Philippines 2017: Birding Tablas & Manila

We were planning to visit three areas in the Philippines, Panay, Tablas and outside of Manila on Luzon. Click here to read about the first portion of our trip, Panay. 

We arrived in Tablas by ferry and quickly found a tuk tuk to ride us over to the nearby bus terminal so we could catch a bus to San Agustin, a town on the opposite side of the island as the ferry terminal and the location from which to find all of the birds endemic to Tablas. We arrived at the bus terminal around noon and were told there was a jeepney leaving for San Agustin in 2 hours. We weren’t keen on waiting around that long, but that’s what you have to do when you plan on taking public transportation. The jeepney filled up early so we left an hour ahead of schedule. When I say full, I mean FULL. There was hardly any wiggle room in the entire vehicle which was quite unfortunate since everyone on board was packed like sardines and sweating like crazy in the heat of the day! To add to the fun, Ross and I were lucky enough to be on the side of the jeepney that was in the sun for the entire 2 hour ride! A man on the jeepney asked if we had transportation like this in our country and we weren’t really sure what to tell him. We have buses, but they have air conditioning and even when crowded are would never be allowed to be this packed so we just said “yes, but they are a bit different” and left it at that.

When we arrived in San Agustin we were surprisingly hard pressed to find a decent place to sleep. Ross left me with the bags and scouted out a few of the alternatives. The first place and likely the nicest place in town was completely full, at the second place the man at the front was too drunk to stand and the third place was so dirty that after seeing the room Ross wasn’t even sure we could sleep there. He came back to me and relayed the bad news. We were pretty annoyed with the town already. Fortunately there was one place he hadn’t tried and they had a decent enough room with air conditioning to give us. We dropped off our gear and wanted to get out and find our targets as quickly as possible so as to get out of this town as fast as possible. We were linked up with a local bird guide Rodell thanks to a coworker of his who found him and sent him in our direction. Rodell had a place where we could find our two main night targets—Mantanani Scops-Owl and Romblon Boobook. His “spot” did not disappoint and in just an hour’s time we had both of our targets in the bag. Not only did we see them, we saw them well with excellent photos and recordings of each! The first night was a success so we planned to go out with Rodell again the following morning. We hoped that we could find the rest of our targets before 10am so we could be back in town with enough time to catch the 1pm ferry over to the island of Romblon, for a little vacation!

We left our hotel at 4:45am and Rodell took us to a trail that he said had our other targets. The trail was simple enough, but did have a few steep sections as we hiked up and down a few hills before coming to a stream bed. Our most difficult target to see of the morning was Dimorphic Kingfisher so we figured we would focus on that and the other stuff should just fall in place. We quickly had views of Tablas Bulbul as we walked in and Tablas Drongo as we walked along the stream bed.

We heard several Dimorphic Kingfishers along the stream but as usual, seeing them was the tricky part as none were responding to tape. Rodell ended up flushing one from a perch but neither Ross nor I saw it, but we could hear the high pitched call as it flew away. Darn. Thankfully Rodell saw the perch it was on and we hoped it might come back to this perch so we hid in the woods nearby and waited. While waiting we had close views of a flock of Tablas Drongos, but with no views of the kingfisher we decided to walk up the stream a bit further and it was here that we saw our penultimate target, Tablas Fantail. With views of the kingfisher still to be had, we walked back to the perch and waited a bit longer. Luckily, the Dimorphic Dwarf-kingfisher flew in and landed on his preferred perch providing us with excellent views. Unfortunately Ross fogged up his camera and was unable to get a photo. We figured that if we waited here long enough the bird would eventually return. And he did. But Ross had gotten distracted while waiting by the sounds of the drongos and fantails so he was somewhere up the other branch of the stream recording other birds when the kingfisher returned. Lucky for you, dear readers, I managed this amazing photo using my binoculars and cell phone camera pressed up to each other. Digiscoping at its finest. Ha!

Superb photo, I know. You can at least tell it is a Dimorphic Kingfisher right?!

Ross eventually came back and was disappointed to learn that he had missed the bird, but did manage a few recordings in his absence. Meanwhile Rodell spotted a kingfisher nest so we hoped we may be in luck to see the dimorphic again. The nest as it turns out was built into an old termite mound up in a tree and belonged to the endemic subspecies of Rufous-lored Kingfisher.

Momma Kingfisher with lunch of gecko for her babies.

The morning was a huge success and we met our deadline of getting back to our hotel by 10am with all of the targets in the bag. We were now two days ahead of schedule of our flight to Manila and with no possible new birds to be had, we took a ferry over to Romblon to spend two days relaxing on the beach.

I found a quaint little “resort” on the outskirts of town with a private beach so we spent the next two days lounging around the beach and snorkeling the reefs off of the shore. The water was crystal clear and easily the warmest ocean either of us had ever swam in. From our cabin at San Pedro Resort, we had ocean front views. Since pictures say more than words let me just say it was absolute paradise and we had it all to ourselves and let these photos do the rest of the talking:

After 2 days in paradise it was off to Manila, which I think could actually be defined as the antithesis of paradise. (Sorry Manila lovers but I just don’t.) We picked up our rental car and hit the road hoping to get out of the city and get out of the insane traffic as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for us, the traffic never seemed to end. Driving in and around Manila was some of the most hectic and terrifying driving experiences of our lives. With countless people everywhere crossing the roads whenever they pleased with motorbikes zipping by on either side and more cars merging in than the roads can handle, it’s a wonder more people aren’t seen injured. After a few hours of driving and never really getting out of the craziness, we arrived at our destination, Angono Petroglyphs, just before dark. Long story short, we were on our way to find Philippine Eagle-Owl, a bird that besides this one location just outside of Manila, is rarely seen. If the pair that currently nests at Angono Petroglyphs disappears, the owl will once again become a very tricky bird to find. We arrived and learned that the petroglyphs at our destination were drawn into the side of the mountain, and are the oldest known form of art in the Philippines dating back to circa 3,000 B.C.! Have I ever mentioned that birding takes you to some of the craziest places?

From the viewing platform of the petroglyphs, we had excellent views of Scale-feathered Malkoha and Brown-breasted Kingfisher while we were scanning the trees. After dark we began our search for the owl but got a bit worried when we couldn’t spotlight it right away. Since it is such a rare owl only often seen from this location we wanted to avoid the use of playback as much as possible. We scanned the trees for a bit but with no success we eventually decided to just play the sound and see what would happen. As soon as we played the tape, a massive Philippine Eagle-Owl flew in and landed in the tree right next to us! Seeing the gigantic talons on this creature was enough to prove how dominant this night hunter must be. We enjoyed our views, snagged a few photos and recordings and went on our way to our next spot, hoping that by driving in the night we could avoid some of that terrible traffic!

Unsurprisingly, there were still boatloads of cars out on the roads after dark. We continued to navigate through the night alongside the steady stream of traffic as cars would attempt to merge into each other left and right. I’ve never seen such a serious game of cat and mouse be played amongst drivers, some of which do not care about how they cut in front, they just go and force the other car to stop. It’s pretty amazing really.

Eventually we arrived at our next destination, La Mesa Eco Park, an eco-park on the outskirts of town and some of the only forest to be found in metro Manila. We found a hotel that night just outside of the eco-park and joked that it was the dirtiest hotel room we had ever slept in. We didn’t want to come in contact with the sheets so we just slept in our sleeping bags that night and opted to avoid using the bathroom as much as possible. It was THAT bad. But at least it was super cheap right? Ha! From where we stayed, we were only about a mile to our birding location and we arrived at the gates just as they were being opened (5AM.) We wanted to get on the trail early so we could see Ashy Thrush on the trails before the trails were inundated with people wanting to run and workout in the area.  We soon found a pair of Ashy Thrushes, another bird that outside of this known location is impossible to get. The thrushes were seen collecting worms in the trail and we soon discovered that they were building a nest nearby. Ross managed to get some very interesting recordings of 4 different call types as the two birds built their nest!

La Mesa Eco Park was fairly birdy and we managed to see many different birds with the highlights being Gray-backed Tailorbird, Golden-bellied Gerygone, and Lowland Whiteye. It was still early in the morning but we opted to hit the roads and head to Candaba Bird Sanctuary (a rice paddie area) before continuing on to Subic Bay, an old US military base. We were beginning to think that the traffic would never end as our commute to the rice paddies lengthened and lengthened. We tried to circumnavigate the heaviest traffic with an alternative route but the small roads we took were still crowded. We eventually arrived and began to get nervous that our car might get stuck in the mud as scanned the rice paddies hoping to find Philippine Swamphen, but instead turned up Barred Rail, White-browed Crake, Eurasian Moorhen, and Watercock.  As we drove further back in hoping to come out the other side, we eventually decided we simply had to turn around because the mud was too thick to pass in our small rental car. As we headed back out, we continued to periodically stop and check the nearby swampy areas. As we headed the other direction, I jumped out of the car and quickly found a Philippine Swamphen! I called to Ross, which likely scared the bird as it ducked back down out of sight before he could get on it. We played tape and finally another bird was seen flying out with another heard calling. Our trip to the rice paddies was a little more stressful than we would have liked, but at least it was successful. We then got on the road to Subic Bay, my favorite of our birding locations outside of Manila, and best of all we had a superhighway to drive on to get there, perks of heading towards an old US naval base I suppose!

Where better to dry out your rice than on the road?!

Subic Bay is a beautiful area where the forest has been preserved. It has become a place for tourists to visit and alongside the beautiful forest you can find a water park, tiger safari tour, bay resorts, and slew of other touristy activities. Obviously we did not come here for any of the aforementioned activities and spent our time mainly birding the patches of forest. We spent two days here and in that time covered a good bit of area.  When we arrived we walked the Nabasan Road with highlights Philippine Green-Pigeon, Rufous Coucal, Red-crested Malkoha, Luzon Hornbill, Luzon Flameback, Green Racquet-tail, and White-browed Shama. That night Ross managed to see Philippine Scops-Owl and hear Great-eared Nightjar and Luzon Boobook. Because this was the last of our birding locations, we really didn’t have many targets left.

The next day we spent birding the road outside of a gate known as “Hill 394” that has been a known spot for our main target. We didn’t have access to get beyond the gate as you need special permission and it can be a really big pain to acquire so we didn’t bother. Unfortunately the morning was very slow in this area. We spent a few hours here and honestly, didn’t see much despite it being the earliest part of the day. We decided to head back to Nabasan Road and immediately were greeted with a torrent of bird song. In a single tree we had four White Bellied Woodpeckers, two Northern Sooty Woodpeckers, two Luzon Flamebacks, and two Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers! Essentially we had all four possible woodpecker species from one spot! Crazy! We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the Boton Waterfall trail but really weren’t that motivated since we didn’t have many other targets and couldn’t get access to the area we wanted. We walked the trail for a few hours and then decided to turn around and get started on the drive back to Manila. As it turns out, and we didn’t know it at the time, but the trail we were walking, if walked long enough, leads up beyond the gate we needed access to! Had we known this earlier, we may have gone here first and done a serious hike to get into the right habitat! Oh well!

Looking back, the trip was a major success and we really enjoyed our time in the Philippines. But now it’s time to bid the Filipinos goodbye as we head to Indonesia for the next 4 months! More to follow on that soon!

Ending with this photo because we thought it was HILARIOUS that everyone was handed an umbrella to walk the 100m to the plane and that people were actually taking them!