February 25th FINALLY A HEALTHY FOREST AGAIN
After a gruesome night of traveling with a 5 hour drive, a nap on an air matrass in front of the terminal and a 2 hour flight, we finally arrived in Manila where Bram Demeulemeester was already waiting for us. Bram is a Belgium guy living on Luzon and he is one of the top-birders in the region. In 2011 he decided to put his enormous knowhow of the regions' avifauna into practice and subsequently started his own birding company Birdguiding Philippines (www.birdguidingphilippines.com). And best, Bram is originally from Flanders so we could talk Dutch with him the whole time!
We drove straight to La Mesa Eco Park, the only stakeout for the smashing Ashy Thrush. There was one 'minor' problem, today was a public holiday in the Philippines and because of that the park was literally swarming with people, not the most ideal conditions for finding a rare skulking zoothera...
The only place within the park where the birds - or bird, there might be only 1 left at this site - are found is a tiny patch of remaining lowland forest. Within the 'forest' it was teeming with people, but against all odds the first bird we saw was a cracking Ashy Thrush! Wow!
After rounding up some remaining targets we left for Subic Bay, one of the very few remaining reasonably unspoiled stretches of lowland forest in the Philippines. The forest here is well protected because it used to be a US army base and the American army didn't allow any logging. Now that Subic Bay is a Philippine army base the former no-logging-policy is - miraculously enough - still enforced which is the only reason that birds like Green Racket-tail and White-fronted Tit are clinging on.
We arrived an hour before sunset so there was just enough time to do some birding. This 'some' birding proved very productive and we found White-browed Shama, the absolutely bizarre looking Red-crested Malkoha, Plain Bush-hen, Northern Sooty Woodpecker and Luzon Flameback and as dusk set in we heard Chocolate Boobook, Luzon Hawk-owl and Philippine Scops-owl. A great first day on Luzon!
Ashy Thrush Zoothera cinerea (Max van Waasdijk)
February 26th A CHANGE OF PLANS
We started the morning session well with a calling Philippine Nightjar and several calling Chocolate Boobooks and Luzon Hawk-owls. At first light we went to Brams' stakeout for the rare White-fronted Tit, probably the main target at Subic and after waiting for an hour or so - while now and then playing the call - one suddenly started calling from the top of a tree. What a relief!
Around 8 AM we had seen all the possible targets, including the endangered Green Racket-tail, so now we had a problem. We'd done Subic so fast and so successfully that we had run out of new birds to see, but luckily Bram was flexible - those are the kind of people you need when doing a big year - and decided we should drive all the way south to Los Banos on the foot of Mt. Makiling, his hometown. Our flight was next day 3 PM which gave us one morning there to see as many of this areas specialties as possible. En route we would stop Pampanga swamp that is the only reliable stakeout for the rare Philippine Swamphen.
Pampanga swamp surpassed our expectations with hundreds of wintering Gargeneys and just as many resident Philippine Ducks. While scoping through the rafts of ducks Bram suddenly said: 'wow'! He had picked out a smashing male Baikal Teal, a first for the Philippines that had been found one month prior by Rob Hutchinson. Only our second sighting of this increasingly rare Teal this trip. The Swamphens were found quickly afterwards so we could begin with the long drive to Los Banos.
Luzon Hornbill Penelopides manillae (Max van Waasdijk)
February 27th THE Mt. MAKILING BIG DAY
Overnight we found out that our flight to Palawan was cancelled and postponed to 4:45 AM the next day. By some miracle this gave us an extra much needed afternoon at Mt. Makiling! We told Bram the 'good' news that we had another ultra-fanatic day of birding ahead of us and luckily he said: 'OK, dan zullen we er maar eens zo-ene birdrace van maken he'?! which is Flanders for lets roll!
Bram is a huge fan of owling which mend that we were out on the trail at 4 AM. Not that much response because of the bright moon, but still we found a cracking Luzon Hawk-owl, a great start to our birdrace.
Just after dawn is the ideal time for Philippines' most enigmatic kingfisher, the Spotted Wood Kingfisher. And surely after hearing more than 10 calling I suddenly found a female bird sitting on a vine. Moments thereafter one of my most wanted birds started calling, the absolutely stunning Scale-feathered Malkoha and also this species put on its best performance.
After this early round-up we raced to the botanical gardens to look for our last endemic kingfisher, the tiny Indigo-banded Kingfisher. Bad luck, the gardens were still closed because the warden was out voting (Probably for some new environmental law to protect rainforest in the Philippines, NOT)! We had to wait for a whole hour, but once in the Mt. Makiling Botanical Gardens Max quickly found this beautiful little bird and Bram very sharply picked out a pair of Flaming Sunbird by call, which showed well moments thereafter.
We had won a lot of time which mend that we could head up the mountain trail to look for some higher altitude Luzon endemics! It was a tough walk, but the birding was good. We found both our targets Blue-headed Fantail and Yellowish White-eye, but also a surprise Philippine Fairy Bluebird and even a calling Luzon Bleedingheart!
We raced down the mountain again and drove to the Awasa track where we stumbled on Rob Hutchinson and a birding group. Like us they were waiting for the rare Spotted Buttonquail and surely moments later one set foot on the track in front of us! What an Awesome day. I can highly recommend Birdguiding Philippines to any birder visiting the Philippines, we had a great time and the birding was spectacular!
February 28th BIRDING IN PARADISE
After spending 3 short hours in a 'love-hotel' in downtown Manilla - with red lights, Barry Wight, beds that smelled like bubble-gum and a Wi-Fi-password that said 'socleansogood' - we were on our 4:45 AM flight to Puerto Pricessa, the capital of the island of Palawan. Upon arrival we were met by Rommel Cruz, the owner of Wild Expeditions Palawan and he took us straight to our first birding site. The plan was to first clean-up on the 'bulk' so we could focus on the more difficult species the next day.
The plan worked like a charm and Palawan endemics came in thick-and-fast. Personal highlights were the absolutely stunning Blue-headed Paradise Flycatcher, Palawan Hornbill, Palawan Tit, Blue-headed Racket-tail and Melodious Babbler. We only missed out on Palawan Flycatcher, but we would have more chances for that one later on. Besides all these endemic species we also focussed on the so called 'proposed splits', subspecies that could well be treated as species in the near future. Definitely the most striking of these was the Palawan subspecies of Chestnut-breasted Malkoha.
Next we drove to the Underground River National park were we had a much needed 3 hour break, the first in a long time!
The afternoon session was slow with the only new endemic being the Spot-throated Flameback, but the absolute highlight of the day was still to come, the critically endangered Red-vented Cockatoo. This bird has its remaining stronghold on the relatively well protected island of Palawan and every evening these stunning white parrots fly in from the hillsides to roost in the mangroves.
This evening was no different and we counted no less than 7 birds, fantastic!
After sunset Rommel took us to a site for the notoriously difficult Palawan Scops-owl, but unfortunately we only heard the bird. However another very cool night bird, the Palawan Frogmouth, put on an amazing performance. Tomorrow is D-day for all the tougher Palawan endemics!
Palawan Frogmouth Batrachostomus chaseni (Max van Waasdijk)
February 29th THE EXTRA DAY - PALAWAN CLEAN-UP!
Today was my extra day, that 366th day that only comes once every 4 year and with help of Rommel we made the most of that advantage!
We started at 5 AM at the Palawan Scops Owl site and this time the bird actually showed itself well while in the background a Palawan Frogmouth called continuously.
After a quick coffee we took a boat ride to the famous underground river, a coastal cave system with - you guessed it - an underground river running through it. This site is very popular with backpackers so it is key to get there before the crowds in order to see the Palawan Peacock-pheasant at the only known stakeout for this absolutely stunning species.
After landing on the beach the Peacock-pheasant was readily found, well it actually comes running your way This bird is already at least 15 years old so god knows for how long it will still be easy to find this otherwise very difficult species.
We had two more targets in the forest surrounding the cave system, Palawan Blue flycatcher and Philippine Scrubfowl and both species were quickly found along with a very showy Hooded Pitta.
After breakfast we went for the two most difficult targets, the Falcated Wren-babbler and the Red-headed Flameback. We tried several sites for both, but no avail. When we had nearly given up suddenly the Wren-babbler started calling downhill. We went inside and waited, while we waited a Red-headed Flameback started calling nearby, dilemma! What bird to go for?! We chose the Wren-babbler and that was a wise choice since the bird put on a fantastic performance and was unanimously voted bird of the (Palawan) trip.
Now there was only one endemic left, the tiny Palawan Flycatcher. Somehow we had experienced a lot of difficulty with this otherwise not-so-difficult species, but today we had extra-day-momentum and indeed at the last site we tried the bird finally gave itself up, mission accomplished!
Now it was time to think out-of-the-box, luckily Rommel is an expert in improvising and he decided to take a boatride to a small offshore island to try for the small-island-specialist Mantanai Scops-owl. And surely as dusk set in over the bay of Puerto Princessa on that extra day of my Biggest Year, a beautiful little Scops-owl started calling above our heads! I love it when a plan comes together!
Philippine Scrubfowl Megapodius cumingii (Max van Waasdijk)
March 1st GOODBYE PHILIPPINES
What to do when you've seen it all, well try to see more! We had a whole morning to kill before our flight from Puerto Princessa via Manila to Jakarta, so we decided to do some birding around the mangroves hoping to find a Great-billed Heron.
Since we had plenty of time we actually slept late, till 7 AM! Shame on me...
Anyways the birding around the mangroves was very entertaining with 12+ summer-plumaged Chinese Egrets, lots of Grey-tailed Tattlers and a lone Far-eastern Curlew. Best however was the - very distant - Great-billed Heron on the edge of the reef, making Palawan my most successful leg of this year so far, with everything ticked including bonuses!
Some statistics and conclusions:
The Philippines surpassed our wildest imaginations with 165 new birds in 10 days, about 150 of these are exclusively found on the Philippines. The absolute highlight of course was seeing our all-time most wanted bird, the majestic Philippine Eagle, but an additional top 10 is hard to put together with so many wopping birds seen. OK, let's give it a try: 1) Philippine Eagle 2) Mindanao Wattled Broadbill 3) Falcated Wren-babbler 4) Palawan Peacock-pheasant 5) Spotted Wood Kingfisher 6) Philippine Cockatoo 7) Azure-breasted Pitta 8) Southern Silvery Kingfisher 9) Red-crested- & Scale-feathered Malkoha 10) (Mindanao) Rufous Hornbill.
We leave for Indonesia with 1316 species under the belt, not bad for 2 months Asia!