Philippines 2017: Birding Panay

“Be careful if you decide to shower, there’s a Pit-Viper in there.”—a favorite quote from our time on Panay. I’ll get to the part with the venomous snake eventually, but let me first start from the beginning.

We started off our 6-month adventure with a quick stop over in the Philippines. We were planning to spend 10 days in this country concentrating on two islands, Panay and Tablas, and also adding a few days on the island Luzon. After a few long flights (one being 14 hours in the air!) we arrived on Panay. We had a few targets for the island, but nothing could compare to the Negros Bleeding-heart – the bird that essentially was the reason we included the Philippines in this trip. By the time we arrived on Panay, we had been awake a really long time, something like 39 hours. Because we arrived early enough, we coordinated with Rhea, the woman who set up this portion of the trip, and were able to get a start on the trail leading to possibly one of the most-wanted birds of the entire six month trip. It was an aggressive move because by the time we started on our 5-hour hike, we hadn’t gotten good sleep in over 42 hours. To get to where Negros Bleeding-hearts live, one must climb up in elevation to one of the last few remaining lowland jungle rainforests in the Philippines. The trek to get to Sibaliw, a research station in this rare habitat and the facility at which we would be staying, was the most difficult trek we’ve been on to date. Perhaps the lack of sleep had something to do with it, but the “trail” first required traversing a riverbed something like 9-12 times before then making your way over slippery limestone boulders (some of which were nearly vertical walls), while climbing 570m in elevation, not an easy feat. The limestone rocks making up the trail were insanely slick and basically every foreigner who has attempted this climb has fallen at least once or twice while struggling to get up and across. (Michael Kearns, a friend we will eventually meet up recently visited this location and told Ross he fell 3 feet, but got very lucky as he was able to grab onto some vegetation but just as easily could have fallen over 10 feet. Another guy whose report we read, explained how he broke his ankle on this hike and it took him over 10 hours to get back down.) It’s hard to articulate the finesse involved in this kind of rock scramble, but the guide and porter we were with made it look easy. They jumped from boulder to boulder with ease and I think it was when we were about half way up that we wondered if the $1 flipflops that they were using to scale these rocks actually had more traction than our expensive hiking boots… Anyway, after 3 hours and 45 minutes, and never thinking it would actually happen, we made it to the top (and somehow still faster than most who take 4-5 hours).

Whoever thought going on an intense hike on no sleep was out of their mind. I have to assume the lack of sleep accounted for our extreme fatigue, but the difficulty of this hike was nothing to shake a stick at. Unfortunately our “lodging” for the next two nights was extremely basic, with the “bed” being nothing more than a piece of plywood elevated off of the ground and no electricity other than what was produced by the solar panel on the roof. Easily a favorite quote from this experience must be “be careful if you decide to take a shower, there’s a pit-viper in it.” Regardless, we were happy to have a roof over our heads, but still set up our tent as a form of bug defense to all of the insects living inside of the house. I was fairly exhausted and fighting off a head cold, so I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon resting while Ross went out to explore the trails. He didn’t see much on his walk. We did however get to see a roosting Philippine Frogmouth on a nest that Jun, the caretaker of the research station, had found. Apparently this bird enjoys nesting just outside of the house as Jun pointed out three different trees that it has built a nest in.

Jun had to leave at 9AM the next morning to get to a funeral so Ross and I left before dark and started on the hour-long walk back along the trail to a dry stream bed we passed the day before. Nothing like passing your site on the way in and know you would just have to hike back down and up again the next day. Not long after we arrived at the river bed Ross heard a Negros Bleeding-heart calling in the distance. After sneaking around for a while, we got very close to it, but still couldn’t manage to find it. Eventually Jun and his son Benjamin caught up to us and we all slowly started heading in the direction of the calling pigeon. After a few intense moments, Benjamin said he could see it, but since he doesn’t know much English is was hard to get any directions from him! Luckily Ross was able to find it and quickly got me on our life Negros Bleeding-heart! With the main target accounted for, we let Jun get going a bit early on his hike back down to the village. Shortly after we heard another calling and circled back around so Ross could get a recording. We assume it was a pair because when Ross played the recording he just took back to the other bird, it came right in and wandered up the stream bed next to us. We were so very happy to have such fantastic views of this skulky ground pigeon. While he walked near us, he never posed for a photo to show off his namesake “bleeding heart.”

We had two other targets for the morning and were extremely fortunate to easily have one crossed off the list in the form of White-throated Jungle Flycatcher. The last remaining target was a woodpecker. We casually birded up the stream bed for a few kilometers before deciding to go back to where Ross had heard one call while we were looking for the bleeding-heart. We went back to the spot where we had the bleeding-heart, played tape and quickly a pair of Yellow-faced Flamebacks came right in and sat in the tree above our heads. As it turns out, we had all three targets for the morning in the exact same spot. Easy and it was only 10am. Other interesting birds we found during the mornings walk included Pink-bellied Imperial-Pigeon, Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, Coleto, Visayan Shama, White-vented Whistler, and Maroon-naped Sunbird. As it was brutally hot and we still weren’t caught up on sleep, we decided to eat an early lunch and make our way back up to Sibaliw. The rest of the afternoon involved no birds (i.e. naps!), but that night Ross went out in search of a few night creatures while I hoped that my head cold which had increased in severity, would go away. Ross had a very productive night finding a roosting Elegant Tit and two Visayan Tailorbirds as well as multiple Luzon Hawk-Owls, and a pair of Negros Scops-Owls.

Since we had such a successful first day, we decided that after a morning of birding we would head back down to Pandan a day early. We were once again up before light and heading back down the trail towards the dry river bed. Along the way, we made a brief stop so that Ross could show me the pair of Negros Scops-Owls he had found the previous evening. We were making good time to reach the river bed by dawn when Ross realized his flashlight was missing. It must have fallen out of his pocket, but he wasn’t quite sure where at. Since we do a lot of night birding, losing our high power compact flashlight would be devastating. We spent just over an hour scouring the trail and we literally were about to give up when one of the porters found the light which had rolled about 10 feet down the side of the hill. Success! It was already after 7AM when we reached the river bed, but luckily a Negros Bleeding-heart was calling regularly near the area we had seen it yesterday. We hoped to get some more pictures of this critically endangered bird, but unfortunately is was far up the hillside and didn’t want to budge. Ross climbed of the rocky hillside, but was never able to get another look. From here we hiked back down the mountain and arrived back to the main road shortly before 11AM. We took a tuk-tuk back to Pandan, coordinated our hike for the next day in search of Panay Striped Babblers, and then found a hotel to spend the rest of the day catching up on sleep and writing this blog post!

I would mention our trip up to see Panay Striped Babbler, but as far as I’m concerned, I would rather rid the event from my memory. Except for maybe the exceptionally beautiful views standing at the top of a ridge overlooking mountains and oceans below. Perhaps I could say that the reason I hiked up the mountain to begin with was for these views, but I’d be lying. Ross and I climbed 1300m in elevation for Panay Striped Babbler and I dipped the bird. And I think that’s all I have to say about that.

Obviously I (Ross) have more to say about that so let me add a few more details, spoiler alert: I did not dip the bird. After arriving back from Sibaliw station, we took the afternoon off and coordinated the logistics for the following morning to hike up Mt Madja in search of the endemic Panay Striped Babbler. With a local guide and porter in tow, we started the hike from the village of Alojipan shortly before 7AM. The first section of the trail was very steep and climbed up directly through some open fields with high saw-blade grass. In the first 2 km of the hike we had already gained 600m in elevation! After reaching 800m we entered decent forest and continued to climb until reaching our base camp at around 1100m. After a quick lunch, Melissa and I decided to continue up the trail to the ridge in hopes of finding the striped babbler. After another steep ascent, the trail reaches the ridge line with a spectacular view of the mountain range and ocean. From here things get a bit sketchy as you have to walk across a knife-edge section of the trail with very steep banks on both sides. This was very similar to a few hikes we used to do in Hawaii.

We followed the ridge trail as it continued to increase in elevation, reaching around 1300m, but a fast approaching thunderstorm caused us to turn around. Unfortunately will still ended up getting soaked. After reaching our campsite, the weather cleared and I decided to make a fast ascent but up to the ridge for the last part of the evening. Although I was able to find a few flocks of birds, the babbler was nowhere to be found.

We awoke at 430AM and by 5AM started to climb the trail back to the ridge. The pressure was on as we only had until about noon before we needed to start of descent back to the coast. Our game plan was pretty simple; hike up to around 1400m and then slowly bird back along the trail looking for flocks. We reached 1400m fairly quickly, but the only bird flocks we found contained Elegant Tit, Visayan Fantail, Mountain White-eye, Mountain Tailorbird, and Mountain Warbler. Melissa decided to take a break and eat a snack as I went ahead on the trail. It was at this time that I finally found a single Panay Striped Babbler in a small flock of birds. Although I got a good look at it, I never ended up getting a picture since it quickly disappeared after yelling for Melissa. We spent a few more hours trying to relocate it or another individual, but came up empty. It was very frustrating as we didn’t expect this bird to be too hard. Although we found plenty of flocks, they just didn’t seem to be in the area. By 11AM we called it quits and started the hike back down to the village arriving a few hours later around 230PM.

With one day remaining on the island of Panay, we still had one target left. Today we would be searching for the critically endangered Walden’s Hornbill.

Walden’s Hornbill, once found on other islands now only remains in Panay. Visiting birders hike up a valley and usually see the bird pretty easily. After two grueling back to back hikes, our legs were really starting to feel sore. We hoped that since the hike for the hornbill was in a valley, that we would have a break from some super strenuous hiking. The hike was still slightly technical requiring crossing a stream multiple times and climbing over some slippery limestone all the while gaining 300m in elevation! At one of the stream crossings we happened to see a brilliantly colored Indigo-banded Kingfisher stop and perch on a log. We noticed that he had a fish in his mouth and realized he must have a nest nearby. We knew that since he would be around, we could always stop back after the hornbill. After just over an hour of hiking, we arrived at a vantage point over the valley. We scanned the hillside for about 30 minutes before our guide suggested that we continue hiking a bit further. Although the trail continued on for who knows how long through the valley, we stopped at a grassy hillside and watched as our flip-flop wearing guide trampled down a small trail up the hillside. From this location we had a great viewpoint and were deeper into better habitat. It didn’t take long before Ross spotted a male Walden’s Horbill flying through the valley. He perched on a snagged and both of us were able to enjoy some scope views of this critically endangered endemic. We spent another 30 minutes watching the hillside before starting on the hike back out. We again stopped at where we suspected an Indigo-banded Kingfisher had a nest and positioned ourselves behind some rocks along the stream. It didn’t take long for us to find the nest site and we spent about 1 ½ hours watching as both the male and female took turns bringing freshly caught fish back to their babies. This particular subspecies of Indigo-banded Kingfisher is sometimes split as Southern Indigo-banded Kingfisher so we were especially happy to get to see this bird so well.

Compared to the last few days, our search for Walden’s hornbill was a quick and easy success. We were finished for the day by 3pm and headed back to town for an early night. Ross and I had planned a nice night and had coordinated massages for later. Unfortunately the ATMs in Pandan don’t take international debit cards so we had no way of acquiring more money and we were too low on cash to pay for another night at our hotel so we had to cancel massages and head to the neighboring city Caticlan. So much for a nice relaxing night! We still ate at our favorite restaurant in town and then caught a bus to Caticlan where we would catch a ferry to our next destination – the island of Tablas. Stay tuned for more on that!

3 thoughts on “Philippines 2017: Birding Panay

  1. Believe me when i tell u the $1 flops are way better for the limestone stretch than expensive shoes ! I tried that the grip is just not slippery with the flops compared to Vibram soles ! ! I quite enjoyed the all 3 sites as well, especially steep angle limestone and crossing over them at sibaliw ! The scene ! Haha luckily we didnt fall on the little piece of log that was suppose to be the bridge ! Congrats on your first leg of the 6 months! Welldone !

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  2. Written with such passion and the pictures shared were wonderful! And what wonderful views! Praying for you too, not easy getting to where you have to go to track these near extinction birds. Amazing that you can!


  3. Written with such passion and the pictures shared were wonderful! And what wonderful views! Praying for you too, not easy getting to where you have to go to track these near extinction birds. Amazing that you can! Sorry you didn’t get your massage in Melissa; hopefully Ross can make it up to you somewhere fantastic while your in Indonesia!


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