We had to go to Hill 394 at the Subic Bay Freeport and we had to get a permit for it. There were “lifers” there--birds seen for the first time--we were told. As it turned out, the hill sits in a restricted compound for making explosives. For strange reasons, the birds are safe on the hill. Even before daybreak, the early risers of their species are out singing. But we arrived late, the humidity already drenching us, and the forest was silent. We climbed the rough trail, skipping over obstacles of fallen trees. We pushed through bamboo groves, quietly waiting for the sound of birds. We heard only the pok, pok, pok of the Coppersmith Barbet and, after some time, my birding buddy turned on the recording bird calls on his iPhone to attract what we came looking for. First there was the Dollarbird perched on a barren tree, followed by the Falconet. A Coucal made us feel its presence somewhere. We walked some more. We waited and tried to be patient. We were told there were deer and boars as well to be seen on Hill 394, but we saw none of them either. Luck was not on our side that Saturday morning in March. My consolation was seeing a stunning Elegant Tit through the vines.
We were better off on the road, right where the concrete bunkers were, standing against the high trees. A solitary Brahminy Kite flew over, always gliding in a certain meditative flow, rarely seeking attention but always drawing awe nonetheless. Outside the gates we didn’t have to go far to see the splendor of the species of woodpeckers: Luzon Flameback, White-Bellied, and the dark Sooty. There was a Tarictic Hornbill too looking lost like a vagabond, its feathers in a pitiful state. It seemed to be waiting for something and I felt sorry for it, an outcast among the rest. Too quickly others raced across our view. There was the Green-Bellied Pigeon, the Yellow-Breasted Fruit Dove, the Green Racket-tail. A small flock of Ashy Minivets swooped past us, prompting my friend to blurt out in excitement as if he was seeing the wonders of birds for the first time. That’s what birding is about–-the quest for “lifers.” And even if seeing it were not for the first time, there was still something to be giddy about.
My turn came when I saw movement by the edge of a branch up above me. I saw it yellow, lighter than the most common orioles. I wondered if that was the lifer my buddy was hoping to find on Hilly 394, a species said to be a separate one of the Philippine Orioles, called the White-Lored Oriole. I yelped and I shouldn’t have. My buddy had a camera with the ultralong lens to take a shot of it, to find out if that was it. The yellow bird didn’t stay long; it must have decided to fly away after it had heard me shrilling. I couldn’t then tell for sure if I was right, if the oriole I saw was the endemic lifer to behold. Next time perhaps we might see it again. Every birder knows that we have to keep going back to places for the love of lifers.
Birding in Subic will require a permit from the Ecology Center of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a form to be filled up. There are guidelines and rules to be followed for environmental purposes. Fee is 200 pesos and can be renewed.
On the way up, there they were: the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters all lined up on the electric wire. I’d already anticipated what I’d see at the top of the forest of Twin Lakes, about 900 meters above sea level from the national road of Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental province. Just there, by the garden of the viewing deck, was a market of perch birds. I had to hold my breath and be quick with my binoculars, for there were more: the Visayan Bulbul that was sociable, which had probably attracted the rest, of Fantails and Monarchs, the White-Eye, the Elegant Tit, the Whiskers, and the Flowerpeckers. It was also there by the deck overlooking Balinsasayao, one of the lakes, where Sunbirds fleeted so often. You don’t have to move to see them. They come to meet you of their own accord. Here they’ve got the dazzling Magnificent Sunbird sipping on the nectar of the abundant hibiscuses by the railing. It’s fellow Maroon-Naped and the Olive-Backed Sunbirds joined the flock, bringing color and liveliness to the green around us.
Jac my birding guide knows this place like the palm of his hands. We rode up more than 12 kilometers on his motorbike. From the deck, we walked a few meters down to the lake for a boat ride around Balinsasayao. The first thing we saw was a Striated Heron, flying off and hiding as soon as it sensed our presence, but coming back again to give us a peek. A Pink-Bellied Dove dashed across us and was gone. Up in the sky was a pair of Ospreys circling around the quiet lake. But the best part, as always, was on our departure. Out there in the distance, in the thickness of the forest, were the endemic Tarictic Hornbills, playing around with a flock of black, orange eye-patched Coletos. These Hornbills of the Visayas are the jewels to be seen, but they were too far for my binoculars to capture in detail and I didn’t have any of those professional zoom lenses used by hardcore birders. I had to content myself with seeing the shape of its enormous bill, the brownish feathers and stripes on the vent.
At day’s end, Jac took me to another forest elsewhere, to meet a man who appreciates the wild. Known to many as Tatang Eti in a filial sort of way, Rene Vendiola has made his own forest out of less than two hectares as his mission to revive the dwindling mountains. He was a farmer in youth, remembering his growing-up years in the 1960s when other virtually extinct sub-species of the Hornbills, Monarchs, and Flycathers were easily within sight. He said they had disappeared when the trees were cut down to give way to vast sugar plantations at the onset of the Martial Law, lands and crops that made families of Negros island wealthy. Today he collects and plants saplings of hardwood trees to help forest growth, the kingdom of the birds. Other rare flora can also be found in his domain. Hunting had once been far too common in the past when it seemed they had everything and everything was everlasting. They were wrong, he said sadly. For birders, Tatang Eti’s stories tell us not to take species for granted. As for the birds, he said, “If they fly away, it means they are afraid of you, so do not follow.” That’s one lesson I learned from this bird watching trip.
The entrance fee to the Balinsasayao Protected Area is 50 pesos. A boat ride around the lake is 250 pesos per hour. You may reach Jac Señagan to guide you on bird watching and other tours at email@example.com or through the tourism office in Dumaguete City.
More than two years ago, Muslim rebels landed from their boats at the mouth of the Rio Hondo in Zamboanga City. Tight neighborhoods of slums and other dwellers were burned down when the military put an end to the siege. And after everyone had fled, those who came to reclaim the spot were the water birds. The wetlands in the fisheries school nearby had its first recorded nesting ground of Great Egrets, dozens and dozens of them finding a home in this place that was beautiful and nostalgic without the bloody conflict in this part of the country. Just like that, the egrets attracted the company of other species. My guide Joel took me there one morning and all I did was sit there with my binoculars, watching them in harmony with each other--if only people could do the same. The herons couldn’t be missed, two kinds known as Rufous and the Black-Crowned. Australian Stilts found their way here too, strolling together. So were the Moorhens and the Sandpipers and the Shanks. It was a blissful morning, so unexpected in this city where I grew up.
Joel works for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and so he would know better where to find the gems of this gateway to the Sulu archipelago, which is a paradise of its own when it comes to birds. Mindanao Island has as many as 200 species out of the country’s total of 614. Unfortunately, it is also inordinately dangerous for birders, particularly in the Sulu area. Zamboanga City is usually the last stop where it can be as safe as possible. Joel will know where to take you. Riding pillion on his motorbike, he took me next to the Bog Lake about five kilometers away from the city center. There was another heron to behold, the Purple one. The lake’s surroundings had a garden tended by the caretaker’s family looking after the land occupied by the Bureau of Fisheries. There were terns and ducks, particularly the Whistling Wondering. I stayed long enough waiting for the hiding Purple Swamp hen to come out of the lush hyacinths.
Our last stop for the morning was a bit further out of the city, past the genteel village where I used to live. Built during the American colonial years, Pasonanca Park was a thing of my childhood. Joel brought me up to the watershed where I had not been before, seeing the water treatment structure that had been there since the time of General Jack Pershing. It’s the only remaining virgin forest around here, about 10,500 hectares of it. We walked around looking for birds, but I was happy sitting by the stream, for there it was on a rock. It stayed there for me and I didn’t want to move. Fore more than a quarter of an hour, I was happy watching it with my Nikon binoculars. That was good enough. It was a Silvery Kingfisher, and I knew the sign. Kingfishers are my “spark bird,” meaning it’s that particular kind of bird that makes you fall in love. For one morning, on my short visit, that was all I needed to see before my flight out of Zamboanga.
Birding guide Joel Baysa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the assistant to the superintendent of the protected area of Pasonanca Park in Zamboanga City, under the supervision of the DENR’s community office.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
More articles from Criselda Yabes