In another attempt to dodge reality, Ross and I decided to hop on over to the Philippines for some last-minute, fast-paced birding. With only three and a half weeks off, we decided on an itinerary that would include Palawan, Cebu, Negros, Bohol, and Mindanao (this last island Ross would be doing alone because I could only get two weeks off of work).
Ross and I were both super excited to visit Southeast Asia again, and were especially excited to visit the Philippines, where we’d heard nothing but good things from those who had visited. The Philippines is an archipelago made up of over 7,000 islands, but luckily only about 11 need to be visited to see all the endemics! The geography of this part of the world is fascinating, and the country’s location between the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean has one of the highest degrees of bird endemism with ~220 endemics found in the archipelago! (AKA nowhere else in the world!!) Naturally this is an awesome place for birders to visit.
We started our trip on the island of Palawan, the western most island in the archipelago. Palawan is unique in that the majority of the species and subspecies found on this island are more closely related to birds found in others parts of Southeast Asia than those found in the Philippines. In total there are 22 endemics (and a few more very range restricted species), most of which are fairly easily to find. We had an ambitious goal of getting all of Palawan’s endemics and range restricted species in 4 ½ days, something that usually takes birders 7 days or more to do!
We arrived at the Pittsburgh airport at 6:00AM on May 8th to start on the long trip to the other side of the world. It was mostly a blur for the next 26 hours (the sun never set!), nevertheless we eventually landed in Manila at 8:00PM on May 9th, but our traveling didn’t end there. We spent the night at the airport and at 4:30AM on May 10th, we flew to the island of Palawan. While we were holed up in the Manila airport, we met up with a guy from England named Rob (the same guy we birded Cambodia with). Ross had coordinated with Rob beforehand that he would be joining us for this trip both as a travel companion and someone to split costs with. By the time the three of us had arrived on Palawan, it had been over 35 hours since we had left Pittsburgh and it was finally time to start birding! May 10th. Landing at 0600 on Palawan, we were already starting to feel the pressure of our time constrained itinerary for the next 4 ½ days. Obviously we were concerned that with extremely hot and humid weather, the birds would be quieting down early. We were extremely fortunate that the car rental checkout went very smoothly and we were on the road by 0630. It was a 45 minute drive to our first birding location, Zig-Zag Road. Here we had two main targets to find, Palawan Flycatcher and Palawan Babbler.
We arrived at our location at 0715 and headed down a short trail through a patch of bamboo and soon Ross found our first target of the trip, Palawan Flycatcher. We birded the area for the next two hours getting acquainted with the some of the local species including Ashy-headed Babbler, Pale Spiderhunter, Hooded Pitta, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, Palawan Flowerpecker, and Lovely Sunbird. We never did find our second target bird though. By 0930 it was already extremely hot, very humid, and very quiet, so we decided to take care of arranging some permits for the following days. The Philippines is notorious for its bureaucracy and we discovered this first hand over the next few hours. Our first stop was at the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm (yes a prison!) to arrange a permit for a visit in a few days. While trying to find the right area, we met Jong, one of the workers at the gate to the Balsahan Natural Pool area. After chatting with him, he said it wouldn’t be necessary to acquire a permit and instead just show up in 3 days and he would show us around. From here we headed to Puerto Princesa to obtain a permit
to visit the Subterranean Underground River Park, known among tourists for the beautiful river that runs through a cave. After receiving the permit, we then needed to drive two hours to Sabang to get the permit stamped. (Who knows why this all couldn’t be sorted out from one location, but whatever. We just did as we were told.) We arrived in the early afternoon, finished our permit paperwork, and then coordinated a boat to take us at 5:00am to the Underground River Park. We were hesitant that the boat driver wouldn’t show at 5:00am so we got the number of the dispatcher. From here, we spent the afternoon birding at the Liyang Lookout 7 km south of Sabang. This area is one of the few spots to reliably see the critically endangered Philippine Cockatoo. After 2 hours of scanning the skies, a small group of Philippine Cockatoos finally arrived and quietly fed in some trees across the valley. While waiting for these rare parrots we were able to see a few other species including Spot-throated Flameback, Blue-headed Racket-tail, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, and three species of bulbuls. From here it was back to Sabang for a well-deserved night of sleep. With all of the travel and a full day of birding, it had been over 48 hours since we had slept in a bed and we all were exhausted!
May 11th. We arrived at the boat dock in Sabang at 0500 for our boat and not surprisingly, our boat driver was nowhere to be found. Thank goodness we had gotten the phone number from the dispatcher the day before! A few phone calls and over an hour later, we were finally boarding the boat and heading to the entrance of the Underground River Park. Although a huge tourist destination, our main reason for visiting was a bit different. Along with the 8 km long underground river, the area is also home to a very friendly Palawan Peacock Pheasant. This usually elusive species has been hanging out in the area since 2001 and has been seen by hundreds of birders over the last 15 years! Outside of this one particular bird, almost no one encounters a Palawan Peacock Pheasant in the wild and Ross wanted to be sure he could see this one before the bird dies and the species becomes next to impossible to see. Upon landing on the beautiful beach, we quickly made our way to behind the ranger station where we easily found the habituated male Palawan Peacock Pheasant. While watching this stunning bird, we also saw a few Tabon Scrubfowl and a few Hooded Pittas. We spent the next hour walking the jungle trail, managing to find a few interesting species including Palawan Tit and White-bellied Woodpecker. Arriving back at the ranger station, we decided to be tourists and took the 45 minute boat ride tour on the underground river that the park is known for. We floated through an immense cavern system that held rooms over 60 meters tall!
After seeing the caverns, we walked along the famous ATV trail just south of Sabang, finding Palawan Blue Flycatcher, Palawan Tit, and Blue Paradise Flycatcher. From here we drove a little over an hour to a pier just north of Puerto Princesa which was our launching point to visit the islands located in Honda Bay. At the pier, we purchased tickets for a ride on a boat out to the small islands of Cowrie Island and Pandan Island. These islands surrounded by beautiful white sand beaches are a known tourist hot spot, but we of course had a different motive for our visit; Grey Imperial Pigeon and Mantanani Scops-Owl—clearly we are not your average tourists. Our first stop was Cowrie Island where our game plan was to walk to the back side of the island and look for the Mantanani Scops-Owls that have been sighted here in the past. Although we were able to access the mangroves (sometimes security stops birders) we were unable to find our target bird. The access to the mangroves was extremely limited and overall it probably isn’t worth stopping on this island. From here we talked our boat driver into taking us to the backside of Cowrie in hopes that we would gain better access to the mangroves. This plan failed as the water was too shallow to approach the mangroves and there wasn’t any land to access. From here we headed to Pandan Island which is another known spot for the scops-owl and also the main place birders find the imperial pigeon. We were dropped off on the back side of Pandan Island which was a highlight of our trip for sure due to having the entire beach to ourselves! The beaches were pristine and beautiful and covered with gorgeous shells. What made it all better was we had successful encounters with both of our target birds Grey Imperial Pigeon and Mantanani Scops-Owl, and some added bonuses in the form of Barred Rail and Great-billed Heron.
Truly this experience was one of my favorites and words can never do justice to these isolated beaches that oh so many people would LOVE to have the opportunity to enjoy. We were thankful for a relatively relaxing day of birding and happy to have these species under our belts because the next two days were about to be very rigorous.
May 12th. Typically there is one endemic bird that birders visiting Palawan neglect to try for because of the difficulty in accessing its preferred habitat. The Palawan Striped Babbler is a bird that is often hard to reach as it lives above 1000m elevation in some remote mountains. Thanks to some recent information from Michael Kearns who had just completed the hike up Mount Victoria a month prior, Ross decided that it would be worth while for us to try our luck in finding this seldom seen species. We woke up early on the 12th at our hotel in Narra and learned that our guide was running late. Luckily, Narra is home to the largest concentration of Philippine Cockatoos in the world which breed and roost on nearby Rasa Island. Since we had a half hour before out local guide would be arriving, we took a quick drive through a nearby neighborhood and had awesome views of Philippine Cockatoos eating seed pods out of a tree. By 0600 we met up with our local mountain guide Julius and went to the market to pick up food for the next two days. I ended my trip to the market with some delicious Halo Halo, a shaved ice/evaporated milk treat popular among Filipinos that I was introduced to while working in Hawaii.
From the market we headed to the nearby ranger station to get the proper permits for our hike. After completing the necessary paperwork, we finally were on our way to climb the second highest mountain on Palawan. This hike is typically a three-day hike to get to the summit and back, but due to our constrained schedule, we planned to complete it in just two days. We accompanied Julius to his home where we met up with two porters who would also be joining us.
The trail started through a prairie-like grassland and since we didn’t get started until mid-morning (0900 to be exact) the heat was already oppressive. It was a nice change of pace when we finally reached the river. Our water pump sure came in handy during this hike because the next few hours of hiking consisted of crossing and re-crossing the Buhawi River. (13 times to be exact!) We were very fortunate that the water levels (thanks to the ongoing drought) were low enough to jump from boulder to boulder because normally this leg of the hike requires you to go waist deep through the water to get to the other side. This likely saved us a lot of time and we didn’t have to get wet! Well, except for when we wanted to. We took a few stops along the way at the river side pools to go for a swim in the crystal clear water. We stopped for a lunch just before we crossed the river for the last time and from there it was up, up, up.
The trail was steep but direct and when we reached 1200m elevation, we ran into our first Palawan Striped Babblers, the species that we came for! We continued onward and almost 8 hours after we started, we reached the final high camp site at 1345m. We discovered that our “water source” was nothing more than a trickle off of a rock face, but it worked for us and it worked for the boldly-patterned babblers who also came in for a drink!
We set up our tent on one of the pre-flattened areas and Julius and the porters fixed us a dinner of pork and rice with shots of brandy on the side (something Julius made a special stop for after the market to be sure to bring up with us.) Our water source was nothing more than a trickle off the side of the rock face, but it was here that we had excellent views of Yellow-breasted Warbler, Little Pied Flycatcher, and of course our main target Palawan Striped Babbler!. After dinner and a few shots, we played the tape of Palawan Scops-Owl a few times and luckily had a single bird come in to take a close look at us. After adding our last target bird of the night, Rob and I curled up inside the tent while Ross slept just outside. (The tent could only fit two so Ross was the unfortunate one who had to sleep outside!) We were fortunate that it didn’t rain, but it was a cold, uncomfortable night of very little sleep for me.
May 13th. Rob and I decided the night before that after coming all this way, we would like to go to the summit. Ross, who came for one reason and one reason only, unsurprisingly went birding and bypassed going all the way to the top. We woke up early with a goal of getting to the top for sunrise. Reaching the summit involved some scrambling and climbing up the sides of rocks, but was well worth the breathtaking view of Palawan. On the way up we passed some very awesome and very rare Bell sprouts that had evolved into Victreebel Attenborough’s Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes attenboroughii.) These carnivorous plants are endemic to Mount Victoria on Palawan, meaning they can be found nowhere else in the world. Because they inhabit such a small range and have a high likelihood of poaching, they are listed as critically endangered (per http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/159126/0) so they were pretty neat to see!
At 1,709m in elevation we had reached the summit. We took a few photos from the small clearing at the top and were fortunate enough to have clear views of the other “tooth,” the other high peak of Mount Victoria, as well as out into the distance spanning the rest of the mountain range.
With the summit conquered, we turned our attention to heading back down, as we had a long day ahead of us. We were not going to be camping another night and instead needed to get down the mountain, back to our car, and on the road to drive back north to where we would be birding on our last day on the island. We left the summit and soon met back up with Ross at the high camp. He had a successful morning birding, having seen more Palawan Striped Babblers as well as the tricky to see Falcated Wren-Babbler. With a long day ahead of us, we didn’t want to spend too much time sidetracked by the birds, but Ross still managed to get both Rob and I on the Falcated Wren Babbler that he had found earlier in the morning. One may argue that “going down” is easy, and while it is less time-consuming, it still requires a fair amount of work. We tried to pick up the pace so Ross wouldn’t be driving in the dark and Ross and I found ourselves jumping from boulder to boulder while crossing back and forth over the river. Birdwise the hike down wasn’t too
productive except for a group of 1 male and 2 female Palawan Peacock Pheasants that Ross flushes off the trail. This species is extremely difficult to find and Ross was very happy with the encounter. We also made one stop along the way at a beautiful natural pool for a little swim to cool off and from there it was full speed ahead so we would have enough time to drive further north later that night. After arriving back at Juluis’s house, we quickly packed the car and headed north towards Puerto Princesa. Having still not seen Palawan Frogmouth, Ross planned to drive the entire way back to Sabang to look for this species because that is were all of the eBird sightings and tour groups stop to get it. Luckily before dropping Rob and I off at the hotel in Puerto Princesa for the night, we made a quick stop along Zig-Zag road to try for the frogmouth there. No one tries for this bird at this location so we weren’t sure it could even be found at this area, but saving all of that time driving would certainly be worth it if it were. Turns out that the same patch of bamboo that had held our life Palawan Flycatcher a few days prior also gave us great looks at our life Palawan Frogmouth which was more preoccupied with eating a large stick bug then it was with us!
May 14th. After 4 days on Palawan, our target list was down to two species: Palawan Hornbill and Palawan Babbler. We decided to spend our final morning in Palawan at the Iwahig Penal Farm, the Filipino equivalent to a jail. The correctional facility is unlike anything in the US, where the inmates are required to do manual labor to make up for their sins. Because of this, the ‘jail’ is located on a large plot of land, including areas for farming, some forest and some areas for recreational activities. We met up with Jong (the guy from the front gate at the natural pools that we had met a few days ago) and two of his friends as they showed us to a trail along the river where both of our remaining targets have been reported. It didn’t take long for us to hear the distinct melody of Palawan Babbler, but the skulky mid-story bird required a little bit of effort in order to coax it out of the thick vegetation to an area where we could see it. We were happy to have one of our targets out of the way, but were nervous because our final bird, the Palawan Hornbill, is more or less just something you luck into. Long story short, after 4 hours of watching the skies and walking around in the heat, we never were able to lay eyes on Palawan’s only hornbill. I guess that’s just the way it goes with some birds sometimes! We had done all we could but still fell short. Perhaps this is one reason why many people prefer to spend more than 4 days to get all of Palawan’s endemics!
From Palawan, it was off to the airport and over to the island of Cebu. More on that to come soon!
For anyone interested, here is a topographical map of our hike up Mount Victoria:
For more detailed logistics on birding Palawan and arranging the hike up Mt Victoria click here: Philippine Trip Report