Sunday, 14 April 1996

PHILIPPINES Spring 1996 (Katanglad, Bohol & Quezon)

With shocking images of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan fresh in my mind I thought it time to revisit a trip made to that country, if not the islands most affected, in happier times of 1996.  

Introduction.  The following reports on a short trip to selected sites in the Philippines in spring 1996 made by Nick Preston, Barry Stidolph, John & David Cooper and myself.  Nick, Barry and I were keen to visit the Philippines but as Nick and Barry were teachers a trip had to coincide with school holidays.  This effectively meant Easter and with only two weeks available a comprehensive trip was not possible - even two months might not have been long enough for that!  We got some very helpful information from Paul Noakes and put together a two-week itinerary targeting particular sites & species and were very pleased that John (who we’d been with to Madagacar the previous summer) and David were able to join us.  As it was mainly a forest destination and birds somewhat secretive I only took a small camera and print film.  The resulting prints were completely birdless but have been scanned for this blog.  Otherwise it is based on an old trip report and notebook entries.  Many thanks to Nick, Barry, John & David for making this a very enjoyable and largely successful trip.  On 30 March 1996 we left London Heathrow at 11:00 on a direct and very impressive Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore.

31 March 1996.  We arrived in Singapore at 07:45 and had just under two hours in transit before leaving on the 09:35 flight to Manila.  We arrived in Manila at 12:50 and got a large taxi to take us to the Townhouse, a cheap hostel off Roxas Boulevard recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide.  We dumped our bags and caught another taxi to the American Cemetery where the sheer number of graves was awesome.  Here in rather managed ‘parkland’ we saw our first Philippine endemic, Philippine Pigmy Woodpecker.  Also a very pale grey-looking Peregrine, two Barred Rails, a possible Japanese Snipe and 80 wintering Violet-backed Starlings.  Taxi back to the Townhouse as it was getting dark, an unforgetable meal and an early night.

1 April 1996.  We were up very early, chartered a passing Jeepney to take us to the domestic airport for the 05:00 flight to Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, arriving there at 06:30.  Here we chartered a minibus to take us the c100 kms to Dalwanyan.  We found Mrs Maghanoy’s house more easily than I’d anticipated as our directions included reference to a hoarding and seemed rather vague.  After some understandable delay - we’d arrived unannounced - she arranged for Carlito to guide us and five motorbikes to take us part way up to the rest house on Mount Katanglad.  I got on the back of one motorbike with my rucksack and immediately overbalanced landing headfirst the other side before it was decided to tie my rucksack on the back of the bike.  Perhaps being the most awkward passenger my bike soon got left behind as th eoters raced off, but after about 7km they were unable to make it any further and we had to walk the last 3 kms.  It was all uphill and quite steep in places so quite hard work in the afternoon heat, although we passed through some nice forest patches.  We arrived at rest house mid afternoon and were very pleased to dump our bags which contained much of our food for next five days.  Fortunately we had someone to cook it for us!   We spent the rest of the day looking around the immediate vicinity and forest patches just above the rest house.    I saw 21 species of which nearly half were endemic while Giant Scops Owl was heard briefly in the night.  Highlights were Black & Cinnamon Fantail, Elegant Tit and Sulphur-billed Nuthatch. 
looking back on the track up to Katanglad
2 April 1996.  We slowly walked up to the Philippine Eagle lookout where three hours of observation produced distant views of two individuals.  One eagle visited the nest site which the viewpoint overlooked although the nest was hidden from view and at least 1 km range.  The eagle looked big but at that range I was distinctly unimpressed.  I was even less impressed to miss a Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis and spent the rest of day spent walking up to higher viewpoint and back.  Despite the Rhabdornis and an evening failure to see the newly discovered woodcock and another hearing of Giant Scops Owl it was a good day with nearly 40 species seen including a superb Philippine Falconet, 3 Cinnamon Ibons and a flock of 35 Chinese Goshawks presumably migrating north.
view from the eagle lookout at
view from the upper lookout
sunset from Katanglad
3 April 1996.  Carlito took Nick, Barry and me to look for Hombron's Kingfisher although soon only Barry and I remained with him, Nick being ill.  Amazingly Carlito's whistling (which had begun to get on my nerves) paid off when Barry located one flying in to check us out.  A pair then called in response and we got excellent views through the 'scope.  While calling the male(?) cocked its tail and pointed its bill to the sky, brilliant.  We then embarked on a fairly unproductive route march along little used forest trails culminating in climbing down a sheer slope into the valley and back up the other side coming out at the higher lookout.  I frustratingly heard Philippine Bullfinch but did not see it.  4 Apo Mynas from the lookout late afternoon and a superb Philippine Frogmouth in the forest opposite the rest house early evening.  This amazing bird has wispy feathers above its eyes and bill.  Another good day with 45 species seen including 2 Yellow-breasted Fruit Doves and a Mindanao Hornbill.
river crossing on the Hombron's trek
lower forest at Katanglad

4 April 1996.  Nick was still ill, John and David were trying for the kingfisher so Barry and I decided to go further up the mountain to concentrate on the Bullfinch and Mountain Shrike.  I got distracted by a calling Bush Hen which I did not see despite rushing into the tall grass it was calling from (not strictly in my Fieldcraft manual) and when I caught up with Barry at upper lookout discovered he'd seen 3 Bullfinches!  Not best pleased I dipped on another before having excellent views of a pair above the highest lookout and then saw two more later in the day.  We continued walking up the mountain for another hour before finding a Mountain Shrike in an overgrown clearing, and then walked slowly back.  A look at dusk from below the rest house failed to produce either the hoped for Grass Owl or the woodcock and no owls were heard in the night although perhaps I slept too solidly after another hard day?  40 species recorded including 4 Mountain Racket-tails flying over the higher lookout, 2 Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis, 2 McGregor's Cuckoo-Shrike and an Apo Sunbird.  David saw Hombron's Kingfisher but John and Nick dipped.
upper lookout
me at the upper eagle lookout
5 April 1996.  Our last day at Katanglad so Barry and I went back to the eagle lookout where we saw one bird twice, both times much closer than before.  First it glided down the valley in front of us and later circled up over us.  My earlier disappointment with the species immediately evaporated!  We then spent rather a frustrating time trying to see Katanglad Parrotfinch and I only succeeded in getting very poor flight views.  Nick and John saw Hombron's Kingfisher allowing us all to rave about it.  We started walking down to Dalwanyan in the early afternoon hoping to look for Grass Owl lower down at dusk but after 3 kms a Department of Tourism jeepney stopped and offered us a lift back to Cagayan de Oro which seemed too good an offer to refuse.  We arriving in Cagayan after dark and found a hotel near the airport.  40 species seen, mostly repeats, but did include a Philippine Serpent Eagle and male Pied Harrier and c75 Eye-browed Thrushes and an Arctic Warbler on the lower slopes.

me, John & Barry at the lower eagle lookout - it was a lot hotter here than this image might suggest
the track leaving Katanglad
our Tourist Office jeepney lift
6 April 1996.  We were at Cagayan de Oro airport in good time for our 07.20 flight to Cebu where we had several hours to look for Black Shama before flying on to Bohol.  That was the plan, but we’d not taken account of the weather –very dull with thick low cloud.  We heard the plane come in, fly around a bit and depart.  Maybe it would try later but after waiting what seemed like hours, and with a forecast suggesting that an immediate improvement wasn’t likely, it was cancelled.  If that wasn’t bad enough the next flight wasn’t until Monday, two days away!  Now the Lonely Planet Guide came to the rescue, indicating that a ferry, the Cagayan Princess, normally sailed direct to Bohol at midday on Saturdays.  Enquiries suggested that it still did and we quickly got a taxi to the quay where it was quite a relief to see it tied up.  We left on time and it was a very boring six hour crossing to Jagna where we arrived just after dark.  Despite the relatively early hour (it had only just got dark) we were told there were no buses or taxis available.  This seemed unlikely given that we’d just got off a scheduled ferry.  Perhaps we’d not disembarked quickly enough but it seemed more like a ruse to get us to stay the night in an expensive dive.  At least we’d made it to Bohol and kept the trip on track.  I saw 18 Red-necked Phalaropes, two unidentified terns and 3 dolphins at sea but only one other species (Tree Sparrows in Cagayan de Oro).
the Cagayan Princess
at sea
7 April 1996.  We caught the first bus towards Tagbilaran at 04:30, changing at Loay where we got the 06:30 bus to Bilar.  We had a 30 minute delayed en route while a puncture was mended and at Bilar got 2 motor-cycle rickshaws to take us the 4 kms to Logarita Forest Station, arriving before 09:00.  We dumped our bags in the pleasant reserve guest house we were very pleased had room for us and someone who could provide food, although being rice based John and David were not overly impressed.  We headed for the Valley Trail and I was very tense at the possibility of seeing a new pitta.  We started well with the first bird seen being a Ruddy Kingfisher on the way to the trail and within less than half an hour on the trail we heard an Azure-breasted (or Steere’s) Pitta calling.  It immediately responded to tape playback and flew in to give stunning views sat on a branch about 10 feet above the ground for 5-10 minutes, first back then head on, before flying off.  Completely brilliant, it was my main target bird for the trip.  By mid-day we'd seen two more, one which I watched for 10 minutes, and walking the trail a second time produced a 4th!  The last standing stationary, perhaps until it realised it had been seen, and then bouncing up the hillside.  Other birds amongst the 20 species I saw were a Philippine Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher, Blue Fantail and our first Coletos.  Rather frustratingly we heard Philippine Scops Owl, Hawk Owl and Frogmouth in the clearing by the guest house at night, but despite going out after each one failed to see anything apart from a rather nice flying lemur.
delay on the way to Bilar
John (in orangey-pink shirt) checking on the puncture repair
8 April 1966.  We were on the Valley Trail soon after dawn, walking it twice during the day but we saw no more pittas and frustratingly only heard Winchell's Kingfisher.  The first time we contined to the end of the trail and came out on the Swimming Pool Trail and we visited the Scout Camp Clearing in late afternoon.  Nick wandered off from there just before dusk and came running back shortly after, having found a Wattled Broadbill, another key species.  We rushed to the site but it had moved on.  My panicking was fortunately short lived as David refound it further down the track as the light was going.  Luckily I had my spotlight with me and we got excellent views of 2 pairs as they were preparing to roost.  Another day at Logarita and another brilliant bird seen.  27 species seen including 2 Philippine Trogons, 3 Samar Hornbills, 4 Black-faced Coucals, Black-chinned Fruit Dove and Samar Tailorbird.

9 April 1996.  We were back in the Scout Camp Clearing soon after dawn but could find no sign of the Broadbills.  We then split up with Barry, Nick and I walking the Valley Trail where an absolutely amazing Red-bellied Pitta was found by Barry.  It was a small, very confiding pitta that seemed very interested in playback and although it only called once, that was enough!   We watched it for about half an hour before being able to drag ourselves away to find John and David back at the rest house, returning almost immediately to watch it again for another half an hour or so.  It was bird of the trip for me and my 19th species of pitta.  25 species seen including Black-chinned Fruit Dove, Blue-crowned Racket-tail (over the Scout Camp Clearing), Philippine Trogon, Ruddy Kingfisher and 2 Samar Hornbills.  Three days at Logarita, three stunning species seen!
The Pitta plate from our 'home-made' field guide.  Bound photographs of most plates from the handbook sized duPont's Phillipine Birds.  Red-bellied is centre, Azure-breasted (or Steere's) bottom left.  Whiskered (or Koch's), top left, involved a four day excursion/hike in Northern Luzon and would have to wait for another time 

10 April 1996.  We were up in early hours after calling Philippine Hawk Owl which gave good views in spotlight, a rare night success for us.  We gave the Valley Trail a break starting with Swimming Pool Trail where I saw a female Wattled Broadbill.  It was a good but brief view and disappeared before anyone else could get onto it.  We then walked out in nearby paddies looking at some Yellow Wagtails and 9 Pacific Golden Plovers and were amazed when two white birds flying round the forest edge turned out to be Philippine Cockatoos and not egrets (we nearly didn't bother looking at them)!  They then appeared to be prospecting nest hole sites.  Visits to the Scout Camp Clearing and Valley Trail were unproductive although John & David had seen Winchell's Kingfisher in flight on the latter.  27 species seen including and a Black-faced Coucal, a flushed Philippine Nightjar and a Wattled Bulbul.

Bohol frog, fortunately some of our night excursions saw more than this

11 April 1996.  On the Valley Trail at dawn for last time.  We watched the Red-bellied Pitta for another hour and I saw another Azure-breasted Pitta (our first since the first day) but again failed to get an acceptable view of Winchell's Kingfisher or possibly any view at all – mine being a shape flying through the canopy which seemed to tie in with where calls were heard.  The bird’s name was too close to wind-chill for winter weather-forecasts not to be a constant reminder of a painful dip.  I only saw six other species and we left Logarita for Bilar soon after 09:00 by jeep (with bags tied on roof).  After a short wait we caught a bus to Tagbilaran and then two motor-cycle rickshaws to the airport.  We flew to Manila at 14:50 arriving at 16:45.  There we chartered taxi to take us to Lucena, 3-4 hours south of Manila and the closest town to Quezon National Park (although still c20 km's short of it).  We stayed at the Fresh Air Hotel in north of town - better than the sort of fresh air hotel I was used too!
loading our jeep at Logarita - all five of us plus luggage and driver were fitted in
Nick supervising the loading of a motorcycle rickshaw at Tagbilaran
David leaving Tagbilaran
our flight back to Manila
approacing Manila

12 April 1996.  In the dark we flagged down an early jeepney into the centre of Lucena where we quickly chartered another to take us to Quezon National Park.  The road there was very poor and we didn't arrive until 07:30.  We walked the Summit Trail hearing a distant Red-bellied Pitta and two frustratingly close but unresponsive White-browed Shamas but saw little.  We then walked down the road to the park entrance at Malicboy where the 'resident' Indigo-banded Kingfisher was a delight and then got another jeepney back to the Summit Trail again.  Frustratingly we heard the 2 White-browed Shamas on the Summit Trail again but still could not see them despite much effort.  We walked back down to the entrance again seeing a family party of 3 Rufous Hornbills from viewpoint in the rain while 4 needletails that shot over went unidentified.  We caught a bus back to Lucena and motor-cycle rickshaws to the Fresh Air Hotel.  There we arranged an early jeepney to get us to Summit Trail for first light next morning but were all wishing we’d stayed closer to Quezon, even if the nearer town didn’t seem to have much going for it.  I’d seen 27 species including 2 Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, 4 Luzon Hornbills and single Guaiabero, Rough-crested Malkoha, Sooty Woodpecker and Pigmy Flowerpecker.

13 April 1996.  Our booked jeepney took us to Quezon at 04:00, arriving at the start of the Summit Trail just as it was getting light.  We walked part of the Summit Trail, seeing 2 Spotted Wood Kingfishers and Rufous Coucal near the start.  Most of us only heared the 2 Shamas again although Nick saw one and a Luzon Bleeding-Heart off trail that all too soon melted away.  We walked down the road to the viewpoint again and the Rufous Hornbills were still in area and giving much better views.  We retraced our steps back, walked a bit more of the Summit Trail and then back to the entrance at Malicboy.  After another look at Indigo-banded Kingfisher our jeepney then took us to Pagbiliao Fish Ponds for an hour or so mid afternoon.  A good selection of waders in nice plumage included 8 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers.  We returned to Lucena for our bags and then got the 18:00 bus to Manila arriving about 22:00.  A taxi to the Townhouse ended another long day.  25 species seen at Quezon including 20+ Chinese Goshawks, 3 excellent Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and Naked-faced Spiderhunter.  40 species at Pagbiliao including Yellow Bittern, Banded Rail and White-bellied Sea Eagle.

14 April 1996.  We got a taxi to Manila Airport soon after first light.  We departed from Manila at 08:30 arriving in Singapore at 11:30, leaving there at 12:30 and arriving at Heathrow at 18:50.  We had no real hassles at all, other than our cancelled flight, and found the Philippines a very friendly, inexpensive, country (the trip cost me about £850 all in).  The trip was very successful in large part due to my excellent birding companions David and John Cooper, Nick Preston and Barry Stidolph (many thanks to them all) although we found it hard work due to low bird densities and a general lack of time.  I saw about 165 species in total of which 70+ were new.  For me the best birds were Red-bellied & Azure-breasted Pittas, Wattled Broadbill, Philippine Frogmouth, Philippine Eagle, Spotted Wood & Hombron's Kingfishers, Rufous Hornbill, Philippine Bullfinch and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis.

[blogged November 2013]