Friday, 17 March 2017

Philippines – February 2017

This was a month-long trip to the Philippines, spending time birding on the islands of Luzon, Palawan, Cebu, Negros, Siquijor, Bohol and Mindanao.

I flew with Qantas from Melbourne, via Sydney to Manila. Air Asia was used for the flights between Manila and Puerto Princesa (Palawan) and from Manila to Cebu City. Ferries were used for (a) Santander (Cebu) to Dumaguete (Negros), (b) afternoon visit to Siquijor Island from Dumaguete, (c) Dumaguete to Tagbilaran (Bohol) and (d) overnight ferry from Tagbilaran to Cagayan De Oro (CDO in Mindanao). I flew with Philippines Airlines from CDO to Manila, before returning to Melbourne on Qantas.

This was an independent trip which didn’t utilise any professional birding guides. For the first two weeks on Luzon and Palawan I was birding alone. After flying back to Manila from Palawan, I met up with Peter Waanders and we birded the rest of the trip to Cebu, Negros, Siquijor, Bohol and Mindanao.  

Palawan Peacock-pheasant

Overall the weather was pleasant, with warm and sunny days, sometimes clouded over for most of the day and with some rain usually in the early morning. Walking in the forests up some steep slopes was hard work due to the very high humidity. The only weather which impacted significantly on birding, was the rain and mist for an entire day on Mt Dulang-Dulang in Mindanao.

Prior to our visit to the Philippines, northern Mindanao was hit by Tropical Cyclone Auring in mid-January which displaced over 380,000 people due to flash flooding. The cyclone also resulted in landslides, at least nine deaths and impacted on birding groups who were in the area at the time. Just after we left Mindanao, the area was impacted by Tropical Cyclone Bising, which resulted in a week of heavy rain.

In planning the trip, I referred to several trip reports and Philippines birding websites, with the most useful resources being:
  1. Birding the Philippines – January 2nd to March 18th 2013 by Sjoerd Radstaak
  2. Philippines: Palawan, Cebu, Negros, Bohol, and Mindanao - May 10 - June 1, 2016 - Independent Budget Birding by Ross and Melissa Gallardy
  3. Birding2Asia website – Subic Bay (www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Philippines/Subic.html), Rajah Sikatuna NP (www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Philippines/RajahSikatuna.html) and Mt Dulang-Dulang (www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Philippines/Dulang-dulang.html)

Travel and Logistics
The trip to the Philippines was very cost effective although did take a long time to plan and organise. Some of the places I stayed at, such as the SEARCA Residence Hotel in Mt Makiling and Habitat Bohol didn’t respond to emails and had to be contacted by phone. It was worth the effort, as staying on the Los Baños University Campus at Mt Makiling provided easy walking access to the birding areas. Habitat Bohol provided excellent accommodation plus good birding close to the resort. In addition, it was well set up for birders, with breakfast available early in the morning and motor bikes organised for the 3km ride to the Rajah Sikatuna NP, as and when required.

In general, the accommodation and meals were much better than what is usually experienced in Indonesia and for about the same cost. The quality of the tap water was far better than Indonesia and was often served with ice at meals. The roads were in far better condition than the roads in Indonesia, with higher construction and maintenance standards, which made it easier to travel. The toll freeways in and out of Manila were particularly good.

Ferries were a very convenient way of travelling between islands, being a lot more relaxing and time efficient than flying. Most ferry bookings can be made on the day of travel, although for the longer trips it’s advisable to purchase the tickets the day beforehand. For the Trans-Asia ferry from Tagbilaran, Bohol to Cagayan De Oro, Mindanao it’s advisable to purchase the tickets on-line via Luzviminda Travel and Tours. These ferries only run three days per week, so it’s important to set up the itinerary to suit.  

For birding at various sites between Manila and Subic Bay, and then on the return trip from Subic Bay to Mt Makiling, I found that the most cost and time effective way of doing this was to hire a car plus driver for the day from Anis Transport. There are many other options but as I had luggage with me, I didn’t want the hassle of using public transport and in addition, areas such as Candaba Wetlands can’t be accessed without a hired vehicle or motor bike.

For access to the Nug-as Forest near Alcoy in Cebu and Twin Lakes near Dumaguete in Negros, plus visiting other local birding sites, restaurants, whale shark viewing, ferry crossings etc. we used Rhoda Lyn who provides general tour guiding services and is based in Dumaguete. This worked very well and we had the use of a 4WD for accessing birding sites during the day and in the evenings.

For birding on Mt Dulang-Dulang, I had arranged an all-inclusive package from Binahon Farms which included transfers to/from CDO, accommodation, meals, drinks, permits and local community fees.

A phone with a local SIM card, preferably using the Globe network, is essential for making travel arrangements within the Philippines. A SIM card loaded with PHP300 (A$8) lasted for the full month.

There were no security issues anywhere during our travels around the Philippines. However, it’s advisable to use some common sense when travelling around the Philippines and to seek local advice on the current security situation. Whilst we didn’t experience any problems, there were underlying problems in the Philippines at the time of the visit.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who won the election on 9 May 2016, had announced a “War on Drugs” offering a sizable bounty of 50,000 pesos (A$1,300) bounty for each “criminal” killed by his police force. The actual bounty paid out may be less and Wikipedia reports that; “police are paid 8,000 pesos (US$161) to 15,000 pesos (US$302) per "encounter" (the term used for extrajudicial executions disguised as legitimate operations); there is no payment for making arrests. Hitmen hired by police are paid 5,000 pesos (US$100) for each drug user killed and 10,000 to 15,000 pesos (US $200–300) for each "drug pusher" killed”.  At the time of the visit the local press reported that over 4,000 drug dealers and users had been executed, with some sources quoting between 6,000 and 8,000 drug related killings, as of end February 2017.

The Philippine Government is in the process of reinstating capital punishment and the proposal was passed by the Philippine House of Representatives on 1 March 2017, with the Senate still to vote on the proposal.  

In early February 2017, the President announced an “all-out war” on the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which are now mostly concentrated in north-eastern and southern Mindanao. There have been some security issues previously with birders visiting Mt Kitanglad and Mt Apo in central Mindanao, however we were assured that there were no problems in the Mt Dulang-Dulang area at the time of our visit.

Trip Costs
Costs for hotel accommodation ranged from A$30 to A$50/night for comfortable accommodation that ranged from basic to very decent. Most of the accommodation was booked through Agoda, with free cancellation and payment only made just prior to the stay. The meals were cheap, especially those from street vendors, which often had tasty and freshly cooked meals.

Ferries were very cost effective and saved a lot of travel time moving between islands. The overnight Trans-Asia ferry from Tagbilaran, Bohol to Cagayan De Oro, Mindanao cost A$35 per person for a berth in a five-sleeper cabin which had its own toilet, basin and shower.

Taxis were the most expensive form of transport but the most convenient for birding at many of the remote sites. Taxi hire costs ranged from A$8/hr to A$40/hr depending on duration, toll fees and location. The cost of Anis Transport car hire plus driver for Manila/Subic Bay/Mt Makiling was about A$150/day plus fuel and toll fees, for what was well over a 12-hour day. Car rentals from Manila to Subic Bay need to include for the drivers return trip. The cost of general tour guide and 4WD vehicle for Cebu and Negros was A$65/day plus fuel and expenses.

Overall the trip cost just less than A$150/day including all international and domestic airfares, ferries, accommodation, meals, drinks and land transport. For the couple of weeks where Peter and I shared costs, the daily cost was just less than A$100/day per person. 

This compares with organised birding tours to the Philippines typically costing between A$400 and A$600/day, excluding international airfares. These tours typically have between six and eight participants which can make it difficult for all to see some of the skulking birds and those which only provide brief views.  

Birding in the Philippines
The key attraction for birding in the Philippines is the high number of endemic birds, currently estimated at 235 species according to IOC taxonomy (v7.1 Mar 2017). The Philippines ranks third in the world in terms of endemic birds, with Indonesia ranked first with 384 endemics and Australia ranked second with 345 endemics. The Philippines also ranks very high in the world with 25% of its endemics birds classified as globally threatened.


Birding in the Philippines is hard work and is more difficult than birding in Sumatra, Indonesia and certainly a lot harder than Malaysia where the wildlife is protected. Many of the bird species are being impacted by habitat destruction, trapping and hunting, with some possibly extinct, such as the Sulu Bleeding-heart, Negros Fruit Dove and many subspecies.  

The island of Cebu, located in Central Visayas, is considered to be the most denuded island in the central Philippines. The forest cover of Cebu Island is now less than 1% of its total land area. There are seven forest patches distributed across Cebu Island, with Nug-as in Alcoy having the largest total forest cover (12 km2), followed by Tabunan near Cebu City (1.85 km2) and Mt Lantoy in Argao (0.5 km2). The Nug-as forest also appears to be the least disturbed followed by Tabunan and Mt Lantoy, and was the area that I decided to spend time birding on Cebu.

Cebu currently has three endemic species (Cebu Hawk-owl, Black Shama and Cebu Flowerpecker) and twelve endemic subspecies. Of the 12 endemic subspecies on Cebu, the Cebu White-bellied Woodpecker, Cebu Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, Cebu Blackish Cuckooshrike and Cebu Dark-throated Oriole are currently thought to be extinct.

The Cebu Hawk-owl was believed to be extinct because of massive deforestation in Cebu. But in 1998, ecologists rediscovered the existence of Hawk-owls in the small patches of forests near the town of Alcoy in the southern part of the island. In 2012, the Cebu Hawk Owl (Ninox rumseyi) was formally recognised as a full species, becoming the third endemic species for Cebu Island.

Much of the Philippines appears to be poorly birded and as an example, in 1993, ten of the Cebu endemic bird species and subspecies were listed as possibly extinct. Field surveys in 1981 by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region (DENR) led to the rediscovery of the Black Shama (Copsychus cebuensis). Later, two more endemic subspecies, namely the Everett's White-eye (Zosterops everetti everetti) and the Philippine Hanging Parrot (Loriculus philippensis chrysonotus) were also rediscovered.

In 1995, seven of the 12 endemic subspecies of birds in Cebu were considered possibly extinct by Brooks et al. These were the White-bellied Woodpecker, Philippine Oriole, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Amethyst Brown Dove, Blackish Cuckooshrike, Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike and Streak-breasted Bulbul. However, surveys undertaken between 2002 and 2004 of the Tabunan and Nug-as forests recorded three of the supposedly extinct endemic subspecies, the Amethyst Brown Dove, Streak-breasted Bulbul and Orange-bellied Flowerpecker.

The Cebu Flowerpecker was previously written off as extinct and had not been seen for 86 years before being rediscovered by Rob Timmins and others in the Tabunan forests in 1992. The Cebu Flowerpecker was subsequently found, with over 10 sightings recorded in the Tabunan and Nug-as forests, during surveys undertaken between 2002 and 2004. In 2010, there were at least two sightings of Cebu Flowerpecker by forest wardens in the Alcoy area. The current population is estimated at about 100 individuals, with 50 to 60 at Nug-As, 25 to 30 at Tabunan, and 10 to 15 at Dalaguete (Paguntalan 2005).  

Elsewhere in the Philippines, critically endangered species include Brown-banded Rail, Worcester’s Buttonquail, Whitehead’s Swiftlet and Visayan Miniature Babbler.

Despite encroachment of farms and villages on the forests, many of the remaining forests, some of which are quite extensive, appear to be in excellent condition. However, many hours were spent in pristine forests without hearing any birds calling, let alone any being seen. On the other hand, some forests such as Nug-as on Cebu, were very rewarding.

Nug-as Forest at sunset

The best available field guide “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines” by Kennedy et al, published in 2000, was way out of date. Many of the raptors, owls, hornbills, drongos, bulbuls and sunbird species have been split since 2000, as the taxonomy for the Philippines continues to evolve.  For example, a trip report written in 2013 by Radstaak had targeted the 18 endemic species on Palawan. Currently there are 23 endemic species for Palawan according to the IOC taxonomy (v7.1 Mar 2017).

For the 28 days birding in the Philippines, I recorded 236 birds which this included 118 lifers. Of the lifers recorded, 106 were endemic species for the Philippines, so a very high proportion of the total number of birds seen and 46% of the current endemic species. Among the many lovely birds seen, the three standout birds for the trip were the Palawan Peacock-pheasant, Azure-breasted Pitta and Philippine Eagle.

All the sites visited during the trip and the various bird lists have been published on eBird.
  
Trip Report
Saturday 4th February: Melbourne to Manila
Flew on Qantas departing Melbourne at 09:00, flying via Sydney and arriving in Manila at 17:35, an eight-hour flight from Sydney. There is a three-hour time change between Sydney and Manila. Passport control and customs was uneventful and a 30-day visa was issued on arrival.

Overnight stay at Meranti Hotel in Quezon City which had very good accommodation.  

Sunday 5th February: La Mesa Eco Park and Subic Bay, Luzon
Had organised a rental car (Toyota Vios) plus driver for the day through Anis Transport, which arrived promptly at 6am. The hotel provided breakfast and a packed lunch, both unexpected as the dining room only officially opened at 6am in the morning.

Visited La Mesa Eco Park, in Quezon City, for a couple of hours in the early morning. It was very busy on the weekend. Didn’t find the Ashy Thrush but did see my first endemic birds, including Philippine Serpent Eagle (landed in nearby tree), Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Philippine Pied Fantail, Grey-backed Tailorbird and Lowland White-eye.

Philippine Serpent Eagle
The next stop was going to be Candaba Wetlands but the driver had difficulty locating the wetlands. We eventually approached the wetlands from the Mt Ararat side but got stuck on a bridge which was under repairs. I gave up on the Candaba Wetlands visit and we drove down to Subic Bay, arriving at about 2pm. Spent the afternoon working out the logistics for getting to the birding areas in Subic Bay Freeport and took a walk down the beach.

Stayed at the Blue Rock Resort for the next four nights, which was located on the beach, provided basic but comfortable accommodation and had a 24-hour restaurant which was very convenient for early morning birding. Very pleasant to enjoy an evening meal with a gentle sea breeze and views over Subic Bay. 

Monday 6th February: Subic Bay Freeport, Luzon
From the hotel, it was a short walk to the main road into Olongapo City. From there I took the blue jeepney to the city, took a short walk to catch the yellow jeepney to the city centre (shopping mall) and then rented a taxi for the morning at PHP300/hr. Taxi rental from the hotel was about PHP500/hour whereas taxis could be negotiated down to PHP300/hr from Olongapo City.

Blue Jeepney to Olongapo City
Reached the Subic Bay Freeport area at about 7am and then after a bit of searching, found the road up to Hill 394. A permit is required to access the Hill 394 trail and the area is fenced off with security in place. The approach road to Hill 394 however provides excellent birding and interesting birds seen along the road included Philippine Hawk-Eagle, Grey-faced Buzzard, Philippine Green Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, Philippine Coucal, Luzon Hornbill, White-bellied Woodpecker, Guaiabero, Ashy Minivet, Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, Blackish Cuckooshrike and Buzzing Flowerpecker.

After spending some time along the Hill 394 road, drove down to the Nabusan Road and I walked a circular route along the road. Even though it was getting warm in the late morning, this area produced some excellent birds including Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Coleto, Green Racket-tail (only bird seen on the trip and a key target for the Subic Bay area), Balicassiao, Philippine Fairy-bluebird, Rough-crested Malkoha, Whiskered Treeswift, Oriental Dollarbird and many Philippine Bulbul. 

Headed back to Subic Bay after midday with the afternoon becoming quite warm. On the way back, I tried to organise a permit for access to the Hill 394 trail at the office that supposedly issues these permits. After talking with several office personnel, which gave various stories, I gave up on getting a permit. 

Tuesday 7th February: Subic Bay Freeport, Luzon
Had an early start today and started birding on the road to Hill 394 just as it was getting light at 6am. The birding today was far less productive than the previous day and I then spent time on the circular roads down to Nabusan and the Apaliin forest trails, before going back to Olongapo City just after 10am.

New birds for the trip included White-eared Brown Dove and Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove both seen feeding in a fruiting tree, Coppersmith Barbet, White-browed Shama which was heard on the Apaliin forest trail and is a difficult bird to see, and Blue Rock Thrush at Nabusan near the water’s edge.

Wednesday 8th February: Subic Bay Freeport, Luzon
Today I started birding at about 7:30am, spending time on the Boton Falls trails. The one trail runs along the ridge of the hills and has mixed habitat. The second trail branches off to the left, just after the start of the main trail, and descends quite steeply down to the river. Birding was similar to the previous day and not nearly as good as the first day in Subic Bay.

I was fortunate to spot a well concealed Rufous Coucal in the dense bamboo thicket just off the upper trail. On the trail down to the river I heard a Hooded Pitta scratching in the leaves and calling but didn’t manage to see it, as it kept moving away. Down at the river I had brief views of a Luzon Flameback flying past, the only one for the trip.

Other new birds for the trip included Chinese Sparrowhawk, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Whiskered Treeswift, White-throated Kingfisher and Blue-throated Bee-eater.

Whiskered Treeswift

Thursday 9th February: Subic Bay to Mt Makiling via Candaba Wetlands, Luzon
Left Subic Bay at about 9am and drove to the Candaba Wetlands using Google maps to find the site. Along the drive, I saw my first Ameline Swiftlet flying overhead. 

The last part of the road to Candaba was narrow and potholed as it passed through rice paddies. As there were many birds in the rice fields, I jumped out of the car and started birding, with Yellow Bittern flushed from the roadside, Striated Grassbird in the bushes and a small flock of White-shouldered Starling seen in a small tree.

Striated Grassbird
According to the field guide, the White-shouldered Starling has not been recorded in the Philippines since 1911. There was no mistaking the ID and there have been several recent reports on eBird.

Some of the rice paddies with exposed mud had Little Ringed Plover, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint and Gull-billed Tern. There were also many egrets, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron and a patrolling Eastern Marsh Harrier.

I took a walk around the wetlands and eventually found two Philippine Swamphen and about eight Philippine Duck, these two birds being the main targets for my visit. In the same area, there were many Wandering Whistling Duck, Garganey, some Northern Shoveler and other wetland birds. Had over 40 species of birds for this site, the highest for any of the sites I visited in the Philippines.

Took the long drive through Manila during the afternoon rush hour and arrived in the evening at the SEARCA Residence Hotel located on the Los Baños University Campus grounds at the base of Mt Makiling. The accommodation was excellent and it provided easy access for birding on the slopes of Mt Makiling and to the rice fields further down.  

Friday 10th February: Mt Makiling – University Campus and Lower Slopes, Luzon
I started birding before 6am, whilst it was still dark and had Philippine Nightjar calling. As it became light, I birded around a small park and along some of the streets where the university staff lived. Interesting birds included Chinese Sparrowhawk, Besra, Luzon Hornbill, Ashy Minivet, Balicassiao, Yellow-wattled Bulbul, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and Red-keeled Flowerpecker. 

After breakfast, I took a walk up into the lower slopes of Mt Makiling to an area called Flat Rocks. This area didn’t have any birds but another side path was more productive. Interesting birds included Rough-crested and Scale-feathered Malkoha, many Guaiabero including some perched, Black-bellied Cuckooshrike and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis.

Flat Rocks on the slopes of Mt Makiling
In the late afternoon, I took a walk down through the university campus to the rice fields, part of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). This area is off limits to the public but there is a local birder who works for IRRI and posts photos on “Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines” Facebook page, so I expect he could assist birders. Some interesting birds included Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Striated Swallow, Grey-streaked Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail.

Saturday 11th February: Mt Makiling – University Campus, Luzon
I started birding before 6am and spent just over four hours birding. Interesting birds included at least 40 Luzon Hornbill, two Philippine Hanging Parrot perched in a tree, Stripe-headed Rhabdornis and about 10 Eyebrowed Thrush feeding on a fruiting tree. 

Flowers in the forests on Mt Makiling
In the late afternoon, I took another walk up into the forest and didn’t see any new species. Did see a couple of Scale-feathered Malkoha which were very attractive.

Sunday 12th February: Mt Makiling to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
I started birding before 6am and had a Philippine Nightjar in flight and a Philippine Eagle-owl calling, just as it was getting light. Other interesting birds included Philippine Serpent Eagle, Scale-feathered Malkoha, Large Hawk-cuckoo perched just overhead, Spotted Wood Kingfisher (heard only), Yellow-wattled Bulbul and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis. Key features of the Large Hawk-cuckoo, which trigged an eBird rare bird alert, were: “heavy brown vertical streaking on throat contrasting with horizontal streaking on breast. Some rufous on sides of neck, white chin and vent”.

Left Mt Makiling at midday for the 1.5 hour drive to terminal four of Manila airport and then flew on Air Asia across to Puerto Princesa on Palawan in the early evening. Stayed at Blessie’s Bed and Breakfast for the evening which was very pleasant.

Blessie's Bed and Breakfast

Monday 13th February: Puerto Princesa to Sabang, Palawan
A cooked breakfast was included with accommodation cost and the resort gardens had some nice birds including the Palawan races of the Brown-throated Sunbird and Olive-backed Sunbird. The orange-breasted or aurora race of the Olive-backed Sunbird is stunning and has orange markings below the metallic green throat. 

Brown-throated Sunbird

The resort manager organised transport to the shuttle bus depot and I took the mid-morning shuttle bus to Sabang Beach, a two-hour trip costing PHP200. Arrived at about midday and checked into the basic accommodation at Amos Digue Pension House, which had aircon and limited WiFi.

View from Sabang Beach towards Underground River

In the afternoon, I took a walk up into the hills to the west of Sabang. There are several tracks, with some going to the top of the hills, which provide access to some good habitat and some good birding. In the late afternoon, I walked south of Sabang to some rice paddies, birding from the road till sunset.

Interesting birds seen around a forest clearing in the hills included Pygmy Swiftlet, Ameline Swiftlet, Hair-crested Drongo, Slender-billed Crow (has rapid wingbeats and sounds quite different to any other crow - a possible future split), Ashy-fronted Bulbul, Palawan Bulbul and Yellow-throated Leafbird.

At the rice paddies, interesting birds included White-bellied Sea Eagle, Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Javan Pond Heron (recent coloniser on Palawan with eBird records from early 2016 for the Sabang area), Grey Wagtail and a single White-bellied Munia (a lifer which I had previously looked for in Indonesia and Malaysia) in amongst many Scaly-breasted Munia and Chestnut Munia.

Tuesday 14th February: Sabang, Palawan
I spent four hours in the hills to the west of Sabang, walking some distance up into the scrubby forest. Birding was surprisingly quiet, although I did find an adult male Lovely Sunbird singing from a tree quite high up on the hill. The only other birds seen during the morning, which I hadn’t seen the previous afternoon were Common Iora and Grey-streaked Flycatcher. 

Hills to the west of Sabang Beach
After having lunch back at Sabang, I organised an entry permit and guide for Underground River. It’s easy to obtain the entry permit at the office on Sabang pier unlike previous trip reports and on-line sources stating that you need to obtain a permit from the office in the City Coliseum in Puerto Princesa. My entry permit only cost PHP300, as I intended walking to Underground River and didn’t want to do the boat trip to the caves. I then had to organise a guide for the Jungle Trail which had a PHP200 entry fee plus PHP1,000 for the guide (only found out about the guiding fee after the trip). I was told that the guide would be available from 8am, so I said I wanted a guide for 6am and in fact we left at 5:45am the next morning.  

In the afternoon, I walked to the waterfalls on the coast to the west of Sabang and then to the rice paddies again. More productive birding than the morning session and different birds seen include Striated Heron, White-browed Crake, Swinhoe’s Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Lesser Coucal, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Sulphur-bellied Bulbul and the single White-bellied Munia.

Waterfalls at Sabang Beach
Wednesday 15th February: Underground River and Sabang, Palawan
I had seen a group of birders on the previous day take the boat ride to Underground River to see the Palawan Peacock-pheasant. Their boats left at about 6:30am and it’s a 30-minute ride to get to Underground River. Taking the boat trip would have been the easy way to see the Palawan Peacock-pheasant but would have missed out on many other birds. I guess the guides prefer the easy option.

The walk to Underground River was supposed to take 2 to 3 hours, however I left with the guide at 5:45am and we arrived at Underground River before 7am which was well before any tourists arrived. The forest walk was very humid and it was a hard-sweaty walk, especially as we had to walk up and down some very steep sections, close to the end of the trail. The trail passes through some excellent forest and there was some good birding to be had along the way.

On the walk into Underground River, we had two Philippine Pitta (Blue-breasted race) walking ahead on the trail, providing excellent views in the gloomy forest. I also had an Ashy-headed Babbler in the early morning and then we flushed a couple of Philippine Megapode.

Arriving at Underground River, we started the search for the Palawan Peacock-pheasant with the guide imitating its call. After looking around for a while, I found the bird walking up behind me. I then had plenty of time to take photos with the bird within 2m of where I was positioned. I also had a look for the Hooded Pitta, which can be seen in the early morning but didn’t find any.

Palawan Peacock-pheasant

Palawan Peacock-pheasant
We left shortly after the first boatloads of tourists arrived and on the walk back to Sabang, I had Violet Cuckoo, Hooded Pitta (heard only), Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, White-vented Shama, Palawan Blue Flycatcher, Palawan Flowerpecker and Brown-throated Sunbird. So a very successful trip to Underground River with quite a few of the key targets and endemics seen for Palawan.  

In the late afternoon, I did some birding around Sabang with no new birds for Palawan. I did consider looking for night birds in the evening, which can be seen in the forest about 2km south of Sabang, but decided it wouldn’t be safe wandering around at night by myself.
    
Thursday 16th February: ATV Trail, Sabang, Palawan
I took the 2km walk south of Sabang to an area of primary forest at the base of limestone cliffs, which has ATV trails running through the forest. This was a good patch of forest and interesting birds included Philippine Cuckoo-dove, Green Imperial Pigeon, at least 200 Ameline Swiftlet flying overhead in the early morning, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, Black-headed Bulbul, Palawan Bulbul, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Palawan Flowerpecker and Lovely Sunbird.

Walking back through the rice paddies, I had Yellow Bittern, Javan Pond Heron, Grey-faced Buzzard, Slender-billed Crow, Common Moorhen and Grey Wagtail.

I had a shower and checked out at midday, taking the afternoon shuttle bus back to Puerto Princesa. Stayed at Blessie’s Bed and Breakfast again and in the evening, went to a nearby restaurant, which had good meals and was staffed by deaf personnel.

Accommodation at Blessie's Bed and Breakfast
The very helpful staff at Blessie’s had organised quotes and then booked a taxi for the next morning’s birding at various sites close to Puerto Princesa.

Friday 17th February: Iwahig Penal Farm, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
After breakfast, I took the taxi to Iwahig Penal Farm. This area of Palawan has several target birds which can’t be seen in the Sabang area, such as Melodious Babbler and Palawan Flycatcher. Previous trip reports have stated that these birds are found on the Zig Zag Road, further south than Iwahig, but recent eBird reports have them at Iwahig.

Also according to previous trip reports, an entry permit to Iwahig Penal Farm is required, which needs to be organised the day before. As I hadn’t organised a permit, I had some back-up sites to visit in the event that I couldn’t get access to Iwahig. We drove up to the gates, had a chat with the guards, the driver handed in his ID and filled in the visitor’s book and we drove into Iwahig Penal Farm, no permit or entry fees required. Iwahig Penal Farm has an extensive area of rice paddies maintained by the convicts and some good forest walks, with the Balsahan River trail being the main birding area. Easy enough to find as there’s a sign for Balsahan River leading off to the right from the main entry road.

One of the first birds seen was a Palawan Hornbill which can be a difficult bird to find. When I arrived, I had a chat with one of the local staff and he mentioned that the hornbill was on the other side of the river, which is where I managed to find it. Certainly not like the Luzon Hornbills which are numerous and easy to see.  

As I walked up the Balsahan River trail, I met up with a group of birders being led by a Belgium guide based in the Philippines. They had a Melodious Babbler calling, which is a skulker and difficult to see. Later on, I managed to get the Melodious Babbler to move across the path and had a brief glimpse of the bird in flight. In the same area, I had good views of a Palawan Flycatcher with its very distinctive rufous tail. I also had Falcated Wren-babbler, Spot-throated Flameback and Hooded Pitta calling but never managed to see any of them.

The only other birds of note were a couple of Yellow-throated Leafbird and a Collared Kingfisher. I did miss a Pale Spiderhunter which had been seen close to the parked vehicles, when I was still birding along the forest trail. I compared notes with the Belgium guide and their birding for the morning was similar to what I had experienced. That concluded my birding on Palawan and I managed to find 16 of the 23 current endemics for Palawan, which I thought was a good effort considering it was my first visit to Palawan.

A bat at Blessie's Bed and Breakfast
I then headed back to the resort, had a shower and took the late afternoon flight to Manila. It appears that most of the accommodation in the Philippines has midday checkouts, which is very convenient for birding. The flight to Manila on AirAsia was delayed an hour and arrived at about 6:30pm. Peter Waanders had flown into Manila from Australia that afternoon and we met up for dinner in the evening at the Copacabana Apartment Hotel in Pasay, which is close to Manila airport.

Saturday 18th February: Manila to Alcoy, Cebu Island
After breakfast, we took the taxi to Manila airport and flew down to Cebu arriving at 10am. I had booked a hire vehicle which took us down to Alcoy, taking some four hours for what should have been a three-hour trip. We were staying at the Meili Beach Resort on the coast in Alcoy which had some good accommodation. At Alcoy, we met up with Rhoda Lyn, a general tour operator, who is based in Dumaguete on Negros.  

View of the coast at Meili Beach Resort in Alcoy (photo by PW)
In the mid-afternoon, we took a drive up to the Nug-as Forest birding along the way. Interesting birds included White-eared Brown Dove, Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Philippine Pied Fantail, Philippine Magpie-robin, Grey-streaked Flycatcher and Red-keeled Flowerpecker. We also had two Black Shama heard calling and one seen very briefly, this being one of the Cebu endemics and a key target.

Sunday 19th February: Nug-as Forest, Alcoy, Cebu Island
We started birding at dawn and spent the next six hours in the Nug-as Forest and surrounding farmlands. Initially we had heavy mist with light rain, which kept us down in the lower parts of the forest. It was a very productive morning’s birding with Philippine Coucal, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, White-vented Whistler, Black-naped Monarch, Elegant Tit, Arctic Warbler, Everett’s White-eye (endemic sub-species to Cebu), at least four Black Shama with one seen very well, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Handsome Sunbird, Magnificent Sunbird and three White-bellied Munia.

We also had an Asian Brown Flycatcher, an uncommon migrant to the Philippines and which doesn’t occur on Cebu Island according to the field guide. The flycatcher was seen perched in bare tree, with a nearly completely white front, pale grey-brown wash to upper breast and grey-brown back. It had a large head and eye with a prominent white eye ring.

Nug-as Forest with some limestone cliffs (photo by PW)
After lunch, we went back to the resort and did some birding around the resort area which produced Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Pied Triller, Brown Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike, Philippine Magpie-robin and Red-keeled Flowerpecker.

In the late afternoon, we went back up to the Nug-as Forest and birded for a couple of hours till just after sunset. We managed to call in a Black-chinned Fruit Dove which was calling and then gave us brief views as it flew past. This was followed, just after sunset, by a Cebu Hawk-owl which was calling from across the valley and came in quite close but we were unable to see it. A Philippine Nightjar was heard and then responded to playback, flying down the road and providing good views. The Cebu Hawk-owl was our second Cebu endemic species and particularly rewarding as it had previously been considered extinct.

Nug-as Forest at sunset with access road where Philippine Nightjar was seen (photo by PW)
Birding in the Nug-as Forest was a pleasant surprise and far better than I had expected, given the extent of deforestation on Cebu Island. That evening we drove 20 minutes up the road towards Cebu City and had a good seafood dinner at a local restaurant.  

Monday 20th February: Alcoy to Dumaguete, Negros Island
We left our accommodation at about 6am and drove down to Oslob, about an hour’s drive south of Alcoy, for the Whale Shark viewing. By the time we arrived, the place was packed out with visitors. We bought our tickets and then had a tasty roadside breakfast of fried eggs and barbequed pork.

Small outrigger boats paddled out to the Whale Sharks viewing
We then waited for our turn to get on the small outrigger boats and paddled out to the Whale Sharks, which are fed by local fishermen and patrol up and down the water, scooping in the fishmeal.





Whale Shark feeding and viewing
After an enjoyable hour with the Whale Sharks, we drove further down the coast to Santander which has a regular ferry service to Negros Island. Took the 4WD on the ferry to Negros, disembarking at the port white was close to Dumaguete airport and the San Moritz wetlands. Spent about two hours birding around the wetlands and adjacent rice paddies.


Ferry for Cebu to Negros crossing
Interesting birds included Yellow Bittern, Striated Bittern, Javan Pond Heron, Brahminy Kite, White-browed Crake, Pacific Golden Plover, many Little Ringed Plover, nesting Lesser Sand Plover, Greater Painted-snipe, Swinhoe’s Snipe, Marsh Sandpiper, many Wood Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, Little Bronze Cuckoo, Golden-headed Cisticola and two Java Sparrow.  The Java Sparrow is uncommon in the Philippines and is seldom seen in Indonesia, probably due to trapping.


Black-winged Stilt on San Moritz wetlands (photo by PW)

We drove through to Dumaguete where we had lunch at the Moon Café overlooking the sea. In the afternoon, we checked into the spacious two-bedroom cottage at Camlann Cottages.

Tuesday 21st February: Twin Lakes, Negros Island
Rhoda picked us up early in the morning and we drove up to Balinsasayao Twin Lakes Natural Park, stopping along the route for some roadside birding.  Plenty of good forest along the road and we saw four Visayan Hornbill in the early morning, the only ones for the trip. After paying for the entry permits we drove up to the restaurant and then walked various trails for the rest of the day. There had been early morning rain and many of the tracks were very slippery. For most of the day we had heavy cloud and cool conditions.

View over forest and one of the twin lakes

Interesting birds included Western Osprey, Crested Honey Buzzard, Philippine Serpent Eagle, Brahminy Kite, White-eared Brown Dove, Philippine Swiftlet, Visayan Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, many Visayan Bulbul and about eight Coleto. The Philippine Swiftlet is the most common larger swiftlet at elevations above 900m. we saw them from the restaurant which was at about 900m and they would have been flying at between 1,000 and 1,100m elevation.

Myself, Rhoda and Peter at the restaurant viewing deck

The walk around the northern section of the lake was very slow going, so we went back to the restaurant and birded around the fern garden, which had some of the best birding of the day. I had a Blue-crowned Racket-tail pop up for a while providing great views, this was the only one seen on the trip. In the same area, there were at least eight Balicassiao, the Visayan race mirabilis with the white bellies, Negros Leaf Warbler (ID confirmed by call), Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Magnificent Sunbird and Maroon-naped Sunbird.

Maroon-naped Sunbird (photo by Peter Waanders)

We then had a Blue-and-white Flycatcher fly into a nearby tree and whilst we were watching the flycatcher, a Narcissus Flycatcher (adult male) flew up into the same tree for a short while. Really good looking bird, one I didn’t expect and one of the major highlights for the day.

Twin Lakes has to be one of the top birding areas close to Dumaguete, which is easy to get to contrary to comments made in some trip reports. Early morning birding along the approach road was good, by mid-morning there was hardly any birding activity, yet in the afternoon we had some of the best birding of the day.


Small lake at entrance to Twin Lakes
We headed back to our accommodation in the late afternoon and in the evening had an excellent seafood dinner in Dumaguete, along the esplanade overlooking the sea.

Wednesday 22nd February: Valencia, Negros and Siquijor Island
The plan for today was to spend the morning birding in Valencia on the forested lower slopes of Mount Talinis and then the afternoon on Siquijor Island.

Initially, Rhoda took us to Forest Camp, a small resort which had some farming areas at the back and then some primary forest. Had some good birding in the early morning seeing Common Emerald Dove, Philippine Spine-tailed Swift, Visayan Bulbul, Philippine Magpie-robin, at least eight Black-belted Flowerpecker (split from the Red-keeled Flowerpecker and restricted to Panay, Negros and Guimaras islands), Maroon-naped Sunbird and Magnificent Sunbird.

A small stream at Forest Camp (photo by PW)
Previously the Casa Roro Waterfalls was a key birding area, however the approach road and the area around the waterfalls has been badly damaged by a typhoon. This area is currently not recommended for birding based on advice from Rene Vendiola, a local birding guide living in Valencia. Peter searched on Google maps for a suitable area of primary forest which we could drive to fairly easily and we ended up on the Lunga Forest Trail (Sitio Tabunan, Barangay Lunga, Valencia 9.2753x123.2161). This area has at least two trails through the forest, with one trail heading towards the Caso Roro Waterfalls area.

We spent about 90 minutes on the first part of the trail and had a couple of White-browed Shama (Visayan race) calling loudly but which were very difficult to see. Peter managed to get brief flight views of one bird. The only other birds of interest were Black-belted Flowerpecker and Magnificent Sunbird.

We then headed down to Dumaguete to purchase tickets for our ferry trip to Bohol Island the next day and for the afternoon ferry to Siquijor Island. The primary purpose of visiting Siquijor was to see the Siquijor race of the Streak-breasted Bulbul, which may be split in the future. We had also missed seeing the Streak-breasted Bulbul on Cebu Island, where it can be hard to find and most recent records are from Tabunan Forest close to Cebu City, which we didn’t visit.

Siquijor Island (photo by PW)
The ferry was small and cramped, and the one hour crossing to Siquijor was quite bumpy. When we left the mooring, the open sided windows were closed up to avoid sea spray coming in, which made conditions quite claustrophobic. On arrival in the small town of Siquijor, we started walking down the road along the coast looking for suitable habitat for the Streak-breasted Bulbul. After moving away from the mangroves on the coast, walking for a short way into some scrubby bush and trees, we came across at least six Streak-breasted Bulbul.

Streak-breasted Bulbul - siquijor race (photo by Peter Waanders)
Other birds seen on the island included Ruddy Turnstone, Common Sandpiper, Collared Kingfisher on the beach, White-breasted Woodswallow and Pacific Swallow.

We then walked back to town and had a good late afternoon meal at a restaurant, before catching the return ferry back to Dumaguete.

Thursday 23rd February: Valencia, Negros and Bohol Island
We spent the morning birding in Valencia on the Lunga Forest Trail however heavy rain for most of the morning impacted on birding. We had a couple of Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Black-naped Monarch, Visayan Bulbul, White-browed Shama (heard only), the only Yellowish White-eye of the trip, Black-belted Flowerpecker and Magnificent Sunbird. 

We went back to our accommodation to shower and pack up. We then had an excellent lunch at the Cassablanca Restaurant in Dumaguete and checked in for the 3pm ferry trip to Tagbilaran on Bohol Island.

Getting onto the ferry was a fine example of Philippine bureaucracy and job creation. We already had our paper tickets, no means of purchasing online or using electronic tickets, then had to pay for the drop-off at the terminal, a terminal fee before entering the building, then after security, had to check our bags in and negotiate a price for the porter, two tickets issued one for the porter and one for the baggage. We waited in the lounge till boarding time and were then told we need to get a seat reservation. So back to the baggage check-in area for a seat allocation and another piece of paper. So with six bits of paper stapled together we were finally allowed on board.

Paperwork for a single ferry trip - Dumaguete to Tagbilaran
The Ocean Fast ferry was similar in size to a Rottnest ferry and a lot more comfortable than the ferry to Siquijor. The ride was comfortable with good aircon and only took two hours to get to Tagbilaran. At less than A$20 per person, the ferry trip was very cost effective and saved a lot of time when compared with flying. There are no direct flights from Dumaguete to Tagbilaran, and the options are to fly via Manila or to fly to Cebu and then take a ferry to Bohol.


Ocean Fast ferry used between Dumaguete and Tagbilaran

We tried to collect our ferry tickets for the Tagbilaran to Cagayan De Oro trip at the port, which had been sent from Cebu City. I didn’t manage to get the tickets as I didn’t have the ticket numbers, just a few emails from the booking agents in Cebu. I sent an email to the booking agents and they subsequently sent a scanned copy of the tickets. There are no electronic tickets and the only bookings on Trans-Asia Ferry which could be made prior to the trip, were with Luzviminda Travel and Tours. 
  
We took a minivan to Habitat Bohol, about an hour’s drive from Tagbilaran port. The transfers on Bohol Island all have fixed prices, which are provided at the port. On arrival at our accommodation, we checked in and then made arrangements for birding early the next day. The staff at Habitat Bohol are geared up for birders and will provided an early morning breakfast, ordered the previous evening, and organise motor bike rides to get to the Rajah Sikatuna National Park. I had booked two of their best rooms and was surprised how large and comfortable they were, certainly not the basic rooms I had expected. At PHP880/night (A$23/nt) they provided very good value.

Friday 24th February: Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol Island
After breakfast and getting a ride on a motor bike, we started birding at Rajah Sikatuna NP at 6am. Had some early morning rain which cleared up and the rest of the morning was warm and humid in the forest.

Some good walking trails through the forest and we did parts of the Brahminy, Oriole and Tarsier Trails. We examined the various caves for roosting owls but didn’t find any. Interesting birds seen included Chinese Sparrowhawk, White-eared Brown Dove (short-billed or brevirostris race), Green Imperial Pigeon, Black-faced Coucal, Philippine Drongo-cuckoo, three Philippine Trogon, Yellow-bellied Whistler (boholensis race), Hair-crested Drongo (short-tailed or samarensis race which doesn’t have a forked tail), Philippine Leaf Warbler (ID confirmed by call), Black-crowned Babbler (yellow throat with orange edging, black cap and grey streaking on face, race boholensis), Philippine Fairy-bluebird, Coleto, Red-keeled Flowerpecker and Purple-throated Flowerpecker.

Rajah Sikatuna forest from the Tarictic Trail (photo by PW)
The variation between the various races of the Spangled Drongo occurring in the Philippines is quite significant. These range from the long-tailed and deeply forked race menagei to the shorter-tailed and slightly forked race palawanensis to the short and square ended tail race samarensis. Since the field guide by Kennedy etal was published, the menagei race has been elevated to a full species, the Tablas Drongo (Dicrurus menagei). The other races are now regarded as races of the Hair-crested Drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus).  

According to IOC and HBW, the current races for the Hair-crested Drongo occurring in the Philippines are:
·       a) D. h. samarensis on Samar, Biliran, Leyte, Calicoan, Panaon and Bohol (east-central Philippines)
    -   very short, straight and square-ended tail, no frontal filaments 
b) D. h. palawanensis on Palawan (western Philippines)
     -   similar to borneensis but with red eye, no frontal filaments and four inner pairs of rectrices becoming gradually longer, tips of outermost with slight tendency to curl upwards     
c) D. h. cuyensis on Semirara and Cuyo (west-central Philippines)
    -   similar to palawanensis but with strongly greenish gloss 
d) D. h. striatus on Basilan, Mindanao and Nipa (south Philippines)
    -   similar to samarensis but tail a little longer and slightly forked 
e) D. h. suluensis in the Sulu Archipelago (south-west Philippines)
    -   frontal filaments always present, more deeply forked tail than otherwise similar pectoralis

According to the field guide, the similar looking (except for the white-bellied race mirabilis occurring on Negros) Balicassiao, does not overlap in range with the Hair-crested Drongo or the Tablas Drongo (endemic to Tablas Island).

Within the forest, we had a couple of Philippine Flying Lemur plus quite a few Long-tailed or Crab-eating Macaque. We met up with a German birder who was birding in the area at the time and he provided some information on where to look for the Azure-breasted Pitta. We walked back to our accommodation, about 3km away, with the road passing through rice paddies and some riverine forest alongside a river. Saw a White-throated Kingfisher (Brown-breasted race) in the rice fields.

Philippine Flying Lemur (photo by Peter Waanders)
After a short siesta, I was heading down to the restaurant when a gardener asked if I was looking for birds and whether I wanted to see a frogmouth. Of course I did, and we took a short walk through the bush, then through a grave yard before locating the Philippine Frogmouth perched low down in some dense vegetation. He then took me to another area and we had a pair of Everett’s Scops Owl, again well disguised and blending in with vegetation. The Everett’s Scops Owl was my 4,000th bird species recorded, so a major milestone.

Everett's Scops Owl - actually two birds in the photo
Getting back to the restaurant, Peter was there working on his computer. I mentioned the Everett’s Scops Owl and Philippine Frogmouth and he rushed off with the gardener to see them. I then had the German birder asking about them and he became very agitated when I suggested that he wait for Peter and the gardener to return. Both Peter and I gave the gardener a generous tip and hopefully that should encourage him to continue providing ad hoc guiding services.

Philippine Frogmouth (photo by Peter Waanders)
Later on that afternoon, I decided to try and get some photos of the Everett’s Scops Owl. I managed to find the location and get some photos taken through the dense vegetation, surprisingly some were in focus. On the way back I had a couple of Barred Rail running across an open field.

Saturday 25th February: Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol Island
We started birding at Rajah Sikatuna NP just after 6am and spent some time in the area where the Azure-breasted Pitta was likely to be seen at dawn. After that we walked various trails and then made our way back to the accommodation in the afternoon. Warm and sunny conditions for most of the day.

Interesting birds which we hadn’t seen the previous day included Red Junglefowl (heard only), Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike and Brown Tit-babbler. On the walk through the rice fields we had Eastern Yellow Wagtail, White-bellied Munia and a Plain Bush-hen seen briefly in flight.  

White-bellied Munia (photo by Peter Waanders)

We did see what we believe was a female Celestial Monarch which doesn’t occur on Bohol Island. The bird was seen well just overhead in a mixed flock of birds and the description provided for the eBird rare bird report was as follows; “Adult female with sky blue head and slightly darker back, lacking the large crest of the male. The darker blue on throat has a distinct cut-off between the blue throat and white belly. Also considered Black-naped Monarch, Short-crested Monarch, Visayan Blue Fantail and Blue-and-white Flycatcher, but none of these birds are close to the female Celestial Monarch.”


Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) seen at Habitat Bohol

Sunday 26th February: Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol Island
We started birding at Rajah Sikatuna NP just before 6am and continued the search for the Azure-breasted Pitta. Peter and I birded along separate trails and then compared notes back at Habitat Bohol in the afternoon.

I had good views of Amethyst Brown Dove feeding just overhead in the early morning, plus White-eared Brown Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon and Yellow-wattled Bulbul all along the Tarsier Trail. I could hear Samar Hornbill overhead and had a brief view of one flying overhead through a gap in the canopy. Later on I had four flying over quite low down over the main clearing in the forest.

After spending some time in the forest clearing, I walked the Oriole, Brahminy and Tarictic Trails ending up at the swimming pool. Along that route, I had Black-faced Coucal, Philippine Drongo-cuckoo, Visayan Broadbill (heard only), Yellow-bellied Whistler, Black-naped Oriole, many Hair-crested Drongo, Visayan Blue Fantail, Black-crowned Babbler, Brown Tit-babbler, Chestnut-tailed Jungle Flycatcher and Coleto.   

Walking along the rice paddies and riverine forest on the way back, I had White-breasted Waterhen, Northern Silvery Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Striated Swallow, Red-keeled Flowerpecker, Bohol Sunbird (endemic to Bohol and only one seen) and ten White-bellied Munia together with Chestnut Munia.

Northern Silvery Kingfisher (photo by Peter Waanders)

When I got back, Peter told me that he had heard the Azure-breasted Pitta calling along the Brahminy Trail and after much effort and scrambling up steep hillsides and limestone cliffs, had managed to get a brief view of the bird perched.  

Philippine Tarsier (Carlito syrichta) seen at Habitat Bohol (photo by Peter Waanders)

Monday 27th February: Rajah Sikatuna NP, Bohol Island
I started birding at Rajah Sikatuna NP just after 6am and initially looked for the Yellow-breasted Tailorbird down a track near the tunnel. Having no luck with the tailorbird I walked down to the swimming pool and then up the Tarictic Trail.

There was no sign of the pitta and I walked past the area where Peter had seen the bird. I walked to the intersection with the Brahminy Trail, which has a steep stairway leading up the hill and decided to try a bit further along the Tarictic Trail. I then heard the pitta calling from the limestone cliffs, so went a bit further on up the hill along a track leading to a second set of stairs, to the east of the Brahminy Trail. As I was walking up the stairs I managed to see the Azure-breasted Pitta calling from a branch about 3 to 4m off the ground.

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Azure-breasted Pitta (Oriental Bird Club - Patrik Jonasson)
The Pitta then came in closer and then flew over the trail to the other side, before flying back to its perch, quite close to where I was. I had excellent views of the pitta over the next 10 to 15 minutes and eventually left it still perched in the tree. So after four days I had managed to find the Azure-breasted Pitta which was my top bird for the trip.  

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Azure-breasted Pitta (Nomadbirder - Paul French)
The photos of the Azure-breasted Pitta were taken from the internet as I didn't have my camera with me. As I walked back down the Tarictic Trail, I had two Rufous-fronted Tailorbird, a bird I had been looking for. I went back up to the trail close to the tunnel and had an attractive male Yellow-breasted Tailorbird calling and displaying right next to the trail. The only other new bird for this site was a Buzzing Flowerpecker, which I had seen previously in Subic Bay.

I had arranged for a lift back to Habitat Bohol on the motor bike, then had a shower and lunch before checking out at midday. I had organised for the same driver we had when we arrived on Bohol, to take us to the Chocolate Hills and then back to Tagbilaran port in the late afternoon. At the viewing platform at Chocolate Hills, we had a couple of Red-vented Cockatoo flying past, quite some distance away. They didn’t provide very satisfactory views but certainly had the right shape, size and flight pattern for cockatoos as compared with egrets.

Chocolate Hills from viewing platform
We then drove down to Tagbilaran port and managed to find our ferry tickets in the baggage collection area, easy when you know how their systems work! As it was still early we had the driver drop us off at a nearby restaurant where we had dinner. We then walked down to the port and were able to board the Trans-Asia ferry well before 7pm departure time. We were allocated beds in a five-sleeper cabin which were quite comfortable except for the overzealous air-conditioning which meant it was very cold all night.

Sunset view from the ferry

Tuesday 28th February: CDO to Mount Dulang-Dulang
The Trans-Asia Ferry arrived into CDO port just ahead of the 4am scheduled arrival.  
I had organised a fully inclusive package with Henry Binahon for the three-night trip to Mt Dulang-Dulang, which is part of the Mt Kitanglad mountain range. The package included transport to/from Mt Dulang-Dulang, DENR-PAMB permits, cleansing ritual with the Indigenous Community, local guiding fees, accommodation at the Binahon Agroforestry Farm, meals and drinks. The cost of the 4D3N package was just under A$400 per person.

Henry Binahon was easy to deal with and provided prompt responses to my email enquiries. He can be contacted on binahonagroforestryfarm@gmail.com or hbinahon@yahoo.com, via mobile +63 9178 796 890 or +63 9059 017 771 and binahonagroforestryfarm.blogspot.com  

Mt Dulang-Dulang provides an alternative birding area to the more frequently visited Del Monte Lodge on Mt Kitanglad. The Del Monte Lodge is often overbooked during the peak birding season and offers very basic accommodation. The Binahon Farm is at the same elevation as Del Monte and provides access to higher elevations than the trail from Del Monte which only goes up to about 1,900m. The trail up Mt Dulang-Dulang possibly provides better birding opportunities, although sightings of Philippine Eagle are more reliable from Del Monte.  

Start of the Mt Dulang-Dulang reserve, an hour's hike from the accommodation
We were picked up by our driver at 5:30am, had breakfast along the way and then drove through to Malaybalay City. We visited the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Protected Area Management Board (DENR-PAMB) where we arranged permits for access to Mt Dulang-Dulang Summit and Cinchona Forest Reserve. The staff at DENR had mentioned that our best chance of seeing the Philippine Eagle was to visit Cinchona Forest Reserve and to use Blackie, a local ranger based there. Access to these protected areas needs to be booked ahead of time, as the number of visitors are limited, particularly for January through to March, which is the peak birding season.

We then stopped off close to Songco for the ritual cleansing ceremony, which involves killing a couple of chickens and using the blood for the cleansing, to appease the local spirits on Mt Dulang-Dulang. The neck of the chicken is slit and the blood collected in a bowl. Another bowl contains water, representing cleansing of the river, as an alternative to having a swim in the river. A feather is taken from the dead chicken and dipped in the blood and then the water and then smeared on your hands and face. The permits are also examined and blood smeared on the permits for good measure as well. This is supposed to guarantee your safety on the mountain and provide good weather.

We arrived at midday at Binahon Farm and had a spread laid on for lunch. The meals and the staff at Binahon Farm were excellent and the accommodation very spacious and comfortable. After lunch, we took a walk up to the beginning of the Mt Dulang-Dulang forest with some nice birding parties seen in the fragments of remaining forest on the way up.

Interesting birds for the afternoon included Mountain Shrike (Grey-capped), Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Rufous-headed Tailorbird, Mindanao White-eye, Turquoise Flycatcher, Bundok Flycatcher (split from Snowy-browed Flycatcher), Pied Bushchat, Eyebrowed Thrush, Red-keeled Flowerpecker and Grey Wagtail.

Philippine Magpie Robin (adult male) (photo by Peter Waanders)

Wednesday 1st March: Mount Dulang-Dulang
Left at 6am for the hour walk from Binahon Farm up to the forested slopes of Mt Dulang-Dulang, climbing from about 1,300m up to 1,800m. At this point, there is a small track leading off on the left which goes to the summit of Mt Dulang-Dulang (2,940m). The main track continues along a contour and then down to a river, passing through some excellent forest. 

Mt Dulang-Dulang forest at about 2,000m elevation (photo by PW)
Despite the early morning rain, there were some good birding parties in the forest. Interesting birds seen included Buff-spotted Flameback, McGregor’s Cuckooshrike, Mountain Shrike, Black-and-cinnamon Fantail, Elegant Tit, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Mountain Warbler, Long-tailed Bush-warbler, Mountain White-eye, Turquoise Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Eyebrowed Thrush, Apo Myna, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Grey-hooded Sunbird and Cinnamon Ibon.

The Eyebrowed Thrush were plentiful with over 40 seen and the Apo Myna were particularly attractive with over 30 seen feeding on the fruiting trees.

Apo Mynah (photo by Peter Waanders)

Thursday 2nd March: Mount Dulang-Dulang
Left just before 6am for the two hour walk up to the 2,000m level in the Mt Dulang-Dulang forest. Rain and heavy mist set in for the day from about 7pm which made any birding very difficult. The roads and tracks through the forest were very muddy and slippery.

Despite the weather, interesting birds seen included Philippine Coucal, Lesser Coucal, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Mindanao White-eye, Turquoise Flycatcher, Bundok Flycatcher, White-browed Shortwing (heard), Eyebrowed Thrush, Apo Myna and Cinnamon Ibon.

View up into the Mt Kitanglad Range Natural Park (photo by PW)

Friday 3rd March: Cinchona Forest Reserve
After an early morning breakfast, we drove through to Cinchona Forest Reserve which has a good access road, an open recreation area within the forest, a suspension bridge over the river and various trails in the forest. Accommodation is currently under construction and this would be a great place to base oneself, as an alternative to Binahon Agroforestry Farm on Mt Dulang-Dulang or Del Monte Lodge on Mt Kitanglad.

Suspension bridge at Cinchona Forest Reserve with Blackie on bridge (photo by PW)
The forest around the parking area looked great and had birds such as Elegant Tit, Turquoise Flycatcher and Grey-hooded Sunbird, which at Mt Dulang-Dulang had required an hours hard walk to get into suitable forest before these species could be seen.

Grey-hooded Sunbird (photo by Peter Waanders)
Blackie took us into the forest along a trail to an old Philippine Eagle nesting site. Some interesting birds included Amethyst Brown Dove, Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove, Philippine Drongo-cuckoo and Coleto. We then made a rapid exit back to the main road when Peter discovered that the area was infested with leeches, the first encountered in the Philippines. Peter managed to get well over 10 blood sucking leeches attached to his legs and luckily, I only had one attached but did remove well over 10 leeches from my boots and socks. 

We then drove further up the road to a viewing area overlooking the forest with the Kitanglad mountain range in the background. We had Purple Needletail swishing past us and then Peter spotted a large eagle, some distance away. It was about the size of a Wedge-tailed Eagle and was using the updrafts to glide along the mountain slopes, quite high up. I noticed the white underparts and brown back, when it turned once, and this confirmed that it was a Philippine Eagle. There are about four pairs of Philippine Eagle in the Mt Kitanglad mountain ranges, with Mindanao representing the last stronghold for the surviving birds. So a mega sighting and a great way to conclude the birding for the trip.     

Philippine Eagle seen flying alongside the far hills and into the clouds (photo by PW)
We then left the area just after midday and spotted two Short-tailed Starling on the way down to the main road. We then drove through to the Kingston Lodge, our accommodation in CDO for the night, arriving at about 5pm. Very pleasant accommodation with comfortable air-conditioned rooms, swimming pool, live band and excellent meals at the restaurant.

Saturday 4th March: CDO to Manila
We left the hotel at 9:30am and took a taxi to the new airport west of CDO, an hour’s drive away. Checking in at the modern airport was uneventful and we arrived in Manila at just after 1pm. We then took the transfer bus from terminal 3 to terminal 1, which took an hour, before checking in for our Qantas flight back to Sydney that evening.

Overall a successful trip, which went pretty much to plan, seeing many of the Philippine endemic birds.


Birding Resources
a) A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Kennedy, Gonzales, Dickinson, Miranda and Fisher, first edition 2000, reprinted 2016
b) eBird which had many useful site lists for the main birding sites in the Philippines
c) Aves Vox – iPhone app which was useful for downloading, sorting and storing any Xeno-Canto sound recordings. However, the app was very unstable and not suitable for a long trip, with all the calls lost every time the app was reloaded onto the iPhone
d) Birding the Philippines – 2nd January to 18th March 2013 – Trip report by Sjoerd Radstaak
e) Philippines: Palawan, Cebu, Negros, Bohol, and Mindanao – 10th May to 1st June 2016 - Independent Budget Birding trip report by Ross and Melissa Gallardy


Birds
I recorded a total of 236 birds of which 118 were lifers and 106 were endemics for the Philippines. The list of birds according to the IOC taxonomy, with subspecies identified where possible, was as follows:
ANSERIFORMES
Ducks, Geese and Swans (Anatidae)
Wandering Whistling Duck [arcuata] (Dendrocygna arcuata arcuata)
Philippine Duck (Anas luzonica)
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Garganey (Anas querquedula)
GALLIFORMES
Megapodes (Megapodiidae)
Philippine Megapode [cumingii] (Megapodius cumingii cumingii)
Pheasants and allies (Phasianidae)
Red Junglefowl [sp] (Gallus gallus)
Palawan Peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis)
PELECANIFORMES
Herons, Bitterns (Ardeidae)
Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Eurasian) (Nycticorax nycticorax nycticorax)
Striated Heron [sp] (Butorides striata)
Striated Heron (Old World) [amurensis] (Butorides striata amurensis)
Javan Pond Heron [sp] (Ardeola speciosa)
Eastern Cattle Egret (Bubulcus coromandus)
Grey Heron (Grey) [jouyi] (Ardea cinerea jouyi)
Purple Heron (Purple) [manilensis] (Ardea purpurea manilensis)
Great Egret (Australasian) (Ardea alba modesta)
Intermediate Egret (Intermediate) (Ardea intermedia intermedia)
Little Egret [nigripes] (Egretta garzetta nigripes)
Pacific Reef Heron [sacra] (Egretta sacra sacra)
ACCIPITRIFORMES
Ospreys (Pandionidae)
Western Osprey (Eurasian) (Pandion haliaetus haliaetus)
Kites, Hawks and Eagles (Accipitridae)
Philippine Crested Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus philippensis)
Steere's Honey Buzzard (Pernis steerei steerei)
Philippine Serpent Eagle (Spilornis holospilus)
Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi)
Philippine Hawk-eagle (Nisaetus philippensis)
Pinsker's Hawk-eagle (Nisaetus pinskeri)
Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis)
Besra [confusus] (Accipiter virgatus confusus)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus)
Brahminy Kite [intermedius] (Haliastur indus intermedius)
White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)
Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus ichthyaetus)
Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus)
GRUIFORMES
Rails, Crakes and Coots (Rallidae)
Barred Rail [torquatus] (Gallirallus torquatus torquatus)
Plain Bush-hen (Amaurornis olivacea)
White-breasted Waterhen [phoenicurus] (Amaurornis phoenicurus phoenicurus)
White-browed Crake (Porzana cinerea)
Philippine Swamphen (Porphyrio pulverulentus)
Common Moorhen [orientalis] (Gallinula chloropus orientalis)
CHARADRIIFORMES
Stilts, Avocets (Recurvirostridae)
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
Plovers (Charadriidae)
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)
Little Ringed Plover [sp] (Charadrius dubius)
Lesser Sand Plover [sp] (Charadrius mongolus)
Painted-snipes (Rostratulidae)
Greater Painted-snipe (Rostratula benghalensis)
Sandpipers, Snipes (Scolopacidae)
Swinhoe's Snipe (Gallinago megala)
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
Ruddy Turnstone [interpres] (Arenaria interpres interpres)
Long-toed Stint (Calidris subminuta)
Gulls, Terns and Skimmers (Laridae)
Gull-billed Tern (Common) [affinis] (Gelochelidon nilotica affinis)
Greater Crested Tern [cristatus] (Thalasseus bergii cristatus)
Whiskered Tern [sp] (Chlidonias hybrida)
COLUMBIFORMES
Pigeons, Doves (Columbidae)
Rock Dove (Feral) (Columba livia ''feral'')
Red Turtle Dove [humilis] (Streptopelia tranquebarica humilis)
Spotted Dove (Eastern) [tigrina] (Spilopelia chinensis tigrina)
Philippine Cuckoo-dove [sp] (Macropygia tenuirostris)
Philippine Cuckoo-dove [tenuirostris] (Macropygia tenuirostris tenuirostris)
Common Emerald Dove [indica] (Chalcophaps indica indica)
Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata)
White-eared Brown Dove [sp] (Phapitreron leucotis)
White-eared Brown Dove (White-eared) (Phapitreron leucotis leucotis)
White-eared Brown Dove (Short-billed) [brevirostris] (Phapitreron leucotis brevirostris)
Amethyst Brown Dove (Amethyst) [amethystinus] (Phapitreron amethystinus amethystinus)
Amethyst Brown Dove (Grey-breasted) (Phapitreron amethystinus maculipectus)
Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans)
Philippine Green Pigeon [sp] (Treron axillaris)
Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove [occipitalis] (Ptilinopus occipitalis occipitalis)
Yellow-breasted Fruit Dove [incognitus] (Ptilinopus occipitalis incognitus)
Black-chinned Fruit Dove [leclancheri] (Ptilinopus leclancheri leclancheri)
Green Imperial Pigeon (Green) [palawanensis] (Ducula aenea palawanensis)
Green Imperial Pigeon (Green) [aenea] (Ducula aenea aenea)
CUCULIFORMES
Cuckoos (Cuculidae)
Rufous Coucal (Centropus unirufus)
Black-faced Coucal (Centropus melanops)
Philippine Coucal [sp] (Centropus viridis)
Philippine Coucal [viridis] (Centropus viridis viridis)
Philippine Coucal [mindorensis] (Centropus viridis mindorensis)
Lesser Coucal [javanensis] (Centropus bengalensis javanensis)
Lesser Coucal [philippinensis] (Centropus bengalensis philippinensis)
Rough-crested Malkoha [sp] (Dasylophus superciliosus)
Scale-feathered Malkoha (Dasylophus cumingi)
Violet Cuckoo [xanthorhynchus] (Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus xanthorhynchus)
Little Bronze Cuckoo [sp] (Chrysococcyx minutillus)
Rusty-breasted Cuckoo [sepulcralis] (Cacomantis sepulcralis sepulcralis)
Philippine Drongo-cuckoo [sp] (Surniculus velutinus)
Large Hawk-cuckoo (Hierococcyx sparverioides)
Philippine Hawk-cuckoo (Hierococcyx pectoralis)
STRIGIFORMES
Owls (Strigidae)
Everett's Scops Owl (Otus everetti)
Philippine Eagle-owl [philippensis] (Bubo philippensis philippensis)
Cebu Hawk-owl (Ninox rumseyi)
CAPRIMULGIFORMES
Frogmouths (Podargidae)
Philippine Frogmouth [sp] (Batrachostomus septimus)
Nightjars (Caprimulgidae)
Philippine Nightjar (Caprimulgus manillensis)
Apodiformes
Treeswifts (Hemiprocnidae)
Whiskered Treeswift [major] (Hemiprocne comata major)
Swifts (Apodidae)
Glossy Swiftlet [sp] (Collocalia esculenta)
Glossy Swiftlet (Philippine) [marginata] (Collocalia esculenta marginata)
Glossy Swiftlet (Philippine) [bagobo] (Collocalia esculenta bagobo)
Pygmy Swiftlet (Collocalia troglodytes)
Philippine Swiftlet (Aerodramus mearnsi)
Ameline Swiftlet (Grey) (Aerodramus amelis amelis)
Ameline Swiftlet (Palawan) (Aerodramus amelis palawanensis)
Philippine Spine-tailed Swift (Mearnsia picina)
Purple Needletail (Hirundapus celebensis)
Asian Palm Swift [pallidior] (Cypsiurus balasiensis pallidior)
Pacific Swift [sp] (Apus pacificus)
TROGONIFORMES
Trogons (Trogonidae)
Philippine Trogon [linae] (Harpactes ardens linae)
CORACIIFORMES
Rollers (Coraciidae)
Oriental Dollarbird [sp] (Eurystomus orientalis)
Kingfishers (Alcedinidae)
Spotted Wood Kingfisher [lindsayi] (Actenoides lindsayi lindsayi)
Stork-billed Kingfisher [gouldi] (Pelargopsis capensis gouldi)
White-throated Kingfisher (Brown-breasted) (Halcyon smyrnensis gularis)
Collared Kingfisher (Collared) [collaris] (Todiramphus chloris collaris)
Common Kingfisher (Common) [bengalensis] (Alcedo atthis bengalensis)
Northern Silvery Kingfisher (Ceyx flumenicola)
Bee-eaters (Meropidae)
Blue-tailed Bee-eater [philippinus] (Merops philippinus philippinus)
Blue-throated Bee-eater (Rufous-crowned) (Merops viridis americanus)
BUCEROTIFORMES
Hornbills (Bucerotidae)
Palawan Hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei)
Luzon Hornbill [sp] (Penelopides manillae)
Samar Hornbill (Penelopides samarensis)
Visayan Hornbill [panini] (Penelopides panini panini)
PICIFORMES
Asian Barbets (Megalaimidae)
Coppersmith Barbet [haemacephalus] (Psilopogon haemacephalus haemacephalus)
Coppersmith Barbet [cebuensis] (Psilopogon haemacephalus cebuensis)
Woodpeckers (Picidae)
Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker [sp] (Yungipicus maculatus)
Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker [validirostris] (Yungipicus maculatus validirostris)
Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker [fulvifasciatus] (Yungipicus maculatus fulvifasciatus)
White-bellied Woodpecker [sp] (Dryocopus javensis)
White-bellied Woodpecker [mindorensis] (Dryocopus javensis mindorensis)
Spot-throated Flameback (Dinopium everetti)
Buff-spotted Flameback [sp] (Chrysocolaptes lucidus)
Luzon Flameback (Chrysocolaptes haematribon)
PSITTACIFORMES
Cockatoos (Cacatuidae)
Red-vented Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia)
Old World Parrots (Psittaculidae)
Green Racket-tail (Prioniturus luconensis)
Blue-crowned Racket-tail (Blue-crowned) (Prioniturus discurus whiteheadi)
Guaiabero [lunulatus] (Bolbopsittacus lunulatus lunulatus)
Philippine Hanging Parrot [sp] (Loriculus philippensis)
PASSERIFORMES
Broadbills (Eurylaimidae)
Visayan Broadbill (Sarcophanops samarensis)
Pittas (Pittidae)
Philippine Pitta (Blue-breasted) [propinqua] (Erythropitta erythrogaster propinqua)
Hooded Pitta (Philippine) [sordida] (Pitta sordida sordida)
Hooded Pitta (Philippine) [palawanensis] (Pitta sordida palawanensis)
Azure-breasted Pitta [coelestis] (Pitta steerii coelestis)