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


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.