Thursday 15 November 2018

Philippines - Palawan & Luzon : November 2018 - Part 2

Day 4 - 4th November 2018 : Puerto Princesa

After talking with Totic and Ken, our teams decided to team up with their teams for the next day. We also realised that we have got part of the rules wrong, while we thought only one member of each team need to take a photo of one species, it turns out points still counts if other members took photos of the same species! (The rule book did not explain it very well...) So, if all three team members took a photo of an endemic species which worth 10 points, the whole team will be rewarded 30 points! We still managed to squeezed into 5th place for the first we knew if we worked harder that day we might be able to finish 5th overall.

We again had an early breakfast and headed out, this time following Totic's van. Our first stop was Badjao Seafront Restaurant, and we saw other teams scrambled to get shots of Sparrows, Zebra Doves and a Common Sandpiper...As it turns out everything get recounted the next day, so whatever we saw the day before we must take photos of again!

Common Sandpiper

Zebra Dove

Once I got most of the 'rubbish birds' out of the way, I was able to focus on other birds...Sunbirds were active during early morning, I got a female Brown-throated Sunbird, while both male and female Copper-throated Sunbirds showed well.

Brown-throated Sunbird - female

Copper-throated Sunbird - male & female

A Greater Coucal created some excitement amongst Philippine birders, as this species only occur in Palawan in the Philippines, so Philippine birders actually need to fly all the way to Palawan to get their country tick!

Greater Coucal

Our next stop was Zig-Zag Road, as it's name suggests it is a zig-zaggy shaped road south of Puerto Princesa, it runs through some good forest and is infrequently used by cars, making it quite an ideal birding spot. Here we were greeted by a small flock of Hair-crested Drongos, race palawanensis looks quite different from birds in Hong Kong.

Birding at Zig-Zag Road

Hair-crested Drongo - race palawensis

Two species of Flowerpeckers made an appearance, including Striped Flowerpecker and the more common Palawan Flowerpecker. A few Purple-throated Sunbirds were feeding on a flowering tree, though observing these small birds was difficult as the trees were very tall here...

Striped Flowerpecker

Palawan Flowerpecker - male

Purple-throated Sunbird - male

I spotted a flock of Needletails above, the default species in Palawan is Brown-backed Needletails, so I thought little of it. We were also distracted by an accipiter, initially thought to be a Japanese Sparrowhawk. It wasn't until later when I looked at the photos that I realise I had photographed a White-throated Needletail amongst the flock! This is a rarity in the Philippines. The accipiter also looked oddly like a Besra, with thick maler stripe and tail bands, wings were also quite long compare with Japanese Sparrowhawks. Oddly enough, Besra is currently not on the Palawan bird list...but it is present in northern Borneo as well as Luzon, so I wonder whether this species's status should be revealed...A White-bellied Sea Eagle was also spotted around the same location.

Brown-throated Needletail

White-throated Needletail - surprise surprise!

Besra / Japanese Sparrowhawk? I'd go with Besra...

White-bellied Sea Eagle

Our next stop was Napsan, another stretch of road west of Puerto Princesa. The road runs through some of the best primary forests I've seen, with huge trees that stretches as far my eyes could see. Palawan boasts 56% forest cover over the island, which is not common anywhere nowadays. Enroute we picked up a few Black-headed Bulbuls, a Dollarbird, also a Grey-faced Buzzard and a dark morph Oriental Honey Buzzard. 

Black-headed Bulbul


Grey-faced Buzzard

Oriental Honey Buzzard - dark morph

Totic made a stop at a roadside with small stream running through, the spot proved to be quite productive, as we were immediately greeted by a few Spot-throated Flamebacks which showed exceptionally well.

Spot-throated Flameback - male

Spot-throated Flameback - female

Other birds we added were Bar-bellied Cuckooshrikes, Ashy Drongos and Yellow-throated Leafbirds. We saw yet another Striped Flowerpecker but this time at a closer range.

Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike

Yellow-throated Leafbird

Striped Flowerpecker

A young Crested Goshawk made an appearance, we were so surprise at how small race palawanus looked, around the size of an average Besra! Finally, a Red-headed Flameback was our final addition at this spot, and completes our set of Palawan endemic woodpeckers!

Crested Goshawk - juvenile

Red-headed Flameback - male

We arrived at Napsan around mid-morning, a few teams were already there looking for birds. It was indeed an extremely birdy area. Lovely Sunbirds were found feeding along the roadside. A few Palawan Fairy-bluebirds made a brief appearance, this species had been split from Asian Fairy-bluebirds recently, as males have cold azure to turquoise blue backs instead of violet blue of I. puella.

Lovely Sunbird - male

Palawan Fairy-bluebird - male

I managed to spot two species of Flycatchers here, first was a juvenile Blue-and-White Flycatcher, a supposedly rare migrant to Palawan, second was a male Palawan Blue Flycatcher, an endemic species uncommon but widespread on the island.

Blue-and-White Flycatcher - another rare migrant

Palawan Blue Flycatcher - male

The best bird here in my personal opinion was no doubt the Palawan Tit, one of my target species! It is a very distinctive looking bird that looks like no other, with a smart looking combination of black, yellow and white.

Palawan Tit - a very handsome endemic

We returned to Iwahig Penal Farm afterwards to add a few more species to our list. Spotted Doves and Paddyfield Pipits found along roadside added a few points...

Spotted Dove

Paddyfield Pipit

Whiskered Terns were again feeding near the flooded paddy fields. Other than the common waders, we also spotted a Common Greenshank in amongst the Wood Sandpipers and Marsh Sandpipers. We also found a Common Kingfisher, half hidden behind a small crescent.

Whiskered Tern

Common Greenshank

Common Kingfisher

Our final stop before the bird race ended at 1pm was Irawan Eco Park, where we went for the Palawan Flycatcher. It was there already when we arrived and showed well, although the Blue-eared Kingfisher was not as cooperative, only Alfee, Hailey and Yuen managed a photo. At approximately 1pm we handed our memory cards over to our marshall and the race was over! The cards were submitted to the officials where they will count up our total points scored, the results will be announced over dinner.

Palawan Flycatcher

For the afternoon, it was free time for everyone, Yuen took an afternoon nap, Captain decided to take a dip in the pool, while Kenneth and I wasted no time and birded around the resort. It wasn't very productive, the only interesting observation of note was a baby Water Monitor swimming in the mangroves. A pair of confiding Olive-backed Sunbirds near the hotel's entrance provided some fun.

Water Monitor Lizard

Olive-backed Sunbird - male

Olive-backed Sunbird - female

Captain suggested that we go see the Spotted Wood Owls again, as he wanted to get some better photos. We were the only people there, it didn't take too long for us to locate them, but this time they flew off into the distance before we even got a chance to get a good photo.

Spotted Wood Owl - race wiepkeni

We got in contact with Ken about the possibility to look for Mantanani Scops Owl, he kindly lined us up with Totic who knows a location close to Puerto Princesa where we can find them. Totic kindly agreed and he promised us that we won't even miss the award ceremony! He led us to a small jetty where we boarded a small boat in darkness. A few minutes later we landed on Cana Island, a small island within the Puerto Princesa Bay. We got our cameras ready while Totic went to look for the owls, it only took him 5 minutes before he returned and told us to follow him! We were rewarded with excellent views of a pair, one grey morph and the other rufous morph. This species is an island specialist, inhabiting offshore islands near Borneo and the Philippines. I highly recommend Totic Failana if you ever travel to Palawan, he is an expert guide and knows where all the good birds are.

Mantanani Scops Owl - grey morph

Mantanani Scops Owl - rufous morph

Totic also tried finding us the Palawan Frogmouth once we've returned to mainland at an undisclosed location around Puerto Princesa, but perhaps it was already quite late in the evening that they never showed. In the end we returned to Princesa Garden at around 8:45pm, where we were delighted to find that the award ceremony had yet to start! We were even able to get dinner down before the ceremony began. It was also an extremely pleasant surprise that 'Hong Kong Sparrows A' managed to squeezed into 4th place overall! (I guess the Blue-and-White Flycatcher and the White-throated Needletail have something to do with it...) We were awarded 30,000PHP for our efforts and some awesome memories to take home.

A genuinely surprising 4th place overall!

Day 5 - 5th November 2018 : Puerto Princesa (Sabang)

We arranged the driver from previous evening to meet us at 6am, where we were to head  to Sabang with other groups hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Palawan Peacock Pheasant. The bird at Crocodile Farm never returned during our stay, and boats heading to the Underground River had been suspended for the last two days due to windy conditions...Fortunately, Totic and other guides gets first hand information about the boats and he informed us that it was green light that morning!

A washroom break enroute to Sabang provided an excellent view of Ulugan Bay, the sea was quite calm which was a good sign. A flock of Lesser Frigatebirds drifted past, while a Pygmy Flowerpecker gave brief views next to the platform.

Lesser Frigatebird

Pygmy Flowerpecker

The platform also provided a good place to look at Swiftlets. Swiftlets in the Philippines is confusing to say the least...There are many swiftlet species in Palawan, including Germain's Swiftlets, Grey-rumped Swiftlets, Philippine Swiftlets, Pygmy Swiftlets, Ameline Swiftlets...etc. To say that I can positively identify all of them will be a huge lie, although a few species with easily recognisable features such as the Grey-rumped Swiftlets and Pygmy Swiftlets were of little debate, other brown swiftlets were not so...The first individual with paler underparts and rump points towards Germain's, while the second individual with much darker underparts overall and dark rump could either be Ameline or Philippine...It's inconclusive, but certainly an interesting area to look into on future Philippine visits.

Germain's Swiftlet...maybe?

Ameline / Philippine Swiftlet?

We arrived at Sabang around 8:30am, weather was glorious and sea was not too rough. The bird race was part of the Subaraw Biodiversity Festival, the festival lasts for over a week, so signs were everywhere.

Totic and Rey; one of the organisers of the bird race, helped us with the logistics at the Sabang Boat Terminal, where we boarded a boat towards the entrance of Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park. The boat ride was only around 10 minutes, you get ashore directly onto the beach, my trousers were soaked (should have worn shorts with sandals), but otherwise it wasn't too much a hassle.

Totic told us specifically to follow him once we got off the boat. Once everyone was there Totic led us and a group from Taiwan and Japan towards the back of the generator building, and we soon had eyes on one of the most incredible looking bird in the avian world; a Palawan Peacock Pheasant. The bird was obviously used to people, as it stood very still as we moved into the forest for a better view.

Palawan Peacock Pheasant - my top 'most wanted' bird!

The bird had been fed rice by the rangers here for years and had been observed by birders since mid 2000s. Being such an iconic bird in Palawan it is certainly a major draw for visiting birders, also the fact that this species was (and still is elsewhere) known to be extremely difficult to find in the wild, this lonesome male is pretty much the only wild individual that visiting birders have any good chance of seeing. This individual is well past it's prime, although it still looked magnificent, it moved slowly and you can tell that it's an old bird. As they all say, this bird won't live forever, so I am glad to have the privilege of seeing this bird.

Palawan Peacock Pheasant - lonely male

One we got the Palawan Peacock Pheasant done, we turned our attention to Tabon Scrubfowls that can often be found in the same area, and we were not disappointed, as a pair foraged nearby, allowing fairly good views, they were a little skittish and with the a dozen of birders it's probably no surprise that the birds scuttered off very soon...

Tabon Scrubfowl

The area produced few birds, a male Palawan Blue Flycatcher showed briefly but never turned around for a better photo. The endemic Sulphur-bellied Bulbuls was a very nice addition to our trip list. Huge Water Monitors roams around the buildings, likely looking for scraps of food.

Palawan Blue Flycatcher - male

Sulphur-bellied Bulbul

A huge Water Monitor

After lunch at Sabang we said our goodbyes with Totic and the rest of the group, as they start their own extension post-race tour to Luzon and Mindanao. Our driver stopped enroute to let us take some photos of the karst landscape which reminds me of Nonggang in Guangxi.

We stopped along the way to do some birding, added a flock of Hill Mynas. A few parrots flew by which I initially thought were Racquet-tails, later confirmed to be Blue-naped Parrots.

Hill Myna

Blue-naped Parrot

We tried for the highly sought after Falcated Wren-babbler in suitable habitats, but got no response. A White-vented Shama was however more friendly. A confiding Black-naped Oriole provided good photography opportunities, while Grey-throated Bulbuls fluttered towards the back but finally gave good views. A Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo made an appearance and sang from an open perch.

White-vented Shama

Black-naped Oriole

Grey-throated Bulbul

Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo

Along the main road a pair of Chestnut-breasted Malkohas gave everyone a great look, while small flock of Yellow-throated Leafbirds foraged just above our van.

Chestnut-breasted Malkoha

Yellow-throated Leafbird

Yuen, Alfee and Hailey needed to be dropped off at the airport for their evening flight back to Manila. Captain, Kenneth and I on the other hand had booked an extra night at Princesa Garden, we decided to try for the Palawan Frogmouth once again (Totic had agreed to let us return to that location on our own). 

Enroute to the airport I developed a very bad stomachache which had me in cold sweat, the main culprit was the packed lunch I ate the day before...It was as bad as stomachache gets, but I decided to go for the Frogmouth first, hospital can wait! We got to the location at around 5:30pm, by that time my stomachache had subsided slightly to the point where it was tolerable (it was still pretty bad)...We set up our cameras and waited till dusk. Luckily for me, the Frogmouth came out as soon as the sun went down! It showed exceptionally well and we were out of there in less than 10 minutes!

Palawan Frogmouth - best painkiller in the world

The adrenaline certainly helped, as I felt much better on the way to the hospital. The doctors weren't very good and insisted that I was getting heartburns (it clearly wasn't), but they gave me a prescription and off I went. Honestly though, I thought the Frogmouth worked better.

To be continued...

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