I love owls. They're awesome birds to see, anywhere, any day. But finding them can be verrrrry challenging. Owling is when birders go out to find an owl really late at night or at ungodly hours in the morning. I've done that on several occasions, finding myself standing in darkness, being eaten alive by seemingly ravenous mosquitoes, and waiting. Waiting for the silent nocturnal hunters to make an appearance.

I think I've been a bit spoiled with most of the owls I've seen: I got the Philippine Scops Owl as a lifer in Jops's backyard and the Philippine Eagle Owl in its day roost near the UP Diliman campus, both minutes away from my home in Quezon City! The Eagle Owl was actually my first owl ever! And honestly, finding those owls didn't really involve any serious owling.

I did get to see my first Luzon Hawk Owls when I did go owling in Mt. Makiling with friends for my birthday a couple of years ago (gosh, has it been that long???) It wasn't that tough though, we just waited a few minutes outside the hostel we were staying at: no hike, not that many mosquitoes, and great owls.

So, this owling trip in Tabunan, Cebu was the real deal: we woke up and picked up our companions, David and Sarah, from their hotel at 3AM, and were on the road to the forest before dawn. I was quite groggy and light headed, having arrived in Cebu from Manila at 11:30PM the night before. The drive up the winding road didn't make me feel better but the cool fresh air that hit my face when I got out of the van helped wash that awful feeling away.

We stopped at the house of 'Nong Oking, the guide and forest warden in Tabunan. After a few minutes preparing our gear, we set off into the darkness with his young daughter, Hazel. We trooped in a neat line: 'Nong Oking leading the way, followed by David, Sarah, and Hazel, with me and Jops taking up the rear. I made a huge mistake forgetting my flashlight (and even the headlamp Jun gave me!) and was mentally kicking myself for forgetting them the whole way.

Through the trails before dawn

It was unnerving trekking in unknown terrain in the darkness but I managed not to stumble. I did get some nasty wounds from an equally nasty looking branch with HUGE nasty thorns. But I ignored the throbbing pain and trudged onwards. The trail wound upwards then downwards. It would open up to a small field that would immediately get swallowed up with thorny brambles and bamboo on both sides. I followed the hazy silhouette of Hazel in front of me and put one foot in front of the other, asking silently: "Why are we doing this again?"

Then, the people ahead of me stopped walking and 'Nong Oking asked Jops for the owl calls. After the first playback, an owl swooped over our heads and perched on a tree behind us. Another call, another owl. 'Nong Oking pointed his flashlight on the area where it perched and there in clear, unobstructed view was my first lifer of the year: Cebu Hawk Owl. It stayed only for a few seconds before flying off into the darkness. Awesome!!!!

The same thing happened again and again: another call, another owl. The owls were calling from everywhere and were very obliging! I tried my best to get photos and started with this:

A lot of shots like this actually =P

... and ended with this:

This was the best I managed in the darkness.
Jops and David got some AWESOME shots though =)

I accepted the fact that I wouldn't be able to take a sharp photo of the owl in the darkness, so I decided to just take some videos of these unexpectedly obliging owls. I was super happy to get this very short but in-your-face video of a Cebu Hawk Owl!

It was the best owling yet!!! Sure, the trek was difficult, dark, and literally painful for me, but the views of the owls were more than enough to make it all worth it!

We didn't get fleeting views, we got in-our-face views! We didn't get just a couple of sightings, we got all the sightings we could have wanted! Plus, I got to see the owl spreading its wings downward, behavior which I only got to see in photos before that morning! How cool was that? =)

The owls were still calling from around us but we were all wow-ed out by them that we declared our owling session closed. So, before the sun rose, and energized by the owls, our party trudged forward towards the viewdeck for more birding. I decided to stay behind though (my leg was bothering me) and I enjoyed sitting alone, surrounded by trees, knowing the owls were around me, watching me.

My solo roosting site while I waited for my friends 

The forest was quiet, but I did get to see a Black-naped Monarch and a male Magnificent Sunbird (Crimson Sunbird) in the area where I sat. The others got to see the Black Shama, a Cebu endemic. Meanwhile on my rock, I enjoyed watching the mist slowly creep in, bringing fine rain with it. The rain picked up a bit as did the wind and it got really cold!

The mist slowly came down and eventually enveloped the forest

This was when I got a text message from my mom: "Storm Signal #1 in Cebu." Ah. Bring it on. I got awesome views of owls this morning. =)

The trip back down was easier to traverse now that we could actually see where we were going, but the rain made the trail a lot more slippery and we each had our slips and falls no matter how careful we were. We knew it was all part of the adventure and we all laughed at our muddiness (me being the most muddy for reasons unknown even to me.) We finally reached the concrete road and returned to 'Nong Oking's house to wash up most of the mud we brought with us. As we hosed down the clumps of mud, I knew the owl-induced adrenalin rush will stay with me for the next few days =)

Happy (and muddy!) birders with 'Nong Oking (in blue) and Hazel (in white)


  1. Congratulations on the owl sighting! Great job too with the hike up Tabunan in the rain!

    1. Thank you Trinket! I need to go back though... at least for the Black Shama =)

  2. You can do owling in daytimes. When you find one, it would not fly away, as it is its bedtime.