The End of My 9-Year Ernesti Wait

There are some bird species that I've always wanted to see ever since I browsed through my second-hand Kennedy field guide 9 years ago. I was amazed then of the concept of "subspecies" or "races" particularly when I saw the 2 races of Peregrine Falcon in the Philippines. Subspecies is the taxonomic category ranked below species level and is designated by a Latin trinomial (3 word-scientific name.)

The more commonly seen race or subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon is the migrant Falco peregrinus calidus which I was lucky enough to see in my first year of birding, specifically on July 27, 2010 in Mt. Palay-palay (before the tunnel was blasted through the mountain and the forest turned into a highway.) Thank God, I kept all my birding notebooks!

The migratory Falcons have always been kind to me. I've regularly seen them in nearby areas throughout the years. In UP Diliman, in Ateneo, along Quezon Avenue, along Commonwealth Avenue, in IRRI in Los Banos, and even in a communication tower viewed from our house in Quezon City. But I've never got the chance to see the OTHER race which is the resident ernesti subspecies.

For 9 years, I waited for a chance to see these dark and handsome raptors. Then, without warning, fellow birder Mhark G. shared photos of a family of ernesti falcons in Rizal! Things happened quite fast and Djop and I soon found ourselves with a golden opportunity to go see one of my most-wanted birds!

Looking back at the rest of our party in the early part of our climb.

Let me just say that this twitch to see the ernesti falcons was... unforgettable. The trail we took was a new one, made by Mhark and the local guides to get to a good vantage point which was 100 meters across a gorge away from the nest. The path we took was limestone and mud (because it rained hard the night before.)

Most of the trail was this... no trail really.

I feel very blessed for the attention and care Mhark and the local guides gave us while we were traversing jagged rocks and narrow ledges. I was also very grateful for the pair of gloves available from the guides which allowed me to use my hands to grasp and crawl whenever possible.

Early in our climb, the Falcons already showed themselves, flying by and showing us they were indeed the world's fastest fliers! But they were too far! We trudged on, with somewhat more urgency and excitement to see the birds.

Mhark assisting me and Kuya Let ready to catch me!
Photo by Djop
At some point, the only option was to tread on a makeshift one-branch "bridge" while holding on to the rock face. I never thought I would do something like that... but I did!

I stopped bringing out my phone and taking photos and just concentrated on getting over and past obstacles in the trail. I took comfort in the fact that there was help whenever a stone looked too large or the trail too narrow or sloped for me to walk through by myself.

We saw the Falcons a number of times before we reached the observation site. First, one Falcon perched on a rocky ledge but quite far away and heavily back-lit. It stayed a while and we all took the chance to photograph it even though the photos wouldn't come out so good..

The next sighting was a lot nearer to us! It stayed perched on a small leafless tree and we were almost directly under it! Getting a clear view was a challenge since the path was very narrow.

Finally! A clear shot of the Falcon!

The young Falcon flew away after a few minutes, noisily calling as it transferred to a different perch. This was where we got lucky! It didn't go far! And with a bit more climbing and correct positioning, an open shot was possible!

Sir Alain, Mhark, Djop, and I took our places on the steep trail and took photos. Sir Roy chose to stay at a lower part of the trail and Sir Bert's camera was unfortunately brought to the observation deck ahead of him.

At that point, I really don't know how I was able to climb all to where I was. The limestone were directly in front of me and there was no way else to move but by hoisting myself up the sharp rocks and getting on the next "level" of rocks! I guess adrenalin does work in these kinds of situations.

There were actually 2 Falcons in that spot, but the other at a farther and much higher perch than the one we were photographing. It stayed quite a while, allowing us to take lots of photos and admire its handsome features.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus ernesti) - immature

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus ernesti) - immature

The raptor then spread its wings (which I got a blurred shot of!) and flew off from its perch. I reviewed my photos and said a short prayer of thanks for this amazing opportunity! I was good! I told the group I would now head back down to join Sir Roy while the rest could proceed to the observation site. Alas, I was convinced by everyone to trudge on and make the last effort to the site. "Konti na lang, ma'am!" "Sayang naman, ma'am, andito ka na!" "Five minutes na lang, ma'am!" 😂

Last effort indeed as the final climb involved pulling myself up the slope with ropes until I finally landed on the ledge and rested my tired body on a bench they had made the day earlier. As I slowly felt my heart slow down, I found myself looking at the rock face where the Peregrine Falcons had nested. The young ones have all fledged now but it was amazing seeing it all the same.

We soon had lunch brought to us: binuhong manok (native chicken cooked in bamboo), pinakbet, and rice! We also had boiled eggs and they brought up ice so we could cool our water.

Hot lunch up the mountain!

After lunch, we all got sleepy... what with the delicious lunch and the mountain breeze! I managed just a few minutes napping, mainly because I was afraid to go tumbling down the mountain side and also because the guides would point out the Falcons as they flew overhead us from time to time.

The whole afternoon was spent waiting for them to perch closer to their next but unfortunately they didn't. However, we did get an amazing display of the adult Falcons "teaching" their young to hunt in the air!!! My camera could not possibly photograph the spectacle before us, but I borrowed some photos from Djop of the parent clutching a pigeon in its talons, hovering above us, waiting for the young Falcon to grasp the prey from underneath! I really have no words to describe it properly!

The wind picked up very quickly soon after we saw the Falcons' "training" exercise. We all didn't want to go down the mountain in the rain, so we packed up our day camp and began our descent. Djop said it took us around 30 minutes to get back down. I was at the front of the line and I swallowed my fear and just made my way through rock, soil, and non-existing trail back to the community. My legs were shaking visibly when we got closer to the houses, we took a short break and a wave of nausea slowly creeped in. I shook it off and followed the group to the community where Sir Roy was waiting. 

As I sat down on the wooden seat, I began to relax and the nausea quickly left, but then I started feeling tingling in my fingers and my upper lip was going numb! Prof Bert told me I needed sugar and offered me a mint which I gratefully took and it worked! Sir Roy had ordered halo-halo for the group (perfect!) and as we ate our yummy reward, the rain fell.

This was yummy halo-halo!!!

When the rain slowed to a drizzle, we headed back to the parking area through the last set of steps, which I went through with SO much difficulty since my knees refused to bend!!! We said our goodbyes to our local guides, who after what we've been through and how they helped me, I now consider my friends. I insisted for this group photo to forever immortalize one of the most memorable twitches I've ever done! Maximum effort! 💪

PPP: My First Lifer for 2019!

Update: After posting this, I learned that the Palawan Peacock Pheasant has not been seen in its usual site for the past four days! The bird is quite old and some fear the worst... quite bittersweet this lifer... 😱

It was one of those lucky trips when everything fell into place. I was in Puerto Princesa in Palawan for work and didn't plan on doing any birding. But somehow, I convinced myself to bring my binoculars and camera for the trip. Ok, fine. Djop convinced me to bring my binoculars and camera for the trip... you know, "just in case."

That "just in case" was any possible free time I could get to sneak a couple of hours birding in a nearby site. I couldn't have hoped for a better opportunity that opened for me and fellow birder, Sir Olan Balbido, that trip! From zero birding plans to an impromptu trip to the Underground River in Sabang to try for the Palawan Peacock Pheasant!

So, off we were at 5AM together with friends from work Nereo, Rodger, Fer, Marjon, and Jordge. Sir Fer was going to join me and Sir Olan find the Pheasant while the others were going to go see the Underground River.

We waited at the Sabang Wharf and soon boarded our banca to take us to the site. The 30-minute boat ride reminded me of how beautiful Palawan is, with its pristine beaches, amazing rock formations, and turquoise waters.

After a few group photos (of course!), our group split in two: one to the Underground River and the other to find the Pheasant. I followed Sir Olan and Sir Fer to the Ranger Station, carefully stepping around some Monitor Lizards sunning themselves on the sand.

I was gingerly stepping around a particularly large lizard when Sir Olan turned back to me and whispered excitedly that the bird was there!!! I rounded a large tree and there it was! My first lifer for 2019: the Palawan Peacock Pheasant.

Palawan Peacock Pheasant
I quickly raised my binoculars to my eyes and enjoyed the up close and personal view of this handsome bird. I took in its feather details and its markings from its head to its tail, which has these  two rows of beautiful ovals with an amazing blue gradient which reminded me of turquoise!

We have an amazing Creator!💗<3 td="">

I passed on my binoculars to Sir Fer and starting taking more photos. The rangers feed the Pheasant with rice grains making it a regular sight in the area. One of the rangers even showed me a cellphone photo of the bird with its tail spread out like a turkey! I silently wished we would see that!

The Pheasant moved away from the sandy area and towards a more forested part. It even chased Sir Olan away as he moved further from it to keep it within frame! Exciting stuff!

Sir Fer and I left Sir Olan for a bit to go look at the lagoon entrance of the Underground River. We were gifted with two soaring White-bellied Sea Eagles while we dipped our feet in the cool and super clear water!

The last time I was here was in the early 2000s. Happy to see the place well-preserved and pristine!

As we reunited with the rest of our group, we headed out to where we left Sir Olan so the others can get a look at the Pheasant. We found him seated on the sand just beside the generator and the bird was perched on a log and was calling! I slowly crept beside Sir Olan and took photos and some videos.

The Palawan Peacock Pheasant then hopped off its log and foraged deeper into the forest. We left satisfied with the amazing views and observations we made. Of course we took the obligatory group photo at the beach before boarding our banca and heading on to our next stop: the nearby Mangrove Paddleboat Tour.

Happy faces all!

After a short walk, a self-pulled raft ride, and a quick water break, we found ourselves in a small paddle boat gliding on the water and surrounded by beautiful mangroves. I got my wish for a mangrove snake too! I'll let the photos speak for themselves, but they don't come close to the actual experience. If you haven't tried this tour, you should definitely put it in your Palawan itinerary!

The entrance to the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour

Mangrove Cat Snake yay!

My view during the paddle boat tour

This river is protected and is an important breeding ground for many species of fish

Being surrounded by the healthy mangrove forest was amazing! I couldn't help but feel bad and scared for Manila Bay...

There were century-old mangrove trees along the river bank

On our way back, our boatman even sang us a song composed by the group of boat men manning the tour. While taking in my surroundings accompanied by the musical stirrings of our boatman, small schools of fish swam peacefully alongside our small boat. It was all so clean, so natural, and so serene. See, Philippines? It can be done!

We said our goodbyes to our friendly boat man and made our way to lunch. It was a quick but very refreshing trip to Sabang! Palawan is such a beautiful place and I hope its natural beauty and resources are preserved and protected. After all, it is called the Philippines' Last Frontier. See you again soon, Palawan!

Sasmuan's Surprise Spoonbills

I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in two counts for 2019's Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) in sites I've never been to before. As always, the experience of visiting a new place in the Philippines is unforgettable and will forever be shared with the people alongside me.

The first count I volunteered for gave a surprise sighting that even made it to the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer! I've joined in a number of bird counts and surveys of Manila Bay with Arne Jensen, the Records Committee Chair of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and an associate expert of Wetlands International but I've never been to the count site I was assigned to last January 12. Djop and I were assigned to join the team of Mads and Lu-Ann Bajarias to count in Sasmuan, Pampanga which included Bangkung Malapad.

Boardwalk entrance of SBMCHEA

Our jump-off point was the fish market in Orani, Bataan so our team of four was already on the road before 3:00AM. We arrived in Orani and was met by Freddy, our boatman for the trip. We wanted to be at Bangkung Malapad by sunrise so we boarded our katig-less banca in the dark and headed off to Manila Bay.

As our surroundings became lighter, we were joined by groups of birds skimming the surface of the water around us. It was a such beautiful dawn!

We were soon approaching the entrance to Bangkung Malapad. Bangkung Malapad, also called the Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (SBMCHEA) is a small islet in Manila Bay and boasts of mangrove trees and mudflats where migratory birds can be found.

View from our banca as we approached the entrance to SBMCHEA

Walking through the mangroves to the view deck.
As we got to the viewdeck, we all began setting up: scopes, cameras, food... when I saw three heavy-ish birds flying our direction. My heart skipped a beat when I noticed their distinct heavy bills so when I raised my binoculars to confirm what I thought they were, I couldn't contain my excitement and exclaimed loudly to the group: "Spoonbills!!!" In my excitement at this completely unexpected sighting, I struggled finding the "Black-faced" portion of their name, spinning in place as I forced my brain to cooperate. "Black-faced Spoonbills!" I finally managed to say. I looked at my friends and was even more delighted to know that all of them saw the spoonbills and that they were lifers for Djop and Mads (yay!), and a country lifer for Lu-Ann (yay!)!

The trio of Black-faced Spoonbills flying against the pinkish sky

The spoonbills flew around the view deck a number of times, giving us great views and chances for photographs in our slowly brightening surroundings. We thought (and hoped and prayed) that they would land in the mudflats right in front of us, but sadly they did not and instead flew away behind the mangroves and out of sight.

That's the view deck as photographed from the mudflats

Djop scoping out birds out on the mudflats from the view deck
The spoonbills did not make any more appearances the rest of the day but we did get to see quite a big number of other birds: Black-headed Gulls, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Asian Golden Plovers, Gull-billed Terns, Whiskered Terns of course, and some Caspian Terns. We were soon joined by counters from the DENR, DOT, and WBPP and we scanned and counted the further sides of the mudflats which are covered by the mangroves if you stand on the view deck.

That's Mads and Lu-Ann counting by the mangroves

That's me and Djop counting from the mudflats
Thank you, Lu-Ann for the photo! =)
After we counted the area of birds, we said our goodbyes to the rest of the team, boarded our banca and headed off to our other count spots in the area. Sadly, there weren't much to see in the stops we made save for feeding flocks of Whiskered Terns and egrets. We did pass by a small group of Black-winged Stilts but not much other waders.

We made our way back to Orani, stopping by a large expanse of exposed mudflats which held quite a big number of plovers. The mud was too wet and mushy for us to stand on for better views, so we took note of the site (no longer in Bulacan) and went back to the fish port. We collated our data over lunch and drove back to the city with a total of more than 9,000 birds for our count. The number was quite low but not bad, plus we had a mega record sighting of the Black-faced Spoonbills too! Black-faced Spoonbills are globally endangered and our sighting last January was the first in more than 100 years since it was last recorded in Manila Bay.

With more and more birders looking at the birds in different areas in Manila Bay, hopefully the efforts to protect and conserve it will pay off. And hopefully, with sightings such as the Black-faced Spoonbills among other birds, there is more than enough justification for the protection of the habitat, not only for the birds and other wildlife, but also for humans too.

Happy AWC volunteers! =)

A Day in Manolo Fortich

I've never been to this part of the Philippines before and I've never met this birder before as well. So it was very exciting for me to have gotten the chance to explore the bird life in the area and also to finally meet Doc Miguel de Leon in the flesh, after admiring his conservation work and his amazing photos of flora and fauna on Facebook.

Miguel is my peg when it comes to hospitality and I dream of being as generous a host as he is! Seriously! Over and above from the hassle-free travelling arrangements from Iligan to Cagayan de Oro, the warm accommodation in his beautiful home, the birding was of course a highlight. Of course! Since I got a lifer! =)

My year-end lifer for 2018: Black-shouldered Kite

But let me backtrack a bit...

After touching base in Miguel's beautiful home in Cagayan de Oro (did I mention it was a beautiful home? I did, did I? Let me say it again: Miguel has a beautiful home!), we convoyed to his farm in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon. 
Beautiful gazebo! That's Whistler, the giant puppy!

Insert: Maia, coffee, and a good book
 We were to check out the ambiguous pair of young cuckoos in his farm that looks to be young Philippine Hawk Cuckoos but calls like Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoos. Hmmm, an intriguing bird mystery! We proceeded to the hide positioned in the area where the birds showed regularly and waited.

The short walk to the hide

That's the hide facing the mango trees where the cuckoos usually perch

Miguel, Djop, and I comfortably fit inside the hide which was lined with banana leaves. Miguel's resident guide, Dynos, made sure we were all seated and had good vantage points to see the birds.

That's Dynos helping us setup inside the hide

When we were finally settled inside the hide, we began our wait. Of course, birders will never run out of stories to share with each other! So in hushed voices and darting eyes on the lookout for the cuckoos outside, we chatted and laughed and exchanged stories. The conversation was so much fun, I did not realize it had been hours! The cuckoos sadly did not show, possibly because of the constant presence of some bully Collared Kingfishers in the area.


Djop and I went out first to have some lunch while Miguel stayed behind inside the hide. While having lunch we enjoyed the quiet and the fresh air while watching some Pied Trillers, Olive-backed Sunbirds, Red-keeled Flowerpeckers, and even an immature Brahminy Kite in our surroundings.

We returned to the hide after lunch to wait for the cuckoos to show but sadly they didn't. After a while, we decided to go for our other target bird for the trip: the Black-shouldered Kite. 

I was excited to see this handsome bird and I was not to be disappointed! We were still on the road when Dynos announced that the birds were there in their usual site. We parked closer and got out the car and I got to view my year-end lifer for 2018.

We saw them chasing a crow, perching atop African Tulip trees in between aerial attacks. I was also attacked when I walked away from our group to get a closer look at the birds. I actually got scared when I saw the Kite angle its wings towards me in a dive and give a harsh squawk as it passed over my head! I brisk-walked back to our group, shielding my eyes but still seeing the bird circle around me to prepare for another attack! It screamed at my retreating form three times before it finally let me be and I reunited with my group, who were all smiling at my being attacked by the bird.

I just wanted a closer look at this!
We decided to ride the car to get closer views and as we got out of the car to observe the two birds perched on a leafless tree... they mated! How cool was that!? As we were heading back out to Miguel's farm, we even got treated to a display of a Black-shouldered Kite hovering over a field, fluttering its wings before dropping a few feet. It caught a rat among the pineapple plants and flew away with its catch. Will upload a short video of the behaviors we observed soon!

Djop, me, and Miguel:
Thumbs definitely up after observing the Black-shouldered Kites!
We returned to the farm but the cuckoos were nowhere to be found. So Djop and I boarded our vehicle to return to Miguel's home for dinner, stopping first for a toilet break. As we were leaving from the toilet break, our driver Jan got a call from Miguel: the cuckoos were there!!! We rushed back to the farm and as the last light of day faded into night, the mystery immature cuckoo called the distinct call of a Philippine Hawk Cuckoo. Mystery solved!

I told you it was dark!
When the cuckoos flew off into the night, we made our way back to Cagayan de Oro for a delicious dinner with fellow birder Neil and his family.

Thank you again and again, Miguel!
Our visit was short but very sweet indeed! Thank you again, Miguel! It was such a pleasure meeting you and being welcomed into your home and birding "playground"!