The Reluctant "Angel"
He always grunted whenever he gave an affirmative answer to our yes or no question.
"Is it OK if we ask you to stop every now and then?"
Can you drive a little slower? We need to listen and look for birds."
His name was Frederick (that's what he told us). We found out two days later that his real name was Tito. Anyway, Frederick (that's what we will call him in this blog) was the driver who will take us to Sabang. He was quite prompt though, arriving earlier than the 5:30 am departure time that we scheduled. It was still dark at that time and we didn't mind that he drove at quite a fast pace through the still deserted roads.
It was when a cloudy dawn broke through that we asked him to slow down. We could tell that he was quite reluctant to do so despite the fact that we hired him to drive for us until noon time. When I saw a bird perched on an electric wire I asked him to stop. I looked through my binoculars and dismissed it as "just" an Asian Glossy Starling. Besides it was so backlit that all my shots were trash material. Frederick was looking ahead, ennui written all over his face. I asked him to move on.
"Um." he replied.
About 30 minutes later, Cynthia yelled, "Stop!" "Stop!" She heard some bird calls. We stopped. I scanned the clump of low trees and saw some movement. Pictures were taken, albeit only of "documentary" quality.
Let me digress for a while. I did not bring my 500mm lens on this trip on purpose. With all the uncertainties that comes along with a first time visit I thought it prudent to just bring the 300mm. Then there were the intermittent rains, of course, and I would hate my big lens getting soaked in rainwater.
Back to the "documentary" photo. Until now I couldn't figure out what bird it was. It looks like a bulbul but the rufous wing, yellow eyes and streaked throat sort of threw me off.
An hour-and-a-half later with no birds seen or heard along the way we decided to stop at the view deck at Sitio Buenavista to have some breakfast. Our hotel in Puerto Princesa, Palo Alto B & B, was kind enough to pack our free breakfast for us. We gladly shared it with Frederick. Somehow his mood changed after that.
Another thirty minutes down the road and it rained again. We made a stop next to some roadside stalls curiously named Jazz Souvenirs and Cafeteria.
Across the road the trees were teeming with bird calls. Braving the downpour and ensconced in my camouflaged raincoat I got a photo of our first lifer of the trip - the Black-headed Bulbul.
Joining this lovely species were their drabber cousins, the Ashy-fronted Bulbul and lots of Palawan and Pygmy Flowerpeckers. Olive-backed Sunbirds completed the foraging flock.
Still further down the road were Large-billed Crows and Spotted Doves vainly trying to get their feathers dry. But what got Frederick really excited was when we saw the Coucal spreading its bright rufous wings as the sun emerged from the dark clouds. At first we thought that it was just another Philippine Coucal which Cynthia and I have seen many times before doing the exact same thing. Only when I checked the Kennedy Guide later did I realize that Philippine Coucals are not found in Palawan! Instead the bird that we just saw was actually a Greater Coucal - another lifer for us!
Five hours after we left Puerto Princesa we arrived at our hotel in Sabang. Frederick was quite chatty on the final leg of our trip and seemed to have developed an interest in birds himself.
I think a good hearty breakfast can change a man into an "angel".
Update: The mystery bird was a Striped Tit-Babbler. Another lifer! Thanks, Adri Constantino and Desmond Allen!