Sunday, May 26, 2013

Puerto Princesa Birding, Epilog - Information and Logistics

First of all, allow me to repeat here the wonderful blessings we got on this trip. Consider these:

We were still able to see the Mantanani Scops Owl and Grey Imperial Pigeon on the very day that Pandan Island was declared off-limits to birders. There was allegedly an unethical act committed by a foreign bird guide that prompted the owner of the island to declare the owl habitat to be off limits to birders.

Spotted Wood Owls had been seen in at least two different sites in the city of Puerto Princesa recently. However, access to both places became quite problematic at the time we got there. Thanks to Rommel, the local guide, a third, more accessible site was discovered and we were able to get photos of this huge night bird.

We got bonuses (species we didn't expect to see) in the form of a trio of Great Slaty Woodpeckers and a family of Fiery Minivets.

Now for the logistics:

On our first, third and fourth nights, we stayed at the Cecilia's Comfort Inn. It had the usual amenities - airconditioning, hot-and-cold showers, TV and free breakfast. The cost was P2,200 per night for three people. The room was a bit small for three and the water pressure on our first night was low. On the plus side, the staff was very helpful. Our minor complaints were taken cared of immediately. Also inasmuch as we usually leave the hotel at 5 in the morning they prepared a packed breakfast for all three of us (we can smell the cooking as early as 3:30 am) on each and every day of our stay there. Also included in the price was the airport transfer (to and from) the hotel. They also allowed us to stay well beyond the check out time of 11 am (our flight doesn't leave until 5 in the afternoon).

At Sabang we stayed at the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort. This was the same place we stayed in last year (they even gave us the same room we had then). A bit more on the expensive side compared to the other hotels in the area, but well worth it. Rooms are huge with the usual amenities and then some. Breakfast is also included in the P4424 a night rate (for two people - our friend, Irene, stayed with her aunt at the Sheridan Hotel). The staff was kind enough to pack our breakfast for our early morning boat trip to the Puerto Princesa Underground River.

Our transportation was handled by Rommel M. Cruz, the local bird guide. Our van to Sabang cost P3500 and then P1000 for the return trip to Puerto Princesa City. Jojo, our driver for all four days, was also a birder and bird photographer and was very helpful in finding birds for us. He was also very punctual.

For our trips to Iwahig and Irawan Ecopark the cost of the van was P2300 per day.

The boat fee going to Pandan Island was P1200 round trip. Getting to the Honda Bay pier (for the boat ride to Pandan Island) from Puerto Princesa cost us P200 for the tricycle ride and P150 for the return trip.

The boat fee to the Underground River was P1500. The 5:30 am trip was also arranged by Rommel since the usual trips to the underground river start at 8 am.

Permits to Puerto Princesa Underground River at P200 per person and to Pandan Island at P150 per person were all arranged by Rommel. He was also responsible for getting us inside the Iwahig Penal Colony.

Badjao Seafront Restaurant never disappoints in terms of food quality and service. A big bonus was that we saw and photographed the Copper-throated Sunbird and Stork-billed Kingfisher by the parking lot in front of the restaurant.

Kinabuch Bar & Grill, purportedly Puerto Princesa's best restaurant was a huge disappointment. The place is basically divided into two: open air and covered dining area. The place was almost full when we arrived on the evening of the 17th. As we were walking towards the covered dining area where we saw some empty tables, a hostess approached us and declared "Bawal diyan!" (That place is off limits!). Then she followed that up with, "go find a place in the open air section". We were about to do that when she met the group behind us and sweetly asked, "How many are you in the group?" When they answered "four", the hostess escorted them to the covered dining area. Cynthia was about to question her actions but I told my wife that we should just leave this place. We never felt so discriminated upon and this was the very first time we experienced this considering that we have been to many restaurants both here in the Philippines and abroad. I just hope that you will not get this kind of treatment should you decide to go to this place.

Ugong Rock Grill & Seafood Bar was where we headed to after that humiliating experience at Kinabuch. The ambiance was quite similar but the reception we got here was the exact opposite of that of the next door restaurant. The food was good and the service was great. You pick the food you like - different kinds of seafood and barbecued meat and they will grill them for you. Prices are very reasonable.

Flavors and Spices near the Crocodile Farm is a small, homey place. Food is incredibly delicious and cheap! This was where Cynthia and I first tasted crocodile meat. It was not bad at all. As the saying goes, it tastes just like chicken.

Rene's Saigon Restaurant near our hotel is a relatively new eatery. Although it is supposed to be a Vietnamese restaurant, we felt that the fares were not authentic enough. Servings were rather small but then again they're quite cheap.

And in conclusion we can't thank Rommel enough for arranging our transportation and permits, for showing us where the Spotted Wood Owls were and for guiding us to Iwahig and Irawan on our last day. It had been a fruitful trip for us, seeing more than 60 species of birds, 16 of which were lifers.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Puerto Princesa Birding, Part V - Beginning and Ending

Thanks to local bird guide, Rommel, we were able to enter Iwahig Penal Colony to bird at the famous Balsahan trail. With him was our friend, Prof. Tirso, who would be on a bird tour beginning today. 

Our day started off with a male Olive-backed Sunbird shaking off the previous night's dampness.

Not far from it a Brown-throated Sunbird was living up to its name as it basked in the morning sun.

But what got us all excited was a Spot-throated Flameback who apparently was looking for a condo.

And eventually found one.

The Balsahan trail only gave us quick glimpses - and no photos - of our last lifer of the trip: the aptly named Melodious Babbler.

The forest birds of Iwahig were giving us a hard time so Rommel suggested we take a break and have brunch at the Flavors and Spice Restaurant. After much cajoling and teasing from our friends, Cynthia and I hesitatingly partook of the local specialty: crocodile meat sisig (a delicacy cooked by first grilling, then boiling and finally frying the meat with spices). To our pleasant surprise it didn't have any strange taste at all! As they say - tastes like chicken.

We continued birding at Irawan Ecopark again but didn't see much. At least I got a better photo of the Common Hill Myna.

Noon and for my wife and myself it was time to end our birding trip. Our flight back to Manila departs that afternoon and we still had to finish packing and take a much needed shower. We said goodbye to our dear friends and returned to our hotel.

This had been a very fruitful trip for us. We notched sixteen lifers compared with four we had last year. But even better than that was we enjoyed the company of our birding friends Irene (and Prof. Tirso on our last day) and met new friends: Rommel, and Jojo, our driver and fellow birder.

As the slogan goes: It's more fun in Palawan. Indeed it was.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Puerto Princesa Birding, Part IV - Unexpected and Expected

The plan was to go birding at the Iwahig Penal Colony. However, the Security Guard at the gate stopped us and demanded a permit - something we thought was not necessary for birders. No matter what explanation or argument we made, he was quite adamant not to let us in.

That was a bit unexpected so we resorted to plan B - go birding at Irawan Ecopark. Even though we arrived early enough we didn't see the hoped-for birds. They were there alright judging from the calls emanating from the behind the thicket. It's just that they refused to come out in the open despite the gentle coaxing by Irene. 

While our friend was hitting the trails searching for the elusive babblers, Cynthia and I stayed by the river to be refreshed from the stifling humidity. It was then that I saw something totally unexpected - a raptor silently gliding overhead. A few quick photos revealed that it was a Crested Serpent Eagle which made it a lifer for us.

We had a superb lunch at Badjao Seaside Restaurant which we consumed way before our designated pick up time of 1:30. We positioned ourselves in front of a tree with tiny orange flowers. I remembered our birding friends Gabs and Ely saying that this particular tree was frequented by the Copper-throated Sunbird - a species in our target list. Although we missed it  last year, our expectations were still high that we would be able to see this colorful bird.

A few minutes passed and I saw something dark-colored fly into the flowering tree. Hoping that it was not just the local Pied Fantail who every so often also visits the said tree, I peered through my camera and was elated to discover that I was looking at our sought after lifer. For about an hour the sunbird pair would fly off and then return a few minutes later giving us multiple opportunities to take its photograph (which wasn't easy considering both were very active and preferred the areas with heavy foliage).

Our van arrived promptly at 1:30 but Irene wanted to get more shots of the Copper-throated. I was on the way back to the restaurant to answer the call of nature when I heard some loud screeching noises coming from the mangroves. I followed the source of that noise and saw two Stork-billed Kingfishers having a squabble. I ran back to where my companions were and pointed the bird (only one remained) to them. After I had finished my personal "duty" and emerged from the restaurant, the kingfisher was still there and allowed me to take its picture.

We met up with local guide, Rommel, at around 2:30 pm. As promised he took us to the "new" secret place where a pair of Spotted Wood Owls had been, um, spotted. Cynthia and I had been a bit worried that we might not be able to see this would-be lifer because even though it had been sighted in two different places before - access to those areas had become a little problematic lately. To have a third and even more easily accessible place was a blessing and quite unexpected.

To celebrate this serendipitous encounter, we all headed to Razon's for its delicious, refreshing halo-halo.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Puerto Princesa Birding, Part III - Hits and Misses

Getting a picture of the Palawan Peacock Pheasant at the Underground River was a piece of cake. The Tabon Scrubfowls (there were two of them) were more of a challenge - preferring to forage in the forest undercover. Irene and I, together with our boatmen, Enteng and Mark, had been patiently trying to get a better view of the local megapode with very little success. 

My wife, frustrated with her camera's performance on dark subjects opted to roam the shoreline. Her wanderings got her a Stork-billed Kingfisher and a Pacific Reef Heron which I first thought was a Great-billed when she showed me the image.

When Cynthia joined us an hour later we were still going after Scrubfowl. It was then that the birds strayed into a more open space and we got some passable photos at last.

Having seen our two target birds that morning, we went back to where our boat was anchored. Irene at this point was shrieking with joy as the Palawan Peaock Pheasant walked towards her with such nonchalance that she was able to photograph it with her point-and-shoot camera.

While our friend was enjoying her luck, Cynthia spotted another Reef Heron. I scrambled out of the boat and ran towards the wader. Mark who was with me told me to hurry up because another boat was coming in and it would spook the bird away. True enough once the chugging motor of the banca became audible, the Reef Heron departed from the area. Luckily I was able to get a few shots before it did.

After lunch we lingered by the cliff where we saw the Palawan Tit yesterday. It was decided that we will stay here until about 5 pm to wait for the Palawan Hornbills to show up. At three o'clock, Cynthia was getting antsy and I was getting a bit drowsy. She wandered down the road to look for some bird, any bird, to photograph. My wife hadn't gone far when she came rushing back, shouting, "Red!" "Red!" She pointed to the middle branches of a tall acacia tree. I saw something..yellow! and red! and orange!

"Fiery Minivets!" It was my turn to shout. What followed was a photographic frenzy by four excited birders. After all the minivet was a lifer for all of us.

After the colorful family left, our attention was shifted to the constant calling of a Green Imperial Pigeon. We tried as hard as we could but our efforts at locating the bird were all in vain.

Past five in the afternoon the Hornbills were still a no-show. With heavy hearts we headed back to Puerto Princesa City.

Puerto Princesa Birding, Part II - Stop and Go

The road to Sabang is arguably one the prime birding places in Puerto Princesa. There are several spots along the 80 kilometer stretch where one can find beautiful birds, many of which are found only in the island of Palawan. It was practically a stop and go kind of birding for us.

Jojo, our driver and companion for the next three days, was very punctual. At 5:30 in the morning we were already cruising the famed highway of birds. One hour later we chalked our first lifer of the day: the strange dinosaur-like Great Slaty Woodpecker. Just as soon as we parked our van, three of these huge birds flew into the tall tree next to us, all the while calling raucously.

At our next stop, it was Jojo (who was also interested in birds and is himself a bird photographer) pointed to us our second lifer: the Palawan Tit.

Further along the road, we saw a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha basking in the morning sun.

At one of the lookout points we flushed a colorful Black-headed Bulbul.

The rest of the way we just saw the usual Palawan suspects: Palawan and Ashy-fronted Bulbuls, Streaked Flowerpecker and White-vented Shama. 

We stopped by the DabDab Resort for some refreshments and to look for our target bird. After an hour of waiting, we finally were rewarded with quick views of the very active Pale Spiderhunter, our 3rd lifer of the day.

Happy and hungry, we proceeded to a nearby unnamed restaurant where we had a leisurely buffet lunch for only P200 per head.

Half past two and we were on the road again. The same Puerto Princesa - Sabang road, only this time we were on the way back. We planned to stop by the viewdeck and wait for the Red-vented (Philippine) Cockatoos to appear. It was a long two-hour wait which we used to look for other birds in the area. We saw some Chestnut Munias (up in a mountainside and away from ricefields!), and a young Blue-headed Racket-tail.

It was here also that we got our fourth lifer, the Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo. I almost overlooked this one, thinking that it was just another Hair-crested Drongo (which was also quite common in the area).

A little after 5 pm, Jojo yelled, "Cockatoos!" Sure enough, three lovely white birds were flying in the distance - too far and too fast for us to be able to take their pictures.

Joyfully we returned to Sabang, stopping for a few minutes to look for the Palawan Frogmouth and failing badly.

Evening fell, Cynthia and I had a quiet dinner at our hotel's restaurant while Irene joined her Aunt and Uncle at the Sheridan Hotel. Jojo said he'll be alright by himself.

By nine o'clock my wife and I are fast asleep.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Puerto Princesa Birding, Part I - Sun and Rain

A quick check-in at our hotel and hurried lunch at the local Chowking and then we were off on a motorized banca (an outrigger boat). Our destination: Pandan Island. We only had a short window of two-and-a-half hours, 2:00 to 4:30 pm to complete our mission of finding three lifers. Lifers that could be easily seen at this exotic island.

photo courtesy of Irene Dy
As we were chugging along the choppy waters of Honda Bay, Irene got a call. It was from our friend, Tonji. He informed us that Pandan Island was now officially off limits to birders and bird photographers. (We learned later on that this decision was made by the owner of the island because of an unethical behavior of a foreign bird tour guide.) To say that we were shocked by this news was an understatement. My wife, Cynthia, Irene and myself agreed that we couldn't turn back now. After all, Rommel, our friend and local guide, advised us to introduce ourselves to Ka Mamay who will help us accomplish our mission.

Which we promptly did as soon as we anchored at the beach. Ka Mamay welcomed us openly and told the local boys to take us to our first target. Frenel, the oldest among them, led the way through a very thick and tangled forest. I soon discovered that my arm was bleeding. Wrestling with those thorny plants along the way was the culprit. Cynthia's legs and mine were peppered with scratches and insect bites (note: never wear shorts when going through a forest). Take note also that there were no trails in this forest so we had to fight our way against those constricting vines and fend off attacks from the thorny bushes. Add to these the extreme humidity. We were so wet as if we were dipped in a pool of sweat (which we, by all practical means, were).

Then came another bad news: the bird we were looking for was not in its usual roost. Thankfully, these kids never gave up. They fanned out and searched the tree tops diligently. Finally one of them shouted that he found it. Another battle with the vines and various entanglements ensued. At last we  saw all four boys pointing up and smiling. Unlike its previous encounters with birders where it was out in the open, this time the Mantanani Scops Owl thought it more prudent to be almost completely hidden from view. We have that unscrupulous bird guide to blame for this situation. Still we were able to take some photographs albeit only of the head (and even partial at that) to be thankful for.

The second target was a lot easier inasmuch as it could be seen from an open area. A bit far but we still had very good looks at the Grey Imperial Pigeon.

We were taking pictures of this uncommon bird when claps of thunder announced the onset of rain. We abandoned all efforts at locating our third target, the Pied Imperial Pigeon, and hurriedly went back to our boat.

The waves were even more turbulent as we headed back to Puerto Princesa. About fifteen minutes before we landed we were hit by a squall. Once again we were all wet but this time from the pouring rain and the splashing waves.

photo courtesy of Irene Dy
Back at the hotel as we assessed our first birding day in Puerto Princesa, we all concluded that this was one of the toughest times we had in getting a couple of lifers. We had the scars, insect bites and smelly clothes to attest to that. But we look forward to the next three days. Our birding appetite had just been whet.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Not the Besra

It was not the best time to see the nesting Besra. We found that out the hard way. After a 200 meter walk (or so according to our guide, Chris) we stationed ourselves behind some thick vegetation and peered through our camera lenses. And saw the nest. The female is there sitting, Chris assured us. Ivan, whose eyes are sharper than that of the Besra showed me the image of the nest and declared, "See the eye?"

I stared and squinted and looked intensely. "I can't see the eye." I finally gave up. 

Later when we got home I looked at the blown-up photograph of the nest that I took and voila! The eye!

Strangely, it wasn't very birdy at Bangkong Kahoy that day. The Flamebacks which were supposed to be checking out a nesting site near the camping grounds most likely found a better place. All we saw was an empty hole.

The Bicolored Flowerpecker's nest near the dining area was just an empty nest. We weren't able to see any Bicolored at all (which would have been a lifer for us)!

We did get a Flowerpecker though, the Pygmy one. If it wasn't for Cynthia's quick reflexes, we would have missed this one, too.

And then there was the teasing Philippine Hawk Cuckoo which kept on calling but never showed itself to us. Well I did get a fleeting look but that was just about it.

Scale-feathered Munias were feasting on the grass stalks but were just too skittish for a closer look.

A Large-billed Crow was calling across the ravine. Way across the ravine.

Thankfully, the Scale-feathered Malkoha was a willing subject.

Maybe it was not the best outing we had, but the food was delicious and the hospitality of the staff made up for a disappointing birding day. And of course, the company of friends Irene and Ivan is always refreshing.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Nest Best Thing

The egg that the Philippine Frogmouth had been sitting on already hatched. 

Early Friday morning, Cynthia and I, together with friends Irene, Jasmin and Ivan, went to photograph the hatchling. As usual Mang Efren took us to the nesting site. Taking pictures of a frogmouth is probably the best thing that can happen to a bird photographer. It just sits there unmoving (except for an occasional sloooow head turn). The cute featherball remained just as still at its parent's feet. 

We had a field day photographing the cooperative bird from different angles - all from a very safe distance. I was even able to experiment with the various settings of my camera. My wife, confident that I'd be able to get some good photos of the frogmouth, decided to explore the roadside. When I joined her, after having had my fill of the nesting endemic, she showed me photographs of something that I found unusual. A pair of White-eared Brown Doves (normally birds of the treetops) were on the ground. Feeding perhaps?

A short while later, our friends having their photographic "quotas"already filled, decided to call it a day.   Before going our own separate ways, we rested from the long trek and away from the blistering sunlight. We all agreed on the ease of photographing the frogmouth. And we were at peace knowing that Mang Efren would not allow anyone to disturb this lovely bird from its nesting duties.