Philippines Part IV: Mindanao (PICOP)

Mindanao, PICOP

24th Dec.

It’s Christmas Eve, and here I am in the legendary Paper Country Inn in Bislig. This is where all or at least most of the birders coming to this area stay. It’s a nice enough place. The reason for being here is to visit the even more legendary Paper Industry Corporations of the Philippines logging area, otherwise known as PICOP. This is one of the few remaining areas of lowland forest on Mindanao, and is rapidly disappearing. When the paper industries where here, the forest was selectively logged. The biggest trees were taken out, but by and large, the forest remained. Now the industries have gone, opening up the entire area to illegal settlers who have clear felled, slashed and burnt their way through this forest, so that only fragments remain. The settlers are clearly here to stay, we saw shiny new telegraph poles along the new streets and electricity was being installed everywhere. The message is simple. PICOP and its remaining wildlife have a very limited life span remaining.

It was still possible to find most of the specialities in the remaining forest patches, it’s just very depressing to bird them. On this first day in the area, we saw a few nice species. I got very lucky and had brief but close views of a Mindanao Wattled Broadbill, but this species was to elude Tim and Bram completely. We also stopped off at a stakeout for the Silvery Kingfisher, this being the “Southern” race and a potential future split from the birds we saw previously on Bohol.

Southern Silvery Kingfisher (1) Southern Silvery Kingfisher (19) Southern Silvery Kingfisher (3)

Southern Silvery Kingfisher 

The weather was rapidly conspiring against us, and we eventually gave up mid-afternoon, soaked and dejected. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at Bislig airfield, which proved rather good. The runway is bordered by wet rice and other marshy fields, and we got lucky with decent views of a Philippine Swamphen. This is (again!) a potential split, this time from the widespread Purple Swamp Hen found from Spain all the way across Africa, southern Asia and Australasia. It’s either a very variable species or worth splitting into several species. I’ll not hold my breath with this one though. There were also several unidentified snipes here. They could have been Swinhoe’s or Pintail, but seeing as you can’t identify them on brief flush views, that’s what they had to remain as. I also seem to remember a slightly smaller snipe, which I guess could have been Japanese, but again, views are so brief and in flight that it feels fairly pointless (and most likely wrong!) to try and put a name to these. The highlight of the airfield for me though were the couple of King Quail that we flushed from long grass and we actually got semi-decent views of. An unexpected tick, and very nice after missing them in Taiwan.

Philippine Swamphen (3) - Copy

Philippine Purple Swamphen

Tragically, I came down with my seemingly annual Christmas virus at this point, and suffered the onset of headaches, snotty nose and general malaise. There is nothing in this Earth worse than manflu! I was in bed by 1910hrs, hoping for a good night ready for tomorrow.

25th Dec.

Merry Christmas! What a day of mixed emotions. I spent most of it wishing I was in bed, but this was PICOP and there were birds to be seen. There is no choice in these situations. Man up, and get those birds on the list! A horrendously early start saw us travelling to “road 42”, although how we got there I do not know. Due to the rough and wet nature of the roads and tracks within PICOP, you need to hire a Jeepney to get there from Bislig. Our particular jeepney was driven by a manic, and we nearly skidded off the road a few times, a situation not helped by the bald tyres! It then developed chronic failure disease, and sounded like the gearbox was going to fall out every time we went up an incline.  Eventually, there was a proper clanging and the driver stopped. After a short discussion, it was decided that we would carry on walking towards our goal. This actually worked out very well for us, as we soon stumbled across many of our outstanding target species, including one excellent feeding flock that contained several species that were new and we wouldn’t see again. Naked-faced Spiderhunter and Philippine Leafbird were two such examples, but the highlight of the flock were the pair of Short-crested Monarchs. Such stunning birds, they also served to wet the appetite for what was to follow. I was actually disappointed when the jeepney finally showed up, still merrily clanging away to itself. We drove further along the trail before eventually stopping and setting off on foot again. It took a few hours of seeing very little before we finally heard our main target; the aptly named Celestial Monarch. I have to say that it was worth it.  He sat in a tree next to the trail, singing and with his crest raised and wafting about like a crazed punk. Unfortunately the light was terrible, but we moved position and luckily so did the monarch, giving us even better views and some record shots. As we walked further on a short way, a pair of Rufous Hornbills with young showed distantly, and that was about it. A really hard days birding with heavy rain, a draining illness and very low bird density, but we had seen several new endemics, including some that we wouldn’t see again and most importantly, the legendary Celestial Monarch.

Rufous Hornbills (2)

Southern Rufous Hornbill

Short-crested Monarch (4) Short-crested Monarch (2)

Short-crested Monarch

Celestial Monarch (5) - Copy Celestial Monarch (1) - Copy Celestial Monarch (23) - Copy Celestial Monarch (26) - Copy

Celestial Monarch

Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher (4)

Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher

Guibaro (3) - Copy

Guibaro

The following day saw probably our earliest start yet, with a ridiculous 0330hrs start. Bram seemed to delight in telling us the early starts to see our faces drop, but he was right, we needed to get to PICOP early to attempt to see Mindanao Hawk Owl and keep our hopes of seeing all the possible owls on this trip. I think we had 13 species possible on our itinerary, and so far so good. We’d scored the potentially tricky Giant Scops, plus Negros and Everett’s Scops. However, this morning our luck deserted us. The jeepney was still suffering the advanced stages of complete failure, and the usual severe rattling going up inclines was replaced by a sickening thump as a large rotating part fell off. Amazingly, the driver patched it up, but insisted on going back to Bislig to get it fixed properly.  We headed into the forest for probably our worst days birding so far. We failed to find any flocks, and we spent a long time trying to find the Mindanao Wattled Broadbill as Tim had missed it on the first day. We gave up late morning sometime and spent a few hours sleeping in an abandoned security guards hut. It was ok inside, apart from the dead mouse on the pile of eaten corn. I discovered that my thin foam foldable travel seat combined with my Tilley hat for a pillow was all the bedding I needed to sleep on a wooden floor. The afternoon brought little new, but we did finally manage to locate and see a Mindanao Hawk Owl, even if I was an idiot and had my camera on the wrong settings.

Chocolate Boobook (2) - Copy

Chocolate Boobook

Rainforest view, PICOP Rainforest view, PICOP (5)

PICOP views

And so our time in Mindanao came to an end. We’d missed several species, but had seen some truly spectacular birds. The people had been very friendly and I was sorry to leave. Our original plan had involved going to the larger and more intact forest in the far west of Mindanao around the town of Zamboanga. However, these plans were altered a few weeks before the trip started due to an uprising and hostage situation over there. It’s in the Muslim Autonomous area and is the nearest city to the Sulu Islands, so we thought discretion is the better part of valour and all that. It did mean dipping on a few species, but I’ll go back at some point when life is better there. While we were in the Philippines, the mayor of Zamboanga flew to Manilla and was shot dead as he left the airport, along with his close family. Tensions were obviously high, and I’m glad we didn’t risk going to Zamboanga. Obviously, I’ll be going back to Mindanao at some point in the future. There’s about 18-20 endemics left for me to see on here, which is a surprising amount and certainly enough to make a second trip worthwhile at some point. The trouble is they are mostly very difficult, with a few of them not yet being seen by some of the resident Philippine birders!

The whole of the 27th was spent travelling from Bislig to Puerto Princesa on Palawan, via the usual crazy drive on Mindanao from Bislig to Batuan, then a flight to Manila and finally a flight to Puerto Princesa.

Philippines part II. Negros, Bohol and Mt Kitanglad

Negros

12th Dec

Ok, so the team was not quite complete. I completely forgot that we awoke very early to catch our flight to Negros, and Jim Holmes was waiting for us in the lobby. I tried to think of a joke involving two Englishmen, two Belgians and an American, but couldn’t. We flew to Dumaguete City at the southern tip of the isle of Negros and went straight to the twin lakes of Balinsasayo. The main targets here were the suite of species endemic to the Visayas, those large islands in the centre of the Philippine archipelago. Unfortunately, they have suffered from extensive deforestation, and there are only a few spots left on each island where any of the special birds can be find.

Arriving at the lakes, new species started to flow immediately, as Maroon-naped and Magnificent Sunbirds were feeding outside the restaurant area.

Magnificent Sunbird (1)

Magnificent Sunbird 

Maroon-naped Sunbird (24)

Maroon-naped Sunbird

Unfortunately, recent troubles with bandits had resulted in the watchtower being burnt down. Our chances of Visayan Hornbill were now much reduced, but we headed off along a trail into the forest. We soon found ourselves a frenetic feeding flock, comprised mostly of Visayan Bulbuls commuting back and forth to a fruiting tree. Others in attendance included our first Elegant Tits, Sulphur-billed Nuthatches, Visayan Fantail, Yellow-throated Warbler, “Visayan” Balicassio and Green-backed Talorbird. There was also a brief Flame-templed Babbler, but I just couldn’t get on to it. This was incredibly frustrating. I’d heard stories of how difficult birding in the Philippines was, and how easy it was to miss birds in feeding flocks, but I just assumed I was good enough to catch up with everything. I was wrong. Everyone else managed tickable views of it, but everytime I raised my binoculars all I saw was the same things as before. Every trip has its major dips, I just wasn’t counting on having one so soon. Still, worse things have befallen me in life, so I soldiered on!

We then took a small boat out onto the lake to try for a few new species. We heard White-winged Cuckooshrike but they remained hidden, but we did manage views of Visayan Hornbill. Not sure if these birds are released or not, but we ticked them nonetheless. The great swiftlet debate started today as well, as we struggled to identify many of the swiftlets that buzzed us over the next few weeks. These were finally identified as Glossy, but the rest of the day proved pretty frustrating as we heard a few species we just couldn’t see – most importantly Negros Scops Owl and Philippine Hawk Owl. Still, we had plenty of time to score them…

The following day we started early and started the long drive and climb up Mt Mantiquil. It’s one of the last surviving forest patches in southern Negros and harbours some really special birds. It took us over 2 hrs to get to the “base camp” where we had a welcome breakfast, followed by a long 2 hr slog up a steep and exposed path to get to the forest patch. A gale was blowing which threatened to blow us off the ridge, but we eventually reached the trees and started the search. We heard a call and a managed a quick flight view of our main target species, only to see it disappear rapidly into the distance. Cursing my luck with endemic babblers, we continued the search and eventually managed to pin down a pr of White-winged Cuckooshrikes. Things were slowly starting to drop into place, and we then finally jammed into a feeding flock. Lots of Mountain White-eyes, a Little Pied Flycatcher and a Turquoise Flycatcher, when suddenly there they were; at least four Negros Striped Babblers up in the canopy amid the flock. With the targets in the bag, we decided to move down the mountain. The wind had dropped off completely by now, and the swifts and hirundines were out in force. Hundreds of the newly split Ameline Swiftlets were hawking over the lower slopes, along with several Pygmy Swiftlets. Several House Swifts and Striated Swallows were nice, but they couldn’t compete with the stunning (if rather distant) Purple Needletails hawking over the valley like small fighter planes. Much rarer in a local context was the juvenile Asian House Martin we found over the small settlement, exactly where our local guide said it would be! Apparently present for a while, this is a bit of local mega and a Philippine tick for Bram. Always a good sign when the guide gets a tick!

Turquoise Flycatcher (4)Island Verditer-flycatcher (Negros & panay race, nominate panayensis)

Philippine Serpent Eagle (2)

Philippine Serpent Eagle

Olive-backed Sunbird (1)

Olive-backed Sunbird

Ameline Swiftlet (36) Ameline Swiftlet (32)

Ameline Swiftlets

Leaving the mountain behind, we drove to our local guides house where he has a reforestation program, and several resident owls. After a frustrating few attempts, when we could hear but not see them, we finally managed to coax a Negros Scops Owl into a tree right above us, giving great views.

Negros Scops Owl (6)

Negros Scops Owl

Back at the hotel Chris and I soon got to grips with local customs. A “lady” that Chris said hi to very briefly in the lobby just stood up and followed us upstairs. Chris seemed blissfully ignorant, but when she tried to come in my room Chris looked hilariously shocked. I politely turned her away and Chris scuttled off down the corridor, a mixture of embarrassment and wonder. We learnt later that she had been thrown out of the hotel completely, but only after they realised that we weren’t interested.

Bohol

The following day saw another early start as we were on our way to the island of Bohol. Due to a very inconvenient cancelling of the ferry route, we were forced to fly to Cebu City and then get the ferry from Cebu to Bohol. Landing at Cebu airport, it was sobering to see a line-up of C130 “Hercules” aircraft on the apron. They were here to help with the relief effort from Typhoon Yolanda.

Eventually finding the harbour, we managed to negotiate the complicated quays and found the right area to wait for our ride to Bohol. The Oceanjet fast ferry was true to its name and two hours after leaving the harbour, we arrived in Bohol. Driving through the island, we saw the after effects of the recent earthquake. Many of the houses were undamaged, but many were not. Some were in the process of being torn down for safety reasons. The old, Spanish built churches had been badly hit and had nearly all collapsed.

After checking into the hotel, we drove the short distance to the Rajah Sikatuna protected area stopping along the way to look for and score the stunning Silvery Kingfisher. This cracking tiny bundle of black and silver occurs in the southern half of the Philippines. The birds on Bohol are of the northern race and are sometimes split as Northern Silvery Kingfisher from the, wait for it, Southern Silvery Kingfisher on Mindanao. Arriving at Rajah Sikatuna, we stayed around the central clearing near the “visitor centre”, and waited for dusk. Quickly onto the list was the incredible Colugo. This bonkers arboreal mammal spends its life clinging sloth-like to trees, but then has incredible bursts of activity as it launches itself into the air and glides to the next tree. Unfortunately, being nocturnal it’s quite difficult to photograph it mid-flight. No doubt this is an adaptation to avoid predation from the Philippine Eagle. Sadly, this is an adaptation that may soon be completely superfluous, and already is across much of its range as the eagle continues to decline.

Our main targets here were the nightbirds, and after some effort we managed good but brief views of Everett’s Scops Owl and more prolonged views of Philippine Hawk Owl. Sadly we couldn’t get views of the Philippine Frogmouth that was calling close to us.

Northern Silvery Kingfisher (9)Northern Silvery Kingfisher (25)

Northern Silvery Kingfisher

Philippine Colugo (36)

Philippine Colugo

Purple-throated Sunbird (47)

Purple-throated Sunbird

Dec 15th, and a long hard day dawned. Another stupid o clock start for a pre-dawn entry into the forest along the Oriole Trail. Our main two targets were Azure-breasted Pitta and Visayan Broadbill, both of which steadfastly refused to appear, despite a concentrated effort with the tape. We did manage to dig out a few other specialities, including Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Streaked Ground Babbler and Black-crowned Babbler among others. Some Samar Hornbills were continually vocal but only gave flight views. We decided to try another trail, this one near the swimming pool. James and Mark actually got brief views of a pitta while I was cunningly distracted by a beetle, and despite waiting there and using the tape for a long while we couldn’t find it again. We did find a Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher, and then finally after what seemed an epoch of blasting its call out, a Visayan Broadbill appeared next to the trail and gave great views. A female, it was soon joined by an adult male and a presumed younger male. Further night birding failed to produce the frogmouth or any owls.

Visayan Wattled Broadbill (49)

Visayan Wattled Broadbill (56)

Visayan Broadbills

We had all the following morning back in Rajah Sikatuna, and we needed it! I was getting pretty sick of the sound of Azure-breasted Pitta by now, as Bram was trying to lure one in every few meters along the trail. Again, we managed to dig out several things, and new birds today included Philippine Drongo Cuckoo, Amethyst Brown Dove, Philippine Trogon and Philippine Leaf Warbler. Just as the chips were landing for the finally time, we rounded the final corner of the trail to start the slog back to the start when I saw something odd fly into a tree ahead of us. Ducking and twisting to get a view through the branches, I saw the immortal azure breast blaze of a pitta staring back at me. PITTA! I hissed to the guys around me, and then thankfully it put on an incredible show for us over the next 30 minutes, perching up in full view and foraging on the ground as we jostled for the best photographic spots. No doubt this will be one of the birds of the trip, and we’re only on day 6!

Azure-breasted Pitta (243)

Azure-breasted Pitta (or Steere’s Pitta)

Philippine Drongo Cuckoo (2)

Philippine Drongo Cuckoo

Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Mark and Chris who were both staying on Bohol for an extra day before heading home to Belgium. Tim, James and I were off on the next part of the trip, and were heading to Mindanao via the ferry back to Cebu, and overnight stay in Cebu and then a flight to Cagyan de Oro on Mindanao. I’ve got to mention the movie that was showing on the ferry back to Cebu. I’ve never seen a Bollywood film before, and I have to say, I loved it. It was called “Three Idiots” (I think!). Unfortunately, the film lasted 2hrs 44 mins, and the journey was only 2hrs. So that’s me looking for this film on Youtube to try and catch up with what happened. Did he get the girl? Who is the mysterious benefactor? Is anyone still reading…??

Mindanao

Mt Kitanglad

Dec 17th. Another early start (getting to be a running theme this) saw us get to the airport for our flight to Mindanao. Our flight landed early and we were soon heading off (via a pretty mad minivan ride – although that’s par for the course in the Philippines!) towards our next base on Mt Kitanglad. This is a famous birding location that still retains decent pockets of forest, although agricultural encroachment is evident everywhere. We swapped our minivan for a Toyota Hilux and drove up to the village below the mountain, then we swapped that for shanks’s pony and a couple of horses. With our gear strapped to the horses, we walked up to the lodge which sits on the edge of the decent habitat. Thankfully this legendarily muddy track was dry after a lack of rain. This would change! The lodge was a pleasant affair, and instead of setting up tents we decided to crash in the loft space.

After lunch we made our first trek a short way up the trail and looked out over the forest. Initial highlights included the enigmatic Cinnamon Ibon, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Olive-capped and Buzzing Flowerpeckers and Rufous-headed Tailorbird. Flocks of Eye-browed Thrushes streamed over and past us, as did a single Olive-backed Pipit. Heading back to the lodge, we were frustrated by a Bukidnon Woodcock that flew around calling but refused to come into view. However, the nightbirding around the lodge was superb, and we managed great views of our three main targets; the Giant Scops Owl, Philippine Frogmouth and Philippine Nightjar. The Giant Scops was especially pleasing as it didn’t take us long to score. Bram had warned us it could take all night waiting for it to call and come in, but this time it started calling just after dusk and proceeded to give great views.

The Philippine Frogmouth was just silly tame!

Giant Scops Owl (6) Giant Scops Owl (2)

Giant Scops Owl

Philippine Frogmouth (42) Philippine Frogmouth (35) Philippine Frogmouth (16)

Philippine Frogmouth

Dec 18th. The first of many cockerel crows woke me at 0430, and this was the first and only time I woke up cold in the Philippines. The sleeping bag I was provided with was clearly designed for the average Filipino man, and so just about came up to my nipples. Still, this was no time for trying to cozy down, there were birds to score. Our 0500 breakfast was rudely interrupted by further views of the Philippine Nightjar and our first views of the Bukidnon Woodcock. This is actually a pretty widespread species in the Philippines, but most people see it roding around the lodge here on Kitanglad.

Bukidnon Woodcock

Bukidnon Woodcock, honestly!

Today we had a different target however. Today was eagle day. We walked up the trail to the eagle viewpoint, and Carlito (our local guide here) erected a tarpaulin over a bamboo frame to form a makeshift shelter. And task was to stay here until we saw the eagle. And so we sat there. We reminisced about the birds we’d seen on the trail that morning (Montane Racket-tail, Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker among others) and looked forward to getting views of one of my most wanted birds in the world. The Philippine Eagle used to be widespread over the entire island chain, but is now restricted to the more extensive and remote areas of forest left on Luzon and Mindanao (and presumably Samar and Leyte too). Mt Kitanglad is the most famous place to see it, although a new site near Davao had just been discovered a little too late for us to alter our plans. Which was unfortunate as that pair were on a nest. The eagle used to have the wonderful moniker of “Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle”, but the powers that be have decided to drop that rather descriptive mouthful in favour of simplicity. I guess it’s also in favour of fact, as they tend to eat Colugos rather than macaques. Name notwithstanding, it’s an awesome beast of a bird, and I wanted to see one. Badly. And that’s exactly how we eventually did see it. Well, actually we saw two of them. An immature circled around a distant ridge being mobbed by Peregrines, and an adult was found sitting in a tree on the slopes opposite us. Our other young guide, Danny, picked it up. Did it fly in unseen, or had it been sat out of view all this time? To be honest, I was just grateful to see two of these incredible birds

Philippine Eagle (2) Philippine Eagle (15)

Philippine Eagle, adult

Philippine Eagle imm (12) Philippine Eagle imm (16) Philippine Eagle imm (18) Philippine Eagle imm (27)

Philippine Eagle, immature with two Peregrines

There were also a couple of other raptors soaring around, and we managed to identify Philippine Serpent Eagle, Pinsker’s Hawk Eagle and Steer’s Honey Buzzard. Not a bad haul, but it may have got better when I found a couple of distant swifts At first I thought they were needletails by the way they were acting, just cruising around with rapid switchbacks on apparently long wings. Then they came a bit nearer and it was evident that they were actually swiftlets. But which one? Myself Tim and James watched them for a little while and all three of us where struck by their appearance. We looked at each other with questioning faces. Were they Whitehead’s Swiftlets?  I took a couple of rubbish pictures, so see for yourself and make up your own mind. Comments very welcome!

Barred Honey Buzzard (3) Barred Honey Buzzard (2)

Philippine Honey Buzzard (split from Sulawesi Honey Buzzard)

Philippine Serpent Eagler (8)

Philippine Serpent Eagle

Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (6) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (4) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (3) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (2) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (5)

Swiftlet sp, possibly Whitehead’s Swiftlet? 

Our final day on Kitanglad started well. The Blue-capped Wood Kingfisher that had been calling next to the lodge finally came in and showed reasonably well. We then moved on up the trail to the higher elevation forest beyond the eagle viewpoint. The birding was difficult and slow, but eventually a few McGregor’s Cuckooshrikes appeared, as did a flock of crazy frilly-headed Apo Mynas. Eventually we found the main target, a nice male Apo Sunbird. Only found at high altitude on a few of Mindanao’s mountains, it’s a very restricted range species. As are many of the Philippine’s endemics! Even better from my point of view were the pairs of Mugimaki and Little Pied Flycatchers that we saw.

Apo Mynah (2) Apo Mynah (1)

Apo Myna

Turquoise Flycatcher (7)

Island Verditer-flycatcher (Mindanao race, nigriloris)

Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis (2)

Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis

Whiskered Treeswift (3)

Whiskered Treeswift

Tawny Grassbird (4)

Tawny Grassbird

Yellow-bellied Whistler

Yellow-bellied Whistler

Olive-capped Flowerpecker (2)

Olive-capped Flowerpecker

Mindanao Hornbill Mindanao Hornbill (1)

Mindanao Hornbill

Midanao Drongo (1)

Mindanao Drongo

McGregor's Cuckooshrike (12) McGregor's Cuckooshrike (3)

McGregor’s Cuckooshrike

Flame-breasted Flowerpecker (4)

Flame-breasted Flowerpecker

Eye-browed Thrush (2)

Eye-browed Thrush

Colasisi (3)

Colasisi

Buff-spotted Flameback (3)

Buff-spotted Flameback

Blue-crowned Wood Kingfisher (2)

Blue-crowned Wood Kingfisher

Philippine Falconet (13)

Philippine Falconet