Philippines Feb 08—29, 2008
The Philippines is simply full of amazing endemic birds and some equally great non-endemics. Our quest was to see as many of them as possible! High on everyone's list were Red-crested Malkoha, Celestial Monarch, Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, and, most of all, Great Philippine Eagle. We saw all of these and many more, so to say that our first Philippines tour in many years was an outstanding success would be an understatement, to say the least! In addition to this plethora of exciting birds, we unexpectedly came across a handful of very neat mammals. Particularly big hits were the exceptionally cute Philippine tarsier, and the Philippine colugo—a truly remarkable animal with which we had memorable encounters. This great, complex archipelago far exceeded our birding expectations, as did the accommodations, food, and the friendly hospitality of the remarkable Philippine people.
We traveled a lot on this tour; there are many islands in the Philippines and we needed to visit a number of them to see the bird life unique to each of them. Starting in Manila on the island of Luzon, we first made the long drive north to Banaue, justifiably famous for its stunning steep slopes carved with vivid green rice paddies. This was our stepping-off point for Mount Polis, with its montane endemics. The best birding on the chilly mountain top was along the road where we had many terrific encounters with exciting mixed feeding flocks. We were soon enjoying some flashy endemics—the agreeably common Chestnut-faced Babbler, Elegant Tit, Metallic-winged Sunbird, and, best of all, the normally scarce Flame-crowned Flowerpecker. At the quiet and picturesque village of Bay-yo, we watched a pair of Luzon Water Redstarts cavorting in the clear, fast-flowing river (interesting to think how a water redstart became a Philippine endemic).
Our next stop was Subic Bay, the old U.S. naval base to the north of Manila. This is where the birding really hotted up, literally and figuratively! We racked up the new birds here with loads of Guaiaberos, White-eared Doves, Balicassiaos, Blackish Cuckoo-shrikes, and Coletos. On top of that we had great views of bizarre Red-crested Malkoha, many Luzon Tarictic Hornbills, fleeting looks at the shy Rufous Coucal and sensational Sooty Woodpeckers, while the increasingly scarce Spotted Imperial-Pigeon was a welcome bonus.
From Manila we flew to the atmospherically-named Cagayan de Oro on the southern island of Mindanao where we divided our time between two very important and enjoyable sites—Mount Kitanglad and PICOP. The trek up to our lodge on Kitanglad wasn't too arduous (and punctuated with some excellent birds), and the very comfortable conditions we found were much appreciated! This area is full of cracking endemics, but the bird on everyone's mind was the legendary Great Philippine Eagle—sometimes referred to as the Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle. Our exertions and patience were rewarded with scope views of an amazing perched bird that we watched for some time as he preened, scanned his domain, and eventually took flight before disappearing back into the forest. Back down in the lowlands, we spent three full days exploring the PICOP logging concession, and still this wasn't enough! Too many highlights to mention them all here, but a few of the unforgettable ones included those two multihued pittas—Steere's and Red-bellied, that dazzling Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, a superb Rufous-lored Kingfisher, and a last minute Celestial Monarch.
The island of Palawan was another revelation! Definitely a trip favorite for its quiet, laid-back atmosphere and super birding, we concentrated our efforts on the remarkable St. Paul's Subterranean River National Park. After some tension, the much-hoped-for Palawan Peacock-Pheasant turned up trumps and was greeted with undisguised delight. What a stunner! Some poor weather (which was to be a minor irritation throughout the tour) spoilt some of our plans, but there is no doubt that a swag of endemics like Ashy-headed Babbler, Yellow-throated Leafbird, Palawan Hornbill, Palawan Scops-Owl, and Palawan Frogmouth were delightful additions to our trip list. There were some special non-endemics to be found here, too: Chinese Egret, Tabon Scrubfowl, Hooded Pitta, and Mantanani Scops-Owl. The scops-owl in particular was a lot of fun!
After returning to Manila for a couple of days at Los Banos and Mount Makiling, where we caught up with a few more of those hoped-for endemics and specialties, we reluctantly said goodbye to Karen and Bob. We were joined here by Tom and Judy though, and we enjoyed reliving some of the delight of those new birds in their excellent company! The last part of our tour was an exploration of the Visayan Islands in the central Philippines. On Negros we climbed the imposing Mount Kanla-on in a successful search for the montane endemics. Once we arrived at the right elevation, we found the birds easily, enjoying good looks at White-winged Cuckoo-shrike, White-vented Whistler, and the intriguing Flame-templed Babbler. Rajah Sikatuna National Park on the pleasant island of Bohol was rather slow this year due to the bad weather, but we still turned up a swag of goodies including the tricky Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Black-faced Coucal, long looks at Silvery Kingfisher—yet another out-of-this-world endemic, and, at last, a brilliant male Philippine Trogon. Finishing off in Cebu, our hopes for the highly endangered Cebu Flowerpecker were thwarted by bad weather. Compensation came in the form of stunning views of a singing Black Shama to finish off our unforgettable Philippines experience.
Many wonderful people helped us on our travels and I extend my sincere thanks to Jimmy, Tani, and Marc in particular for their unfailing good humor and skillful organization. Tim Fisher helped put together our itinerary and coordinated our ground arrangements. On Mount Kitanglad, we were pampered by Carlito and his family; at PICOP, Zado expertly accompanied us throughout; on Palawan, Arding and Mylene looked after our every whim; Chito and Manuel looked after us and sang beautifully on Bohol; and Oking and his daughter guided us through the treacherous terrain at Tabunan on Cebu. Lastly, a special thanks to Peter for his unfailing provision of vital supplies!
I enjoyed leading this tour immensely and I thank you all for joining me yet again. Your good humor and excellent company both in the field and at the table made traveling with you a joy! As always, I look forward to seeing you all again soon.