Saturday, July 28, 2012
Philippines January -February 2014
I travelled to the Philippines in 2002 and 2010 on general birding trips. On these trips I saw Eastern grass owl, Palawan, lowland Luzon, Mantanani and Giant scops owls, spotted wood owl and Luzon and chocolate hawk-owls. The purpose of this trip was to look for other Philippine owls that I had missed on the last two trips.
Jan 18th Tui's family dropped me off at PDX. I feel guilty leaving 6 month pregnant Tui with Charlie for 3 weeks, especially for putting myself in harm's way, when my family is so vulnerable. Once I step onto the plane, these concerns fade. It's a beautiful sunny afternoon. At SFO its a beautiful spring-like afternoon. PAL is using an old 747 to fly to Manila-I always have a hard time believing these giant planes can fly.
Jan 19th was lost to the international date line. This is still weird to me.
Jan 20th. After a couple of hours sleep I arrive in Manila around 3am. My plan for today is to go to Subic, and area of lowland forest to look for the rare and magnificent Philippine eagle-owl. Manila feels familiar and comfortable to me. It's busy despite the hour.
I catch a cab to the Victory Liner terminal on Rizal Ave. The lady security guard at the bus terminal grills me about my marital situation and intentions at Subic. (As a former US naval base its still a popular place for sex tourists). For excellent birding information on Subic I used http://www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Philippines/Subic.html . My bus drops me off at Olangapo, and from there I take a cab to the Crown Peak Hotel in Subic. I kill some time catching up on sleep and prepping for the night. That afternoon I explore the forest along the road to the hospital and down to the bay. The forest at Subic is great and I run into a group of macaques and some huge roosts of flying foxes.
After a meal I sleep some more. My alarm goes off at 6pm, and I have to struggle to rouse my sorry self. Outside I feel better, it's a beautiful sunset and a warm breeze flows off the South China Sea. I hear an owl, that sounded like a Chocolate Boobook, but I can't get it to respond to my tape. Along the road to the hospital I find four Luzon hawk-owls without taping-just by the street lights. I also hear several more! I also hear a couple of lowland Luzon scops-owls and finally tape one in for a great view along the waterfall trail near the hospital. I love the crazy white eye-brows that flow into the ear-tufts. Its an amazing looking owl. And twice the size of the hawk-owls. Along the trail I find a beautiful 9' python.
Back at the hotel grounds in response to my tape I hear a distant eagle-owl far below to the south east. It does not fly in, so I make the long walk down towards the Mangrove Trail. I never did hear another call. It was getting late, and I was tired and thirsty, but I persevered, and a few kilometers later I came to a road on the left that parallels a creek. On it's right is a large gated building. A dog barked and a security guard buzzed me with his flashlight, but I continued down the side road. At the end of the building a big owl flew from a street light into an open tree. I was able to spotlight it-a Philippine eagle owl! My most wanted owl in the Philippines! I got within 20 meters and got great looks at its massive golden eyes, big gray bill, streaked flanks, big feet, short tail, and dark flight feathers. Wow! What a brilliant owl.
I pressed on down the road looking for Chocolate boobook. At the end of the road another guy with a flashlight started spotlighting me. I made a hasty u-turn and snook back to the coast road. I played tapes along the road back to the hotel but got no responses. After 30km of walking I was exhausted by the time (4am) I got back to the hotel. I fell into a fitful sleep filled with dreams. Every time I woke I remember-I have seen it!
Jan 21st I wake at 10am. I decide that I would like to go for Chocolate boobook tonight-a bird I have seen before, but it would be new for the trip. After a heavy Filipino breakfast, I head out to Olangapo. Before heading to the Mountain Woods Resort where the boobook had been reported, I check the bus schedule and to my dismay see that the last bus to Manila leaves at 730pm. This does not give me time to look for the boobook, so I catch the next bus back to Manila.
I arrive in Pasay, which at rush hour is a bit intense with dusty street whores and shoeless waifs wandering around in traffic. I grab some street food, and (struggle) to find a hotel that's not a brothel. I sleep early and well after last night's efforts.
January 22nd I am up at 230am. After a hot shower, I feel ready to take on the world. I catch a cheep cab to the airport. The terminal feels so familiar after spending so many hours there on my 2010 trip with Shaun. By deftly hiding my second bag, I am able to dodge the weight restrictions on the flight to Basco in the Batanes. (The Batanes are a group of remote island halfway to Taiwan. They are home to Elegant scops-owl. The form that occurs on the Batanes may be split into a Philippine endemic, the Calayan Scops-owl. Either way it was a new owl for me). The flight started beautifully, ascending above Manila's orange dusty dawn. As we flew into Basco the flight got progressively rougher. I fucking hate those kind of flights, and by the time we were in final approach, plunging haphazardly towards the ground, I was sick with fear. Moments before we violently bounced down the runway, some old guy gets up to take a piss! Everyone shouted at him to take a seat. What a fucking relief to be alive.
I stayed at Shanedels Inn. Despite a couple of recommendations, the place was chaotic. In front of the hotel, a big surf ate away at the cliff beneath Shanedels, and pounded the hulk of a collapsed freighter that had died by the wharf. I had a tough time finding something good to eat in town. Eventually I found a tiny cafe that served tinier plates of pancit. I asked for the tourist office, where they purportedly had maps. I was told that it was closed. When will it open? "Later". I make do with Google maps and figure out a route into the forest that hopefully avoids the strong winds which have me worried that they will ruin the owling tonight. I head out to the west side of Mt Iraya and eventually find some reasonable forest. It's really windy here, so the key to finding a good owling site, is to find forested gullys.
Back in town I ate some salted barbecue pork belly. Cold and pretty much devoid of meat, its hard to stomach. I laze around in waiting for the day to end. At 5pm I set out back along the same route going north west of town towards Mt Iraya. Part of the route goes through an incredibly windy gap to a shoreline road that runs past the relentlessly pounding ocean. At a small bridge in the low point of the road I turn right and go inland following a dry river bed. At my third attempt a largish scops owl flies in and perches obviously. I get a great view of an Elegant (Calayan) scops-owl-yellow eyes, small ear tufts, weakly marked underparts, brownish chest fading to an ochre-yellow belly. The bird made a double note call, given at 20 second intervals. (The same quality as George Wager's recordings: http://www.xeno-canto.org/53943 from Calayan, but with a wider interval). The bird also made both a soft bark and a short quiet bark. A half a kilometer upstream I hear a second bird. A kilometer higher up the main track I hear a third bird. Eventually a barking dog convinces me to turn around. On the way back I try taping in the hedgerows and gardens, but find nothing. Given the wind, I feel lucky to have found the owl so easily.
Jan 25th. Despite my best efforts to sleep in I wake at 5am. Surprisingly I am greeted by a calm day and blue skies follow. The ocean looks beautiful. I watch a plucky little open boat depart for the neighboring island of Itbayat.
Breakfast is pretty horrific-fried canned sausage and fried bread. I try and walk it off by exploring the woods around the airport, then decide to hire a motor bike to better explore the island. The ride was pretty fun-I explore the whole island. I had coffee at Honesty Coffee House-where there is no shopkeeper-just an honesty box. A celebration of the honesty of the local people. On the east coast the scenery is really wild-mostly treeless with grazing animals and wild bluffs pounded by big waves. I stopped here and there, but mostly it was fun just to ride. At one point I left the bike, and when I returned it had blown over in the wind-breaking off a mirror. Towards the end of the ride I scoped out some owling locations near Basco.
Back in Basco, I replaced the mirror for 195 pesos. After that I killed time walking and emailing. Tui had found an online recommendation for six to eight Panciteria, which was indeed a much better place to eat.
At dusk I walked along the western side of the airport. It was a beautiful scene, the people of Basco using the airfield as a park, taking an evening walk or bike ride, girls and boys flirting with the setting sun. After dark, I owled alongside the airport, but to no avail. I then checked the Contracosta road for owls, but found none. A bit defeated, I had a drink back in my room and called it an early night.
Jan 24th I awoke to another beautiful dawn at Basco. I packed, had a coffee and watched the ocean. The bill was irregular, which is always irritating to deal with. "Fake Casio calculator" was the explanation!
As I thought about my schedule, I realized I was going to have a hard time reaching Mt Polis tonight. (Mt Polis is in Northern Luzon and is a reliable location for Luzon scops-owl). This wasn't helped by having to check my tent poles-because they were considered a potential weapon. At least the flight to Manila was sweet and smooth. I grab a cab to the Quezon Victory Liner station. It's a long hot ride and the cabbie complains about the lousy governance of the Philippines. It's a long wait for the next bus (to Solano). A woman selling soft drinks eagerly inquires about my marital status-when I need a second drink, I decide to head round the corner to Seven Eleven, where drinks come without propositions. It's a long slow ride to Solano, and I don't arrive until 9pm. It's too late to make it to Mount Polis, so I stay at the AMPM hotel. I feel a bit deflated not to be owling tonight and wish for my own wheels.
Jan 25th I am up early at 4am, and after a shower feel ready to face the world. I only have to wait ten minutes for a Jeepney to head off to Lagawe. As we ascend the cordillera the sky turns orange, then is briefly obscured by mist, then returns brilliant blue. It's wonderfully chilly. At Lagawe I have a minute for a coffee and a scrawny thigh of fried chicken.
Its a short slow ride to Banaue. there I have a quick meal, check email, then charter a motor trike to Mt Polis. Fortunately I can remember the way-because my driver starts me in the wrong direction. Christian Artuso had been owling here in 2012 and recommended Hannah's Coffee House as a place to stay at Mt Polis. (This is way better than camping). I was put up in an upstairs bedroom at Hannah's, and I was also shown the trail system that starts at a large Virgin Mary Statue. The trail system wasn't bad-at least 2km though mossy forest interspersed with small fields. I saw a couple of Luzon Racket tails which was a new bird for me.
Back at Hannah's I refueled on noodles and coffee. I then made my way north on the main road towards Bontoc. When taking a roadside piss, I splash on a coiled black snake that is tied by it's mouth to a stake. I can't tell if it's caught in a trap, or has eaten a smaller snared animal. Regardless it's disturbing!
By now is hot and sunny, which is a welcome reprieve from the earlier cold and mist. At a small water feature a couple of kilometers down the road I find a Luzon jungle-flycatcher. There isn't much along the road that inspires me to owl here at night, although the open pine forests below offer the promise of a new habitat from the cloud forest along the peaks and ridges. On the way back to the summit I get a ride from a couple of friendly guys in a van. After a Coke and a quick rest I check out the main road to the south of the pass, where I don't find much good habitat and soon give up.
Back at the summit around dusk I eat some good beef stew, have another Coke and am then ready for the night. I head back along the trail that starts at the Virgin statue For three hours I walk the trail slowly and tape regularly. I hear a couple of intriguing sounds, but nothing materializes into an owl. Then back at the beginning of the forest near the pass I get a response. Walking quietly towards the owl, taping as I go, a small owl flies over me. Soon I track it down, and get a great view of a Luzon scops-owl perched above the trail. I am able to see its yellow eyes, big ear-tufts, whitish supercillium, white throat, whitish belly and pale grayish -white toes. The overall color of the upper parts and chest are brown, and it's size medium small for a scops. While looking at it, it swooped down and landed into bush right next to me, then took off and grabbed a vine, from which it momentarily hung before flying off into a larger tree. Once in the tree it continued calling only this time instead of uttering a single note, it made a two note call. Excellent! This was a really wanted bird for me, having looked for it and missed it in 2002 and 2010. What an exciting owl.
I was back at Hannah's at 930pm and her place was locked as she said it would be. I tried banging on the door, and throwing gravel at the window, but got no answer. Oh well time for a Red Horse beer! I convinced a shop keeper to open up their closed store and sell me a celebratory beverage. Then back to Hannah's. After banging the door about as loudly as humanly possible I decided to get creative. I eventually climbed up some scaffolding up to a balcony on the third floor. When I knocked on the door from the balcony the very confused lady came out and let me in from the balcony.
Jan 26th I slept fitfully, too excited by last night. At 4am I was wide awake, but with nowhere to go, I lay in bed and waited for both the sun and my hostess to arise. It was an incredible sunrise over cloud-filled valleys and terraced green slopes. Above me towered Mount Polis and a perfect sky fading from orange to blue.
After a robust breakfast I began walking down the mountain, and made it 11km, before picking up a bus that took me all the way to Bagabay. From here I only have to wait a minute for a Manila-bound bus. Tedious movies ensue on a surprisingly slow journey which lands me in Cubao at 10pm. I can't face Manila at this hour, so take a cab to the airport. I spend a surprising comfortable, brief night asleep on the airport floor.
Jan 27th I am up at 230am, and check in for my very early flight to Davao. I manage to dodge the weight restrictions for carry on again. And I get to sleep a little on the short flight. I am relived to see that Davao is hot and sunny-a week ago I had seen photos of a very flooded Davao, and had been worried that this leg of the trip would be impossible because of the flooding. My plan is to travel to Mt Apo, where both Minadanao scops-owl and Mindanao hawk-owls have been reported. I take a cab to the bus terminal and the a bus out to Kidapawan (the jumping off point for Mount Apo). Without coffee I have a pounding headache, exacerbated by an ever more intense need to piss. I am much relived to take care of these needs once I arrive. Then I go to the tourist office to arrange permits for climbing Mt Apo. This is the world's friendliest tourist office-they serve me coffee, share a pizza lunch with me and sort out my permit and guide: Arnel. Arnel and I then take off to buy groceries, rum (for the cold) and fuel. Then we take a motorbike to the trail head. I start down the trail, past some hot springs and sulfur vents while Arnel picks up Durwin, our porter. We crossed a river six times, using bamboo bridges or by wading against the swift current. After a couple of hours we reach a fork in the trail and set up camp. I am not too sure of the elevation-perhaps 1300m here. Before dinner I climb the steep trail that climbs away from the river-apart from it's steepness, its a decent trail that passes through nice forest. I return at dusk and we eat a huge dinner-whenever I camp with Filipino people, it seems like an excuse to indulge in a lot of food. Arnel is really good cook, and its hard to stop eating.
After dinner it takes a while to convince Arnel to let me go out owling-go tomorrow, go when you see a moon, when its stopped raining etc. Despite his concerns that I will get lost, I take off. We agree I will return in two hours, and after three hours of very wet steep owling (for both scops and hawk-owls) I return to a worried Arnel. Back at the camp, I have a quick drink, before Arnel and Durwin polish off the rest of the bottle. Fueled by rum, I crawl into a wet tent and sleep and shiver the whole night through.
Jan 28th I awaken at first light to discover Durwin has left for civilization to pick up another bottle of rum! I have a coffee and eat and a talk with Arnel. To kill time I wander upstream and find a Goodfellow's jungle-flycatcher just past the campground. What a fabulous little bird. Then I pack my sodden gear and start the very steep hike. After 90 minutes, I am surprised to come to the next camp site, called Ko-ong which is at 1700m or so. The site is a small damp meadow, by a creek, that's populated by frogs and litter. I plan to owl above the site tonight for Mindanao Scops-owl.
We spend a lot of the middle of the day resting and eating. I try and dry out my gear when the sun briefly appears. I do a little exploring to figure out the trail ahead. Then eat again, before taking off at 4pm, up a ridiculously steep trail towards Lake Vernao. On the way up, the sky clears and reveals Mt Apo above. Inspired by the view, I start climbing quickly, and soon reach Lake Verano, and climb beyond to the treeline at about 2400m. By now its cold and dusk, so I wait for the skies to darken and the owls to come out. As I wait I see Whiteheads swiftlets and hear Bukidnon woodcock. Its pretty magical place-cold and isolated. It's a fantastic starry night, and I have high hopes, but after three hours of painstaking owling down an incredibly steep trail, I have nothing to show for my efforts. Not yet defeated I eat a big diner, then head back down the trail towards the first camp. Still no owl! At 11pm I crawl into my bag, wet and muddy to sleep.
Jan 29th At 230am I get up, and with rare discipline retrace my steps up the trail to Lake Verano, then take a right and descend steeply down a new trail. After an hour it starts to pour so I try and rush back to camp, but its all but impossible to rush on the terrain. Thoroughly soaked, I retreat into my now soaking sleeping bag and try to sleep.
At 7am, the sun awakens me. After a coffee I feel good again. Well, until I think about the scops-owl. We enjoy a breakfast of champions-pilchards and rice, then return to the trailhead. Once back in civilisation, Arnel discovers his daughter is sick with a fever. We head into Kidpanwan, where he meets with his family and takes her to the hospital. Durwin helps me out, taking me to an Internet cafe, then a restaurant, and finally to visit an old friend of Arnel's, where we wait. The friend is a decaying sort of guy, friendly but like wet cardboard or an spoiled fruit-some one you would avoid if possible. I spend the afternoon talking with Arnel's friend and washing my gear. After a few hours Arnel returns, his daughter was admitted, but he's certain she will be fine. We pack and then ride out to Barangay Perez, in Kidapawan's watershed. Here at 800m, I plan to look for Everette's scops-owl and Mindanao hawk-owl. We meet with a porter, Lorenzo, and head out to a his farm that's 3/4km above the barangay's basketball court. There is a small hut on his farm, where we stay. I am told the NPA (insurgents) are active in the area, though there is little concern about them-folks in the community seem to hold them in high esteem and show no fear of them. When we arrive, its absolutely dark. Lorenzo points out some trails, which end up being a maze of little paths through his fruit trees. I am a bit disappointed, as I had asked for access to the forest. I return and implore Arnel to help me get into the forest. Lorenzo sends me out on another trail, that's wet and muddy. It does not lead into the forest, but at least runs along the edge of it. Still no owls, and by 10pm I return to the hut. There the guys are excited, because they can hear a distant owl. I head out again with Lorenzo, and am shocked as I get closer to realize it's a Mindanao scops-owl, a rare bird at such a low elevation. My holy grail!
The owl is by a gully and the terrain is fucking horrendous-a steep viney forested slope broken up between bits of cliff. The owls calling from some very high trees, the view of them is obscured by a middle story of tree ferns. All the plants sting or have thorns. I slip and fall a lot. The owl is wholly indifferent to my tape. When I try and spotlight it, it moves on to another location, and resumes singing. I slip and fall, climb and fall, slip and climb and slide chasing that owl. And eventually give up. It's midnight and I am tired and defeated by this owl. I lie in my bag and listen to it call. Later its joined by a calling giant scops-owl. I try and ignore them both and feel terrible about myself. It's after midnight and despite the rum, I am cold. Everything is wet and muddy.
Jan 30th At 430am I wake up the guys. They all chain smoke as we pack up. Then we make our way back to the village. Lorenzo awakens a driver, who takes us down towards Kidpanwan. Alas we get a flat, and have to wait a while, then walk before picking up a second bike to take us the rest of the way into town. I say goodbye to Arnel, then catch a van to Davao.
I am at the airport early. My wet feet stink, and my clothes are caked with mud so I try and sneak into the baby-changing room to wash off. The janitor spots me, and sends me into her closet and lends me a brush and soap. It's not ideal, as her coworkers come by to watch and pepper me with questions. Still I clean off the worst of the mud. Up in the lounge I dry out my wretched feet.
I contemplate my missed owls and realize I will be back someday.
The flight to Cebu is uneventful. I take a taxi to the Supercat terminal, for the 330pm service to Tagbilaran, Bohol. The boat has AC, and it's nice to feel dry again. I arrive at Tagbilaran's bus terminal at dusk and discover that I have missed to last bus that runs to Rajah Sikatuna National Park. A cool guy with a bike offers to take me. On the map, it's just 40km, but because of a big earthquake a lot of bridges are down and we have to weave across the island on small roads to find a passable route. It's a beautiful night for a ride. Coincidentally the driver's wife lives by the park entrance, so we pay her a surprise visit-she looks so happy to see her man.
I've visited Rajah Sikatuna in 2002, and it's great to be back. It's a lovely forested park with great trails than run through little limestone hills. I actually hear my first Everette's scops-owl when paying the driver. I soon get an in flight view of a calling bird along the entrance road. The calls were consistently like George Wager's recordings on Xeno-canto http://www.xeno-canto.org/53972 . Triumphant, I head back and find the park guard who sets me up a mattress in the education building. I then return to the forest and owl for a few more hours to try and get a good view of a perched owl. I end up hearing several more scops-owls and a Luzon hawk-owl, but see none. The forest floor is infested with huge millipedes, which momentarily look like coiled snakes to my tired eyes.
Jan 31st What a schedule! To try for the 8am ferry to Dumaguette, I get up at 430 and hike out of the park. At the bus stop I watch the transition from night to day, returning bats, stray dogs and joggers go by. The bus to Tagbilaran is pretty swift, and I make it to the dock by 745am.......only to be told that there is a category one typhoon coming, and that no boats will be sailing. I am surprised, it's a lovely day. My first thought is to weather the storm. I ask around and the consensus is that it won't be severe. I wait and think about my state-I have sores all over my arm and hand from a poisonous plant, I have a couple of hideous boils growing on my thigh and I smell terrible. By 11am the typhoon has been upgraded to a category two, so no ferries will sail today, and likely none for a couple of days. I find a filthy green concrete hotel, that looks stout enough to withstand a storm. I wash my sorry self and horrendous clothes, then head out to find the internet. After some research, I realize I can fly to Manila, so rush over to the PAL office and buy a ticket. More rushing around and I am soon at the terminal.
During the short flight I work hard to rewrite my itinerary for the rest of the trip. I decide to start at Mindoro (home of two endemic owls, the Mindoro scops-owl and Mindoro hawk-owl); then head south east from there as time allows. Once I arrive in Manila, I hit the ATM because these changes will be spendy, then take a cab to Pasay and board a express bus to Batangas. From there I catch a 9pm Starlight ferry to Calapan on Mindoro. I sleep for the entire ride on the wonderfully warm smokey boat.
I end up at a decent hotel by the wharf at Calapan, where I can dry off in the AC.
Feb 1st I take a bike down the street to Apak Outdoor shop to arrange a trek to Mt Halcon, home of the Mindoro scops owl. The owner Richard recommends I wait a day for the upcoming typhoon to pass, and suggests Talipanan Beach as a location I can to find lowland forest and look for Mindoro hawk-owl.
I take a van to Puerto Galera, and a bike up to Talipanan Beech where I find a room at a modest resort. A local kid shows me the trail to Mt Talipanan. The trail passes some falls, and after exploring the slopes, which were steep and though crappy scrubby forest, I return and slip by the falls on some wet bedrock. I am not badly hurt, but my knee is bloodied and pants are torn. That afternoon I worry about the weather and about our climb on Halcon being cancelled. (All day the weather is pretty bad).
By mid afternoon I set out looking for better forest. I hike up to Ponderosa Golf resort, which is a steep windy climb. At the resort I find a trail to the left than runs through excellent forest to a quarry. I reach the quarry shortly before dusk, but have to wait a couple of hours for the worst of the rain to die down. Then I work back down the track, taping for Mindoro hawk-owl as I go. Despite the rain and wind I get a response after 15 minutes. An owl flies overhead a couple of times, and eventually I spotlight wet owl on a perch. What a relief after a fucked up couple of days. The owl looked bigger than a Luzon hawk-owl, and was warm brown above, with dense barring on the head and neck, the breast and belly were orange-brown with fine dark brown bars. Eyes are yellow. The call is like a less intense version of barn owl's screech, given in paired notes. Brilliant! Moments later it starts to pour and the wind gusts and bends the trees. Fireflies blow by overhead like sparks in the wind. An owl in a typhoon. Brilliant!
It's along walk and then bike ride back to the resort. I celebrate with a fish dinner and a couple of Red Horse beers. I call Richard from a borrowed phone, who informs me that the NPA and Filipino army clashed on Mt Halcon and he can't get a permit to take me there.
Back at my room I discover that leeches have gotten to me and riverlets of blood run from my bites soaking my woolen socks crimson.
Feb 2nd I get up at 445am and walk towards Puerto Galera, hoping for a passing ride. It's a beautiful night-the typhoon has passed and it's calm and starry. I feel disappointed not to be climbing Mt Halcon today. Eventually I catch a ride with a passing cycle. At Puerto Galera I pick up a van for Calapan, where I change and get another van for Roxas. I want to sleep, but its impossible as the van drives so erratically, and there really isn't space for my big self in the cramped van.
Roxas is a humid busy little port. I eat chicken and rice while swatting away lazy flies. There are no boats running to Tablas today, so I take a ferry to Caticlan. (Tablas is home to Romblon hawk-owl, my next target. Caticlan is an alternate gateway to Tablas). The ship is big and rusty, but being on the open water with the breeze is just great. During the crossing we are accompanied by a school of dolphins. When we arrive at Caticlan, there is a ship at the docks and another waiting ahead of us. Its a long four hours we have to wait before disembarking. I felt so trapped by the situation I pondered jumping in the warm sea and swimming ashore. Common sense prevails! I am forced to endure the ships toilet again and again. A urinal soap is confusing placed by the sink, and I try to wash my hands with it. The door to the stall has no latch, instead I have to tie it closed with the world's filthiest rag.
Once ashore, I find a hotel room. I can't find Internet or beer, so settle down for some crap TV and an early night.
Feb 3rd I get up early and find the man with a tiny table who sells tickets to Tablas. The pump boat does not leave till mid morning, and arrives at Tablas at noon. I hire a motor bike to take me across the island to San Augustin. There I check into the Hotel August. The friendly owner knows about the special birds of Tablas. I find the Internet in town and eat a fish diner. I hire another bike to take me out to the village of Dubduban. I then start hiking up a ridge that leads to the mountainous interior of Tablas. I follow the trail for an hour before it ends at a small clearing high above town. By now it's 5pm. At the clearing I see Tablas fantail and Streak-breasted bulbul. I wait around until dark, then start taping for Romblon hawk-owl. I immediately get a response far below in thick forest. The owls don't fly in, so I try to descend towards them. Alas the forest is too dense, and reluctantly I give up. As I hike back along the trail I hear about 8 hawk-owls. They have a really diverse vocabulary, as well as the typical series of notes, they have a roaring growl, and a single note call. I am really disappointed that I can't get one to come into view. A terrible pessimism sets in-it's been an increasingly hard trip and this is such a frustrating night. The whole thing seems hopeless if the owls won't fly in. I arrive back in town after 10pm, eat some junk food and set my alarm for 1am.
Feb 4th I awake at 1am, and feel surprisingly OK. On my way out to Dubduban, I tape out a pair of Mantanani Scops-owls, and get a fair view of them. At the end of the road, by the falls, I get a response from pair of Romblon hawk-owls. The birds are in an area of palms and tall trees. They have loud calls, and I am continually surprised how far away they are. I eventually see one owl fly from one tree into the dense canopy of another, but fail to get a full color view of a perched bird. To this end, I persevere for a long time. The owls move about and call, but I am never able to nail them in my spotlight. I make it back to my hotel at 4am, which gives me time to clean up and catch my 430am motorcycle to the ferry at Santa Fe at the far end of Tablas. The bike ride is beautiful, riding through misty fields and smoke filled villages. The little pump boat starts on time, but a couple of miles out into the sea the motor dies. The guys replace a fan belt and an hour later, but dies after a few minutes. No one has minutes on their phone, so they text for help. Another pump boat passes, but it's too far away to recognize our distress. I try and sleep, but its boiling under the blue tarp that covers us. The guy in front of me moves his plastic chair, and inadvertently breaks through the deck of the boat with a leg of the chair. The boat is truly a piece of junk! After another hour the motor is started and soon we are in Caticlan.
Once in town I inquire about a flight to Cebu, but they only have expensive standby tickets for sale. I decide instead to make my way to Negros by land and sea. (Negros is home to the Negros scops owl). The first step of the journey is a five hour cramped van ride across Panay to Iloilo. I just make the last ferry to Bacalod. I arrive there at 7pm, and decided to try to get to Mt Canloan that night to look for Negros scops-owl. This involves a tricycle ride to the bus depot, a bus ride to La Carlota and another tricycle up to Guintubdan. I make it to Guintubdan by 10pm. It's a sort of small hill station on the slopes of Mt Canloan.
I am able to camp at Guintubdan Visitor Center, which is a steal. Plus it's a beautiful night with a quarter moon, orange from the burning of the cane fields. After setting up camp, I sneak past the security guard and explore the road looking for good forest. A couple of hundred yards up the road, I find a Luzon hawk owl singing in a tree. I continue up the road, taking the first, then second left, past Raphael Sales Nature park. Near where the road starts to descend I hear a calling Negros scops-owl. Soon I have a great view. It's clearly smaller than a Lowland Luzon scops, but with similar white eye brows that lead up into its ear-tufts. The cheeks and neck are bright rufous, contrasting with the white breast and belly. The breast and belly show only faint blackish fine bars. The eyes are orange-brown. Excellent! What a great find. I am so glad I made the effort to get out here tonight. By the time I make it to my tent, I am tired and thirsty but very content.
Feb 5th I get up at 430am, and pack up my tent, then walk off the mountain, down to the cane fields far below. Eventually I find a tricycle, who takes me the rest of the way to La Carlota. From there I take a bus into Bacalod. Once in town I find an ATM and an internet cafe. Then it's a short jeepney ride to the bus terminal, and a four hour bus journey to San Carlos. Once at San Carlos I wait a couple of hours, then catch a short ferry over to Cebu. Once in Cebu, I take a jeepney to Balambam. By now it's dusk and I am anxious to make it over to Tabunan, in time to look for Cebu hawk-owls. I soon find a motorcycle taxi to take me to Tabunan. It's an amazingly hilly dramatic ride, made even better by a beautiful calm night. The rider knows the way, and once in the village of Tabunan, I have no trouble tracking down Oking, the local forest ranger and bird guide. We both remember each other from my visit in 2010. Oking is incredibly hospitable and well organized. Within half an hour of arriving unannounced at his home, we are on the trail owling.
Soon we have a Cebu hawk-owl flying overhead. Minutes later we see three more Cebu hawk-owls surround us. Each calls vigorously from exposed perches! Finally we see a fifth bird, really close, low in a small tree. The owls are bigger than Luzon hawk-owl, with yellow eyes and a conspicuous white throat. The chest and belly is rufous-brown and strongly barred with darker bars. Upper parts are brown and flight feathers are dark with lighter spots or bars. The underwing covers are white with chocolate bars. The calls are diverse and energetic. Frequently they would perch out in the open and hold their wings open, like a mantling hawk, creating the impression of a much bigger bird. They were very active, calling vigorously and moving around the canopy as they called.
Back at Okings, I filled out his log book, then we made arrangements for his son to take me up to the main highway. Once at the highway Oking's son tells me it isn't safe to leave me here. Despite my protests, he insists on taking me to Cebu City, which is an hour away. Once at Cebu I find an internet cafe, and settle down to buy airline tickets to Camiguin and back to Manila. Alas the security features on my credit card prevent me from making a purchase. I end up taking a cab to the airport, where I am able to directly buy a flight to Cagayan del Oro and another back to Manila. By midnight I am all done, and find a place to sleep on the floor, until I have to check in for my flight.
Feb 6th I slept like a log on the airport floor. My flight was smooth, we even arrive early and are forced to circle the runway until its light enough to land! Its a long ride into town. Once there I feast on siao paos and coffee, then take a bus out to Balingasag. From there, I catch a ferry to the small volcanic island of Camiguin. From the harbour I rent a motorbike and head out to Mambojao. I find a hotel and wash everything. Its been a while and it feels good to be clean again.
After a good Filipino lunch and email, I ride around looking for good forest. I eventually make my way to Itum, a village high above town at a pass between two volcanoes. Where the road disintegrates to a track, I park my bike, and continue on by foot. After a few kilometers the habitat deteriorated, so I rest up and wait for darkness to come. I saw a couple of camiguin sur yellowish bulbuls. Just as it becomes dark, the wind picks up and it starts to pour. Undefeated I make my way back towards the bike, stopping and taping for Camiguin hawk-owl whenever the rain lets up. Eventually lying on my back, and staring at the sky I see a hawk-owl fly overhead and into thick trees, where it sings. I try and approach the owl, but am blocked by a small cliff. I try taping some more, but eventually the owl stops singing. Close to my bike, at the top of the pass, I get another response, but fail to see that owl. It's wet and windy, so I decide to retreat, eat some food and then look for more sheltered forest. After a Coke and quarter chicken, I spend a few hours working the forested gullys and small woodlots. I ride up hills, then descend slowly on the bike, without the motor running, stopping every 200m to tape. By 1130pm I have run out of energy and give up on getting a full color view of Camiguin hawk-owl.
Feb 7th I stumble out of bed at 3am, hop on the bike and ride down to the pier, where I pick up a 4am ferry back to Balingasag on Mindanao. It's pouring by the time I reach Balingasag, which does not bode well for my plans to go owling on Mt Dulang Dulang tonight. (Mt Dulang Dulang is a rarely visited birding site, that is home to Mindanao scops-owl, the bird I had frustratingly failed to see at Mt Apo).
At Cagayan del Oro I hit the ATM again because this constant travelling is expensive. Then I take a bus to Malaybalay, a market town set in the mountainous tablelands of Mindanao. My appetite for one final effort is much diminished by the terrible weather. At Malaybalay, I transfer to the Philippine's slowest bus, which crawls along to Songco. From there a friendly guy points me in the direction of Binahon Farm in Barangay Bol-ogon. See http://www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Philippines/Dulang-dulang.html for more information. (The owner Henry Binahon is a progressive agricultural entrepreneur). It's great to finally arrive and spread out my gear to dry. I sleep a little and eat a good lunch and have coffee. I am now feeling much better about tackling this last attempt at finding Mindanao scops-owl. So even though its pouring outside, I make the steep hike up to the treeline. From the end of the track I take a wrong turn and end up at a small river. I back track and find the correct trail to Mt Dulang Dulang, which is a sharp left about 100m before the end of the track. By now it's 6pm, and nearly dark. Miraculously the rain lets up and a beautiful moon peers through the canopy. The trail is just beautiful, it climbs not too steeply through gorgeous mountain forest. I climb higher and higher, taping for Mindanao scops owl as I go. Just past a camp ground the wind picks up and I decide to turn around. It's a long walk back to the track, from there I resume taping as I walk back towards Binahon. Just before I leave the forest, I get a quiet response! I tape again and again. But hear nothing else. Then I turn on my headtorch, and right in front of my face, a tiny Mindanao scops-owl flushes, and flies into a tangle of vines and eventually out of view. Redemption! It's a small dark brown owl with extensive blackish markings on it's back, with long partially feathered thighs and pale feet.
It's a long steep walk back down to the farm. My knees burn and I slip on the steep clay road. Still nothing can diminish my enthusiasm. When I arrive at the farm, I am relived that the employees are not waiting up for me. (I found Filipino people often worried about my late night adventures).
Feb 8th I get up at 445am and stumble out of bed. This morning's target is giant scops-owl, a bird that I saw in 2002 on nearby Mt Katanglad. It's been reported on the farm, so I walk around and tape for it. Unfortunately I don't get a response. Soon it's too light to owl and I retreat back to my room for a little more sleep.
I am roused by a knock on the door to let me know that I have a huge breakfast to eat. It's a completely overwhelming meal of fish, pork and noodles, rich and salad. I barely make a dent in the food, and settle down to nice coffee instead. After breakfast I don't have much to do-basically I am waiting for it to get dark, so that I can go out and look for giant scops-owls. I try my best to catch up on sleep. In the middle of the day, Henry shows up. We talk about his farm, and ideas about farming. He is an interesting guy, who convinces me that progressive agricultural policies could transform the lives of millions of poor Filipino farmers. Eventually Henry returns to Malaybalay. I sleep for most of the afternoon. I get up just on time to make the steep hike up to the treeline by nightfall. From there I plan to return downhill and tape for giant scops owl in the small woodlots as I go. For an hour I do this, and don't get any response., Then it starts to rain torrentially, and I end up running back down the farm. The rain continues all evening. I eat another big dinner, then try to sleep, which isn't easy.
Feb 9th I get up at 345am and pack. Then I walk down towards Malaybalay, taping as I go. After 2km, I tape out a giant scops-owl. I get great views of it perched in an open tree. It strikes me more as a little eagle owl than a giant scops owl-having a massive bill. What a great way to finish the trip.
I continue walking towards Malaybalay, until it gets light, then I pick up a motorcycle to the next village, and then a bus to Malaybalay. I take another bus onto Cagayan del Oro, where I am pickpocketed out of 850 pesos! (It's been two decades since this last happened to me). The flight to Manila works out great, as does the transpacific flight to SFO. There is a big winter storm in the pacific northwest, and I don't make it home until 2am after a snowy cab ride home.
What a great trip. It's my third to the Philippines. It is always hard birding in the Philippines, with little habitat remaining and the birds being under intense pressure from hunters. It seems like every site involves a lot of hiking, usually up some really big mountains. Still the owls are amazing and Filipino people are wonderful, warm, helpful and great company. I ended up seeing 10 out of 12 owls that would have been lifers. I also saw four other owls that I had seen before. Many thanks to Rob, Christian, Bram, Adrian, Mike, Arne and Stijn for their invaluable advice.