Wednesday 15 November 2023

Palawan - November 2023 : Part 1

My first visit to the Philippines was in 2018, it was mainly for the Puerto Princesa Underground River Bird Race. This is an annual event for the SUBARAW Biodiversity Festival, attracting locals and international participants alike. Seeing that they are resuming the race for the first time since covid, I thought it would be a good idea to join again for fun, also to try and tick off a few more Palawan endemics I've missed on my previous trip.

Together with Kenneth and first time joiner Dennis, we applied for this year's race, at the same time I contacted expert local birdguide Totic Failana to guide us around for a few more days afterwards, hoping to get more difficult species like Falcated Wren Babbler and Palawan Scops Owl, two of the most highly sought after endemic target on the island. Our friend James and Gomen would join us on the second half of the journey to try see some other wildlife along the way.

Day 1 -

We flew with Philippines Airline to Manilla and got a transfer flight to Puerto Princesa, the connection was surprisingly smooth for us, although Philippines Airline did change our return flight time and date a few times! The staffs of the bird race were already waiting for us at the airport, where they picked us up and drove us straight to Princesa Garden Island Resort, the main venue for this international event.

The moment we got our hotel room, we immediately got our camera out and went straight to the garden, where the Philippine Cockatoos were returning to their evening roost. A privileged sight usually reserved to those who is staying in the hotel.

Princesa Garden Island Resort & Spa

Philippine Cockatoo at their roost

At the opening ceremony, it was a lot of music and traditional dancing just like last time. After dinner, they went through the rules of the bird race. Unlike the bird race in Hong Kong, this is a “bird photography race”, meaning they only count the species that you manage to photograph. Endemic species and rare migrants worth 10 points, common resident species worth 5 points, common migrants worth 3 points. The photos of each team member is counted, therefore if everyone in the team can photograph an endemic species, that is 30 points in total. We must hand in our SD card at 7pm on the first day, and 1pm on the second day, for the race committee transfer the photos and count the points.

Day 2 -

We woke up at 4:30am to get ready for breakfast at 5am. After a wonderful buffet breakfast, we got started at the front of the hotel straight away, each member is required to take a 'safety shot' as their first photo during the race. We started with common species like Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Chestnut Munias, but we also added Pygmy Flowerpecker and the recently split endemic Palawan Sunbird. Each team is assigned a marshal, who is also their guide around the birding spots of Puerto Princesa. Our marshal was Marcon Tibor, who was quite excellent in helping us get in tune to the birds in Palawan. As our van drove out of Princesa Garden, we noticed a few Philippine Cockatoos flying away, we immediately got out of the car and bagged this species, which was a good call as that saves us from having to return to the hotel early to get them at their night roost.

Taking photo of the 'Safety Shot'

Pygmy Flowerpecker

Palawan Sunbird

Philippine Cockatoo

Our first stop was Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm, an open prison with paddy fields and some nice open forest. At the paddy fields we added various wetland species such as Eastern Cattle, Great, Little and Medium Egret (Intermediate just been split into 3 species). Wood Sandpipers and Oriental Pratincoles were also seen. 

Eastern Cattle Egret

Medium Egret

Oriental Pratincole

A Collared Kingfisher was spotted next to the road, which we quickly got a photo. We also added a good number of smaller birds, including Zitting Cisticola, a Paddyfield Pipit and a distant Brown Shrike. An immature male Blue-and-White Flycatcher was a nice addition to the day's list.

Collared Kingfisher

Zitting Cisticola

Paddyfield Pipit

Brown Shrike

Blue-and-White Flycatcher - immature male

Next we headed into the forest and quickly added a pair of endemic Spot-throated Flameback! The pair showed well before flying off into the distant. Black-headed Bulbuls were seen, along with a flyby Blue-naped Parrot. Our next Palawan endemic came in form of relatively cooperative a Pale Spiderhunter.

Spot-throated Woodpecker - male & female

Black-headed Bulbul

Blue-naped Parrot

Pale Spiderhunter

The singing White-vented Shamas took a while to track down, but we finally managed some better photos of this endemic through the branches. A large Pigeon up in the tree had me excited for a moment, but turned out only to be a Green Imperial Pigeon. A male Lovely Sunbird added some excitement for everyone, and a few Palawan Bulbuls gave us a hard time to photograph, although everyone got a photo record in the end.

White-vented Shama

Green Imperial Eagle

Lovely Sunbird - male

Palawan Bulbul

We moved on towards Napsan, a stretch of road south of Puerto Princesa, the road runs through some good forest therefore making it an excellent birding spot. Here, we added yet another Blue-and-White Flycatcher, this time a female. A pair of rather showy Palawan Babblers attracted over 30 participants, all lined up next to the road to try and photograph this usually tough endemic species. Another good species we added was a pair of Palawan Blue Flycatchers, they both showed well although from afar, but good enough to get us another 30 points!

Blue-and-White Flycatcher - female

Palawan Babbler

Palawan Blue Flycatcher - female

Palawan Blue Flycatcher - male

Things slowed slightly, but we still added some species such as Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Fiery Minivets and Asian Brown Flycatchers. Marcon kept wanting to try for the Palawan Tit, but none responded. A few more confiding Palawan Bulbuls were a welcoming sight. We also added Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, of the endemic subspecies woodi.

Chestnut-breasted Malkoha

Fiery Minivet - female

Asian Brown Flycatcher

Palawan Bulbul

Pin-striped Tit-Babbler

Just before noon, a trio of Palawan Hornbill appeared, they gave excellent views for everyone and granted us yet another 30 points! Up above, a Grey-faced Buzzard came through very briefly.

Palawan Hornbill - female

Palawan Hornbill - male

Grey-faced Buzzard

After lunch we continued to try our luck around Napsan, a nice looking male Palawan Flowerpecker was a nice addition. Our luck improved when we finally found a flock of birds, in there was a single Citrine Canary Flycatcher, a species found throughout the Philippines and Sulawesi. A few Palawan Tits were also present, although they remained high up.

Palawan Flowerpecker - male

Citrine Canary Flycatcher

Palawan Tit

Other birds within the feeding flock includes Ventriloquial Oriole, a recent split from Dark-throated Oriole. Yellow-throated Leafbirds and Sulphur-bellied Bulbuls were added, both Palawan endemics! Our final bird added was a few Blue-naped Parrots along the road back towards Puerto Princesa.

Ventriloquial Oriole

Yellow-throated Leafbird

Sulphur-bellied Bulbul

Blue-naped Parrot

In the last hour or so of daylight, we tried our luck at Irawan Eco Park. Here we quickly added Palawan Flycatcher and Ashy-headed Babbler, both skulkers and made it difficult for us to photograph. Finally, we got some clear ID worthy photos of a Blue Paradise Flycatcher, which took way too long.

Palawan Flycatcher

Ashy-headed Babbler

Blue Paradise Flycatcher - male

The race was running till 7pm on the first day, therefore giving us a bit of time to try for night birds. Marcon knows of a spot for the Palawan Frogmouth and within a minute we located our target! We didn't spend too much time there, as we still wanted to get the Large-tailed Nightjar. Luckily, we also found one perched on the wire without too much problem! We handed our SD cards over to Marcon and the first day of the bird race was over!

Palawan Frogmouth

Large-tailed Nightjar

Day 3 - 

The second day of race was only for half a day, at 1pm we have to hand in our SD card to the race committee for scoring. Therefore, our tactic of the day was to get as many common species out of the way as possible, and get the few endemics along the way. We quickly took our safety shots and began our day, our first bird was Philippine Cockatoos, luckily we caught up with them before them flew off for their day's of foraging. Along the entrance we had most of the common species such as Palawan Sunbirds and Chestnut Munias.

Philippine Cockatoo

Palawan Sunbird - female

Chestnut Munia

We tried our luck at Irawan Eco Park, and I am glad we did, as it was very birdy early morning! We got White-vented Shama without even trying, and a few Palawan Babblers jumped out into the open for us to take photos of. The Blue Paradise Flycatchers proved to be tricky again, but we got a good enough ID shot of the bird in the end.

White-vented Shama

Palawan Babbler

Blue Paradise Flycatcher

The walk along the trail didn't produce all that much, along a small garden by the river we added several species, including a Plaintive Cuckoo. A distant White-bellied Woodpecker was a nice addition, as well as a Stork-billed Kingfisher spotted by Marcon. Kenneth found us a Grey-streaked Flycatcher, and I got us our only Black-naped Monarch of the race.

Plaintive Cuckoo

White-bellied Woodpecker

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Grey-streaked Flycatcher

Black-naped Monarch - female

A few easy endemics were bagged, including a female Lovely Sunbird, a male Palawan Flowerpecker and a few Ashy-fronted Bulbuls.

Lovely Sunbird - female

Palawan Flowerpecker - male

Ashy-fronted Bulbul

At a bird hide we added a Blue-eared Kingfisher, this was the same bird hide that had Palawan Flycatcher last time I was here, but that did not show up. We carried on walking and yielded a Javan Pond Heron. The only bird we took some time to photograph was a male Lovely Sunbird, feeding on some flowers in the garden! This is one of the tougher species of sunbirds to photograph in Palawan, as they are more of a forest species and don't show up in the urban gardens! 

Blue-eared Kingfisher

Javan Pond Heron

Lovely Sunbird - male

Further on we had yet another White-bellied Woodpecker, this time a tiny bit closer. We connected with a few Palawan Tits, which were again very high up. On our way out we saw a Malayan Night Heron flew down to the road, it immediately took flight again after seeing us, but I managed to get a few photos before it disappeared!

White-bellied Woodpecker

Palawan Tit

Malayan Night Heron

But even that was our best bird encountered at Irawan Eco Park, the best species was an unexpected lifer for all of us, in form of a Philippine Hawk Cuckoo! This is quite a rare species in Palawan, and one I did not expect to see!

Philippine Hawk Cuckoo

With that bit of excitement, we headed back into Puerto Princesa, to a birding spot known as Randy's Place. This is literally the back yard of Randy, Marcon's older brother! He planted a lot of flowering plants and it is now a birding hotspot within the city. When we got there it was packed with participants! The moment we got there we added a pair of very confiding Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher - male

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher - female

Other common species were very easy to photograph here, such as Asian Glossy Starlings, Brown-throated Sunbirds and Ashy-fronted Bulbuls, we did not stay long as we already got those species, so we just took the photos of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers and left immediately!

Asian Glossy Starling

Brown-throated Sunbird - female

Ashy-fronted Bulbul

It was down to the last 40 minutes or so, with the clock ticking till the end of the race, we were still missing some very common species! I suggested we head back to the seaside of Princesa Garden to hopefully tick off a few common species to gain a few extra points. We successfully connected with several, including Collared Kingfisher, Philippine Pied Fantail, Golden-bellied Gerygone and Pygmy Flowerpecker.

Collared Kingfisher

Philippine Pied Fantail

Golden-bellied Gerygone

Pygmy Flowerpecker

With less than 10 minutes to spare, we were missing Spotted Dove and Zebra Dove...very typical as these are some of the most common birds around the city, but they don't show up when you need them most! With 5 minutes left, we finally located both species together on a roof top! And that was it! We handed in our SD cards and went on to relax in our hotel room.

Zebra Dove

At 4:45pm we headed out to the garden to watch the returning Philippines Cockatoos, they return like clockwork and for the next hour we watched them eating, playing and bickering, all in the comfort of the hotel. Before it got dark, a Peregrine Falcon came through which seems to have spooked the Cockatoos slightly, although I don't think it can quite take down a Cockatoo.

Philippine Cockatoo

Peregrine Falcon

The award ceremony and dinner started at 7:30pm, there were again performances and speeches made. They left it last to announce the winners of the bird race, and to our very pleasant surprise, we managed to come 3rd overall! And Kenneth had the second highest score of all participants! Although later on, we find out we could have actually came 1st, but unfortunately the scores on Dennis's card on the second day was deleted, as his safety shot photo was terribly under exposed, to a point where it was just a black screen. A costly mistake that is unfortunately very easy to make, but not one that mattered as we still had tons of fun out there.

No comments:

Post a Comment