Sunday, September 9, 2012

TRAVEL - From an Adventurer to a Bird Nut


Note:  This is actually a blog I posted last 2008.  A good way to reminisce one if not the most memorable adventure trip of me and my wife.

Bags are packed and ready to go...
It’s been the type of vacation we’ve been longing all year; a 6-day adventure that will take us around the best sights of Puerto Princesa.  Usually, our kind of activities for such a trip would be scaling the high peaks of the island or sea kayaking from one island to another.  But no, not this one…we went bird watching.

Bird watching!?  Yes I know naughty thoughts are starting to form in those twisted brain of yours but for the sake of playing along, it’s not that kind!  I’m talking about watching wild birds at their natural habitat and roaming around freely to their little hearts’ content.  Sounds boring eh?  I too had the same impression but boy did this trip change all that!

Our adventure started when me and Juvvy went on to meet Nicky, lead guide of Birding Adventure Philippines (BAP) and his colleagues Trinket, Adri, Arnel and Tere at the Terminal 3 airport.  We took the 1430 Cebu Pacific flight and in an hour arrived at Puerto Princesa airport.  

Mayor Hagedorn together us and the BAP team
Upon getting our baggages (13pcs all in all), we drove off to our first home Casalinda Inn which is located 15-20 mins away from the airport.  It’s a very nice and cozy rest house.  I had a good sign that this will be one good birding trip as we immediately saw a couple of Chestnut Munias in their garden.

It was a very relaxing day as no activity was scheduled.  We should have known better though that there’s a catch for it being so as nothing could have prepared us for our IT the next day.  We had to wake up 4am!  

I felt Juvvy pinching my legs as if saying, “Is this your idea of a leisure trip!?”.  Smiling at my predicament, we just proceeded with our dinner at one of Puerto Princesa’s famous bar/ restaurant Kabuch’s coupled with a courtesy visit (or gate crash for that matter) to Mayor Hagedorn’s private dinner at the same restaurant.  

Day 2 saw us wake up “really” early and go our way to Iwahig National Park.  We practically slept through the 2hr ride then upon waking up, were greeted by a strong downpour and a very cranky park guard.  "So I woke up 4am for this!?  Should we be allowed to enter the premises, how in the world will I see those birds with this kind of weather!?" are questions I started asking myself...and I'm pretty sure so did Juvvy...if she was awake.

With some sweet words and pleas from Nicky, we finally entered the park.  The rain slowed down a bit and a pair of Drongos was our first sighting.  Hmmm…ok…was my initial reaction.  People really get excited about this?

So upon seeing my first “lifers” (term for the bird specie you saw the first time), we proceeded for a short hike to look for the exotic ones.  Rain started to pour down again when all of a sudden something caught Nicky’s attention that caused excitement among the group.  Then something popped out…a squirrel.  Hmmm…ok…was again my reaction.

Walking further, heavy rains started to fall down again thus leaving us no choice but to abandon the trek.  So much for my first bird watching experience!  I’m soaking wet (stupid enough not to bring my Omni-Tech jacket with me), cold, and only saw a Drango and squirrel!  With heavy hearts, we waited in the park cottages for the rain to stop before making our way back to our inn.  And if this wasn’t disheartening enough, Nicky had an illness of some sort thus lowering further the morale of the group.

Scaly Breasted Munia
But this turned out to be the turning point of the trip.  With the rain making a complete stop, out of nowhere we saw a Stork Billed Kingfisher! All our frustration turned to excitement and I was just in awe!  Now this is bird watching! 

We left Iwahig with a sense of fulfillment and a big sigh of relief.  That sighting made my effort of waking up 4am in the morning now worthwhile.  Then just when I was about to take a nap, all of a sudden Nicky shouted “Malcoja!”  Everyone just jumped out of the van with their binoculars and there it was, a hundred meters away I saw what was probably the most beautiful bird I ever saw…at that time.  A Chestnut-Breasted Malcoja!  Sweeet!  And to top everything off,  Egrets, Barn Swallows, Wood Sand Piper, Palawan Ducks and a Scaly Breasted Munia to name a few greeted us on the way back.

Lesser Frigate Bird
So with all these sightings you’d think we’re done right?  Not a chance!  Next stop was Honda Bay and on an island hopping tour exploring Starfish Island, Snake Island and Pandan Island.  These sites provided a handful of birds namely Pied Fantail, Asian Glossy Starlings, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Zebra Dove, Sunbirds and Collared Kingfishers.  

But the highlight of them all was the very rare Lesser Frigate Bird that flew just right beside our bangka during one of our transfers.  I was so in awe that instead of grabbing my camera taking shots, I grabbed my binoculars instead to marvel at this majestic bird.  I was still able to take a photo of it but it doesn’t do justice to how magnificent this bird was.

It was indeed an exciting and fulfilling day for everyone specially me and Juvvy.  Just imagine the lifers we had just on this day alone!  And we’re just starting!

Day 3 of our adventure allowed us to wake up at a much later time as our main IT was to go to Sabang and do some birding at the side in Garceliano. Leaving our tables after breakfast to do our last minute packing, an Olive Backed Sunbird just flew from nowhere causing a commotion between Nicky and me.  Grabbing our cameras, we fired away like crazy trying to get a good shot of this dynamic bird.  I took almost 50 shots but wasn’t able to get a keeper. Frustrated, I vowed that I would not leave Palawan without a good shot of this bird.

Stork Billed Kingfisher
Stacking all our stuff at the van, we proceeded to Garceliano where we saw a Common KingfisherWhimbrelsPacific Swallows, and as bonus a Water Guppy.  After Garceliano, we stopped by Balinsayaw to have lunch where I was advised by Nicky that an Olive Backed Sunbird usually drops by to feed on the flowers.  And he was spot on!  Again an Olive Backed Sunbirdflew from nowhere and I shot like an army soldier with an M16 rifle.  This time I managed to keep some keepers.  A shot of an Arctic Wobler was a bonus during our short lunch break.

The ride to Sabang takes about 2 hours but it took us an additional 45 mins as again, heavy rains fell thus making some parts of the road a struggle to drive through.  Not to mention Nicky saw another Stork Billed Kingfisher a hundred meters away from our vehicle! This, hands down, solidified Nicky’s statute for me as the premier birding guide in the country. 

So despite the hard raindrops, we got off our van to take a peak of this Palawan endemic.  I tried to get closer but was advised not to do so, which for now I’m still thinking why.  Being the good boy that I really am (yes it’s true!), I obliged with a heavy heart and just took photos of it from far away.  I’m not too happy with my photos but this gives me another reason to come back! 

Taraw Resort
We arrived in Sabang Island around 430pm and proceeded to check-in in Taraw Resort’s cozy huts.  It was just a picturesque site with all the huts surrounded by tall palm trees with waves pounding through the vast seashore.  Only downside?  Electricity is good only from 5am in the morning till 10pm in the evening.  Not to mention we only had one power outlet in our room while the rest had at least 2 (sorry BAP I just have to let this out hehehe)!

Come dinnertime, Nicky again broke the news we’ve all been dreading to hear from him.  We all have to wake up again early for our trip to Puerto Princesa Subterrenean River National Park (a mouthful ain't it)!  Our only solace is we don’t have to wake up at an ungodly time of 3am like our first day.

Palawan Peacock Pheasant

Day 4 saw us braving the waves and rain as we went our way to PPSRNP.  My concern for the day was not the rain but the lighting I have to contend with while taking my photos.  Gloomy, hazy, low light with fast moving subjects…it was a photographer’s nightmare!  I just have to psyche myself to say to hell with the photos!  I came here to enjoy and get a glimpse of rare and endemic birds!  And did I get more than my share of birds.

A few meters into our hike we were greeted by monitor lizards casually strolling the park.  Talk about wild life!  Then a commotion took place after seeing that lizard…it’s the star of PPSRNP!  The Palawan Peacock Pheasant!
Again we were greeted with rain showers as we continue our hike but we were still able to saw some interesting species like the Green Imperial Pigeon, Hill Myna, Palawan Tit and Juvvy’s favorite the Palawan Hornbill

Me and Juvvy at PPSRNP (obviously)
Nicky was kind enough to arrange a tour for us of the Underground River as well.  Given all of them already experienced it, only the first timers which was me, Juvvy and Arnel went through the tour.  I actually have hesitations to go as I’m more akin to taking photos of the Palawan Hornbill but what the heck!  I’m already there so I might as well experience the Philippine’s leading candidate for one of the new 7 Wonders of the World!

Our next IT for the day was to do some birding at the “The Last Frontier”.  I was a bit disappointed as I was expecting scenery close to that in Jurassic Park or the Discovery Channel special The Lost World.  Add to this that we only saw a handful of birds like the Green Imperial Pigeon and a Common Iora.   But all of it changed when out of nowhere a Blue Naped Parrot flew on top of one of the trees and just stayed there for us to marvel at.  

No Javan Frogmouth at 430am
As with Day 3, it was a very fruitful birding day for all of us.  But that evening, Nicky had to be again the bearer of bad news.  We had to wake up really early again for our birding trip!  But he gave us a valid reason to…to catch a glimpse of the Palawan Owl.

Day 5 saw us struggle to get up from our huts and drove 4am in the morning to a roadside 30mins away from our resort.  It was an eerie atmosphere as it was very silent and pitch black.  Nicky then proceeded calling the Palawan Owl using his iPod + speakers.  It took some time for him to get a response but when he did, it was not from our target bird…a Javan Frogmouth replied him instead.

It was a back and forth communication but unfortunately there was no sighting.  First strike for the group!  And fortunately proved to be the last.

Me and Juvs' favorite...Palawan Hornbills

Going back with an L in our forehead, we vowed to go search for the Javan Frogmouth in Lion’s Cave that evening.  Then the L on our forehead turned to W as on our way back, we passed by Balete Tree (a name the group came up with) that turned out to be a buffet for a diverse specie of birds like the Palawan Flowerpecker, Grey-Cheeked Bulbul, Asian Fairy Bluebird (Male and Female), Striped Tit Babler, Blue Eared Kingfisher and again Palawan Hornbills!  If not for our growling stomachs, we could’ve stayed there the whole day!

Eastern Reef Egret in flight

After a hearty breakfast, we proceeded to hike the Mangrove Trail.  Given that rain started to fall down again, we had to abandon the route and hike back to our vehicle.  But as always this adversity resulted to another good sighting by Nicky.  At the top of one of the dead branches a hundred meters away is a Crested Goshawk standing tall probably looking for a possible prey.

We sighted a pack of Whimbrels as well playing in the rain when I saw what I thought was a common Egret but turned out to be a rare Eastern Reef Egret!  And I caught a photo of it in flight!  So again we went back for lunch a happy group of birders.

After lunch, a couple of birders joined us to Lion’s Cave and we passed by again the buffet tree to give our new birder mates the opportunity to see the birds we saw earlier.  Again birds of different kinds flew here and there and fortunate for me, saw a new batch of lifers like the Slender-Billed Crow and Yellow-Throated Leafbird.  Oh…and I saw another batch of Palawan Hornbills!

Yellow Throated leafbird

We arrived at the Lion’s Cave around 530pm  It was a long wait for us searching for the Javan Frogmouth but the wait was well worth it.  In the middle of the trail, pitch black and the only noise you can hear is Nicky’s bird call.  Then out of nowhere it flew and landed on one of the branches.  I fleet footedly sneeked my way to take a photo of this endemic specie but it flew away prior to me getting a photo of it.  It was unfortunate that I missed a great shot but still deep inside I was fulfilled to have seen this rare bird.

Palawan Tit

Day 6 was the day we dreaded the most.  Not because we need to wake up early but it was the day that we get back to our real world that is Manila.  But of course Nicky made sure we go home with a bang.  On the way back we managed to see again a Chestnut-Breasted Malcoja and a Crested Goshawk.  We even stopped for a 10-minute birding activity that turned out to be a 40 minute birding spree!  Like the buffet tree in Sabang, this birding site was a home for Palawan Tits, Fiery Minivet, Nightjar, and a lot more.

Aint in the 6 or 7 digits type of a ring but it gets the job done!

So yes, me and Juvvy are now CERTIFIED BIRD-NUTS. 

And this trip adds another chapter to our adventures that we will cherish for a long time if not the rest of our lives.  And it's not just because of the lifers we saw, but gaining new friends in the likes of Nicky, Trinket, Adri, Tere, Alex and Arnel.  

Now you may ask, which was my best catch/ favorite during this birding adventure?  It’s actually not a matter of what but who. 

It’s Juvvy accepting my marriage proposal! 

Gear Info:  All bird photos taken with a Nikon D200 and Nikon AF VR 80-400 f4-5.6.  

More Photos from our Birding Adventure

Juvvy with Tere and a local guide.  This was her first try of digi-scoping.  We were looking at a Chestnut-Breasted Malcoja during this time.
Us and our birder friends on the way to Honda Bay and other islands of Puerto Prinsesa.  From left: Nicky, Trinket, Tere, Adri, me, Juvvy and Arnel.

Juvvy playing around with a starfish.  I was supposed to have the same pose but the little tentacles underneath it scared the bejeebers out of me.  

Still all smiles in our village hut within Taraw Resort.
Me and Nicky treading the rice fields after following a couple of  Palawan Hornbills.

Early morning view of the sea/ mountains from our resort.

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