Easy Philippines Feb 24—Mar 09, 2016

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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It was a great pleasure to co-lead this tour of the Philippines with my good birding friend Adrian Constantino. Somewhat unconvinced by the term “Easy,” our trusty band of participants agreed to the necessary 4:30 am departure, to escape the vice-like grip of the Manila traffic, from our comfortable hotel on our first morning. It was a good move, as we were in position at Candaba marshes, a small but outstanding protected area, close to first light. Our big reward was a stunning male Baikal Teal, a first record for the Philippines that had been discovered by Rob Hutchinson a few weeks prior. The Baikal Teal gave excellent telescope views and was in perfect condition. It was amongst a throng of ducks including plenty of handsome Philippine Ducks and smart-looking Garganey. Present in lesser numbers were Wandering Whistling-Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveler. The other essential bird here showed well, the now endemic and quite rare Philippine Swamphen. Other rails were in good form, with good views of Barred Rail, White-browed Crake, and even a Eurasian Coot, a scarce winter visitor. Plenty of herons were in evidence too, nine species in fact, including performances from Black, Yellow, and Cinnamon bitterns. Other good birds for the trip list included a small flock of the scarce White-shouldered Starling, five winter-plumaged Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, a female Eastern Marsh-Harrier, a Peregrine Falcon, hundreds of Wood Sandpipers, and a good scattering of Long-toed Stints.

Baikal Teal

Baikal Teal— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


After lunch we made it through to Subic Bay, our base for the next two nights. After a siesta we headed to the nearby well-protected forests and were soon seeing a bunch of quality endemics. From our hotel balcony we spotted our first Philippine Woodpeckers, a Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, and the scarce Green Racquet-tail. A Coppersmith Barbet was working on a tree hollow as we made it to the bus. A stop for Rufous-crowned Bee-eaters (beautiful birds are these) led to us sighting Ashy Minivet, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Green Imperial-Pigeon, and Whiskered Treeswift. We found our first Blue-naped Parrot and a number of Long-tailed Macaques. At dusk, the first of several Great Eared-Nightjars swooped overhead, and a short night drive produced a wonderfully cooperative Chocolate Boobook and a more timid Luzon Hawk-Owl. We also scoped the giant gecko, known as the Tokay. After this action-packed day, it was off to bed, ready for our first full day exploring the forests of Subic.

We were in position again early the following day and had a good run of sustained bird activity. The bizarre Red-crested Malkoha with its peculiar red-feather mohawk was a big hit. The spectacular White-bellied Woodpecker gave some good views, as did a showy pair of endemic Luzon Flamebacks. A fruiting tree attracted a tame close pair of Guiaberos, a lovely species of fig-parrot. Another fruiting tree held some well-camouflaged Blue-naped Parrots. With some effort we tantalized a group of skulking Rufous Coucals into giving views of themselves through the thick vine tangles they love to hide in. We saw the lovely Coleto, encountered our first Balicassiao (a species of drongo), scoped a Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, and were lucky enough to find the increasingly scarce Philippine Falconet. Other raptors made appearances including a perched Philippine Serpent-Eagle, a lone Osprey, and a Chinese Goshawk. Another handy bird was the endemic Blackish Cuckoo-shrike. We made a stop at the giant colony of Great Flying-foxes, and a bit of searching revealed the scarcer Golden-crowned Flying-fox. After a good break we resumed birding back in the forests of Subic and enjoyed another lively session. Our good luck with raptors on this day continued with first a pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles and then a very good, lengthy perched sighting of the Philippine Hawk-Eagle, quite a difficult species to encounter. Then we had a real roll call of birds in a mixed flock that gave us our first good views of Luzon Hornbill, White-eared Dove, Philippine Hanging-Parrot, and Philippine Green-Pigeon. There were a lot of repeat sightings from the morning including excellent Luzon Flamebacks, White-bellied Woodpecker, Guiabero, and Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike among others. As we returned at dusk, the flying-foxes were heading out to feed on fruit and pollen for the evening, making a spectacular exodus parallel to our bus!

Rufous-crowned Bee-eater

Rufous-crowned Bee-eater— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We were very fortunate the next morning to find the rare White-fronted Tit, a species that continues to decline alarmingly, a disturbing trend of the modern era. The single bird perched up high in its preferred tamarind tree habitat, giving a lengthy scope study. Very happy to have seen this rarity, we birded along the excellent road seeing a lot of species. A surprise was discovering two Musky Fruit-bats hiding in the corner of a disused military bunker. We moved back to Nabasan Road where a mixed flock turned up a pair of Northern Sooty Woodpeckers that, like most of the birds in the same flock, were hard to get an unobstructed view. Other birds in the flock included malkohas and coucals. Further along we taped up two Trilling Tailorbirds; one even kept still in the telescope long enough for everyone to see this often annoyingly timid little skulker. We were regaled by the exceptional song of the White-browed Shama; it was, however, not going to move from its thicket of dense rattan and remained unsighted. After lunch we headed back to Manila and had a good run with the traffic. We enjoyed an early dinner, as we were to catch the first flight of the morning to Palawan, a beautiful island with a lot of new endemics waiting.

Our flight arrived into Puerto Princesa early, so early that the café for breakfast was not open, so we visited the beach near town. We found two endangered Chinese Egrets amongst good numbers of the more common species. One individual had developed a fair amount of breeding plumage. Also present were several Gray-tailed Tattlers and a couple of Striated Herons. After a full breakfast we drove north to the town of Sabang, our base for the next two nights, setting up in a comfortable beach resort. On the drive we made a stop at Buena Vista and started to see our first endemics, the best of which was a great view of the scarce Sulphur-bellied Bulbul. Our first afternoon proved to be rather slow, but we did see the rare Philippine Cockatoo in flight and a soaring Crested Goshawk, but most of the birds were having the afternoon off it seemed, so we prepared for a big morning to follow.

Hooded Pitta

Hooded Pitta— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We were on the first boats of the day heading to the Underground River of the well-protected Subterranean National Park. These local outrigger boats with noisy diesel engines made the journey in about twenty minutes. After wading ashore we entered the forest, seeing plenty of Long-tailed Macaques and enormous Palawan Water Monitors. The park rangers chased away the pesky macaques and then called up the “Star of the Show,” the famous male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, now at least 16 years old. He approached us skittishly, but provided several extended excellent views enabling us to take in the intricacies of his stunning plumage. In a classic birding moment we had a Red-bellied Pitta hopping along behind the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, a very good double whammy. Relieved to have seen this major target bird so well, we explored further afield. The Tabon Scrubfowl, initially skittish, settled down for several repeat views of pairs industriously foraging in the leaf litter. Our first endemic White-vented Shama and Blue Paradise-Flycatchers were encountered, and after a patient wait we finally scoped a shy Stork-billed Kingfisher. Also of note were two dark morph Eastern Reef-Egrets, a widespread Pacific Ocean species. Our afternoon session proved considerably livelier than the previous afternoon, assisted by some decent cloud cover. We had great views of the endemic Palawan Tit, Yellow-throated Leafbird, and Lovely Sunbird; and scoped two perched Philippine Cockatoos, a Gray-faced Buzzard, and a dark morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle, while a Barred Button-quail flew up in front of us. Some folks came out for a night walk and were rewarded with a very good view of the unusual Palawan Frogmouth and, as a bonus, a roosting Hooded Pitta that gave surreal views.

Rufous Night-Heron

Rufous Night-Heron— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We had a great morning of birding the following day. A trio of Great Slaty Woodpeckers put on a fabulous performance with their wings out as they displayed from a dead tree stump. Two pairs of Spot-throated Flamebacks performed overhead, and we scoped some well-concealed Thick-billed Green-Pigeons. A flock of Blue-headed Racquet-tails gave a decent fly-over view, another difficult endemic to encounter. A local man informed us of fruiting Banyan Fig on his farm, so we detoured down there on the chance it might produce the scarce Palawan Hornbill. The island was in the grip of a severe drought, El Nino produced, and it was making it difficult to find several species. The tree was indeed full of bird activity, and we quickly notched up Striped and Pygmy flowerpeckers, lots of bulbuls (Ashy-fronted, Palawan, and Black-headed), dazzling Copper-throated Sunbird, and a hepatic Plaintive Cuckoo. A pair of Crested Serpent-Eagles displayed overhead and also gave a good perched view. Just as we were leaving we found five Palawan Hornbills perched in a giant tree, and with the scope had a good view of this key species.

After lunch we drove through to Puerto Princesa and checked into another very comfortable hotel. In the late afternoon we visited the nearby Crocodile Farm, normally a good site with lots of ponds, but this year completely dry including the adjacent river. The drought had some benefits though, as several Blue Paradise-Flycatchers, White-vented Shamas, Pin-striped Tit-Babblers, and Palawan Flowerpeckers were attracted to what little damp areas were available and gave some very good views. At the last minute, thanks to Laura, we spotted some roosting Rufous Night-Herons. Then we headed out to some nearby ricefields that held lots of shorebirds. Amongst the best were numerous good views of snipe including Common (easily identified) and Swinhoe’s (virtually impossible to separate from Pin-tailed unless you can photograph the tail). There were also a few Common Greenshanks amongst the more abundant Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, and Kentish and Little Ringed plovers. Just at dusk we scoped a Watercock, a good catch up, as everyone had missed this disappearing bird on the first day at Candaba except for Dion.

Spot-throated Flameback

Spot-throated Flameback— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


With a final morning on Palawan we visited a nearby protected forest. As soon as we stepped out from the vans, a pair of Ashy-headed Babblers popped into view. Further along we scoped two Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfishers, an exquisite little gem of a bird that is often difficult to find. Then we did battle with a party of Melodious Babblers. In a typical performance they set up in a thick vine tangle and sang melodiously, but kept well-concealed. Eventually we managed to get them to move around a bit, and they gave some decent views for this shy species. We had one last hurrah when a Palawan Flycatcher popped up and gave walkaway scope views, a good result for this shy and scarce endemic. In the afternoon we flew back to Manila and then drove to the forested Mount Makiling to continue our Philippine adventure.

We took a jeepney up the mountain and birded along a forest trail at about 500 meters above sea-level (1,500 feet). The weather was excellent for birding, cool and overcast, but the birds had other ideas, and it proved to be a difficult session in which to see anything much at all. Philippine Trogon, Spotted Wood-Kingfisher, and Blue-headed Fantail could all be heard, but either could not be pinned down in the giant forest or gave the most timid of glimpses. We had more luck with some smaller passerines including Yellowish White-eye, Gray-throated Sunbird, and Elegant Tit. A Scale-feathered Malkoha gave a good but brief view, one of the most spectacular Philippine endemics. A Rusty-breasted Cuckoo bucked the trend and posed in the scope all fluffed up and calling vigorously. A Luzon Hornbill also performed nicely towards the end of the a.m. session.  After our usual siesta we headed out to the Makiling Botanic Gardens, where the plants are a definite highlight including excellent orchids, Melastomas, torch gingers, endemic mango trees, and giant dipterocarps. The birds were still behaving badly so we moved further afield and had our first major success when we scoped a fine female Spotted Button-quail foraging and dust-bathing on the side of a jungle trail. The bird would come and go as pedestrian traffic disturbed it from its natural behaviors. This is quite a tough bird to see so well. Further exploring produced good views of Buff-banded Rail and Tawny Grassbird, while a nocturnal session for those who were keen added to the frustrations of the day when everything we could hear would not show itself!

Musky Fruit-bats

Musky Fruit-bats— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The next morning we were positioned at a fruiting tree which attracted quite a few good birds. The views of Scale-feathered Malkoha were excellent and repeated, while a bunch of Luzon Hornbills gorged themselves on the figs. We had Guiabero, Coppersmith Barbet, Striped Flowerpecker, Ashy Minivet, and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis in one scope view, and the Coleto made a re-appearance on the trip list. A Gray-faced Buzzard perched up very tame. The first of several Red-keeled Flowerpeckers gave lengthy scope studies. We returned to the Botanic Gardens and enjoyed quite a “raptor-fest” as several Japanese and Chinese sparrowhawks soared over, accompanied by Oriental Honey-Buzzard, several Gray-faced Buzzards, a pair of displaying Philippine Serpent-Eagles, and then an immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle. Also of note in the morning were our first House Swifts, Asian Palm-Swifts, and Striated Swallows. We returned to Manila and ventured across town to the campus of the Philippine University at Quezon City. Here we had a great run of luck starting with a fine day-roosting Philippine Nightjar that Adri’s wife Trinket had spotted in the morning. Then we checked a roost for Philippine Scops-Owl and bingo! A fine fresh juvenile scops-owl was tucked up in the bamboo. We also added Lowland White-eye, had more views of Golden-bellied Gerygone, and some folks caught up on the Philippine Woodpecker they had missed earlier in the trip. So it was an action-packed stop. We enjoyed seeing some of the sights of Manila, the grand museums, churches, the bay side, and the walled city gates. We checked back into the now familiar Midas.

Luzon Hornbill

Luzon Hornbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


A smooth flight to Tagbiliran in Bohol the following day was assisted by Arthur (age 94) whose use of a wheelchair swept our group through all the queues! A short drive later and we were checked into our hotel which doubled as a butterfly farm. It had quite a well-developed patch of secondary forest and quite a few birds. The best of these was a responsive Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo that flew over and around us repeatedly, but refused to perch where we could scope it, a typical experience with this shy bird. After a break we were joined by Ryan who took us to a nearby forest patch to try for the elusive endemic Rufous-lored Kingfisher. After a bit of searching we finally turned up our target kingfisher and it gave excellent views. We spent some time scanning the forest from Magsaysay Park, the entrance to Rajah Sikatuna National Park. A pair of Samar Hornbills gave a good scope study, which was lucky because we never saw this species again during our stay! We also found our first Philippine Colugos, a most unusual arboreal mammal with specialized teeth to feed on tree sap and a massive patagium to enable them to glide between trees. We even saw one glide briefly. Our last bird for the day was the Mindanao Drongo, a split out of the Hair-crested Drongo complex.

Philippine Nightjar

Philippine Nightjar— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We had one full day of birding on Bohol so we gave the morning session a good effort. As is often the way, it can be slow-going in these tropical lowland forests, but slowly but surely we started to kick a few goals. A Besra gave a good flight view over the clearing at Magsaysay first thing. Everyone enjoyed the stunning views of Philippine Trogon, the male especially, red and bright pink. A Northern Silvery Kingfisher gave a fabulous scope study for as long as we wanted. The elusive Streaked Ground-Babbler responded strongly and gave a very good performance on a vine. The spectacular endemic Black-faced Coucal gave several good studies as it foraged at all levels in front of us. Then we found a mixed flock that contained Yellow-bellied Whistler, Brown Tit-Babbler, and a couple of male Philippine Fairy-Bluebirds that allowed themselves to be scoped, an increasingly rare event for this declining bird. The leader was exploring a limestone cave for bats and made the unexpected discovery of a beautiful Everett’s Scops-Owl. With a bit of contortionism that would make a Romanian gymnast proud, our group entered the cave and all present had a good view of this difficult endemic. The afternoon proved rather quiet for birds, hot and humid, so we detoured to the unusual Chocolate Hills for a bit of sightseeing. In the evening Dion and Adri found a Philippine Tarsier foraging in the forest patch at the hotel.

Philippine Colugo

Philippine Colugo— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The last morning birding session added a few more birds to the trip list. In the hotel gardens we found a Philippine Magpie-Robin and a Ruddy Kingfisher (that seized a tree frog). Further afield we had more views of Philippine Trogon, and a mixed flock produced good views of Bohol Sunbird (a split from Metallic-winged), Philippine Leaf-Warbler, Brown Tit-Babbler, Yellow-bellied Whistler, and both Orange-bellied and Bicolored flowerpeckers. The scarce Philippine Oriole was singing, as were both the Rufous-fronted and Yellow-breasted tailorbirds, but despite considerable effort we could not get any of these elusive skulkers to perform. On the way to the airport we detoured via the Corella Tarsier Sanctuary. Here there is a fenced off area of rainforest. Guides locate the day-roosting tarsiers and show them to tourists where you can take photographs as long as there is no flash to affect their massive eyes. We were shown three individuals, all resting within a meter of the ground or lower. Our flight beckoned us back to Manila. It was time for our farewell dinner and flights home. Some participants continued on their Philippine adventure to Mindanao and the mountains of north Luzon and beyond. It had been a very successful trip, recording 230 species of birds, eight mammals, and some interesting reptiles and amphibians. The food had been very good, everyone stayed healthy, and it had been comfortable and relaxed. With special thanks to Adri, Narlo, and our drivers in Palawan and Bohol for making our tour a great success.