Monday, 7 May 2007

Birding The Philippines - Palawan (PPSRNP & El Nido) & Mount Palay-Palay (Luzon)

Birding Spells in Palawan & Luzon
17 to 25 February 2007

This was a catch-all birding/snorkeling/touring holiday with a group of 5 friends to Luzon and Palawan, over the Chinese New Year holidays from 17 to 25 February 2007. I was the only birder, so all birding sessions were on my own, except when I joined up with local birders at the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park aka PPSRNP (Dr Aldrin Mallari on Day 3), El Nido (Roger Cotin from Day 5 to 7) and Mt Palay-Palay (members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines like Nicky Icarangal, Tere, Alex Tiongco, Mike Lu etc on Day 9). As I was the chief planner for the trip, I tried my best to maximize birding opportunities. We flew into Manila and took internal flights to Puerto Princesa, capital of Palawan.
This is the tranquility that is Sabang, gateway to the PPSRNP (Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park), Palawan's most important stand of primary forest. PPSRNP is the home to many Palawan endemics (17 in total), of which I managed to see amongst them, the Palawan Peacock Pheasant, Ashy-headed Babbler, Palawan Blue Flycatcher, Palawan (Yellow-throated) Leafbird and White-vented Sharma. I birded the PPSRNP for only one day. Birders usually devote 4-5 days to mop up every endemic.

My travel mates Marcus Syn, Lionel Choi, Andrew Kloeden and Goh Sze Wei at a restaurant in Puerto Princesa.

Me at Sabang Beach, the launch pad to the PPSRNP, popularly known as the Underground River. This is a balmy stretch of beach that goes on for about 1km. I had to walk alone for 3km in the dark, to get to the National Park's Central Rangers Station by dawn to meet Dr Aldrin Mallari. I was not exactly alone, you'll see why later...don't worry, nothing spooky here.

Crabs extruding boli of processed sand on Sabang Beach.

This is Whitey, the stray doggie that 'birded' with me in PPSRNP for 4½ hours!! Unwanted company of course, costing me my Red-bellied Pitta. He followed me from pre-dawn to lunch time, from the beach to the forest to the end point at the Underground River. Still, when he finally departed (lured by the food of other tourists), I managed to get the key ground birds like the Palawan Peacock Pheasant, Ashy-headed Babbler and Tabon Scrubfowl, phew!
Me at the cave entrance to the Underground River, the world's longest. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Essentially, its a river flowing through a 8km long cavenous passage full of icky bats, stalactites and stalagmites. My friends did the river cruise, I didn't have time to.
Found this toad in the leaf litter at dusk, just before I realized I was lost in the jungles. A terrible can read more about it in the Day 3 portion of my journal. Made me infamous in the Philippines birding circle, as the idiot who got lost in Palawan. Actually, Ding Li told me that he and his buddy almost got lost too in these tricky forests, where paths fade into non-paths most readily.The 2 days of idyllic island hopping at El Nido (Spanish for 'The Nest', owing its name to the edible bird nests harvested from the area's limestone cliffs) were most therapeutic. We were treated to the best beaches ever, snorkelling amongst colourful fishes, and exploring the sea caves hidden amongst the stunning limestone karsts that characterize the seascape. I saw my first Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina) here. All sea snakes are highly venomous, but I remained calm, even fascinated, as I watched the graceful movements of the krait weaving in and out of corals just 2.5 meters below me. Exhilarating! Didn't dive this time round.
Even though I was island hopping, I couldn't resist birding, picking up birds like the Pacific Reef Egret (dark morph) and Slender-billed Crow. Notice the tri-coloured seas - transparent, emerald green and azure blue - truly wow quality!
It was in El Nido, during our first island hopping trip, that I was fortuitous enough to bump into a local birder who was staying at the same resort as us, Roger Cotin. Here, we just had our breakfast after seeing the Crested Goshawk, Sulphur-bellied Bulbul and tonnes of Spangled Drongos. Roger claims that there are just 2 resident birders in all of Palawan - and I was lucky enough to bump into one of them! I birded everyday in El Nido, before and after each full-day island hopping session. We came across this caged Blue-naped Parrot in the small town of El Nido looking most forlorn. For 5 sessions (mornings and evenings), I birded the slopey roads running from behind my resort, yielding fantastic close-up views of birds characteristic of El Nido's secondary forest: Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, White-bellied Munia, Black-headed Bulbul and Asian Fairy Bluebird. Notice that these birds are the same as those found in the Singapore/Malaysia home patch. This is because Palawan's avifauna is, quoting from Yong Ding Li's paper published in Singapore Avifauna "...being just west of Wallace’s line, Palawan falls right at the meeting point of the Philippine Archipelago bioregion and the Sunda Shelf bioregion of which Singapore is a
part. Therefore, the resultant fauna, birdlife in particular, has somewhat a mixture of
elements from both bioregions, although at any rate, it shares a greater similarity to fauna in
Borneo and mainland Asia." Separated by the Sulu Sea from the main Philippine Archipelago, Palawan's bird life is, as such, very different from mainland Filipino birds. Its isolation is also prime target for allopatric speciation, resulting in its 17 endemic birds. Met up with Roger Cotin again in Palawan's capital Puerto Princesa (5 hours drive or 8 hours boat ride from El Nido) where he lives. We birded the Irawan River for about an hour or so in the evening where we got birds like the Blue-naped Monarch and Palawan Flowerpecker (an endemic).
Back in Manila, we visited the San Augustin Church in the walled city of Intramuros. Constructed in 1587-1604, this is the oldest surviving church in the Philippines, where masses and weddings are still held. Love the colours and depictions in these stained glass windows of San Augustin Church. Birded Mount Palay-Palay in Ternate, Cavite with members of the Wildbird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) where I picked up lifers like the Tarictic Hornbill, Philippine Fairy Bluebird and Black-chinned Fruit-Dove.

Nicky Icarangal, member of the WBCP and my bird guide for Mt Palay-Palay. Here, we are standing on the cliff overlooking the Caylabne Bay Resort, where we picked up birds like the Philppine Swiftlet (endemic), Island Swiftlet and White-breasted Woodswallow. Nicky proved to be an excellent guide, even scoping birds for me. He guides professionally for bird tours, and can be contacted at Tel 0916-476-9529 or The latest is that he has already set up his own bird tour business. His services are highly recommended.

My full journal is horribly long, as such, I have only picked out the 2 key birding days of the trip - Days 3 (in Palawan's PPSRNP) & 9 (in Luzon's Mt Palay-Palay) - to feature here. My full annotated bird list can be found at the end of this report. Even though I painstakingly marked out crosses for the birds recorded at the various birding locales, the excel file could not be transferred wholesale into this blog without being a total mess. As such, my bird list is only categorized by general area - ie Palawan and Luzon.


Day 3 - 19 Feb 2007 Birding in Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP)

Everything at the Last Frontier Resort, and perhaps even the entire Sabang town, shuts down at 11pm everyday, with generators grinding to a halt to mark the day’s end. Thankfully, the nights were fairly cool and even without air con or fan, we slept through the night. Roused myself at 430am when my handphone alarm pierced the night. Had to grope around in the dark as I prepared for the long day ahead, using my handphone’s glow as a makeshift torch. At 530am, I was thankful that the kitchen staff had not forgotten my pre-ordered packed breakfast and lunch, even clearly labeling the sandwiches in two separate brown bags.

I walked alone into the cool night, relying entirely on night vision to navigate the dark dirt track. Loud music blasted from the guard post as I strolled past, presumably as a deterrent to intruders. Out in the streets, all was quiet as I trod my way in the direction of the breaking surf. I felt a sense of relief as I hit the beach, comforted by the coastline and the hint of dawn on the far horizon. The beach was truly beautiful in its elemental form, bathed by long gentle waves, with a lovely massif as its backdrop. But the peace was rudely shattered by the barking of suspicious dogs as I progressed down the 1 km sandy stretch, and I felt a sense of fear creep into me. I readied my torch, prepared to strike out should an attack occur.

Three of these dogs congregated on me, but thankfully they were more concerned about outdoing each other than doing me in. Then my guardian angel, a white dog that Aldrin called ‘Whitey’, made its appearance. Whitey was to follow me for the next 4½ hours, unfortunately, to the detriment of bird sightings. At first, I was wary of his intentions, quite certain that it had sniffed out my breakfast and lunch that was safely tucked away in my backpack. I thought it would stop following me when I hit the jungle trails, but alas, he gamely ambled up the stairs and trudged on with me wherever I went. Dang.

After an hour of brisk walking, covering the approximately 3km from my resort to the Central Ranger Station (600m – resort to beach, 1km – beach to mangrove paddle hut, 1.4km – mangrove paddle hut to CRS), I signed in at the log book at 640am. By then, the sun had already brightened the skies sufficiently to begin my birding in earnest. Sunrise was at 615am, and I thought that Neil Aldrin Mallari, who was also at the PPSRNP at the same time as me (16-22 Feb), would have left for his transect walk in his study of the endemic Palawan Peacock Pheasant. And so I was surprised as I walked by the staff quarters, when this friendly guy approached me and called out my name, hands outstretched in a handshake. Ah, Aldrin!

He was really nice, walking me to the start of the Jungle Trail, telling me to look out for the bend 300m from the starting point, where the 3 Flycatchers (Palawan Blue, Blue Paradise, and Citrine Canary) could be found. He also told me to follow the red markings along the way. Trails were steep, he warned. I groaned internally, envisioning it to be Chiang Dao (Nature Trail) steep, but thankfully, these trails were a lot more walkable than Chiang Dao’s. Aldrin was really sweet, he tried enticing Whitey to follow him back to base camp, but Whitey took his cue only from moi. So I had to pretend I was following behind both of them, making the dog overtake me as I stomped my feet to simulate footsteps. Dear Whitey was gone for less than 5 minutes when he suddenly shot back like an arrow, running first into the Monkey Trail, and sensing I had not taken this, backtracked and ran up the stairs of the Jungle Trail straight back to me. Damn, I was freakin’ stuck with this dog!!!

Thankfully, there were still birds that did not fear dogs (and humans). My first bird was the endemic Shelly’s Sunbird, seen very briefly as it flitted about in the sun, red shoulders very apparent and beautiful. Then a huge colourful sign marking the 300m point, caused me to stop and search for those flycatchers. There was much promising rustling in the bushes, but stare as I might, no FCs materialized. Things were slow, I encountered NO birdwaves at all in the Philippines (Ding Li described these in his Palawan Paper), and I felt somewhat bored. Dear Whitey simply laid down on the path as I birded. I felt sorry for him as millions of mozzies feasted off his doggy blood, targeting his feet (which had the least fur). His only defense was his powerful jaws, which he snapped shut often enough at these pests, but unfortunately to no avail. There was no point blaming the dog for my birdless state, as he was already suffering. My greatest fear was that he would attack the ground birds (Ashy-headed Babbler, Red-bellied Pitta, Tabon Scrubfowl, Palawan Peacock Pheasant), but Whitey proved to be very disciplined, rarely venturing ahead of me. I figured that if the dog was scaring away the ground birds, I still had my chance with tree birds.

After almost an hour of birdlessness, suddenly an endemic White-vented Shama winged across my path. Saw this bird (Ding Li calls it a Trash bird) quite a few more times. It always sang a loud pretty song, ensconced within the safety of thick undergrowth. Lots of Rufous-tailed Tailorbird called from the bushes too, and I finally sighted one up close as I chomped down my brunch, which I was obliged to share with Whitey. At first I fed Whitey the choicest chicken cuts, which he expertly and appreciatively caught in midair. Then I experimented with a little bread, and he ate that too. So at least I didn’t have to be vegetarian to dine with a dog.

I was determined to locate the source of a bird that went ‘Hwee-Tee8’, and I was quite pleased to find it with my bins after some scanning, as it sat upright in a faraway tree. My notes said ‘Blue with whitish bill, fat like a drongo’ (it sat in a deep shadows) – the endemic Blue Paradise Flycatcher. My next bird flew within 5 meters of me, as I quickly jotted down and drew its main features – the Grey-cheeked Bulbul, another lifer. Refocusing my bins, I was ecstatic to discover that a Palawan Blue Flycatcher was perched beyond the Bulbul, silent and unmoving in the forest gloom. I felt the pressure ease somewhat when I saw this endemic. Then a group of Striped-tit Babblers frolicked in a nearby tree, and I thought they looked quite different from those found in Singapore. To me, the stripes on their throat/breast were not as prominent as the Singapore species. I also had good views of a Pygmy Flowerpecker. Then quite miraculously, the elusive Melodious Babbler made its appearance, its grey face and rufous tail very apparent. Also saw the rather plain looking Mangrove Whistler. Strangely in Palawan, this bird is rarely found in mangroves, but occupies a forest niche instead.

At this point, I was nearing the 2nd ranger station at the Underground River. Whitey had already disappeared (I was hoping for good), bounding ahead towards the beginning of the UNESCO World Heritage Site – The Subterranean River, where there would be lots more folks to feed him. I was tempted to turn back and lose him for good, firmly believing that he was the cause of much birdlessness. Thank God I referred to Ding Li’s notes and realized with a jolt that I had yet to see the piece de resistance of Palawan’s avian offering – the Palawan Peacock Pheasant, which was supposed to be lurking near the Ranger Station. I had to traverse a steep limestone outcrop, descending a series of wooden stairs, braving also the Long-tailed Macaque troops as they defended their territory with rather menacing growls.

Then I saw it. The sheer stunning presence of the Palawan Peacock Pheasant drove away all dog-related blues. The dear male bird (the famous tame one that has been hanging around the Ranger Station for the last couple of years) was pecking the forest floor about 8 meters from me, in full view on the path itself, oblivious to my presence. A feeling of exultation swept over me as I savoured every detail of its resplendent feathers for the next 3 minutes: its short perky crest, bold white lined face, and the bejeweled blue ocelli on its tail. Then the bird scampered into the undergrowth, and for the next 10 minutes, I could see parts of its body even closer up as it worked the ground 3-5 meters from me. Feeling high from the sighting, I walked the 15 m to the Ranger Station where a group of rangers were barbecuing some freshly caught squid and fish, with at least 3 huge monitor lizards hanging around for scraps. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the movement of what I thought initially were chickens. Peering through my bins, I realized with a pleasant jolt that I was staring at a pair of Tabon Scrubfowl, behaving like chickens by kicking the earth to expose its tunneling inhabitants. Two 2 big lifers within the space of minutes was enough to send me into a rapturous state.

I even felt goodwill towards Whitey when I spotted him again amongst the life vest clad crowds of young Filipino awaiting their turn for the boat ride into the Subterranean River. The crowds were too thick for me to contemplate the 45-minute 2-km ride to see Palawan’s biggest tourist attraction. My friends did the ride. Lionel had to maneuver a powerful beam as the guide pointed out stalactites and stalagmites that resembled religious figures like Mother Mary etc. Marcus even caught a picture of a bat frozen in time as the flash illuminated it against the cavernous protrusions. I was surprised that the waters at The Underground River were a fetching emerald green, shimmering attractively in the morning sun (11am). Palawan Swiftlets hawked the air at the mouth of the 8km cave-river, the world’s longest.

By this time, I was nearly out of drinking water and was hoping to buy some, but depressingly, tourist facilities were sorely lacking in The Phillippines, and I was shocked that there were no vendors peddling anything, much less water. If this were Thailand, one could be expected to be swamped by now with souvenir sellers and food hawkers. I took a little break by sea, finishing up my sandwich, as numerous Glossy Swiftlets zipped about the beachfront. I was more than a little relieved that there was no Whitey around to bother me.

Along the way back, I encountered the Shelly’s sunbird again, the Grey-cheeked Bulbul and the endemic Sulphur-bellied Bulbul. As I paused to catch my breath at the mangrove swamp/limestone area, I was pleased to spot the outrageously coloured Palawan Flowerpecker, another endemic. Saw both sexes clearly, the most prominent and distinguishing feature linking the sexes being their white malar stripes. Back in the forest, a movement in the undergrowth swiveled my attention to a foraging Ashy-headed Babbler. At first, I thought this bird looked similarly colored to the Eye-browed Thrush, especially with the orange flanks on its belly. I had the impression that the Ashy-headed Babbler was a tree bird, and it was Roger Cotin who helped me ID it, when I described it to him. Earlier on, I had seen this bird, but it had been too quick for me.

My desire was also to see the Red-bellied Pitta, which Aldrin reported was harder and harder to come by. He told me that the last few times they sighted the bird, it was always perched on a rocky / limestone outcrop of some sort. With no dog in tow, I prayed for one to materialize, as I relentlessly scanned the forest floor ahead of me. No luck. Instead, I got a male Emerald Dove waddling around and prodding the ground for tid bits. I also noticed lots of black daddy-long-legs (spiders) with white eyes walking the path atop the forest litter, and a juvenile Green Crested Lizard perched on an open shrub, an agamid found also in Singapore. The afternoon sun gave way to a mild drizzle and I resigned myself to a birdless, dogless walk back.

Arriving at the Central Ranger Station, I bumped into the young Italian staying there, and asked him for water, which he generously poured out of a gallon container for me. He was there with another Italian, and both were filming the place for some documentary programme. I was envious that he could take a cool swim in the sea, a laid-back balmy lifestyle that suited me well.

Glossy green-black Spangled Drongos were prominent in their aerial displays and loud calls on the trees that surrounded the CRS. Amongst these, I found a lone Bar-bellied Cuckoo Shrike. Then I located the Asian Drongo Cuckoo that was calling incessantly, my best view so far, where I could even see the white barrings on its undertail. Also spotted the Brown Shrike and the White-throated Kingfisher. At around 230pm, I asked for Aldrin who had just finished his 6km transect walk, and was getting ready to take a much deserved nap. I wished I had a place to rest too. I asked him to show me the Loop Trail which Ding Li had drawn. He led me down a confusing path, and told me to look out for pink ribbons tied to trees, which was supposed to mark out this trail. Along the way, we both heard the familiar calls of the Asian Koel.

Then Aldrin left me, as I trudged alone into the Loop Trail. After picking my way through the thick undergrowth, in a straight line (as drawn out on Ding Li’s map) for about 100m, I realized that I could not find the trail proper. I decided to head back, and using two prominent buttress trees as markers, tried to find the path out again. After some ½ hour of searching among the thorny brambles, I found another pink ribbon and then another, and suddenly found myself back at the CRS, albeit at a point different from where I started out.

I decided that the closed forest was not where I wanted to be, and to take a real break at the beach. Godfrey the CRS ranger, joined me in the little hut facing the noon sea. We chatted about this 23-year career as a ranger. He has a wife and daughter in Puerto Princesa, but has to live 5 days, out of 7 days in the National Park. He only gets to return home on Friday afternoons. I asked him for some drinking water and he led me into a bare kitchen where he poured out boiled water from a thermos and placed my water bottle in a pail of cool water to dissipate the heat. I commented that I was quite tired, and he suggested that I take the supply ferry back to Sabang instead of having to walk the 3km back. We could already see the ferry approaching, laden with bamboo, for them to construct some structure. Since I wanted to find more birds, especially the 2 endemic parrots and Palawan Hornbill, I declined.

Godfrey preferred being by the beach in the day, as there were no mosquitoes, because of the swiftlets around. He claimed that there were no mozzies at night too, because of the bats. I was intrigued, it explained the thick concentrations of mozzies in the jungles. I told him that I had yet to see the Palawan Hornbill or the two parrots (Blue-naped and Racket-tailed). He said that all 3 birds could be found around the CRS, especially if there were fruiting trees around (he told me of one by the beach). I can only blame myself for being complacent. Earlier in the morning, I had most certainly heard all 3 birds high up on the canopy level, but I chose to focus on the undergrowth, thinking that I could catch up with them later. On the way to the fruiting tree, I bumped into Aldrin again, who enquired of the success of the Loop Trail. He was dismayed that I could not find the trail, and was determined that I should see the Falcated Ground (Wren) Babbler which can be quite easily spotted at B9, just beyond the fallen tree at B8.

He brought me back to the Loop Trail, via another entry point, and this time the trail was quite obvious, and I felt confidence returning. The only thing was that the entry point had no clear trails. I began memorizing landmarks on the way in. He asked if I had his mobile number, and should I get lost, to call him. The trail is marked with pink ribbons B1 means 100m from the CRS, B2 – 200m etc. So B9 seemed like a short 900m away. At B8, I lost the path at the humongous fallen tree. I searched for about 15 minutes, and decided to head back. The path was supposed to lead to B9 and the bird, and then turn right into the mangroves/river trail, looping back to the bridge.

By then it was already 530pm. Nightfall was about 6pm. The undulating and steep terrain did not make matters easier. The only bird I saw the entire time was the retreating form of a female Palawan Peacock Pheasant. Did not even hear the rise-fall call of the Falcated Ground Babbler. At B2.5, I was confused by the presence of a river. I recalled crossing 2 rivers on the way in, and coming upon B2.5. So I confidently stepped into the river, and heard the plopping sounds of frogs/toads jumping into the water to escape me. I couldn’t find any path at all after the river, I again used several trees as markers. I started to panic. By this time, things were getting dark and my watch read 6pm. The prospect of being trapped in a thorny, horrid forest, with hardly any water or food was very scary. I was thinking to myself, what was I doing in such a crummy place on the 2nd day of the Chinese New Year?

I kept my bins and camera and picked up my phone to call Aldrin. To my utter horror, I realized that I did not have his mobile number after all. I then decided to call WBCP president Mike Lu, who was in Hong Kong at that time, attending his grandma’s funeral. What a bad timing, I thought, to talk to Mike for the first time and instead of sending my condolences, to have to ask for help. But I had no choice. The reception was very poor in the forest, and after some difficulty (I had to hold the phone up high using my body as a conductor), I got through to Mike. There was more technical communication breakdown with about 3 calls in all, while precious minutes ticked by. I finally got Aldrin’s mobile number from Mike. As an added insurance, I told Mike where I was, at B250, in case I was not heard from again. By then, the skies were really getting dark. When my phone refused to connect with Aldrin’s because of non-existent reception, I tasted real fear. I couldn’t believe that I had got myself into such a fix. I had next to no water, very little food, my torch was not working, and there was nobody coming to rescue me. I felt like crying. I decided to go to B250 anyway.

Then I realized that I had veered myself off the main path because of the stupid river. I noticed that the path actually continued on, and I quickly ran down this way. I came to this line of planted dumbcane like plants which held another path perpendicular to the main one. I recalled seeing this plant, as one of my landmarks on the way in. The only thing was that I couldn’t recall which direction I should turn. I decided to try the right path first, which ended in a huge tree. Circumventing the tree, the path continued onwards, and I definitely didn’t remember going that far. So I headed back, trying the left path this time. Again, no luck. Then I decided to forge on ahead, following the general direction of the main path, which had by then disintegrated into jumbled jungle. About 50m onward, I suddenly saw the shapes of houses, and a sense of relief swept over me. I bashed through the shrubbery and emerged into the sprawling grounds of the CRS yet again. Phew.

I glanced at my watch – it was around 630pm. Out in the open, the skies were somewhat brighter. I decided that my priority was to get out of the jungles fast. I didn’t have time to drop by Aldrin’s. I still had 3km to go, this time on a properly marked-out path. And so I ran on, relying entirely on night vision as darkness fell. I felt some confusion when I didn’t see the bridge, and instead came upon a beach. Suddenly I remembered Whitey and our walk along the beach before coming to the forest. So I thought that the beach had to be the right way to go. The beach also reassured me, at least if I had to camp overnight, it was in an open area. I tried furiously to recall details of the 3km route. I also called Lionel to tell him that I was about 1.4km from civilization. Then before I knew it, I stepped into soft sand, with both feet sinking in completely as I had to cross a mini beach river. My waterproof Timberland was useless, as sand and water seeped into my shoes and socks via the top. A minor annoyance, I thought, compared to the ordeal I had been through.

Little did I know that the sand carried with it sandflies or biting insects of some sort. That night, I felt an itch developing and noticed some bumps on my feet which I thought was caused by wearing a soaked shoe. Back in Singapore, for the next few weeks, I suffered terribly from 70 bites on my left foot alone. The itch was incredible, with the entire area above my toes covered in dense red dots that freaked everybody out. I suppose the bites were not only from Sabang, but El Nido too, as my body itself had bites, in all, totaling about 150!

Then more barking dogs silhouetted in the dark assaulted my senses. These were quite aggressive, emerging from thatched houses and barking their lungs out as they advanced towards me. I became somewhat fearful again, I couldn’t even approach these houses to ask for directions without the risk of getting bitten. I was also afraid of stepping on nocturnal snakes. The fears were endless, but at least I knew Sabang and safety was about 1km away. Onward I forged, and finally, I saw a soothing and very welcoming sight – a beautiful, romantically lit restaurant, the Green Verde. Its owner greeted me. I asked him where Tribal Restaurant was (where my friends were dining), and he said 900m away. I felt a sense of depression as I contemplated walking another kilometer. He asked if I wanted some dinner, and out of sheer weariness, I decided to have something to eat/drink first.

Good thing I did. Ordered a very delicious Buttered Prawn with Oyster Sauce dish and rice, and drank tonnes of water. Nine fresh, succulent prawns savoured slowly calmed me down. Ah, civilization, how nice. A group of about 12 German tourists making merry by the beach contributed to the sense of relief. I finally remembered that I was on holiday and not torture camp. Then I felt more happiness as I spied Whitey amongst a group of dogs – so he made it back too!

After dinner, I loaded my bag with more water, and walked back along the dark beach. Within 5 minutes, I saw my 4 friends huddled inside a restaurant. My spirits lifted considerably, although I felt sheepish for getting lost a 3rd time. Tucked into more food – sinigang soup and the biggest cuttlefish/squid we had ever eaten, about 4 times the size of a regular big squid. Yum. Good to be with company, with torches no less, to walk the final distance to the Last Frontier resort.

PS: I had SMSed Mike immediately to tell him that I had escaped the clutches of the dark jungles, but my message couldn’t be transmitted till 2 days later. Back in Singapore, Aldrin wrote to say that he received a call at 9pm that fateful day, saying that I was lost somewhere at B250. He was having supper at that time, but he abandoned that, and put together a team of 8 to go in search of me! How touching. They went to B250, and even all the way to B600. They were relieved to learn that I was fine (only days later), and had extricated myself from the mess at 630pm. Even at Mt Palay-Palay, 6 days later, the first thing those birders greeted me was ‘I heard you were lost’. Eeeks, so embarrassing!

Day 9 - 25 Feb 2007 Birding Mount Palay-Palay in Ternate, Cavite

Roused myself at the unearthly hour of 3am to prepare to meet WBCP (Wildbird Club of the Philippines) birders at 4am for the 2-hour drive (75km) to Mt. Palay-Palay National Park in Ternate, Cavite. They came in a big jeep to pick me up at the Somerset Millennium Makati, and I was told that there were other guests too, an American couple just posted to the Philippines to work for the next 3 years. In all, there were 8 of us in 2 cars – Alex Tiongco, Tere, Nicky Icarangal, another Alex, ‘Boy’, and Americans Debbie (wildlife biologist specialising in the Mexican Spotted Owl and the Flammulated Owl, David (USAid) and moi.

Along the way there, I chatted with Tere’, a 50-plus year lady that was unusually cheery at 430am in the morning. She kept me in conversation the entire 2 hours, driving the sleep from my heavy lids eventually.

Arrived just before sunrise at 615am at Mt Palay-Palay. Relieved myself in the bushes before we began our trek down and up the 385 meters ‘mountain’. We were very lucky to be led by Nicky, a professional bird guide of 5 years with Ben King’s Kingbird Tours and Tim Fisher (who has been organising Phil tours for 20 years). Nicky had literally just finished a 2-month tour of The Philippines (since Dec 26 imagine!) with a foreign group, arriving in Manila after an 8 hour ride from Banaue (rice terraces) the night before, and he still came birding with us! I really had no reason to complain about sleepiness.

Ah, thanks to Nicky’s sharp eyes and Kowa scope, we were soon enjoying good views of my first lifer, the endemic Philippines Fairy Bluebird. Lifer upon lifer came forth as we birded the wide granite strewn path flanked by forest on both sides.

We tried to draw out certain birds with Nicky excellent set-up of I-Pod bird recordings and speaker attached professionally to his belt. The Spotted Wood Kingfisher and White-browed Shama responded beautifully, but to our utmost frustration, remained well hidden behind and/or amongst the bushes, just out of sight. Only Alex Tiongco caught sight of the KF, while the rest of us walked away empty handed.

I noticed that recorded calls were almost always repetitive and monotonal, versus the actual calls of the birds when they responded, which not only had the motif in the recording, but a more varied and colourful repertoire that floors the imagination. Because I had begun to notice and become familiar with bird calls after one year in the field and much listening of the NSS bird call CD, I had earlier realised in Sabang that birds gave out more than one call. For example, just outside my room at the Last Frontier Resort (now renamed the Green Forest Paradise Resort), was the strange opening tune of the Plaintive Cuckoo that sounded like a variation of the song ‘This old man, he played one…’, which I thought at first was someone whistling. Then, the same bird produced its familiar dropping notes. I knew that both calls came from the same bird because of similar tonal qualities and timbre.

I became especially inspired when I learnt that this bird guide in Central/South America was so good with bird calls and songs that he had the honour of 'discovering’ the most new species of birds in recent years, based on their unique vocalisations. I have also been reading lots of scientific literature on the fundamental role of bird calls to the birds themselves, which was key in identifying one bird to another of the same species, and was especially vital in mating rituals. In El Nido, I was determined to see this bird with a strange whining call, and was quite taken aback when I found out that it was produced by the ubiquitous Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, a bird that I already knew had a wide range of calls. So the NSS CD is truly one-dimensional. We do not get to appreciate the full range and beauty of bird calls from that CD alone. But I suppose field recordings does have its difficulties. Also, its terribly confusing learning calls that are all jumbled up, and not in taxonomic order. The CD was quite obviously placed in order of recording and not taxonomy. So when international birders I’ve birded with mention that a certain bird had a ‘tit-like’ call, I had next to no idea what they meant, although I had listened to tit calls up and down Japan. Have only myself to blame for being terribly non-gifted in this aspect of birding. Ah, still much to learn.

While waiting for the Spotted Wood Kingfisher to make its appearance, a Grey-backed Tailorbird was calling loudly from a low shrub, but none of us managed to locate it. Philippine Bulbuls were prominent in their loud calls, group gatherings, and bold flying, making them the most conspicuous birds at Palay-Palay. We were very lucky to encounter flocks of Tarictic (Luzon) Hornbills that totalled about 17 in all, majestic birds that were much desired. One Rufous Hornbill seemed to be mixed with this flock, which was perched for a long time in a tree. Two Rufous Hornbills flew by, giving some of us good views. At that time of the fly-by, I was admiring the scoped view of the Bar-bellied Cuckoo Shrike.

Another lifer for me was the Grey-streaked Flycatcher, which turned out to be quite common (about 5 individuals seen alone throughout the trail). We had good views of both female and male Blue Rock Thrush. The male looked particularly alluring with its blood red belly contrasting with its Grey Blue feathers, very different from those found in Northern Thailand.

Then, two Greater Flameback flew into the same bare tree as the Tarictic Hornbills, splendid in their perky crowns and bold red feathers, again looking very different from the Common Flameback back home. Woodpeckers always make me happy. Then Nicky and I spotted some activity near the canopy level and upon looking at the bird, I thought it was a Green Imperial Pigeon, but Nicky knew better. He scoped for me the Black-chinned Fruit Dove, where I could clearly see its diagnostic black chin. The scope really was a big help in pinpointing exact IDs.

Then the familiar birds of Singapore began to show. The sharp eyes of Alex and Tere found us the incessant ‘pok pok pok’ call of the Coppersmith Barbet, a lifer for the Americans. In fact, practically every bird was a lifer for them. We also got the Yellow-vented Bulbul, Black-naped Oriole and Brahminy Kite. Thankfully, the birds in Luzon overlap only minimally with Singapore’s birds (belonging to the Sunda region). To me, this provided far more exciting birding than at Palawan, which shares a huge proportion of birds with the Sunda/Bornean region.

Glossy and Pygmy Swiftlets were constantly gleaning the air for its insects. The air was also alive with the calls of hidden birds that stayed hidden. Such birds included the deep coos of the Luzon Bleeding Heart (a No. 1 endemic dove) emanating from thick cover, the Elegant Tit, the Colasisi (this mini parrot flew by at least twice, but I was too complacent to raise my bins), Philippine Trogon, White-eared Brown Dove, Sooty Woodpecker and White-browed Shama. The White-browed Shama was particularly vexing. We spent nearly ½ hour trying to draw it out with tapes, even trudging through thick undergrowth to find it. But much to our dismay, we didn’t.

I was very pleased with the birding at Palay-Palay. Lifers piled up quickly. Next on the circuit came the Pygmy Flowerpecker (saw it earlier in Palawan), the Red Keeled Flowerpecker (juvenile), and the Philippine Coucal, which flew across our paths, giving me clear views of its magnificent coat, reminiscent of the Greater Coucal. Then my trip favourite entered the scene, the unique Red-crested Malkoha, which we saw about 4 times in all, once very clearly through Nicky’s scope. The bare red face of the Coleto also proved a curious sight, but I dipped out on the Balicassiao which flew by in a flurry of feathers.

Alex next located the high perch of the tiniest Filipino raptor the Philippine Falconet, which again we got good views of in the scope. I was really thankful to Nicky for generously guiding, scoping, calling out birds thru tapes, and identifying them for us. It made forest birding that much more enjoyable. We also saw the black and white wings of an escaping Osprey.

The skies held a soaring Philippine Serpent Eagle as the rays of the sun intensified. This is a recent split from the Crested SE, and the bird constantly emitted a high-pitch scream. Then I caught an unsatisfactory glimpse of the parrot Guaibero, as it hopped from a lower to a higher branch. I had only myself to kick for not bothering to take a closer look as it flew by on at least 5 earlier occasions.

Our last bird of Palay-Palay was the Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, to me indistinguishable from the Sunda Pygmy. At least the Grey-capped (Kirirom) and Japanese Pygmy looked slightly different.

We rewarded ourselves with bah kwa (courtesy of moi), dried Cebu mangoes, peanuts, guazhi, tuna sandwiches and cold orange juice (courtesy of Alex). Then both cars drove out to the look-out point which gave us fantastic views of Caylabne resort and its adjoining blue seas. Over here, I added another 3 lifers – the Philippine Swiftlet (with an off-white rump), the Island (Uniform) Swiftlet and the White-bellied Wood Swallow.

I was quite embarrassed to learn that the trip was planned around me. Usually, Palay-Palay was a full day’s birding, but because of my 830pm flight, it was a morning only session. Since we still had time, Tere suggested checking out the coast of Manila Bay (Coastal Lagoon). We drove the 2 hours there, while Nicky and I napped, with a toilet break at a Castrol station in between. Finally, we arrived at a dilapidated hut standing over waters, near the Mall of Asia (a sprawling complex that is 3 times the size of Glorietta). We were quite disappointed to see that it was high-tide. But the combined sharp eyes of all birders helped spot the Great Egret, Little Egret, Little Heron and Grey Heron on the far banks. Lots of Whiskered Terns criss-crossed the air above the waters and I stared hard, trying to locate the white rump of a White-winged Tern, to no avail. Then we spotted a flock of possible Common Greenshank flying faraway, while Alex located a similar flock of Black-winged Stilt, my last lifer of the trip!

After that, we proceeded to a bay side strip of restaurants, for our lunch at Gerry’s Grill. Good Filipino food. At least I got my last taste of my favourite Siningang soup. Then they dropped me off at the Somerset at 430pm. I repacked my stuff, and at 5pm, decided to take a walk to the park nearby. Over here, I only spotted the Brown Shrike and plenty of Yellow-vented Bulbuls, apart from the ubiquitous Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Hopped over to the convenience store opposite the Somerset for some bakery products for dinner. Then Sze Wei returned, and I got to meet her pregnant friend and husband, rich Filipinos that lived a pampered life.

It was the airport next, and we both managed to slip water into the aircraft (liquids are banned as they could be potential explosives). Chatted with Sze Wei in the waiting lounge while the clock ticked on, marking the 1-hour delay of the flight.

Then it was the misery of a 3½ hour budget flight (Cebu Pacific) back home. All the time, we were seated in a ramrod straight chair. I realised only later that it was because we were in the row before the exit row, and as such, chairs could not be lowered. Despite the discomfort, we slept on, in all sorts of inventive positions till we arrived at 1am at the Budget Terminal. Luckily, both of us had the latest biometric passport, which allowed instant clearance at customs. Then it was a quick cab ride back to home sweet home.

List of Birds Seen In Palawan
Birding Spots: Sabang, PPSRNP (Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park), El Nido, Puerto Princesa (town) & Irawan River

Pacific Reef Egret Egretta sacra (Dark morph)
2 birds. On sand spit near the resorts, seen on the boat that took us island hopping.
Little Heron Butorides striatus
Lone bird on rocky river bed. Seen while birding with Roger Cotin
Great-billed Heron Ardea sumatrana
Lone bird, flying over Sabang in the evening, back to its roost.
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Lone bird, hiding in trees.
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Seen one by one, perched in fields, over sand flats, rivers etc.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
All over countryside, in association with cattle. Stands at the head of water buffalos to pick up insects stirred up by grazing herd. Flies in flocks to roosting site in the evenings.
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Relatively uncommon compared to Cattle Egret. Both speices feed together.
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
I seem to have affinity with this bird. Seen in all 4 of my latest trips - Sp, Jpn, Doi & Phil.
Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus
Apparently domestic fowl also have the white rump, according to Roger, so only way to be sure it’s a wild bird is to see it in wild places.
Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi
On hot airport tarmac, out in the open!
Snipe (unidentified, possibly Swinhoe's)
Bambua Resort - flushed from fields. Didn't get good looks.
Palawan Peacock Pheasant Polyplectron emphanum
Tame bird just behind the Underground River Ranger Station - grazing on the path, in full breathtaking.view. Even when it dashed for cover, it was less than 5 m away. 10 minutes of oogling! Saw separate female on Loop Trail, flushed and escaping from moi.
Tabon Scrubfowl Megapodius cummingii
A pair, grazing together. Found about 30m from the Peacock Pheasant. Fantastic views, altho both retreated into cover when they spied me. Behaved like chickens, kicking the ground constantly.
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus palawanus
Only lifer birding with Roger. Saw one bird first, then later on, 3 in all, perched high and flying in their fluttering Accipiter style. Droopy crest, and striped belly were diagnostic.
Green Imperial Pigeon Ducula aenea
First lifer of the trip. Saw it the moment we checked into Bambua, 2 birds perched high on a leafless tree. Everybody (Sze Wei, Marcus, Lionel & Andrew) got looks at it, altho some couldn't see its green wings. Low booming call. Saw it again in the Jungle Trail. Perched high.
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis
City bird
Peaceful Dove Geopelia striata
City bird. Common in Puerto. Flocks of it.
Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica
On Jungle Trail.
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Spotted its nest at Intramurros, on exposed coconut tree! Parent crop-feeding all-white baby. Thought it could be Pied Imperial Pigeon, but Nicky confirmed it was a Rock. Photos.
Asian Drongo Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris
Very good looks, even saw white barrings on its tail, at Central Ranger Stn. Calling strongly.
Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus
Learnt its pre-call - sounding like 'This Old Man…' song. Woke me up, thought it was someone whistling. Calling just outside room at The Last Frontier. Ding Li told me later that most cuckoos have this call, incl the Rusty-breasted.
Chestnut-breasted Malkoha Phaenicophaeus curvirostris
My fav bird, 2 of them appeared in scrubby vegetation, on the road up from El Nido (Lally & Abet). V happy to see them.
Lesser Coucal Centropus benghalensis
Heard in countryside.
Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis
Heard in countryside.
Edible-nest Swiftlet Collocalia fulciphaga
While island hopping, at Big Lagoon - saw it flying in and out of cave nest. Also saw it in the caves.
Palawan Swiftlet (E)Aerodramus palawanensis
At mouth of Subterranean River.
Glossy Swiftlet Collocalia esculenta
Everywhere - beaches, countryside, etc. Godffrey, the ranger, said that beaches tend to be mosquito free because of these birds patrolling the skies there. Also, mosquitoes don't bite at night because of feeding bats. Interesting tid-bits there!
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
Collared Kingfisher Halcyion chloris
Countryside bird.
Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica
Countryside bird.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Countryside bird.
Brown-backed Needletail Hirundapus giganteus
Nicky alerted me to this. I recalled seeing a HUGE swift, flying 8m above the Glossy Swiftlets, yet looking 3 times its size.
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Common in the countryside, esp in El Nido. Also at Intramurros, and hotel garden.
Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Roger said this is a relatively uncommon bird. But I saw it on 3 occassions at least, perched high.
Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike Coracina striata
Bad views at PPSRNP, good views at Palay-Palay, thru Nicky's Kowa scope no less!
Yellow-throated Leafbird Chloropsis palawanensis
First seen at Bambua. Several individuals calling noisily to each other. Close-up views in El Nido and Irawan.
Common Iora Aegithina tiphia

Black-headed (Palawan) Bulbul Pycnonoctus atriceps
Tere' asked if I saw the Palawan Bulbul, I said 'huh?'. Found out from her that some consider this a split from the Black-headed. Ding Li confirmed this, but for the time being, I'll still consider it a non-lifer.
Olive-winged Bulbul Pycnonoctus plumosus
Surprisingly, found one calling loudly in the city, just outside our Puerto Princesa hotel (Asturias). Good views.
Grey-cheeked Bulbul Criniger bres
The most common bulbul around.
Sulphur-bellied Bulbul Hypsipetes palawanensis
Quite confusing trying to tell the Bulbuls apart.
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
Side-by-side with the Spangled, the Ashy looks slimmer, smaller and more petite. From far, coat colour appears jet-black too.
Spangled Drongo Dicrurus hottentotus
Dunno why, but it didn't look quite so spectacular as in Kirirom, where I saw 2 fellas glowing kaleidoscopically in the morning sun. When I got lost the 1st night, they were still calling noisily even though it was already dusk, could see it only because it was silhouetted. Also thought I saw the Spotted Wood Owl (or a big bird) flying near the drongos, but I was more concerned with finding my way back to Bambua than looking at birds then.
Asian Fairy Bluebird Irena puella
Fantastic close-range eye-level views everyday at El Nido (downslope tree). 1-2 of them each time. Its special because this is usually a hard-to-see canopy bird.
Slender-billed Crow Corvus enca
Was amused by its deep throaty call, the 2nd bird encountered at Sabang, just outside our Bambua rooms, before we moved to the Last Frontier Resort. Much smaller than our House Crow.
Ashy-headed Babbler Tichastoma cinereiceps
Hopping on the ground, cute, inquisitive bird. Had the wrong impression that this was a tree babbler, so was glad that Roger helped ID it. Good and long views.
Melodious Babbler Malacopteron palawanense
Saw it at least twice. Although I didn't pay attention to its call. I hope I didn't confuse it with the Striped Tit-Babbler, which looked quite different from those found in Singapore.
Striped Tit-Babbler Macronous gularis
Loud 'chunk chunk' calls emnating from bushes, throughout the forest. This bird looks different from the Singapore variety, with less stripes on its throat/breast!
White-vented Shama Copsychus niger
Prominent flasher of a bird. Esp in the gardens surrounding the ranger station.
Rufous-tailed Tailorbird Orthotomus sericeus
Common bird, heard more often than seen, with a variety of calls. Including a strange un-bird like call heard in the countryside of El Nido.
Palawan Blue Flycatcher Cyornis lemprieri
Was looking at a GC Bulbul, refocused my lenses and saw the Palawan Blue FC behind the Bulbul! One of my high points, although it was sitting in rather dim lighting. At least the pressure was off for this key endemic.
Blue Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone cyanescens
A noisy bird, calling incessantly high up in a tree, upright pose. Reminded me of a Verditer FC. Also saw it flitting in the sun at El Nido, lovely pale blue.
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
Surprised to find it on my first birding session at El Nido! Beautiful. Saw both male and female specimens at Irawan.
Mangrove Whistler Pachycephala grisola
A dull brown job. So non-descript that I didn't know what to put down in my note book except brown on back, white underneath. On Palawan, this bird has increased its range to include the forest, and is ironically seldom seen in the mangroves.
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis
Fly-by specimens, IDed based on jizz. Confirmed by Roger.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Street bird
Olive-backed Sunbird Nectarinia jugularis aurora
Street bird, but pretty one. Aurora subspecies with extra orange patch on yellow undersides.
Shelley’s Sunbird Aethopyga shelleyi
The red on the shoulders caught the sun and positively glowed. Pity I didn't get very good looks.
Little Spiderhunter Arachnothera longirostris
Haha, with Roger, I annouced it as an 'Ugly Sunbird' at my first glimpse. Hazukashi desu ne.
Palawan Flowerpecker Prionichilus plateni
A beauty. Tame and confiding, both Mr and Mrs. Especially fantastic views at Irawan.
Pygmy Flowerpecker (E)Dicaeum pygaeum
Moved in flocks. Saw it first high up feasting on coconut flowers at the cemetry close to El Nido.
White-bellied Munia Lonchura leucogastra
Got it twice, evening and next morning birding in the underbrush.
Chestnut Munia Lonchura malacca
Four tiny ones flew into the garden at the Asturias. Always a stunner in my books. Somehow, I love munias. Cute little uns
Luzon Birds - Not in taxonomic order, but in order of sighting

List of Birds Seen In Luzon
Birding Spots: Intramurros, Mount Palay-Palay (in Cavite, 2 hours drive from Manila) & Manila Bay

Whiskered TernChlidonias hybrida
Lots of it zipping above the waters of the Pasig River and Manila Bay
Great EgretCasmerodius albus
Too bad it was high tide, this bird was on the opposite bank.
Grey HeronArdea cinerea

Little HeronButorides striatus

Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus

Collared KingfisherHalcyion chloris

Black-headed GullLarus ridibundus

Philippine Fairy Bluebird (E)Irena cyanogaster

Philippine Bulbul (E)Ixos philippinus

Tarictic Hornbill (E)Penelopides panini

Grey-streaked FlycatcherMuscicapa griseisticta

Blue Rock ThrushMonticola solitarius philippensis

Greater Flameback (E)Chrysocolaptes lucidus haematibon

Rufous Hornbill (E)Buceros hydrocorax

Grey-backed Tailorbird (E)Orthotomus derbianus

Black-chinned Fruit-Dove (E)Ptilinopus leclancheri

Coppersmith BarbetMegalaima haemacephala

Glossy SwiftletCollocalia esculenta

Pygmy Swiftlet (E)Collocalia troglodytes

Yellow-vented BulbulPycnonotus Goiavier

Spotted Wood-Kingfisher (E)Actenoides lindsayi

Luzon Bleeding Heart (E)Gallicolumba luzonica

Pygmy Flowerpecker (E)Dicaeum pgymaeum

Red-keeled Flowerpecker (E)Dicaeum australe

Philippine Coucal (E)Centropus viridis

Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike Coracina striata

Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis

Red-crested Malkoha (E)Phaenicophaeus superciliosus

Coleto (E)Sarcops calvus

Brahminy KiteHaliastur indus

Philppine Falconet (E)Microhierax erythrogenys

OspreyPandion haliaetus

Philippine Serpent Eagle (E)Spilornis holospilus

Elegant Tit (E)Parus elegans

Guaiabero (E)Bolbopsittacus lunulatus
Saw only a v v brief glimpse, thru bins. BVD.
Colasisi (E)Loriculus pilippensis

Philippine Trogan (E)Harpactes ardens

White-eared Brown Dove (E)Phapitreron leucotis

Sooty Woodpecker (E)Mulleripicus funebris

White-browed Shama (E)Copsychus luzoniensis

Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker (E)Dendrocopos maculatus

Philippine Swiftlet (E)Collocalia mearnsi

Island SwiftletCollocalia vanikorensis

White-breasted WoodswallowArtamus leucorynchus

Rock PigeonColumba livia

Brown ShrikeLanius cristatus