Tuesday 13 November 2018

Philippines - Palawan & Luzon : November 2018 - Part 1


Ever since I laid eyes on a photo of the Palawan Peacock Pheasant, this amazing looking species had became my nemesis bird, securing itself on the very top of my 'Most Wanted' list. It’s supposedly “easy”, with a long staying male at the Puerto Princesa Underground River warden’s post. But first, I needed to get to Palawan...Last year my friend Kenneth told me about the annual Puerto Princesa Underground River Bird Photography Race, it seemed an interesting way to get introduced to the birds of Philippines, so a crew of six with Kenneth Lam, Captain, Yuen, Hailey, Alfee and I signed up for the race. I also made plans to visit other islands briefly after the race, hoping to glimpse the interesting endemics this island nation holds.

The Philippines is quite daunting for birders, with over 7,000 islands and over 230 (and rising) endemic bird species listed, a lot of studying and research is required before a trip there. The avifauna found here is quite different from those found in much of South East Asia, with exotic names such as Guaiabero, Balicassiao, Coleto and Rhabdornis which make things more exciting. With so much to see, it is most certainly impossible for birders to see everything on a single visit, if ever!

There are three islands in the Philippines most popular with birders, first being Palawan of west Philippines, it is closer to Borneo, therefore holds a fare amount of birds absent on other islands. Next is Luzon, the biggest island of Philippines to the north, it is also where the country’s capitol is located. Third is Mindanao to the south, it holds some of the most interesting endemic species including the legendary Philippine Eagle, but having a bad reputation for safety.

Since the bird race only covers Palawan, we had a choice between Luzon and Mindanao for a few extra days of birding after the race. In the end we chose Luzon due to easier access. We signed up for two teams (Hong Kong Sparrows A and B), a registration fee is required, but the accommodation and transports were pretty much taken care of by the organisers. We only had to get the plane tickets and turn up. I also contacted Mark Jason Villa to be our bird guide at Luzon after the bird race.

Day 1 - 1st November 2018 : Hong Kong > Puerto Princesa

We left Hong Kong two days prior the race, hoping to fit one full day of birding into our itinerary before the race starts. We flew with Philippines Airline to Manilla and transfer to Puerto Princesa in Palawan. Flights were terribly delayed but luckily the second flight was equally delayed, which seems to be common in the Philippines, so we made it onto our transfer flight without having to spend an extra night in Manila.

Dusk in Manila

Captain met his friend Ken Ching by chance on the flight, whose company turns out to be one of the key supporters of the bird race and helped developed a bird app for Palawan. With his help we were able to get a lift to our hotel and dinner! They also invited us to bird with them the next morning, an offer we gladly accepted. We stayed at the Marianne Hotel in Puerto Princesa.

Marianne Hotel at Puerto Princesa

Day 2 - 2nd November 2018 : Puerto Princesa

We began our day at 7am, after breakfast, we joined in with two other teams for a morning birding session. One team from Sabah and the other from Hong Kong. Totic, a local bird guide helped us get in tune with the local birds. Our first stop was Irawan Eco Park, a watershed area not far from Puerto Princesa. Before we got there our van made a brief stop at a convenient store, just outside the store was a male Olive-backed Sunbird, race aurora found in Palawan differs with nominate race by having an orange band along it's breast.

Olive-backed Sunbird - race aurora

Things started off slowly, birds were a little quiet, the only thing that took to the air was a Draco palawensis glided down from the trees. Things picked up slightly when a White-bellied Woodpecker made a brief appearance. A male Blue Paradise Flycatcher was even better, as it sang in the open for everyone to see, making this our first Palawan endemic of the trip! A Black-chinned Fruit Dove was spotted, but I was not quick enough and missed the only photo opportunity.

Irawan Eco Park

Draco palawensis

White-bellied Woodpecker - male

Blue Paradise Flycatcher - male

Lovely Sunbirds were indeed lovely to see, although this Palawan endemic wasn't easy to photograph, males were especially beautiful with orange breasts and yellow throats. The Philippine endemic Purple-throated Sunbirds also fed on nectar above.

Lovely Sunbird - male

Purple-throated Sunbird - male

I completely ignored an Asian Brown Flycatcher, only to be told by Totic later on that it is in fact a rare migrant to this part of the world...Grey-streaked Flycatchers were however far more common. A few Pin-striped Tit-babbler came by, race woodi have finer stripes than nominate race.

Totic leading us through the forest track

Grey-streaked Flycatcher

Pin-striped Tit-babbler - race woodi

A pair of Spot-throated Flamebacks; endemic to Palawan, showed briefly. While a Crested Serpent Eagle finally showed itself before we left, having been calling for most part of the morning.

Spot-throated Woodpecker - male

Crested Serpent Eagle - race palawanensis

Our next stop was Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, better known as the Crocodile Farm. It is not a site in pristine habitat, but it does holds several interesting species, including Palawan Hornbills and a male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant which can often be found displaying next to a caged female (sad...). We were however slightly disappointed to find none of our targets present, a small flock of Ashy-fronted Bulbuls kept us entertained.

Ashy-fronted Bulbul

A nice looking Green Crested Lizard was spotted as we waited for birds. A bird did turn up in the end in form of a Pale Spiderhunter, another Palawan endemic, although of little excitement value.

Green Crested Lizard

Pale Spiderhunter

We lunched at the Badjao Seafront Restaurant after a mediocre morning. The restaurant is connected by a bridge through the mangroves and opens up at the seafront. Food was most excellent, and you get an excellent view of the sea. The mangroves here also hosts various birds, including Collared Kingfishers and Striated Herons.

View from Badjao Seafront Restaurant

Collared Kingfisher with shrimp

Striated Heron

After lunch, we checked in at the Princesa Garden Island Resort where the bird race is hosted, it is probably the most luxurious hotel in Puerto Princesa. Teams were given name tags, a rule book and T-shirts and were told to be at the opening ceremony that evening.

Princesa Garden Island Resort

Totic and Ken told us to wait for them at the main entrance at 4:30pm, we were to return to Badjao Seafront Restaurant to look for a pair of Spotted Wood Owls that had been showing lately. The carpark at the restaurant is itself a popular birding spot, a rubbish dump nearby attracts many insects and in turn attracts birds. We were greeted by a Philippine Pied Fantail, a species formerly considered conspecific with Malaysian Pied Fantail, but differs in call, thinner breast band and having a longer brow.

Philippine Pied Fantail

Totic soon caught sight of a Spotted Wood Owl, Palawan is the only island which hosts this species in all of the Philippines, race wiepkeni differs from nominate race with more buffish belly. Both birds later flew out and perched in a tall tree for everyone to get a good look. I've yet to visit the breeding birds in Singapore, so this lifer was certainly an added bonus for me!

Spotted Wood Owl - race wiepkeni

The opening ceremony was held in the hotel's conference hall, dinner was delicious Philippine cuisine consisting of mainly roasted pork and fish. They even invited performers to perform traditional dances during dinner, it was all very festive and lively. A total of 29 teams from 10 countries had joined this year. We prepared ourself for the early start the next morning...

Opening ceremony of the 4th PPUR Bird Photography Race

Day 3 - 3rd November 2018

We had breakfast at 5am and were ready to go by 5:30am. Each team was assigned a van and a marshall who will accompany the team throughout the bird race. Our marshall was not so much a bird guide, but simply a local who knows some of the birding locations (although some teams did have bird guides as marshall...), so for most part of the day we were figuring things out on our own. The rule of the race is to photograph as many species as you can in the designated time, so we cannot be picky and just photographed everything we saw. You get different scores for different birds, 10 points for endemic birds and rare migrants, 5 points for uncommon residents and migrants, and 3 points for common resident birds.

Our first stop was the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, one of the largest open air prison in the Philippines. Unlike other prisons, tourists can enter the prison at will and inmates live in communities inside the prison, they can work as a farmer or other jobs within the prison. It is an interesting system and apparently only twenty jailbreaks attempts in the last two decades.

We stopped next to a banana plantation within the prison, where we were supposed to look for Blue-headed Racquet-tails. We first added the common species like Slender-billed Crows (sometimes treated as Palawan Crow) and Asian Glossy Starlings. A Palawan Flowerpecker showed briefly, along with Ashy Drongos and a Blue Paradise Flycatcher.

Slender-billed Crow - subspecies sometimes known as the Palawan Crow

Asian Glossy Starling

Palawan Flowerpecker - male

Ashy Drongo - race whiteheadi

It took a while before we finally saw a flock of Blue-headed Racquet-tails overhead. Of the ten Racquet-tail species in the world, seven occur in the Philippines, making them a prominent genus in this island nation. Males have two spatula shaped streamers at the end of their tails, making them quite unique amongst parrots. A few flocks were observed, although mostly flew high.

Blue-headed Racquet-tail - group in flight

The paddy fields in the prison also hosts a good number of wetland species, including many Egrets. We also spotted Wood Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers and Common Sandpipers. Whiskered Terns were a nice addition and flocks feeding above the shallow pools.

Intermediate Egret

Whiskered Tern

Our next stop was Crocodile Farm, as we have heard that the site is usually better early morning before all the tourists arrives. It seemed to be true, as the first bird that greeted us was a few Palawan Hornbillls! We also found a Rufous Night Heron roosting in the nearby area. Northern Palawan Tree Squirrels were quite common throughout wooded areas.

Palawan Hornbill - male

Rufous Night Heron

Northern Palawan Tree Squirrel

A flash of orange zipped past us, we were able to relocate this small orange bird and confirmed it to be an Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher. At the moment rufidorsa is considered one of the four races of the Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher, but occasionally treated as a full species as Rufous-backed Kingfisher.

Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher - race rufidorsa

A very friendly Palawan Hornbill perched on a fruiting palm tree provided excellent photographic opportunities. It wasn't at all bothered by our presence, I guess it is used to visitors in the park. We saw very little else afterwards, only a few Ashy-headed Bulbuls were note worthy. It is also to our horror that the supposedly easy Palawan Peacock Pheasant continues to be absent at this site...which means our only hope for this species is the old individual found at the Underground River entrance at Sabang...

Palawan Hornbill - feeding on palm tree fruits

Ashy-fronted Bulbul - a modest looking endemic

We returned to Irawan Eco Park once again around mid-morning, where we were able to add on a few species, including a good looking male Spot-throated Flameback and Black-naped Monarchs.

Spot-throated Flameback - male

Black-naped Monarch - male

There's a cafe along the Irawan River which hosts a few species at the feeding station. One of the star bird there was a very friendly Palawan Flycatcher. The other bird hide was designated for a Blue-eared Kingfisher, although this widespread south east asian species is unlikely to impress any endemic chasers, it is still a nice bird to see well.

Palawan Flycatcher

Blue-eared Kingfisher - juvenile

Ashy Minivets were plentiful, flocks were seen on several occasion. Brown-backed Needletails circled above, although high up, only a recognisable photo is required to get the points we needed. Black-headed Bulbuls were a nice addition to the day, while along the river we flushed two Striated Herons.

Ashy Minivet

Brown-backed Needletail

Black-headed Bulbul

Striated Heron

Not quite knowing where else we could go, we decided to head back to Badjao Seafront Restaurant, hoping to get a few more species in the mangroves. To our delights, a pair of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers turned up while we were trying to take photographs of a Philippine Pied Fantail. They were most obliging and posed for as long as we wanted.

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher - male

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher - female

Around the same area, an Arctic Warbler foraged around the rubbish dump. A wintering Grey-streaked Flycatcher was also there, hawking for the flies constantly.

Arctic Warbler

Grey-streaked Flycatcher

There were Copper-throated Sunbirds, Brown-throated Sunbirds and Olive-backed Sunbirds around, only a female Olive-backed Sunbird allowed a decent photo. While an endemic Pygmy Flowerpecker also popped in for a good look.

Olive-backed Sunbird - female

Pygmy Flowerpecker

The best bird there though must have been an Ashy-headed Babbler, a skulker found within the mangroves. With some patience we were able to get some satisfactory views of this ground dwelling endemic.

Ashy-headed Babbler - a skulking endemic

Inside the restaurant we saw a Little Egret foraging along the coast. While a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched silently in the trees next to the restaurant. Chinese Egrets are supposedly a fairly regular visitor at Badjao but we didn't see one.

Little Egret

Stork-billed Kingfisher

We returned to the Princesa Garden early, so we visited to the seafront floating walkway, hoping to get some waders. It is quite a nice walk, the shallow sea was littered with Starfishes, such as the Protoreaster nodosus. To our delight we spotted a few Lesser Frigatebirds above, as well as a White-bellied Sea Eagle. Striated Herons were quite common here and allowed close views. Philippine Pied Fantails and Golden-bellied Gerygones were also seen along the mangroves.

Protoreaster nodosus

Lesser Frigatebird - male

White-bellied Sea Eagle

Striated Heron

Philippine Pied Fantail

Towards the back of Princesa Garden is one of the main roosting site for Philippine Cockatoos, a critically endangered species that had seen a steep decline in population from early 1990s onwards, numbers of this species dwindles at no more than 800 individuals in the wild. once widely distributed through much of the Philippines, illegal poaching and collection had diminished their range to a few isolated pockets, the population in Palawan is one of the stronghold for this species. It was a real privilege to be able to observe this species at such close range just steps away from our hotel rooms. The cockatoos return to their roost at around 5pm, you will see flocks of them flying in to roost on the coconut trees, this is best viewed from the hotel's 3rd floor corridor.

Philippine Cockatoo - roosting behind Princesa Garden

Towards the end of the day, each team member must hand in their memory card to the marshall. The photos were transferred to the organiser's computers, where judges will determine how many species you have photographed and generate a score for each team.

To be continued...


  1. Looks like a lot of fun.....the kingfishers are stunners !

    1. Cheers John, Blue-eared are always a crowd favourite. I will love to go look for the endemic kingfishers next trip though!