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Archive for the ‘Birdwatching’ Category

Social gatherings can be minefields of awkwardness for a Filipino birder because such occasions give rise to queries like “So what do you do on your spare time?” The trapped Filipino birder throws caution to the wind when he opts to respond: “That’s nice of you to ask. I look for forest birds.” To this, the inevitable response from a non-birding crowd is: “Oh.” Puzzled silence ensues.

Compare that to the reception an open-water diver gets when she says that she looks for sharks, sea turtles and the like: an awe-struck, “Oh, how exciting!” Sharks? Gasps from the audience. Sea turtles? The crowd goes wild.

I’ve since come to grips with the facts: scuba is just way more glamorous than birdwatching. It must be those body-hugging wetsuits. There’s no comparison. A generation of kids grew up dreaming to be Jacques-Yves Cousteau and get to explore the mysterious depths of the oceans. No one grew up wanting to be a famous birdwatcher like…like… My point exactly.

Sometimes, I get a reply to the effect of: “My neighbor has a talking myna. It’s hysterical. It knows all the swear words! You should see it.” If the person I am talking to is amiable enough, I try to steer the topic of conversation towards something that doesn’t involve bird cages and life-long captivity.

Once or twice, though, I get something along the likes of: “You’re a birdwatcher, do you see a lot of colorful birds?”

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It’s been more than an hour into our birding group’s foray into Mt. Polis. We had clambered past the crumbly soil of the potato fields, to enter the ever-receding tree-line. Every year, the tree-line feels more distant as the vegetable patchwork creep up the mountain. Once past the vegetable patches, we followed a narrow wood-cutter’s trail, where we looked on despondently around us as patches of scorched earth showed where “gardeners” burnt the forest. Such a waste, and all for a measly few pesos worth since the forest soil isn’t very suitable for cultivation once the thin topsoil has been washed away by rains. Below us in the valley, the chainsaws have begun their remorseless work. Along the trail, we counted at least four active snares. We proceeded uphill wordlessly, trying to put the scenes of desecration and waste out of our minds and focus on the object of our quest: an encounter with the Whiskered Pitta (Pitta kochi), the country’s largest pitta.

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Distribution of Philippine hornbills belonging to the genera <i>Penelopides</i>

I was commissioned to draw the maps for a Philippine biodiversity handbook earlier this year. One set of maps intended to show the distribution of the different species of hornbills in the country. Since the time my fascination for those birds began, this was the first time I had truly realized that there were indeed so many species of Philippine hornbills. Based on a study made by JC Gonzalez, a professor on wildlife studies at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, there were 5 genera of hornbills consisted of 15 species, amazingly found only in the Philippines. The genera Penelopides alone is composed of 8 species, each of which are restricted only in certain islands in the country as shown on the map. You can just imagine that even such a small island like Basilan has its own species of hornbill!

I remembered the first time I encountered hornbills. It was in the remote island of Dinagat, Surigao del Norte in the summer of 2002. I was a fledgling mapping specialist then for an environmental NGO, and at the time, we were conducting a biophysical field assessment of the forest areas there. At one point during the survey, I was climbing Mt. Kambinliw together with a team of biologists who were doing a bird inventory using a 2-kilometer transect line along the slope of the mountain.

It was raining incessantly since the start of the trek. Then after the rain had abated, somewhere halfway on our transect, I heard them. The sound approached from the distance that came closer to us by the second, until they passed us by. Had it not been for the dense tree canopies, we would’ve seen them flying overhead. The somewhat nasal sound that went like “OCK-OCK-OCK-OCK-OCK” came from a group of animals, which could not have been anything else but birds. Probably noticing the puzzled look on my face, Boying Fernandez, a veteran field biologist, had been the one to tell me that the birds we heard were called hornbills, or “kalaw” in the local dialect.

Later on, I was to find out that the particular kind we heard were the Rufous Hornbills, the largest of the Philippine hornbills. I was fortunate to see one of them for the first time in the wild—although it hadn’t mattered much to me then—perched high along the trunk of a large tree located on the adjacent Mt. Redondo. It was a huge bird indeed! And the most distinct feature that left an imprint in my memory was the protruding horn-like appendage on top of its large red beak, which was probably why the birds were named so in the first place.

Rufous Hornbill

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As an ordinary bloke with no formal training in biology, I’ve always wanted—perhaps unreasonably—a clear answer to this question.

But it seems that no one knows—or at least, no one is reckless enough to hazard an answer. Why is this? I figured the history of the struggle to conserve the Philippine Eagle has its fair share of acrimonious debates. There is just too much at stake in this matter which has led people to be very circumspect.

On the few occasions that I’ve managed to buttonhole a conservationist to ask him about the number of eagles in the wild, the reception I invariably got was a look of patient concern, like that of a long-suffering parent to a rash, impertinent child.

Am I being unreasonable?

On more than one occasion, I was lectured on how the exact number doesn’t matter. The important think is that everyone agrees on the Eagle falling under the category of Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List. This List is a criteria used to determine extinction risk and set numerical thresholds for qualification for the three globally threatened categories. These are based on factors including rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation. But at this point my eyes had glazed over.

Turning to books, I encounter the usual hesitation to pin a number. In “Threatened Birds of the Philippines” (1999, Bookmark) by Nigel G. Collar etal, the section on Population begins with these grave words:

“Attempts at articulating a fully reasoned estimate of population size in the Philippine Eagle have persistently been compromised by the absence of solid data on its density and the extent of its habitat, and by an understandable but perhaps over-cautious reluctance to accept or even attempt extrapolations using data that appear to overturn the traditional view of its great rarity based on field encounter rates.”

After this caveat, the authors (God bless them!) proceed—in herculean proportions—to detail the history of population studies and assessments done on the Philippine Eagle. From early estimates of Mindanao populations which varied between 600-1,900 pairs in 1910, to 225-450 pairs in 1992, these make for fascinating reading, especially for the Philippine Eagle enthusiast.

No doubt about it, this book is a very important document in Philippine bidoversity! But I must admit that the onslaught of numbers and figures leave me bewildered and feeling hopeless.

Among the 65 species in the book, the discussion on the Philippine Eagle is the most exhaustive, and I remember, while he was with Haribon Foundation, Neil Aldrin D. Mallari, one of the co-authors, say that for editorial purposes, they had to trim the Eagle discussion. This attests to the fact that so much documentation is available about Philippine Eagle studies, and yet, so much vital information remains to be uncovered.

Looking for more answers, I turned to the website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines to get a look at their country bird records—since its inception the club has collated first-hand reports of local and visiting birdwatchers. The online records of the WBCP go back only to 2003 and accepted Philippine Eagle observations total only ten (2006 and 2007 records have not yet been uploaded).

Of the ten reports, nine are from Mindanao and four are from the same locality, Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. The only one recorded outside of Mindanao was of a rescued Eagle in General Nakar, Quezon, that suffered from a gunshot wound.

Ten records in three years! Encountering such low numbers made me yearn for the rigorously derived estimates listed in Collar etal. I’m starting to understand this Critically Endangered tag.

Finally, after trawling cyberspace for information and considering the various answers, I hit upon BirdLife International’s (2007) Species factsheet: Pithecophaga jefferyi which indicates population estimate as 226, with population trend as decreasing.

I have to write that again to keep it in mind: 226. Decreasing.

As an antidote perhaps to all the mention of extrapolations and variances, I visit the website of birder Don Roberson where he listed the Philippine Eagle as the Best Bird of The World (outpointing such outlandish beauties as the Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise and the Horned Guan). In his site, Roberson recounts his journey to Dalwangan, Bukidnon, in 1990 along with guide Tim Fisher. It’s a fascinating account that brings to focus all the facts and figures that scientists and conservationists have so painstakingly collected so that we can get a better understanding of the Eagle’s condition in the wild.

Only to have impertinent laymen like me childishly demand a number.

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A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from wildlife illustrator Oscar Figuracion Jr. saying that he had just finished an oil painting of a Philippine Eagle and was looking for buyers. I came to know Oscar a few years ago when his illustrations had graced a series of NGO-produced species-identification guides meant for DENR personnel. Someone somewhere, it seems, had noticed that aside from a few exceptions, DENR personnel could not confidently identify rare animal species in the field (and were too proud to say so). The idea of illustrated field-guides was a great project whose time had come.

However, as with most NGO projects with foreign funding, the field guide series petered out and when the interminable NGO-style project assessments came to an end, Oscar was told that his talents were great but no longer needed. Alas, such is the life of an environmental NGO hired hand.

When the projects dried out, Oscar left Quezon City and settled back to his native Mindanao, where, as a young student, he was hired by the leading wildlife biologist of the time, Dr. Dioscoro Rabor, to be an expedition artist. Oscar’s job, during Dr. Rabor’s fieldworks, was to accurately draw the fresh specimens collected by the hunters before they lost forever their colors. No one does that anymore. The advent of megapixel digital cameras has rendered the expedition-artist extinct.

Somehow I’ve always linked the Philippine Eagle with sad stories. Of mis-chances. Ruin and extinction. I am sure there are upbeat voices out there from people who are in touch with the latest schemes and programs to keep the Eagle alive. Once or twice I’ve come across the works of people like Dennis Salvador and Jayson Ibañez who seem to be doing tremendous work for the Eagle and its habitats. I just wished my experiences were as rosy or filled with hope.

The memory that Oscar’s painting stirred from the muddy depths of my brain was the sight of the birds languishing in the Raptor Center in Mt. Makiling. The center was set up in the ‘80s to attempt a well-intentioned captive-breeding program. It has failed. The Raptor Center in Makiling is rundown, moldy, and the large enclosures slowly succumbing to the vegetation, although cheery droves of school-children still regularly troop there to see the forlorn eagles and other captive birds too sick or too habituated with humans to ever be released in the wild. The kids don’t care because being kids they’ll have fun anyway and the teachers are content to give the little kids their exercise away from the confines of the classrooms. The Center earns from these excursions, but barely enough to cover maintenance, I imagine.

The last time I went to the Raptor Center, the unused cages were dilapidated and a caretaker grumbled how their meager allowances were slow in coming, and how they had to feed the Eagles by farming rabbits in the vicinity. Lack of funds, inadequate support and other, familiar, gloomy travails were aired out. I never visited again.

More on the subject of sad stories: Let’s go back to the man who discovered the Eagle in 1896 for science—the naturalist John Whitehead. “Disease and ‘slow starvation’” hounded Whitehead throughout his stay in the Philippines, in the words of ornithologist and author Nigel J. Collar, “[Whitehead] often fell victim to gross misfortune; yet his most celebrated moment resulted from one the cruellest pieces of luck he endured. In 1895 an entire consignment of skins, the result of several months’ concentrated collecting on Samar and containing many anticipated new species, was lost when its carrier, the German ship, Weiland, caught fire and had to be scuttled off Singapore. Whitehead was therefore forced to go back to the island in May 1896 and try again.”

What a blow that news must have been for the young man! But return he did and it was on his return trip that he collected the first specimens of the Philippine Eagle, a species that will forever be linked to his name. But within three years of that great discovery, Whitehead would succumb to fever at age 38.

The scarcity of the Eagle and its constantly shrinking habitat is not a new observation or problem, for Whitehead himself wrote: “The forests that are left in Samar are still very vast, especially on the Pacific Coast, but for miles inland those of the western coast have been destroyed, leaving ranges of low undulating clay hills chiefly covered with lalang grass. When this country has been passed, the traveler finds himself at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet and meets with the true virgin forest of Samar. This forest is becoming annually smaller owing to the cultivation of hemp. . . .”

Fast-forward to 1977, when Robert S. Kennedy, the man who has done the most to save the Philippine Eagle, published in the March 1977 issue of The Wilson Bulletin the results of his studying a pair of Eagles at Tudaya Falls in Mt. Apo National Park on Mindanao.

Part of the article goes over now-familiar terrain, “As land has been cleared for agriculture and for lumber, the lower edges of the forests inhabited by the eagles have been retreating up the sides of mountains. The birds have partially adapted to this change by hunting over cleared land and living in second growth forest.” It seems that the Philippine Eagle has been teetering on the brink of extinction since its discovery!

Kennedy’s findings was enlivened by a quaint illustration by John P. O’Neill of a perched Eagle serene and safe while the silvery cataract of Tudaya Falls gracefully pours in the background. It is green everywhere.

When I last went to Tudaya Falls in the early 90s, the hills were bare and planted over with crops. I have no knowledge of any Eagle sighting in Tudaya Falls for the last two decades. Perhaps they are there for all I know. I have never been back since, afraid of what I might find out for sure.

At about the same time that I received Oscar’s e-mail, I got an e-mail from a new UP graduate. She had responded to a mass e-mail I had sent out to a writers’ group looking for contributing writers for a small magazine that I was editing. The new grad said she was in Bukidnon and so would I have a topic in mind for her to write while she was there. I responded excitedly, writing that Dalwangan, in Bukidnon, was perhaps the only place left in the entire world to have a reliable sighting of the Philippine Eagle in the wild. Can she write about the situation in Dalwangan? She never wrote back.

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