Saturday, 12 April 2008

PHILIPPINES April 2008 (Luzon)

This blog is the first of three reporting on a three week trip to the Philippines at Easter 2008 with Andy Bunting, Nick Preston, Gerry Price and Graham Thurlow and expertly put together and guided by Jon Hornbuckle.  Jon had been to most sites previously, some several times although there were a few birds he was hoping to see, while Nick and I had visited some parts of the Philippines 12 years earlier with David and John Cooper and Barry Stidolph (see  Nick was only able to be away for the two week school holiday and was keen to overlap as little as possible with our earlier trip.  Despite us all having slightly different priorities we were able to fine-tune the itinerary and it worked pretty well although we could have done with longer just about everywhere, especially Luzon and Palawan.  It was a great group and I would particularly like to thank everyone, but especially Jon for arranging such a successful trip and allowing me to use his photographs (I didn’t take a camera).

5 April.  We all met up at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport late afternoon on Saturday 5 April having arrived on several different flights.  My journey had started on Thursday evening when Megan had dropped me at Brighton’s Pool Valley bus station and I would be missing her birthday!  I caught the 22:00 bus to Heathrow arriving at about midnight (no problems on the M25 at that time of night).  I found somewhere relatively quiet to crash out, using my bag as a pillow.  I did not sleep that well and checked in for the 09:00 Singapore Airlines flight.  I had a 6-7 hour stop-over in Singapore before flying on to Manila.  Jon had gone out a day or two before and was waiting for us with a minibus and we set off for Mount Makiling.  Traffic was terrible and what was expected to be a two hour journey took more than double that.  We were clearly not going to arrive at our destination (Trees Lodge above Los Banos) in time to eat so stopped at a convenient Pancake House on the way. 

6 April.  We were out as it was starting to get light at 05:00 and soon found a calling Philippine Hawk-Owl but walking quietly up the road failed to produce the hoped for but very hard to see Ashy Ground Thrush. Despite this we had a good, if unspectacular morning, helped by local birder Mads.  I saw Black-chinned Fruit-Dove, Guaiabero, Philippine Coucal, Scale-feathered and Red-crested Malkohas, Philippine Trogon, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and White-browed Shama.  We walked back down to Trees and drove to Los Banos for brunch before checking the river unsuccessfully for Indigo-banded Kingfisher.  We had better luck finding a pair of kingfishers in the Botanical Gardens and headed to the University campus to look for buttonquails.  I heard and we then had good views of a Hooded Pitta calling from a small forest island in the grassland, an encouraging start as my main target species for the trip was also a pitta.  I then saw 5 Spotted and a Barred Buttonquail, 10 Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, 2 Long-tailed Shrikes and 6 Striated Grassbirds.  We had supper at Pizzahut and before returning to Trees bought some supplies for our camping trip at Hamut.
Scale-feathered Malkoha on Mount Makling (photo Jon Hornbuckle)
buttonquail site near Los Banos University (JH)

7 April.  Given the previous day’s traffic we felt we needed to leave for Manila at 09:00.  That allowed four hours birding as another 05:00 start was essential.  We saw a Philippine Scops-Owl soon after setting off up the track for another Ashy Ground Thrush failure.  I heard a Red-bellied Pitta calling below us and slowly made my way down off the track towards it.  I had brief but excellent views and saw a Pechora Pipit grovelling around on the forest floor on my way back up to the main track.  On the walk back down to Trees we saw Philippine Serpent-Eagle, a superb Spotted Wood-Kingfisher and Luzon Tarictic Hornbill.  A very enjoyable first day and a bit.  Having given ourselves a decent contingency we got back into Manila in 2 hours and even had the luxury of the first of many future stops at Jollibee as we now had plenty of time before checking in on our flight to Tuguegarao in North Luzon.  We were met on arrival by Aquilino, with wife and daughter in their jeepney.  We bought more food for the trek and were driven to their house in Baliwag where a very keen Belgian birder Jurgen Dewolf had arrived.  We agreed to team up and were persuaded of the need to take 11 porters for a four day visit to Hamut Camp.  All of this took some time to arrange, as did sorting out what to take and what to leave in Baliwag.  As a result we didn’t leave until 17:00, being dropped at the start of the trek to Camp 1.  It was easy walking and seeing at least 4 Savanna Nightjars displaying at dusk was enjoyable but the trek then descended into a route march with the last hour in the dark.  We were all quite relieved to finally reach Camp 1 at 19:45 and put our tents up at the forest edge.  I’d seen two pittas in two days and tomorrow would be in range of a third, my most wanted bird on the trip.  I had an anxious night.
Brown Shrike outside Trees (Jon Hornbuckle)
some of Aqualino's extended family at Baliwag (JH)
oxen carrying logs to the main road on our walk to camp 1 (JH)
8 April.  We were up at dawn and soon after Aquilino was taking us up to an area where Whiskered Pitta had been seen previously.  We hadn’t been in the forest long when we heard the unmistakable call of a Whiskered Pitta.  I anxiously scanned the forest floor as far as I could see and amazingly there it was, standing looking at us.  Absolutely brilliant, but it hopped downhill out of sight before I could get anyone else other than Aquilino onto it.  We retraced our steps and I saw it again head on looking at us from beside a tree trunk.  Nick and Jurgen got onto it too but by the time we realised that the others were unsighted, and they’d moved, it had vanished again.  Some incompetent use of a laser pointer probably didn’t help – I held it the wrong way and zapped my eye rather than the tree by the bird.  Very frustrating, but at least Nick had seen it too – otherwise sharing his tent would have been more silent than usual!.  We stayed in the area until 09:00 but sadly did not encounter the pitta again, with Luzon Striped Babbler, Blue-headed Fantails and Elegant Tits little compensation.  We struck camp and spent about 6 hours slowly walking up to camp 2 in the heat of the day.  On the way I saw Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove, Scale-feathered Malkoha, Philippine Trogon, Spotted Wood Kingfisher, Rufous and Luzon Tarictic Hornbills, Golden-headed Babbler and Philippine Fairy Bluebird.  I only heard Creamy-bellied Fruit-Dove and missed Luzon Bleeding-heart.  Our porters had prepared omelettes, rice and noodle soup for our arrival and looked after us well during our stay.  It stayed dry but we were not certain that was altogether a good thing as bird activity seemed to be low, not that I was complaining having seen Whiskered Pitta!  The forest was quite at night with lone Great-eared Nightjar and Philippine Hawk Owl heard calling.
Olive-backed Flowerpecker (Jon Hornbuckle)
Luzon Tarictic Hornbill (JH)

plate 43 of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines was 'the business'.  Having seen Whiskered Pitta, middle right, I could now relax and enjoy the rest of the trip.
9 April.  A full day based at Camp 2.  We started close to the camp site where Whiskered Pittas had been seen recently and although one called distantly it was a rather open area and the group of us must have been rather obvious.  After breakfast we split up and birded along the ridge at varying paces.  Nick and I spent some time at the first ridge where we heard another pitta but it was a very frustrating period with the bird circling us unseen.  Again it appeared a fairly open area and we concluded that it was very good at making use of cover and freezing.  We tried further up the ridge and back at the saddle where I decided to try down a ravine.  I only succeeded in falling heavily on my back – very painful.  At least on the way down I saw a Luzon Bleeding-heart walking away on the forest floor.  I also saw 7 Rufous Hornbills, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Lemon-throated Warbler, Flaming and Metallic-winged Sunbirds and Stripe-sided Rhabdornis but the hot, dry weather probably wasn’t helping as again I only heard Creamy-bellied Fruit-Dove.  Andy did better seeing a Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove.
Stripe-sided Rhabdornis (Jon Hornbuckle)
White-eared Brown Doves (JH)

10 April.  Nick and I returned up the ridge to the saddle hoping for better luck with seeing the Whiskered Pitta but we didn’t even hear it.  On the ridge we saw a Grand Rhabdornis, Blue-breasted Flycatcher (the others found one nesting near the camp) and I saw a male cyanomelena Blue-and-white Flycatcher.  We packed up and made our way down to Camp 1 at our own pace.  Nick and I brought up the rear with Aquilino and heard two rather distant Whiskered Pittas before a closer one was attracted in.  It circled us with only Aqualino glimpsing it before it bounded across the path, just giving us time to see it through binoculars before it hopped into the undergrowth again.  It then called continually for 10-15 minutes from an area of boulders that we couldn’t see into, rather frustrating despite us having seen one before.  Further down Nick saw a Furtive Flycatcher by the trail but it flew before I got onto it.  We arrived at Camp 1 to find Andy and Jon hadn’t arrived, despite being sure they were ahead of us, while Gerry had seen 3 Luzon Racquet-tails and 2 Cream-breasted Fruit-Dove. Andy and Jon finally arrived having missed the turn-off to Camp 1 and walked an extra 2 km before finding the route after calling Rob Hutchinson on Palawan by mobile phone!
Hamut Camp 2 (JH)
Gerry in black (JH)
Philippine Fairy Bluebird (JH)
11 April.  For the first three hours we birded near Camp 1 but sadly elicited no response from the pitta.  Lovely Sunbird was the best I managed as Nick and I missed an Ashy Woodpecker.  Nick was particularly annoyed having missed one in similar circumstances on our first trip.  We walked back down to Baliwag.  It was really very hot with no wind and very little shade and much tougher going than expected despite being mainly downhill.  John found out it had been a record 39 degrees in Tuguegarao, we were not surprised!  The walk was not without some interest with two superb male Pied Harriers and a flushed Blue-breasted Quail.  We finally staggered into Aquilino’s house at 13:00 and rehydrated with many litres of water, then drove in his jeepney to Tuguegarao where Gabby was waiting to take us to Banaue.  We left at 15:00 and after an obligatory Jollibee stop on the way, reached the plush Banaue View Hotel at 22:00.
Aqualino leaving Camp 1 (JH)
the walk out from camp 1 (JH)
it was enlivened by two male Pied Harriers (photos by Jon Hornbuckle)

12 April.  After an early breakfast, we reached the pass at Mount Polis at 06.15.  It was a beautiful clear morning and a passage of over 100 unidentified swiftlets over the pass was evident.  There were no such issues with the single Purple Needletail that jetted over with them at hair-parting height, brilliant!  We took the trail a little higher up the mountain hoping for some of the highland specialities.  We saw Chestnut-faced Babbler, Mountain Verditer and Little Pied Flycatchers, Green-backed Whistler and Luzon Bush-Warbler and heard a distant Whiskered Pitta but I missed Island Thrush and Flame-crowned Flowerpecker and others heard Long-tailed Ground-Warbler.  I could have stayed there all day but time was very much against us and we drove down to the village of Bay-yo.  The rice-terraces were spectacular and had to be negotiated to get down to the river.  There after some searching we found a female Luzon Water-Redstart and a Benguet Bush-Warbler responded to play-back as we returned to the vehicle, popping up and flying across the track.  After a couple of all too brief roadside stop, still no Island Thrush for me, we reluctantly returned to the hotel, our first view of it in daylight, and left at 13:00 for the very long, seemingly very slow drive to Manila.  We arrived at 22:30, with a short food stop, and checked into the Ermita Tourist Inn.  I crashed out while the others ate at a nearby restaurant where we joined by Rob Hutchinson for a few beers.
early morning views from the pass at Mount Polis (JH)

how long ago had this cabbage field been forest?
we took a track into good forest but for how much longer would it remain?
view over superb looking forest (JH)
Little Pied Flycatcher (Jon Hornbuckle)

areas of cultivation were everywhere (JH)
looking down on the village of Bay-yo (JH)
Bay-yo, the river below was a good site for Luzon Water Redstart, one just had to get to it (JH)
paddyfields below Bay-yo (JH)
the river, when we reached it, was smaller than I was expecting (JH)
rice terracing at Benaue (JH)

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