Guided Birding and nature tours to the Philippines
Custom Trip: Makiling, Mindanao, Cebu, Bohol, Palawan
Dion Hobcroft writes about his 16-day Philippines custom trip for Victor Emanuel Nature Tour (VENT) clients who had already visited some sites in the Philippines on a previous tour and who wished to explore some islands not visited previously. Dion is an excellent tour leader for VENT and has led numerous trips to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, India, Southwest Pacific, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Japan, Russia, Alaska, Tanzania, and the Antarctic.
PHILIPPINES: Makiling, Mindanao, Cebu, Bohol, Palawan
Date: 18 MARCH – 2 APRIL 2012
VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tour) CUSTOM TOUR
Places covered in the tour: Makiling,Mindanao, Cebu, Bohol, Palawan
Participants: Erika Wilson, Paul Davis, JR., Fred Wilson and Dion Hobcroft. Write up by Dion Hobcroft.
Tour leaders: Dion Hobcroft of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and Adri Constantino of Birding Adventure Philippines
This was a tour put together for VENT clients who had already visited some sites in the Philippines on a previous tour and who wished to explore some islands not visited previously. On this tour we visited Mount Makiling on Luzon, Mindanao, Bohol and Cebu with Dion continuing on to Palawan.
We all met on the night of the 17 March at Manila. Breaking news of a Philippine Eagle-Owl led to some re-arrangements of the following days plans. By mid-morning we were at a Palaeolithic rock shelter site with images of reptiles carved into the cave wall. It was also home to a magnificent Philippine Eagle-Owl. What a way to start the trip.
We continued onto Mount Makiling spending the afternoon birding in the botanic gardens and rice research fields. We enjoyed some great endemics including the scarce Striped Flowerpecker, beautiful Red-keeled Flowerpecker and great views of the somewhat bizarre Red-crested Malkoha. In the evening we did some owling and achieved great results with excellent views of both Philippine Boobook and Philippine Scops-owl; three species of owls seen on our first day.
Next morning it was the obligatory early start and we loaded into the jeepney in the pre-dawn darkness. The big bonus was a great view of the Ashy Ground-Thrush watched in the jeepney headlights. We were now in higher elevation forests and with patience we found some great birds. These included the Spotted Wood-Kingfisher, both male and female, Philippine Falconet, feeding Guiaberos, the crazy-looking Scale-feathered Malkoha, Philippine Fairy-Bluebird, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, White-browed Shama for some, Gray-backed Tailorbird and Buzzing Flowerpecker. A final check on the bridges produced the hoped for Indigo-banded Kingfisher and we were on our way back to Manila for the night.
A flight to Cagayan de Oro on the island of Mindanao progressed smoothly. We were soon in the van and after lunch drove through to connect with our four wheel drive truck to carry us up as far as practicable to Mount Kitanglad’s Del Monte Lodge. With recent heavy rains the track up was slippery for the truck but we made it up after some great driving by the local expert. We then made the hike of about half a mile up to the lodge with our bags and supplies carried by horse. The track up was muddy with rubber boots and walking sticks pretty much essential.
We spent the last hour or so exploring the forest around the lodge. Our good luck continued with great views of Great Eared-Nightjar, Bukidnon Woodcock roding on dusk, followed by a fly-over Grass Owl and then an amazing experience with a pair of Philippines Frogmouths at a nest with a small chick. Some folks slept in tents and others upstairs on camp-beds. We were comfortable and well fed.
The next morning was eagerly anticipated-a chance to look for the Great Philippine Eagle. We squelched up the track and Adrian made a quick breakthrough when he spotted a perched eagle at about 630am-a new record! The eagle was however distant but with two scopes ramped up to 60 x in the cool morning air the views were definitely acceptable. We birded our way up to the major valley lookout at 1550 metres altitude (5167 feet). We could hear the eagle intermittently whistling in the valley below however we were to have no further luck with any closer sightings today.
There was plenty to look for and we enjoyed many classy endemics including the Apo Myna, White-cheeked Bullfinch, Macgregor’s Cuckoo-shrike, a perched juvenile Pinsker’s Hawk-Eagle, Philippine Swiftlet, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, Philippine Pygmy-Woodpecker, Rufous-headed Tailorbird, Black and Cinnamon Fantail, Cinnamon Ibon and Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis. We found the nest of a Philippine Nightjar with two eggs after it was flushed by a horse. Other new birds for the trip list included Oriental Honey-buzzard, Brush Cuckoo, Whiskered Tree-swift, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Pied Triller. Heavy cloud steadily built up and we decided to head back down to the
lodge and we just made it back before a monumental storm rolled in and very heavy rain continued for hours through the night.
Our next full day dawned clear having rained itself out overnight. We wasted no time in getting back up the mountain hoping to reach 1800 metres in altitude whilst the weather held for the endemic Apo Sunbird. We were in luck again when this time Danny spotted the Philippine Eagle perched and this time considerably closer. It then flew even closer towards us and we enjoyed our best scope views watching it calling and feeling very happy with ourselves to have seen this most incredible bird.
Our luck was out with Red-eared Parrot-finches having exhausted their seed supply and beyond a flyover glimpse or two we never got to grips with this species. Similarly the Montane Racquet-tail was heard whilst we were in the forest interior or seen very poorly in flight. Still we did not much care as we were having great luck with so many tough birds including the Apo Sunbird that we watched lining its nest with feathers. After some recordings were made we had superb views of the Long-tailed Bush-Warbler creeping past us like a mouse. Amethyst Brown-Dove perched over our heads for a lengthy view. We had good to great views of Colasisi, Philippine Coucal, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Coleto and repeat views of many of the birds seen the day before including Yellow-bellied Whistler, Grey-hooded Sunbird, Olive-capped Flowerpecker and the Black-masked White-eye.
The Giant Scops-owl called intermittently in the night but despite dashing after it on several occasions it remained well hidden in the forest interior. Dion and Adrian nearly had their head taken off by a Bukidnon Woodcock. The frogs were out in force after another evening of heavy showers and fog.
Our final morning again dawned clear. We made a dash for the Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher and our luck held when a female came and perched right next to us; a lucky break for this difficult Mindanao endemic. Back down the hill, onto the truck and back in the van we drove through to Bislig. It was a long drive with heavy rain and frequent roadworks slowing us down. We had a delightful lunch at a seaside fish café and an equally tasty dinner at our hotel where Dion discovered “Princess of the Sea” soup!
We were now exploring the lowland rainforest of eastern Mindanao in the former logging concession of PICOP. Connecting with local expert Zardo it was a typical very early start to get out into the forest in the predawn. We spent the whole day in the forest spending lunch and a siesta in an abandoned hut. The morning and afternoon session were both excellent. Rufous-lored Kingfisher, Black-chinned Fruit-Dove, Yellowish Bulbul, Yellow-wattled Bulbul, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, Pygmy Babbler, Philippine Magpie-Robin, Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher, Metallic-winged Sunbird and the dazzling Short-crested Monarch highlighted the morning. Blue-crowned Racquet-tail perched, Silvery Kingfisher, Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill, Writhed Hornbill, Blue Fantail and Steere’s Pitta highlighted the afternoon in the forest.
With an hour or so left in the late afternoon we walked up the airstrip runway at Bislig for a pleasant change of pace from searching for skulkers in the forest interior. It was also remarkably good with excellent views of Philippine Duck, Wandering Whistling-duck, a male Watercock in display mode, White-browed Crake, Blue-breasted Quail wandering about in the open, a Greater Painted-Snipe and a presumed Swinhoe’s Snipe leading the charge not to mention Black and Yellow Bitterns. On this day we racked up 99 species!
We had a second full day in PICOP and we pushed far into the remotest section possible. A perched Steere’s Honey-buzzard was a good first bird and then a major breakthrough when we watched a pair of Mindanao Wattled Broadbills at a nest they were building right next to the road. Thank you Zardo!!
Tearing ourselves away we kept concentrating on the remaining endemics finishing the day with sightings of Plain Bush-hen, Philippine Drongo-cuckoo, Philippine Needletail, Rufous Hornbill, Black-bibbed Cuckoo-shrike, the distinctive orange gonzalesi Scarlet Minivets, Philippine Leafbird and Philippine Oriole, Rusty-crowned Babbler, Philippine Leaf-warbler, Black-headed Tailorbird, the difficult Little Slaty Flycatcher, Handsome Sunbird and both Olive-backed and Bicolored Flowerpecker; a cracking day indeed. We waited in the afternoon for a repeat audience of the broadbills but we were out of luck and they remained a no-show.
A morning drive to Davao highlighted by a Barred Rail was followed by a flight to Cebu City. Here we spent the rest of the day relaxing. The morning of the 27th dawned and we headed up to the Tabunan forest accompanied by Oking and Lashela. We were taking a chance to try and see the critically endangered Cebu Flowerpecker. It was not surprising we did not see this bird in the half day we allotted to the task. It was an interesting experience birding in the razor sharp limestone karst and clambering up to the amazing viewing platform built by Oking.
It was however remarkably bird rich. After a lengthy duel the rare endemic Black Shama was well seen. We also had luck with two sightings of the “Cebu” Streak-breasted Bulbul at the lower viewing platform, a bird listed in my copy of Clements as extinct-fortunately not the case. The distinctive subspecies of Colasisi, Elegant Tit, Crimson Sunbird, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and Coppersmith Barbet were also interesting to get good views of. A Hooded Pitta was sighted briefly and there were plenty of small passerines in the form of Olive-backed Sunbird, Everett’s White-eye, Philippine Bulbul, Red-keeled Flowerpecker and munias of two species amongst others to keep us on our toes. We caught the inter-island ferry from Cebu to Bohol distracted by numerous Whiskered Terns and a handful of Black-headed Gulls.
Rajah Sikatuna National Park in the centre of Bohol offers excellent forest birding on a network of trails. After a lengthy search we finally caught up with a male Philippine Trogon having been tantalised by its call for two days in eastern Mindanao. It glowed in the scope. Next major stroke of luck came with a pair of Visayan Wattled Broadbills that gave repeat views. Rufous-fronted Tailorbirds drove us around in circles unseen yet we had more luck with the virtual endemic Yellow-breasted Tailorbird that turned on good views. Black-faced Coucal was well seen snooping in vine tangles in the canopy. In the afternoon we scoped a pair of Samar Hornbills well and enjoyed a splendid White-bellied Woodpecker. We had some views of Philippine Boobooks in the evening but they were skittish.
Our final full day on Bohol dawned with plenty of heavy showers on the forecast. Straight away we locked on to a pair of Streaked Ground-Babblers that perched up and allowed some reasonable photos. We spent the morning in the forest hoping for a sighting of the rarely seen Mindanao Bleeding-heart (St. Jude-the patron saint of lost causes came to mind).We did have luck finding a pair of Black-crowned Babblers in a mixed flock that included Rufous-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher and Blue Fantail. We also enjoyed the beautiful Greater Flamebacks (here of the subspecies rufopunctatus), one of many distinctive populations of this showy woodpecker scattered across the Philippines. In the afternoon we finally pinned down a stunning Visayan Silvery Kingfisher and had good views of Steere’s Pitta.
A final morning session before flying out was divided between the national park where activity was relatively quiet although we had views of Philippine Sheathtail Bat in a sinkhole and perched Samar Hornbills. We visited the Corella Tarsier Centre. Here they have a predator proof fence surrounding a hectare of forest. In the morning the local guides search for roosting tarsiers and then take in the tourists to see them. No flash photography is permitted to protect the tarsier’s enormous eyes. We were shown four animals. Birding here was also quite good with great views of Philippine Serpent-Eagle and a male Black-chinned Fruit-dove. We flew out in the early afternoon to find ourselves back in Manila and the main tour at an end.
Having farewelled the participants Dion and Adrian continued onto Puerto Princesa on the popular tourist island of Palawan. Here we met Orlan, jumped in the van and were soon amongst the birds. Blue-naped Parrot, the scarce Palawan Hornbill, Palawan and Pygmy Flowerpecker, Lovely Sunbird and the abundant Palawan Crow kept the list ticking over. A pair of Philippine Cockatoos gave good views-a critically endangered species. At dusk we went searching for nocturnal birds with the bright Easter moon not helping the situation. We heard both the Palawan Scops-Owl and Javan Frogmouth but our best sighting was of the endemic Black-footed Flying-squirrel. The avifauna of this island is quite different to the main Philippines being closer to Borneo in the evolutionary scheme of things.
A four am start saw us back in the forest now with the moon set. After more searching this time we had great views of the frogmouth. Breakfast then off by boat to the Underground River at St. Paul’s Subterranean National Park. Greeted by Stork-billed Kingfisher and Tabon Scrubfowl we could hear the star of the show calling in the forest interior. A patient wait and here he comes-the famous male Palawan Peacock Pheasant named by the late Tim Fisher as “Old Faithful”. At fifteen years of age it is uncertain how long he will continue to survive-we can only hope a lot longer.
After enjoying a lengthy session with the peacock-pheasant we birded the forest interior for a couple more hours enjoying excellent views of Hooded Pitta, some sneaky views of Red-bellied Pitta, the endemic White-vented Shama, a female Blue Paradise-Flycatcher and a couple of Palawan Blue Flycatchers. Large Water Monitors, Long-tailed Macaques and the endemic Northern Palawan Squirrel were also frequently encountered.
In the afternoon we returned our attention to the outstanding endemics. Palawan Tit was eventually tracked down in the Albizzia tree canopy along with Yellow-throated Leafbird. Ashy-headed Babbler gave much improved views as did the distinctive subspecies of Greater Flameback. We also enjoyed views of Hill Myna, Dollarbird and yet another Javan (Palawan) Frogmouth.
Our final full day on Palawan and again we were out at 4am back on the trail of the Palawan Scops-owl. Just as we were about to head off the owl responded. I made a sound recording of this bird and it came in straight away for a brief but good view. We trawled further down another trail and this time had an even better closer view. After breakfast in the hotel we returned to the forest. Falcated Ground-Babbler beckoned from deep in the forest interior and even allowed some half decent photographs-a good result for this mega skulker. We enjoyed more views of Philippine Cockatoos and first sightings of both Sulphur-bellied Bulbul and the Common Flameback (this population elevated to full species status on occasions).
We returned to Puerto Princesa and birded the forest around the Crocodile Farm. We found a few migrants included a trio of Forest Wagtails and at least three Oriental Cuckoos. We watched several Rufous Night-herons at nests in the canopy. There was also another Blue Paradise-Flycatcher. In the nearby rice fields we found a male Watercock in full display mode and a smattering of shorebirds including a few Long-toed Stints, Oriental Pratincoles and another presumed Swinhoe’s Snipe.
A last morning we explored some forest south of Puerto Princesa hoping for Melodious Babbler and Palawan Flycatcher. The babblers were soon heard but remained buried in the forest. More views of perched Blue-naped Parrots, Palawan Hornbills and then great views of the Melodious Babbler. Focussing on the densest bamboo gullies I heard a response to the flycatcher song but no sighting. After changing position a few times it eventually flew across the road giving a brief view and staying buried in the thick vegetation. Our last stroke of luck came with a trio of Great Slaty Woodpeckers that gave some outstanding views.
Back in Manila we had the chance to visit an ecopark where an Ashy Ground-thrush had recently been found nesting. The highlight here was a superb Red-bellied Pitta that would not leave us alone. Before I knew it I was on the plane back home, my Philippines adventure at an end. Many thanks to Adrian for his outstanding company in the field and complete attention to the logisitics on this tour. Great job Adrian and look forward to birding again in the future.
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