputed top bird - the gorgeous Palawan Peacock-Pheasant. This normally shy inhabitant of the limestone 'kast' forests, such as those at St. Paul's, has been unusually easy to pick up in recent years as a tame male bird has taken up residence around a park ranger station deep within the heart of the park, that is conveniently only a stone's throw from the beach when arriving by boat. This superb male bird hangs out near the station, often in company with Tabon Scrubfowls, feeding on food scraps that are left out by the resident rangers who now know this stunning bird very well indeed, due to the droves of birders who have visited over the past 6 years or so. The forest here lines the beach itself, so that literally within inches of entering the forest we caught site of this truly magnificent pheasant feeding right out in the open where the iridescent blue jeweled plumage, with violet-blue 'eyes' or ocelli on its dazzlingly adorned tail, striking black-and-white crested head and 'velvety' black breast could be appreciated to the full. This is one of the undisputed avian gems of Asia, and a bird that can easily be used to persuade any doubting birder of the wonders of birding southeast Asia. With this main target nailed with absolute, and ridiculous ease we checked out some other areas around the Underground River picking up Tabon Scrubfowls, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher and another Palawan specialty - Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, in addition to both Greater and Common Flamebacks (the former of the fantastic endemic, red-headed erythrocephalus race) in the same tree with our first Asian Drongo-Cuckoo. As we turned around to head back to the banca we realized the peacock had followed us all the way down the trail. So we headed off before this amazing pheasant completely let itself down! We then headed down a trail into the forest proper on the hunt for another striking Palawan endemic - Falcated Ground-Babbler. We did pick up this awesome endemic, although it frustrated us by showing only in brief snatches meaning a surefire return to the spot for tomorrow when we hoped it may perform in more typical fashion, and one of us at least picked up Palawan's only endemic parrot - Blue-headed Racquet-tail whilst there. On the return journey we found our sixth and final endemic sunbird of the tour, with a fine male Handsome (Shelley's) Sunbird and later, a pair of Malaysian Plovers precariously nesting on a nearby coastal sand bar. A fantastic morning's birding with all the available endemics picked up at St. Paul's and on the way in the day before, leaving us wondering what the hell to do in the afternoon! However, as Don had missed many of these birds through a bout of heavy flu, he recovered to head out with us in the afternoon where we quickly set about redressing the balance with some of the endemics he'd missed. Amazingly in the short birding time we had that afternoon and evening before we retired for Shirley's birthday celebrations back at the resort, we managed to re-find Palawan Hornbill, Ashy-headed Babbler, Palawan Blue Flycatcher, Javan (Palawan) Frogmouth, Large-tailed Nightjar, Palawan Scops-Owl and the Oriental Hobby that, once again, swooped in on the hunt for bats shortly before nightfall.
The exquisite male PALAWAN PEACOCK-PHEASANT
St. Pauls - the only 'true' pheasant in the Philippines.
This showy male PALAWAN PEACOCK-PHEASANT provides one of those rare problems for a bird photographer - how to get photos of a bird that is often too close! Digiscoping was generally useless (although I did manage to get the shot on the left through a scope), so I shot this one hand held with the use of a flash as the bird was only a few feet away at the time. Although the natural light shot through the scope reveals the full, phenomenal colors of the bird best. If this is a prority bird for you then this is clearly the time to go for it, as this rediculous individual has made this species shamelessly easy to see!
March: Underground River (St. Paul's) National Park, Sabang
and Garceliano Beach, Puerto Princesa (PALAWAN) Tidal mudflats and
Don had also missed the peacock show the day before through illness and what with there still being a few birds in the same area for the rest of us we boarded our banca once more and waded the short distance ashore, to enter the kast forest that is the peacock's well-documented stomping ground. In addition to the 'almost guaranteed' Palawan Peacock-pheasant we all had superb views of a perched Oriental Dwarf (Rufous-backed) Kingfisher, that had only given brief views for most the day before as it typically zipped by at lightning speed, and a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers were also in the same area. With little else showing we returned to the boat and made the short ride to another bay where we paddled to shore again and entered the forest in search of Palawan's coolest endemic babbler once more. On reaching the spot where it had performed so poorly the day before, the bird was immediately heard calling. This time however, only the shortest burst of playback brought the Falcated Ground-Babbler screaming into view, that then perched up magnificently in an open gully in the forest that even allowed a few of us to get full on views of this cracking endemic babbler in the Swarovski scope. Other notable birds included our only tour sighting of Mangrove Whistler, as well as Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Common Flameback and a couple of young Red-bellied Pittas that bounced off the trail in front of us. After a final lunch at the Last Frontier where we were able to watch a Palawan Hornbill leaping around in some trees right by the dining area, we departed for Puerto Princesa, stopping en-route to pick up another pack of low-flying Brown-backed Needletails, our first, much belated view of a Plaintive Cuckoo, a small active party of well-named Fiery Minivets (that included a vivid orange-red male in their group) and a Sulphur-bellied Bulbul for Don who had missed it during his bout of flu. We then returned to the mudflats near Puerto Princesa hoping for a more favorable tide on this occasion. Unfortunately the tides were extremely high at this time, leaving little exposed mud. However, we did come across a band of roosting egrets which after some scrutiny was found to hold at least two of the endangered Chinese Egrets that we were seeking there. Shorebirds were thin on the ground due to the unfortunate state of the tide but we did find a few Gray-tailed Tattlers roosting in the mangroves. We then retired to Princesa, taking in a superb seafood restaurant perched on the edge of the mangroves, that even has Prince Andrew on its long list of past celebrity diners and after tucking into the locally produced food, we were able soon understood why.
March: Iwahig Penal Colony and Rasa Island (PALAWAN) Lowland rainforest
and coastal scrub and woodland on Rasa.
The Balsahan Trail, bizarrely set for a birding area within a safe correctional institution, is a key site on Palawan for a couple of endemics that are never recorded at St. Paul's - notably Melodious Babbler and historically (although very rarely in recent years), also Palawan Flycatcher. One of the logistical problems we had not expected there was unseasonally heavy rains the day before our arrival, leading to the swelling of the river that runs alongside the trail and a rising of the formerly little brooks that we needed to cross to reach the best areas for these key endemics. Thankfully Arding, our driver and Iwahig employee, was on hand to aid us all across what is usually little bother to cross in little more than walking boots. We all eventually made it and to my relief we soon heard the Melodious Babblers calling on cue, and were soon getting to grips with a group of three-four birds perched up in a subcanopy vine tangle. With these falling conveniently early we were getting into the privileged position of what do we look for next? Well the flycatcher of course! My hopes really were not high for this site (we had a stop planned for our final birding of the tour, which has been a much more reliable stakeout in recent years), as nobody had reported seeing at all in the current season (with many tours having visited the area). Indeed Nicky our resident, experienced Filipino bird guide had recently revealed he had never encountered them on the Balsahan at all. What the hell we thought, we had the time so we should try and ease the pressure on tomorrow's final birding stop. So we headed in to the thick stands of bamboo that they generally favor (and which makes them often challenging to see), and received little response to a bit of strategic playback. Unsurprised we turned to leave and immediately a Palawan Flycatcher piped up and gave a brief snatch of song close by. I waited for a time to hear it again and identify the source of the sound, but the bird had fallen stubbornly silent, so I tried a quick burst of playback whereupon, this shy retiring flycatcher zipped straight in (flashing the bright reddish tail past us as it did so leaving us in no doubt as to what it was), and perched right out in front of us singing away within 10 feet of the whole group who were all fixed firmly on this bonus find. We had served our time in Iwahig and so then headed for our final main destination of the tour - the sleepy, peaceful coastal town of Nara, our base for exploring nearby Rasa Island. After a lunch and rest in Nara from the severe afternoon heat, we boarded another banca and set sail for Rasa, a 30 minute ride away. From the boat we picked up our final new birds of the tour - first our last Imperial Pigeon of the tour, the striking Pied Imperial Pigeon, here on Rasa in its element as it is a small island specialist, and then a little later the first of the roosting Philippine Cockatoos came sailing in from the mainland. Using a scope while on board a Filipino banca is not easy to say the least, but in between the drifting motion of the boat we all managed scope views of these ivory birds, all of us keen to get a good look at their burnt red vents that makes this species unique from all other cockatoos. These critically endangered 'parrots' are now extremely localized, having suffered a dramatic decline in recent years due to a lethal combination of habitat destruction and intensive hunting for the cage bird trade. Thus they are now very difficult to find anywhere away from Rasa, (having formerly been a regular sighting at St. Paul's there are no very recent records at all despite much good habitat remaining in that national park). So it was well worth the journey to watch playful gangs of these extremely rare cockatoos landing on the edge of island, before they headed deeper inland to roost. We then returned to Nara for our final late farewell dinner, before our departure the next day.
March: Nara to Puerto Princesa and departure back to Manila.
Essentially a departure day, we made the journey back to Puerto Princesa to fly to Manila and connect with international flights back. Although we made a stop along the way for a last few looks at some of Palawan's endemic birds, including another view of the scarce Palawan Flycatcher at a site we would more normally expect to run across it, Handsome (Shelley's) Sunbird, Yellow-throated Leafbird and a Sulphur-bellied Bulbul or two. It was then off for our good-byes with talk of the next trip (because us birders are always looking to the next trip and the next haul of new birds at the soonest opportunity) - Argentina next perhaps for Don and Doris, and only a few weeks later Mark, Shirley and Richard would be in Andean cloudforests of southern Ecuador pursuing such treats as Jocotoco Antpitta and others.
an inaugural tour to the Philippines we were more than happy with our species
haul, a good number of endemics (just under 130 recorded), including two representatives
from the lone endemic bird family - the Philippine Creepers.
Aside from that we had a good run on the most highly sought after species
in the Philippines with good looks at many of these, like all 3 realistic
pitta species including the spectacular endemic Steere's (Azure-breasted)
Pitta, a bagful of very cool endemic kingfishers including Winchell's
(Rufous-lored), Indigo-banded, Philippine Dwarf, Silvery Kingfisher and
Spotted & Blue-capped Wood-Kingfishers, the just plain awesome
(Mindanao) Wattled Broadbill; the incredible, few-feet-away
views of the breathtaking resident male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant
at St. Paul's; and a bunch of cool doves that included the elusive Luzon
Bleeding-heart, the very scarce Spotted Imperial & Pink-bellied
Imperial-Pigeons and fancy Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove
all on Luzon; and a number of good sightings of the more widespread but way
more attractive Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove. However, the undoubted
highlight of the tour has to have been our unbeatable, close up encounters
with the 'haribon' or Philippine Eagle, with cracking views
of the 4 month-old chick along with the monstrous adults also in attendance.
Only the south American Harpy Eagle comes close to this awesome raptor, although
the critically endangered and endemic tag that comes attached to this species
gives the Philippine Eagle an undoubted edge that saw it universally voted
for as one of the top trip highlights. Both for the group and guides alike
this was a great encounter that had it all - good views of the chick in the
nest, the adult birds perched and also in flight when the incredibly distinctive
silhouette with the bulging primaries was superb to see as it flew low over
us. Rarely in birding do you get the full on views that you crave, as the
natural world is a 'cruel mistress' as some would say, but this time we had
it all and then some. The pressure is now on for next years tour!
Taxonomy and nomenclature for this list follow Clements, J. (5th ed. Updated 2004) Birds of the World. A Checklist. Pica Press.
Birds in UPPER CASE/CAPITAL LETTERS are PHILIPPINE ENDEMICS.
129 endemics were recorded on the tour, with 124 of these seen. There were also a number of near-endemics (like Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher and Coleto, that many generally treat as endemics as they have such tiny ranges outside of the Philippines); and a number of species that are not yet split by Clements, although are widely believed to be surefire 'species-in-waiting', such as the Mindanao form of Philippine Hawk-Owl, the Palawan form of Slender-billed Crow, and the 'confusing' frogmouth on Palawan.
Those that are endemic to the main island groups visited of Luzon, Mindanao or Palawan, (i.e. If found on only the main island of Luzon and any small outlying islands they are marked as Luzon endemics), have been marked as island endemics. (E.g. Rufous Coucal is found on the main island of Luzon, and also occurs on two smaller islands off there - Catanduanes and Polillo and so is marked as a 'LUZON ENDEMIC').
Those marked with (H) were only HEARD on the tour.
Those that are marked with (GO) were only seen by the GUIDE ONLY.
Abbreviations of L, M and P are used to denote Luzon, Mindanao and Palawan respectively.
have written selective notes against particular species of note (including
all the endemics).