Mindanao: Birding an island of megas

After two weeks of birding in the Philippines, it was time to head to the last island of the trip, Mindanao. Before my early morning flight to Cagayan de Oro, Melissa boarded another flight headed towards Manila and onward back to the U.S. I was looking forward to my last ten days in the Philippines, but was also a bit hesitant, as after all, the island of Mindanao is currently considered an area to avoid by the U.S. State department. The main areas of concern are the western and southwestern parts of the island which are a stronghold for the Islamic terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf. Luckily, the majority of the endemics can be found on the “safer” eastern side of the island and after a few chats with Pete Simpson of Mindanao Birding, the decision was made to include Mindanao in the Philippine itinerary.

Now on to the next issue with birding Mindanao, it’s expensive! Luckily, I was able to coordinate a few others to join me for this section of the trip which kept costs very reasonable and made for a very enjoyable ten days on the island.

MindanaoMap

I arrived at 0600 at Cagayan de Oro airport along with two other members of our birding group, Kurt and Michael. Dave was supposed to be joining us 30 minutes later, but we soon found out his flight was delayed and it was over three hours later until he finally arrived. With everyone accounted for, we jumped in a van and headed off towards the pick up point for our first destination, Mt Kitanglad. Usually taking a van the whole way would be cost prohibitive (bus being the preferred method of transport despite being a much slower option), but for some reason the van driver agreed to a price that was very economical and saved us a lot of time. As we arrived at the pickup spot in Dalawagan, it began to rain, something that hadn’t happened in months!

Del Monte Lodge

Del Monte Lodge

Mount Kitanglad is one of the main birding hotspots on the island and is visited by almost all (if not all) of the birding groups visiting the island. There is a small “lodge” run Carlito and his wife which is the base for exploring the lower regions of the mountainside. Carlito has been catering to birders for close to 30 years and has set up a designated eagle viewing area about an hour from the lodge. The hour long hike up to the lodge was a bit soggy, but our hopes remained high, as the onset of rain meant that the rare and local Bukidnon Woodcock might start roding once again. It was a lackluster evening due to the rain, but the next morning we were up early, owling before dawn and then birding our way up to the fabled “platform 1”, a small wooden platform in a large clearing where hundreds (if not thousands) of birders have made the pilgrimage to see one of the rarest and most spectacular raptors in the world, the Philippine Eagle.

We set up shop at the platform by 0800 and waited and scanned anxiously for our main target. The excitement and anticipation soon faded to frustration and apprehension as we spent hours sitting, watching, and waiting with no eagle in sight. By 3:00 p.m., the clouds rolled in and threatened rained, so we gave up on the eagle and started birding our way back towards the lodge. Luckily the day wasn’t a total wash, as we had seen quite a few good birds on the morning walk up to the platform including Grey-hooded Sunbird, Mindanao Racquet-tail, Buff-spotted Flameback, Black-and-Cinnamon Fantail, Cinnamon Ibon, and glimpses of Red-eared Parrotfinch. The seven hour vigil at the platform had also turned up a few interesting birds including Streak-breasted Rhabdornis, McGregor’s Cuckooshrike, and distant Apo Mynas. As dusk set in, we headed off to the edge of an overgrown field in hopes that the previous night’s rain would be enough to coax the woodcock into displaying again. Just as it began to get dark, the frustration from dipping on the eagle disappeared, as a large woodcock launched itself into the air and started circling around us giving its unique call. The Bukidnon Woodcock displayed three times for us before disappearing back into the vegetation. Awesome!

Waiting at the eagle platform and hoping the fog wouldn't completely ruin our chances

Waiting at the eagle platform and hoping the fog wouldn’t completely ruin our chances

Although we had dipped on the eagle, Michael and I wanted to make sure we still had a chance to look for Apo Sunbird, another rare and endemic bird only found in Mindanao. The hike to the sunbird spot takes three hours so at 2:30 a.m. Michael and I met up with our local guide Danny and started off into the dark. Our goal was to owl along the way, but the continuing rain made this extremely difficult. Along the first section of the trail through agricultural fields, I spotted a very cooperative and wet Philippine Nightjar. The rest of the hike was fairly unproductive due to the weather with heard only Giant Scops-Owl and an unidentified bird that possibly could have been Mindanao Scops-Owl (we later heard Mindanao Scops-Owl for certain in the Com Valley, but the identity of this bird is still questionable). As dawn approached we reached the appropriate area for the sunbird (1900m) and soon heard one calling nearby.

Philippine Nightjar

Philippine Nightjar

A few minutes later we were both enjoying good views of Apo Sunbird. Although it was tempting to stay at this higher elevation and look for some other interesting species, the fear of missing the Philippine Eagle began to set in and we quickly retreated back down the mountain to the eagle platform, arriving around 7:30 a.m. This began another stakeout session filled with anticipation and worry that the low level clouds would entirely encompass the nearby ridge line and make finding the eagle impossible. At around 11:30 all worries faded as a magnificent Philippine Eagle came cruising up the valley providing awesome views before turning and heading towards the distant ridge line. It eventually landed in a large snag, but by this time it was very distant. Relieved that we had finally seen our main target, we headed back up the mountain as Dave and Kurt both still needed the Apo Sunbird. The afternoon at high elevation provided more views of Apo Sunbird as well as White-cheeked Bullfinch, McGregor’s Cuckooshrike, Apo Myna, and Rufous-headed Tailorbird. Once again with the threat of rain on the horizon, we headed back towards the lodge and made it back just in time to once again watch the Bukidnon Woodcock roding around the overgrown field. Our last morning was spent getting better views of Red-eared Parrotfinch as well as looking for Flame-crowned Flowerpecker. Dave and Kurt ended up getting quick views of a single Flame-crowned Flowerpecker, but Michael and I missed the bird. After a quick lunch we said our goodbyes to Carlito and the Del Monte lodge and headed back to the main road. From here we jumped on a bus and started a long (6 hour) bus ride to Davao.

Apo Sunbird

Apo Sunbird

Philippine Eagle!

Philippine Eagle!

Group picture after finally seeing Philippine Eagle. The eagle is sitting on the hillside in the background!

Group picture after finally seeing Philippine Eagle. The eagle is sitting on the hillside in the background!

Pete Simpson, of Mindanao Birding, picked us up at the bus station and dropped us off at a local cheap hotel for the night. Usually I’d be opposed to using regular bird guides (very different from a local guide), but as discussed above, due to the safety concerns on the island, it made me a bit hesitant to travel completely independently. Not to mention Pete has recently discovered a relatively safe spot for Lina’s Sunbird and getting to this spot involves using him as a guide. Luckily Pete is a great guy and the two days we spent with him were very enjoyable. The first morning we birded an area to the west of Davao which is home to two rare endemics, Cryptic Flycatcher and Whiskered Flowerpecker. Both of these birds have become very “gettable” in the last few years due to the discovery of new locations near the Eden Resort. By 8:00 a.m. we had already had great views (and recordings!) of both species and were set to head towards the home of the Lina’s Sunbird, the Compostela Valley. Sadly, we had some car trouble which delayed us about 4 ½ hours, so by the time we finally departed Davao, it was already mid-afternoon.

Road construction and mudslides made the road to the Lina's Sunbird extremely slow going

Road construction and mudslides made the road to the Lina’s Sunbird extremely slow going

The location of the Lina’s Sunbird in the Compostela Vallay is a depressing one. Ongoing road construction and illegal logging has left the area muddy and treeless. This area is home to a number of very rare birds including Mindanao Lorikeet, Mindanao Brown-Dove, Bagobo Babbler, and Mindanao Scops-Owl. Sadly, it’s extremely difficult to see any of these birds here as there is very little habitat left near the roadside and getting into the intact forest would involve a near impossible decent down a very steep muddy valley. Luckily, we were still able to get great views of Lina’s Sunbird at the location, but the other megas were left as “heard onlys.” Other interesting birds we saw at the location included Long-tailed Bush Warbler and McGregor’s Cuckooshrike. After spending an evening and morning at this location, Pete dropped us off at a nearby bus terminal and we headed towards our final location of the trip, Bislig.

Our afternoon and morning in the Com Valley involved a lot of fog

Our afternoon and morning in the Com Valley involved a lot of fog

Lina's Sunbird

Lina’s Sunbird

The small town of Bislig on the east coast of Mindanao acts at the base camp for birding one of the last accessible lowland forests (the others being in the western, unsafe part of the island) on the island of Mindanao. The area, commonly referred to as PICOP, was previously a logging concession owned by the Paper Industries Corporation of the Philippines (PICOP), but with the demise of the company in the late 80’s, the area has become a free for all for local illegal logging operations. For years birders have been saying that “you better go to PICOP before it disappears” and to be honest it’s hard for me not to say, “you better go to PICOP before it disappears”. Although the birding has remained good over the last 2-3 decades, it is only a matter of time before the area reaches a tipping point. We were constantly within earshot of chainsaws during our entire time in the area and saw many large trees that had recently been chopped down.

 

PICOP birding hotspots

PICOP birding hotspots

We arrived in Bislig from the Compostela Valley, early in the afternoon on the 28th of May. We quickly dropped our bags at the Paper Country Inn and headed off toward the small Bislig airport located just north of town. We spent the evening birding this area seeing Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Philippine Duck, Waterbock, Black-backed Swamphen, King Quail, Clamorous Reed-Warbler, and at dusk, a Grass Owl calmly cruised overhead before disappearing in the marsh to feed. The next three days we spent with Zardo, a local bird guide who has been showing people the birds of PICOP for the last two decades. Since the area is still a far drive from Bislig, we left each morning at 2:00 a.m. to arrive by 3:30 a.m. to look for owls. We were able to see both Mindanao Hawk-Owl and Chocolate Boobook, but sadly Giant Scops-Owl remained a heard only.

Philippine Duck

Philippine Duck

Chocolate Boobook

Chocolate Boobook

Sadly, this is a common sight while birding the last remaining tracts of lowland forest at PICOP

Sadly, this is a common sight while birding the last remaining tracts of lowland forest at PICOP

Birding in PICOP essentially consists of wandering back and forth through small sections of remaining forest hoping to come across a set list of target birds. It was extremely hot and humid and by 7:30 a.m. the forest would become quiet and activity would remain very low until about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon. Despite the typical slow jungle birding conditions, we were still able to find some extremely good birds over our three days in the area. During our time along Road 42 we managed to find Blue-capped Kingfisher, Philippine Dwarf-Kingfisher, Rufous-lored Kingfisher, Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher, Short-crested Monarch, Celestial Monarch, Southern Sooty Woodpecker, and brief views of flyby Mindano Wattled Broadbill. We also spent some time at “The Cemetery” which is located along Road 4. Although this spot was fairly unproductive, it still provided a few interesting species including Barred Honey-Buzzard, Philippine Dwarf-Kingfisher, Little Slaty Flycatcher, Orange-tufted Spiderhunter, and Naked-faced Spiderhunter.

Southern Silvery Kingfisher

Southern Silvery Kingfisher

Little Slaty Flycatcher

Little Slaty Flycatcher

Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher

Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher

Southern Sooty Woodpecker

Southern Sooty Woodpecker

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After our third morning in the area, we headed back to Bislig, gathered our belonging and took a van back to Davao to catch our late night flights back to Manila. It was the end of a 10 day whirlwind trip through Mindanao that had produced a solid list of endemic and target birds for a fraction of the cost that one would typically incur on the island.

By the end of my trip to the Philippines I had seen 268 species and close to 150 endemics. The other members of the group headed to Luzon for a few days, but for me it was back to the U.S.

Our transportation to PICOP

Our transportation to PICOP

Birding PICOP

Birding PICOP

Edge of a clearing along Road 4 quarry

Edge of a clearing along Road 4 quarry

For more information on the logistics of planning an independent trip to the Philippines and and much more detailed information on the birding locations/locations for specific species, and cost information, see this TRIP REPORT.