From Palawan we headed to the island of Cebu.
Cebu is one of the most developed provinces in the Philippines, having once served as the first capital of the Philippines. Cebu City is still a main center for tourism, trade, and various forms of commerce. Unfortunately, (and most probably because of the longstanding history of the area) the majority of the habitat has been destroyed and nearly every mountainside on the island has been turned from forest into field over the years. Only 0.03% of the original forest remains intact. (Per edgeofexistence.org.)
Many people living in Cebu City don’t know anything about the birds that once lived on the island or the ones who are barely holding on, but there is one man, Oking, who maintains the last remaining habitat and serves as a ‘bird guide’ to birders who are visiting the island. With only small patches of suitable habitat remaining, that forest, is one of the last place for birders to find Black Shama, Streak-breasted Bulbul and Cebu Hawk-Owl. Unfortunately, one of Cebu’s endemics, the Cebu Flowerpecker was last seen in the early 2000’s and is thought to have already gone extinct. Ross had coordinated with Oking to spend one night at his place while we searched for the remaining endemic birds. We only spent one night on the island, as there aren’t many birds to get there.
We arrived to Cebu airport after a fairly quick flight, but with the airport being located on an island off of the mainland of Cebu, it took us 1 1/2 hours just to go the few kilometers to the main road. This setback made us late to meet the motorbikes that were to take us the remaining distance to Oking’s. When we finally met the guys with motorbikes who were to drive us, it was already dark and we were disappointed to find that there were only two of them and there were three of us PLUS all of our bags. Fitting all of the gear onto only two motorbikes seemed impossible (not to mention a bad idea to us) but the two Filipino’s didn’t seem to see an issue. I must mention that when we travel we like to do so as safely as possible, calculating risk to reward and usually taking only minimal risks. In the states I would never get on a motorcycle without a helmet but here we were in the overcrowded Cebu City, in the dark and rain, about to ride three deep, plus bags, with no helmets, on a small motorbike (not really knowing whether it has been maintained properly) up and down some windy rundown roads. Rob was very upset about it, and immediately voiced his frustration and blamed Ross for the situation but Ross had no idea that this was going to be our transportation and truthfully, we all were a bit apprehensive about it. With no other options to speak of, we had no choice other than to just go with it, so thank God we did make it to our destination with no problems, even though Rob’s motorbike was lacking a functioning headlamp…
A guy named Michael Kearns (whom Ross had been in contact with prior to coming to the country because they will be travelling to Mindanao together) was already staying at Oking’s so we met him and Oking and immediately began our search for Cebu Hawk Owl. Thankfully it didn’t take long before we heard two owls calling. A little more playback, and we had two Cebu Hawk-Owls sitting right next to each other above our heads! As is usual with owls, following the lead of someone else when you know you could do it better yourself was a bit frustrating for Ross. But still, Ross managed to get some audio recordings and photos of this endemic owl. After all of the trouble we had getting here, we were happy to salvage the night before heading back to the house to get some sleep. Oking kept apologizing to us for being very poor. He and his family are living in nothing more than a small cement shack, but despite this, they received us into their home and sacrificed comfort of their own in order to make us feel welcomed. We were each given a blanket and pillow and Rob, Ross and I shared a small bedroom on the concrete floor for the night.
The next morning there was a bit of confusion as Oking speaks minimal English. Ross wanted to just get on the trails as early as possible, but Rob wanted to have breakfast beforehand. Oking didn’t know what to do with conflicting schedules so he took Ross out early to begin searching for the shama and bulbul. Oking’s daughter took Michael to the last place that Cebu Flowerpecker had been seen before going extinct, but that left no one to take Rob and I out when we finished breakfast. Oking must have called his son and eventually we did have someone leading us to the trail to meet up with Oking.
In order to get to the habitat, one must first walk up through several fields full of livestock. Perhaps after 15-20 minutes of walking, one will reach the forest edge and then climb upwards to get to the good habitat. While out on the forest trail we were able to see Black Shama relatively easily, but it took a lot of patience, playback, and waiting around before we got brief views of Streak-breasted Bulbul. Other interesting birds that we found during our brief morning visit included White-vented Whistler and Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher.
With all of Cebu’s remaining endemics in the bag, we left Oking and were on our way back to Cebu City where we caught a bus and then spent the next five hours traveling south to the island of Negros. I’d skip over the uneventful bus ride altogether as it was merely transportation to and from a location, but I simply MUST mention the process that Filipino’s on Cebu have for getting a seat on the bus. Instead of, you know, buying tickets and being issued a seat, it is a complete free-for-all and you must push and shove your way onto the bus and snag a seat before someone else can take it! It is a first come first serve basis and if you can’t get a seat you have to wait for the next bus and hope for better luck. I wish I could have taken a photo of the bottleneck at the bus door and the people being shoved out of the way as someone pushes to get in front of them, but I was too busy fighting onto the bus myself! I can’t even adequately describe what a mess this process was. Nothing in any country I have been can even compare. I guess selling tickets with a seat number on them would be too simple…
It was already dark when we arrived in Negros. From the ferry port, we debarked our bus and grabbed a tuk tuk up to the town of Valencia and coordinated for rooms at the only hotel in town. It wasn’t open when we arrived, but the guy from the gas station was able to get someone there to get us into our rooms. From our hotel we walked up to the main square, a very Spanish-esque town center, and found some sort of festival going on. The plaza was full of people (possibly the entire population of the town) with a big stage in the center of the plaza and several food stands selling various forms of grilled meat. We love meat on a stick, and proceeded to dine amongst all of the other Filipino’s watching the “Mother’s Day Talent Show” going on in the plaza. Because English is considered a main language in the Philippines, we could understand a lot of the show. Ross then telephoned our local ‘guide’ Leonard, who met us at the plaza and we coordinated a time to meet for the following day. Ross explained to Leonard that we wanted to see the Negros Striped-Babbler and the Flame-templed Babbler. Leonard told us that seeing both birds in one day could not be done and that no one goes for both on the same day. Clearly, Leonard had never met anyone like Ross before.
The next morning, Leonard and the two motorbikes that were to transport us were both late, a common trend among local guides and something Ross hates more than anything. Although late, eventually we were on our way to the location of the Negros Striped-Babbler, a species of babbler that can only be found above 1000m elevation in a certain area on the island of Negros. We arrived at the location for the bird and proceeded to hike up a steeeeeeeeeeep farming hillside. It was an aggressive start to the day and surely I had several workouts completed in just that climb! It wasn’t necessarily difficult ascending the field, it was merely steep. (Although, depending on who you are and what kind of shape you are in, it would be
a valid argument to say that the degree of steepness correlates with the degree of difficulty… but I digress.) Once we reached the forest edge, we were already at 1000m elevation and the hike became a bit more technical. It had rained recently so the ground was wet and slippery and we continued to climb up another 300m in elevation before we reached the babbler’s preferred habitat. Leonard was nice enough, but his bird identifying skills were a bit lacking. Truthfully, he wasn’t a ‘bird guide’ at all but more someone who knew where the locations of where the birds had been seen. Thankfully Ross really only needs to be pointed in the direction of the location and once we had arrived, he took over as bird guide to get Rob and I on the birds. It wasn’t long before we had a flock of three Negros Striped-Babblers calling above us.
After Ross had sufficiently recorded the birds for uploading to Xeno Canto (click here if you’d liketo listen to some of his recordings), we started on our walk back down the hill. From there we hopped on the back of our motorbikes and drove down into the valley to try for our next Negros target, Flame-templed Babbler. Unlike its neighbor, the Flame-templed Babbler does not prefer elevation, but prefers habitat in valleys. We arrived at our next birding location by early afternoon and we started on the descent down to the stream. As we were walking down the valley, Leonard pointed up to the mountainside and explained that was where we had just been! As the crow flies, the two locations aren’t very far from each other, but we had to go back into town to get to the second location which added a lot of travel time between the two locations.
On our walk down the hill we heard a Spotted Wood-Kingfisher calling so Ross played the tape and we had flyby views of it right in front of us. We don’t suspect that the kingfisher responded to the tape so much as it was going to fly by anyway. Either way, it was nice to at least see this uncommon forest kingfisher! When we reached the stream bed, Leonard led us up the stream to the location that he knew Flame-templed Babblers to be found in the past. Unfortunately, there were no babblers to be seen, and Leonard being nothing more than the son of a guy who knows the locations, didn’t know what else to do. He said “no, they are only found right here.” We waited for almost an hour, but Ross being a real birder, couldn’t sit still any longer and started back on the trail to find his own babbler. It should be no surprise by now, but soon thereafter we heard Ross calling for us and again we had looks at another Negros endemic in the form of two Flame-templed Babblers! By this point it was mid-afternoon and Leonard probably was assuming we would be finished for the day (after all, he had told us yesterday that getting both Negros Striped Babbler and Flame-templed Babbler in the same day couldn’t be done.)
While on the walk out Ross started asking about Negro’s endemic subspecies of White-browed Shama (Visayan Shama). Leonard was hesitant but did tell us that to get to the shama location it would be an hour’s drive by motorbike. Ross immediately told him there was plenty of time and soon Leonard’s afternoon off turned into a shama chase. The one thing we realized early morning about Leonard was that he really had no concept of distance and that “hour” to get to the shama location turned into two hours and became a race against dark to find the bird. Long story short, but after a 2 hour bike ride that included an hour of bumpy rocky road, Ross finally arrived at the shama location with just about an hour of daylight left. The site, a forest gully among otherwise deforested habitat did not look too promising. Leonard lead Ross down the hillside to the spot, and expecting an easy tick, Ross played the tape, but heard nothing but silence. Leonard said there weren’t any other spots in the area and usually the bird was very easy here. With Leonard sitting in place, Ross started working the little habitat that was available, hoping to locate the bird before it was dark. He was about to give up and told Leonard that he was going to start walking down the ravine and would meet Leonard further down the road. Luckily for Ross, at 5:45 p.m. just as it was getting dark, Ross finally located a male Visayan Shama.
Soon thereafter, the sun had set and it was time to get back on the motorbike to start the two hour journey back to Valencia. But there was only one problem—the motorbike Ross had ridden in on, had a broken headlight. It was now dark, they were dirt rocky road, and there were no street lights for kilometers. Luckily the moon was fairly bright that evening, so by moonlight they slowly made their way along the bumpy dirt track back out to the main road. From there, Ross switched motorbikes and it was a slow ride home as the motorbike with the broken headlight followed closely behind the other so that it could see! Upon arriving back to Valencia at around 8:30 PM, Ross still had one more bird to see, the Negros Scops-Owl. Luckily these birds were nesting near Leonard’s father’s house and soon Ross was able to see 3 Negros Scops-Owl owlets and a single adult.
It had been an extremely long exhausting time, but the list of highlights made it well worth it (but really, only the most dedicated of birders could put in 18 hours of straight birding, no matter the highlights.) Rob and I chose not to see the Shama or the Scops-Owl and instead we spent the afternoon checking out Valencia’s impressive WWII collection, which was surprisingly interesting and the owner, who was extremely knowledgeable about his large collection, gave us a detailed touring. I spent the latter part of my evening walking around the Spanish-inspired square and eating some delicious Filipino foods.
The following morning, May 18th, we transferred ourselves from Valencia to another one of Negro’s prime birding spots, Twin Lakes. We had high hopes for this location, but our first morning we hardly saw a single bird! The area was beautiful, with lush green mountains as the backdrop for views of a picturesque lake, but the lack of target birds put a damper on the morning. We still managed to scrounge up, Maroon-naped Sunbirds (which were common around the flowers near the restaurant,) Blue-headed Racquet-tail, and in the evening we had Philippine Swiftlet and Visayan Hornbill.
We were able to rent camping gear and spent the night sleeping in the grass next to the restaurant. The next morning, a staff member who is also a birder, escorted us to the southwestern corner of the lake to help us look for a few of our target species. The open area at the start of the waterfall trail is a known stakeout for Yellow-faced Flameback, but unlucky for us, we were unable to find it.
A great consolation prize was a far off fruiting tree that was full of Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeons and Yellow-breasted Fruit-Doves, both of which can be difficult to see. Other highlights we found in the area included a Visayan Rhabdornis, (possibly the best bird of the morning!) Oriental Dollarbird, and White-winged Cuckoo-Shrike. After our morning stakeout in the SW corner of the lake, we checked the trails around the restaurant for Amethyst Brown-Dove, but only Ross managed to see one flyby. We were all able to see a White-vented Whistler, which made up for me missing the dove. We departed the twin lakes area at 11:00 AM when our motorbikes returned from the day before. It was a quick trip down the mountain and soon we were on a Jeepney headed to the ferry terminal with plans to catch the 3:00 PM ferry to Bohol.
We were quite surprised to learn upon our arrival that the ferry was fully booked and there was absolutely no other way to get to Bohol that day! After a few frustrating minutes of trying to figure out what to do, a new plan was created. We decided to catch the 12:50 pm ferry to Siquijor island and then take the 1:30 pm ferry the next day to Bohol. Although this plan resulted in 1 lost day on Bohol which at this point was unavoidable. In hind sight, this plan was better than our original plan as it gave us the added bonus of picking up Siquijor Bulbul (an endemic only found on this island!) and also left us with a morning to scuba dive! Sometimes just rolling with it works out for the better. We managed to find a quaint hotel right on the beach. It was convenient that Siquijor Bulbuls (or Streak-breasted Bulbul depending on who you ask) were calling from across the street! Ross was able to get some recordings of the birds. Another added bonus was the Slaty-legged Crake running around the gardens at our hotel! We had staked out this bird for several nights in Thailand but were unable to get a view and here it was running around at our feet! We couldn’t have picked a better place to stay!
We had some time to kill before catching our ferry to Bohol and spent the morning scuba diving off the shore. The island of Siquijor felt raw and unspoiled, as if tourists hadn’t yet discovered all the natural beauty that the island possesses. The underwater world off of the coast was no different and we had a great time viewing the life that lives beneath. We averaged about 50ft depth and had two roughly 45 minute dives under our belts by the end of the morning. I hadn’t dove since Hawaii and seeing the marine life (including my first looks at clownfish in the wild) of the Philippines was a great experience. It’s a shame that we don’t include this type of activity into our itinerary more often to begin with! (*hint hint, Ross!)
We caught our ferry to Bohol and whisked ourselves away to the small town of Bilar where we were to spend our days birding the trails at Rajah Siketuna. But more on that to come!