Friday 16 November 2018

Philippines - Palawan & Luzon : November 2018 - Part 3

Day 6 - 6th November 2018 : Puerto Princesa > Luzon (Manila, Candaba)

Captain, Kenneth and I took the early flight back to Manila, it was raining all morning at Puerto Princesa, we were extremely fortunate that the weather the day before wasn't like that, or else our Sabang visit might have been cancelled! Everything was on time and we landed at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport before 9am under glorious weather. Peter and Michelle Wong who would join us in Luzon took the earliest flight available out of Hong Kong, although they did not arrive until 10:30am. We waited at Bay 14 for Mark, he was slightly behind schedule but we knew how bad the traffic can get in Manila.

Travelling through metro Manila

Mark (Mark Jason Villa) is just a few years older than me, a friendly guy with an extremely calm aura that surrounds him. He is also highly knowledgable on the local birds, I highly recommend serious birders to bird with him. Our first stop was Candaba Swamp, a wetland area north of Quezon City. The drive was long and dreary, and we experienced first time the horrendous traffic of metro Manila, it was traffic jams on every street...We arrived at around 2:30pm.

Candaba Swamp is a huge flood plain made up of ponds, marshes and seasonal grassland.We birded along a dirt road overlooking open fields.

Candaba Swamp

Mark and Peter scanning for birds

As soon as we got off the van, we noticed birds were scattering from the field, mostly Common Moorhens. A closer look revealed half a dozen bird catchers were netting the birds as they flushed them. It was a heart wrenching sight, especially how 'good' these people were at what they do! In the short time that we observed them, they caught over a dozen birds...Mark said he never witnessed these bird catchers in action, but know it is a common practice throughout the country. It is a dilemma, as you would think these people are not well off either, they are probably doing this to earn a few bucks for their families, but looking at the rate they catch birds...I am afraid there won't be much left in ten or twenty years time.

Bird catchers at work...

Those birds that escaped live another day, we observed species such as Common Moorhens, Watercocks and Buff-banded Rails. I wonder if we need to thank these men for flushing out all the birds, as we wouldn't have see some of these species without their 'help'.

Common Moorhen

Watercock - female

Buff-banded Rail

Further along we added a good looking male Pied Bush Chat, while Blue-tailed Bee-eaters hawked for insects from their perch. Large flocks of Wandering Whistling Ducks had us scanning for Philippine Ducks within them.

Pied Bush Chat

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Wandering Whistling Duck

Suddenly, Mark exclaimed "Philippine Duck!", we all looked and saw a large duck flying through the air. It is a very distinctive species, with a bright orange-brown head that is unmistakable. It was a lifer for Kenneth, but wasn't a lifer for half of us, as we've already seen the vagrant bird at Mai Po back in 2010. But it was still exciting to finally see one in it's natural range, it is a Philippine endemic after all.

Philippine Duck

We also added Philippine Swamphen, it used to be placed within the Purple Swamphen complex, but had since been split, now into 7 species...Philippine Swamphen is endemic to the Philippines, with rather washed out colours of ash-grey and olive-chestnut mantle.

Philippine Swamphen

Cinnamon Bitterns were quite common, we flushed quite a few but one perched on top of a bush for a better look. Black Bitterns on the other hand was slightly less common, we saw just two birds, hiding in the tall grass.

Cinnamon Bittern

Black Bittern

We added a few Eastern Marsh Harriers which we were all too familiar with. Golden-bellied Gerygones sang their interesting mechanical like song from the trees above, two showed well.

Eastern Marsh Harrier - female

Golden-bellied Gerygone

Straited Grassbirds were quite common, although getting a good photograph requires some patience and luck. Fortunately, one individual decided to perch on top of a bush nearby. Mark found us two Clamorous Reed Warblers, slightly obscured by the grass but still provided good views. HBW now split the Clamorous Reed Warbler into two species, Acrocephalus stentoreus found from north Africa, India to south west China, while Acrocephalus australis (Australian Reed Warbler) found in Australia, Java to the Philippines. I will leave the splitting to the ornithologists...and happily go with the "old way" for now.

Striated Grassbird

Clamorous Reed Warbler

As light dimmed, Common Snipes flew out from their hiding place. Rails also became more active, as numerous Barred Rails were encountered along the road, a species common in the Philippines but difficult to see well due to their reclusive nature.

Common Snipe

Barred Rail - shy but beautiful

The all too familiar White-breasted Waterhen also came out near dusk. A few White-browed Crakes provided certain amount of excitement as a few showed well in the diminishing light.

White-breasted Waterhen

White-browed Crake

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters flew past one last time and it was time to go. After another long drive we finally arrived in Subic Bay where we will be staying two nights.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Day 7 - 7th November 2018 : Subic Bay

Subic Bay is an interesting area, a former US Naval Base, it used to be one of the most important US Navy facility in the Philippines. The base was finally closed in 1991 after Mt Pinatubo erupted and had since became a Freeport Zone. Luzon in general had been heavily deforested in the last century or so, thanks to the US Navy, the forest around Subic Bay had been preserved. The forest here is largely intact and is where birders from around the world are interested in.

Birding around the old barracks

We started early, the hotel provided a cup of coffee and packed breakfast on the go. Birds were already quite active along the roadside when we arrived at Nabasan Trail, Balicassiaos (basically an exotic drongo) perched along the wire, along with Rufous-crowned Bee-eaters, another Philippine endemic split from the Blue-throated Bee-eater.


Rufous-crowned Bee-eater

There were a lot of large dead trees along this road, many birds perched on them making observation far but easy. Large-billed Crows were amongst some of the early birds, along with a Philippine Hanging-Parrot, sometimes also known as the Colasisi. Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker dropped by although views were too far to appreciate any of it's delicate details. While Coletos, a very exotic looking starling filled the trees, they were probably one of the most numerous species in Subic Bay.

Large-billed Crow

Philippine Hanging-Parrot - also known as Colasisi

Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker

Coleto - strange looking bird with strange name

Green Racquet-tails were spotted, a speciality in Subic. It was apparently quite common in the past but had seen rapid population decrease in recent years, therefore listed as an Endangered species now. Bar-bellied Cuckooshrikes were quite common in Subic, although mostly seen high up near tree tops.

Green Racquet-tail

Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike

A pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers showed well by the roadside, the male was especially showy. They later perched up on an open branch and decided to conduct in some early morning 'exercise'...It's nice to see some high spirits this early in the morning.

White-bellied Woodpecker - doing the deed...

A Luzon Flameback also decided to perch in the open for everyone to get a good look. This male was quite the beauty with red crest and maroon wings and mantle. This species is still sometimes considered a subspecies of the Greater Flameback, but in the field they look very different.

Luzon Flameback - a beautiful woodpecker

Brahminy Kites were a common sight in Subic Bay, we saw quite a few of them throughout the day. Along the trail I observed a beautiful spider of the genus Gasteracantha devouring a butterfly.

Brahminy Kite

Gasteracanthe sp.

I saw a large bird perched on a branch, not quite knowing what it was I picked up my binoculars, only realised it was a female Luzon Hornbill! I managed a quick photo before it flew off. We also encountered a very large feeding flock, mainly consisting of Rufous Coucals and Red-crested Malkohas, both were are main target species at Subic!

Luzon Hornbill - female

Rufous Coucal

Red-crested Malkoha - one of the craziest looking Malkohas out there

We moved on towards the now disused botanical garden. Stripe-sided Rhabdornis was our first introduction to this interesting endemic genus, they are somewhat an avian curiosity, was once placed within the treecreeper family, more recently they have been placed within the starling's family tree. Our view was adequate if not a bit far, but better than none! Around the same trees were a real member of the starlings, the Coleto. Although common we could hardly get enough of these crazy looking starlings.

Stripe-sided Rhabdornis


Only I got a photo of the Luzon Hornbill thus far, and everyone was desperate to get a better view. A female perched in a distant tree was not quite satisfactory, but was a good view none the less. Whiskered Treeswifts were quite common in Subic, but as always they stick to the tall trees. A White-eared Brown Dove decided to be nice to us and perched in an open 'window' within a rather enclosed tree.

Luzon Hornbill - female

Whiskered Treeswift

White-eared Brown Dove

There are very little large land mammals in the Philippines, Long-tailed Macaques were the only large mammals we saw. Mark spotted a very beautiful Reticulated Python basking in the middle of the road. It was a feisty one too, as it attacked Peter's monopod a few times as I tried to usher it off the road with little success...We also saw a young Reddish Rat Snake, unfortunately dead.

Long-tailed Macaque

Reticulated Python - a beautiful snake with big attitude

Reddish Rat Snake - a dead one unfortunately

Finally, everyone got a good look at a few Luzon Hornbills when they decided to fly across the road, first a female that was all black, then a beautiful male with white underparts followed. 

Luzon Hornbill - female & male

Bird activity dropped significantly after 10:30am, so we turned our attention to the numerous butterflies around us. Subic Bay probably have some of the highest concentration of butterflies I've seen anywhere.

Ptychandra lorquinii

Caleta roxus

Cheritra orpheus

Lamproptera meges

Around noon we decided to head back into town for lunch. But not before we made a stop at the famous flying fox colony! It's a must if you ever visit Subic Bay, the flying foxes were incredibly impressive to look at, you get completely emerged in the sound of the colony. There are two species of flying foxes in Subic, first is the smaller Large Flying Fox, which looks all brown or black. The other species is the Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox, believed to be one of the largest bat species in the world, they have a distinctive yellow nape and crown, with wingspan up to 1.7m! The latter species is now listed as Endangered due to habitat loss and poaching.

Large Flying Fox

Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox

Size especially apparent during flight

After a nice lunch and a good nap we were out again at 3pm. Brown-breasted Kingfisher is a split from White-throated Kingfisher, this species only retain the white throat and not the breast. "Black Cuckooshrike" would be a better name for the endemic Blackish Cuckooshrike, I am not sure why they even named it "blackish" as it was clearly just black.

Brown-breasted Kingfisher

Blackish Cuckooshrike

I was quite chuffed with finding a Philippine Falconet on a distant stump, not the best of views but it was enough for a lifer. Two Sooty Woodpeckers finally showed themselves after much persuasion. We were also rewarded with better views of a male Luzon Hornbill.

Philippine Falconet

Sooty Woodpecker - female

Luzon Hornbill - male

We tried for he elusive White-browed Shama, it came close but never showed, leaving me with an impression of just it's beautiful song. Green-backed Tailorbirds made it extremely difficult and barely responded to our playback. With little success in the understorey we turned our attention to birds above. Whiskered Treeswifts were nice to see as always, while Green Imperial Pigeons were a nice addition to our trip list.

Whiskered Treeswift

Green Imperial Pigeon

Rufous-crowned Bee-eaters were amongst the friendliest birds in Subic, hawking for insects by the roadside. Surprisingly, a White-eared Brown Dove also decided to come out into the open, likely to be sunning itself in the setting sun. Subic Bay have some of the highest density of large woodpeckers I've seen, especially White-bellied Woodpeckers which was extremely common.

Rufous-crowned Bee-eater

White-eared Brown Dove

White-bellied Woodpecker

We tried a spot of owling before dinner. Numerous Luzon Boobooks called nearby but never showed, a Luzon Scops Owl was no better and only called once. A Great-eared Nightjar which flew past our head was nice, although I would have preferred a perched view. Chocolate Boobook was all but absent. So, it was usual owling resumed, disappointing but not unexpected.

To be continued...

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