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! 💪


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