I participated in the Jan-Feb [private] tour to the Philippines guided by Rich Lindie…. I have to say that Rich’s … indefatigable attempts to make our trip a success was exemplary in every way. His birding skills are definitely well above the norm in birding companies I am familiar with (including some very elite companies.) Rich is also enthusiastic, energetic, fun loving, patient and always in full control of his clients. In short, he is in the elite echelons of the guiding profession and should be considered a valuable asset to your organization. It is my intent to single out trips guided by him for my travel considerations.
Our 10-day Philippines Highlights birding tour is a far shorter version of our Endangered Endemics trip, and covers only the very best birding sites for those with less time to spend in the field, but still wishing for a fantastic overview of the region’s special species. Sites visited include St Paul’s National Park on Palawan, Mt Makiling, Mt Polis and Subic Bay with targets including the resplendent Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, Philippine Megapode, Philippine Serpent Eagle, Palawan Frogmouth, Luzon Hawk-Owl, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Scale-feathered and Red-crested Malkoha, Spotted Wood Kingfisher, Blue-headed Racket-tail, Coleto, Balicassiao, Red-keeled Flowerpecker and Guaiabero.
Philippine Serpent Eagle, Palawan Frogmouth, Luzon Hawk-Owl, Luzon Scops Owl, Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, Scale-feathered & Red-crested Malkohas, Spotted Wood Kingfisher, Hooded & Philippine Pitta, Philippine Megapode, Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, Blue-headed, Green & Montane Racket-tails, Palawan Hornbill, Ashy Thrush, Sooty & Philippine Pygmy Woodpeckers, Coleto, Balicassiao, Elegant & Palawan Tits, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Palawan, Red-keeled & Striped Flowerpeckers, Guaiabero
lowland and montane rainforest, woodlands, rivers and wetlands, mudflats
hot and humid, rain expected
moderate to brisk pace, some long walks on forest trails
St Paul’s underground river, fast disappearing forests
Day 1: Arrival in Manila & transfer to Palawan (Sabang)
After arriving in Manila, you will be met by your Rockjumper leader. We will then catch an early morning flight to Puerto Princesa on the elongated island of Palawan (Please note: In order to maximise today’s birding opportunities, it is suggested that you arrive the day before; which will also give you time to recover from your long international flight to the Philippines. We can assist you in arranging a night’s accommodation in Manila if you choose this option).
Although this island is often celebrated for its remarkable diving opportunities among vast coral reefs, it is also covered with beautiful landscapes characterised by a central mountain range of spectacular limestone cliffs that teem with endemic birds. Upon our arrival, we will make our way to a stretch of mangroves along the edge of the South China Sea where local fishermen collect their nets inside shallow wooden canoes. Here we will scan for shorebirds and egrets, including possibilities for the rare Chinese Egret. Afterwards, we will proceed towards Sabang and St. Paul’s National Park along the northern coast of the island, birding en route in tall mangrove habitat that should produce Copper-throated Sunbird. Further along, a scenic forested stretch may reveal a variety of interesting species, including the endemic Palawan Hornbill, Lovely Sunbird and Palawan Tit, as well as a chance for the resident Oriental Hobby that has nested in the past on the nearby cliff ledges. We will also target the Red-vented Cockatoo this afternoon where we may see them flying in to roost.
In the late afternoon, we will arrive at our accommodation on the beachfront and settle in for the next three nights of our Philippines birding tour. Along the coast, only a stone’s throw away, is a scene of conventional paradise: aqua-marine waters rolling onto vast white sand beaches, coconut trees blowing in the breeze, and all this beneath mountain cliffs lined with tropical vegetation! Night birding in the area surrounding our accommodation can be productive, and during at least one of our nights here we will venture out in search of Palawan Frogmouth (split from Javan Frogmouth) and Palawan Scops Owl, which has an impossibly quiet call that we will need to listen for very carefully.
Day 2: St Paul’s National Park
In the morning, we will board our sea vessel in time to watch the sun rise across the sea while making our way to St. Paul’s National Park. Declared a World Heritage Site, the park is beautifully located between high limestone cliffs and white sandy beaches covered by a patch of dense pristine forest. Huge Asian Monitor Lizards, sometimes over six feet in length, scavenge across the trails, agile Long-tailed Macaques scamper playfully, and within the forest, Philippine Megapodes scratch leaf litter onto their gigantic mound nests.
Ground-dwelling birds are particularly well represented within the reserve and besides Philippine Megapode, we hope to see the secretive Red-bellied and Hooded Pittas, the latter of which is pleasantly common in the reserve, as well as the striking Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful pheasants in the world. Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher can often be heard dashing from one perch to the next as we search for the attractive Blue-headed Racket-tail, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Stork-billed and Ruddy Kingfishers, White-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Leafbird that might be found in a fruiting tree along with Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, White-vented Shama, Ashy-headed Babbler creeping through the undergrowth, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, Common Hill Myna and the beautifully coloured Palawan Flowerpecker.
Another jewel of St. Paul’s National Park is the famous Underground River that flows for miles until emptying into the sea. As an optional excursion, participants are welcome to board small canoes with battery-powered spotlights that enter from the turquoise lagoon into the dark depths of the cave. Believed to be one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world, this is a magical experience and we have the chance to observe an unbelievable selection of pristine cave formations.
Day 3: St. Paul’s and Pandan Island
We will have the morning to search for those birds that we might have missed, and there are certainly difficult denizens of this area that can easily go unnoticed, such as the Palawan Flycatcher and secretive Falcated Wren-Babbler. After lunch, we will take a boat out to Pandan Island where we will look for Grey and Pied Imperial Pigeons and shorebirds such as Great-billed Heron before returning to our accommodations for the night.
Day 4: Palawan to Mt. Makiling via Manila
This morning on our Philippines birding tour, we will visit the lowland forest and grasslands of the Iwahig Penal Colony. Our primary target birds here are the localised Melodious Babbler and shy Palawan Flycatcher, both of which can be difficult in the dense tangled undergrowth of this tropical forest. The adjacent cultivated fields and flooded areas may also produce widespread but scarce species such as Watercock and Slaty-breasted Rail; while an organised walk through the grasslands also gives us the opportunity to try and flush out King Quail as well as Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes.
In the afternoon, we will catch our flight back to the capital city of Manila and thereafter transfer through to Mt. Makiling, an isolated mountain, still clad in tropical forest. If we have time, we may do a little birding this afternoon in the area.
Day 5: Mt. Makiling
We will have an entire day of our Philippines birding tour to bird on this inactive volcano, which harbours several of the Philippines’ fantastic forest birds. Normally the initial sounds typical of the forest are the eloquent White-browed Shama and the haunting calls of one of the most stunning kingfishers in the world, Spotted Wood Kingfisher. Proceeding slowly and quietly, we should have great views of these charismatic species and if we are very fortunate, we might find the secretive Ashy Thrush feeding on the side of the road.
The small network of steep dirt roads here follow the natural contours of the mountain ridges where the bordering forest, often dense in many places, supports a vast number of Philippine endemics. These include the shy White-eared Brown Dove, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Coleto, Philippine Bulbul, Balicassiao, the stunning Elegant Tit, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, skulky Grey-backed Tailorbird, Yellow-bellied Whistler and both Red-keeled and Striped Flowerpeckers. The strident calls of small flocks of tiny Guaiabero may alert us to look upwards, where we will also be keeping an eye out for whirling groups of Pygmy Swiftlets. As it warms up, we also hope to have our first encounter with the impressive and often vocal Philippine Serpent Eagle. The noisy song of Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo should eventually give away its location, while roadside flowers attract the endemic Flaming Sunbird. Mt. Makiling is also one of the best sites for the outrageous Scale-feathered and Rough-crested Malkohas, which move mostly silently below the canopy in search of insects and caterpillars, and we will also keep an ear out for the mournful calls of the rare Luzon Bleeding-heart.
After a full day in the field, we will return to Los Banos for the night. In the evening, we will listen for the characteristic calls of Philippine Hawk-Owl near our accommodation.
Day 6: Mt. Makiling to Mt. Polis via Candaba Marsh
Departing early this morning, we will travel to Banaue and the Cordillera Mountains in northern Luzon. Most of the habitat along this route has sadly been destroyed, having been replaced by rice cultivation and innumerable small towns and informal settlements.
Along the way, we will stop at the inconspicuous Candaba Marsh to search for a number of waterbirds that might include Philippine Duck, Island Collared Dove, Barred Rail, Plain Bush-hen, the outrageous Pheasant-tailed Jacana (often in breeding plumage), White-browed Crake and up to three species of bittern, depending on water levels; namely Yellow, Cinnamon and the scarce Black. After birding through this fantastic site, one of the few accessible wetlands remaining in the Philippines, we will continue our journey to Banaue where we will spend the next two nights of our Philippines birding tour. This is a fairly long drive today and we will be arriving at our accommodations in the early evening.
Day 7: Mt. Polis
Departing very early this morning, we will arrive at our first birding site in time to search for the rarely seen Luzon Scops Owl before dawn, though its soft call can be difficult to hear unless we are very close. We have a full day of our Philippines birding tour to spend along the remaining forested slopes of Mt. Polis, birding the tar road through stunted montane vegetation and dense secondary growth. The songs of Green-backed Whistler and cryptic Long-tailed Bush Warbler will likely alert us to the presence of these Luzon mountain endemics, and we’ll be keeping a watchful eye for the scarce Mountain Shrike that sits up on exposed snags. We’ll need to be quick, however, to see the rare Montane Racket-tail, which calls shrilly while flying high overhead; while roadside flowers could attract the glittering Luzon Sunbird and with luck, perhaps a pair of localised Flame-crowned Flowerpecker.
Mixed flocks often contain the active Blue-headed Fantail and Chestnut-faced Babbler, and we will listen for the bubbling song of Citrine Canary-flycatcher that is sometimes in attendance, as well as the sparse population of White-cheeked Bullfinch. At midday, we will then drive further along the mountain road, where we can scan for the localised Luzon Water Redstart that is sometimes found perched on rocks between the swift river rapids. From here we will also see the magnificent rice terraces of Banaue, extravagantly carved out of the mountains over two thousand years ago with only the aid of primitive hand tools! In the late afternoon, we return to Banaue for the night.
Day 8: Mt. Polis to Subic Bay
If time allows this morning, we will return to Mt. Polis for a final birding opportunity, searching through the moss-laden forest patches for species we might have missed, or simply to obtain better views of others. Unfortunately, some birds continue to become more difficult to find due to relentless habitat loss and trapping, and we should count ourselves very fortunate if we are able to catch a glimpse of the rare White-browed Jungle Flycatcher, Philippine Bush Warbler or the striking Flame-breasted Fruit Dove. The high-altitude endemic, Whiskered Pitta, can sometimes be heard calling from the mountainsides, but we will need considerable luck to see this remarkably enigmatic species as there are sadly no accessible trails into the steeper areas. Thereafter we will drive to Subic Bay in central Luzon, past countless villages and endless fields of rice and grain plantations.
Day 9: Subic Bay area
Today we will bird Subic Bay’s tall tropical forests in search of several scarce Luzon endemics. At dawn, it is sometimes possible to see thousands of Philippine and Golden-crowned Flying Foxes returning to daytime roosts before we arrive at our birding site. Among other more widespread Philippine specialities, we will specifically be targeting the localised Green Racket-tail that often whizzes past through the canopy, the tangle-loving Rufous Coucal, Blackish Cuckooshrike, the scarce arboreal White-lored Oriole and the seldom-seen White-fronted Tit. Although uncommon, Sooty Woodpecker is regularly encountered at this site and we should be able to find this massive woodpecker as well as more widespread species, including Whiskered Treeswift, Purple Needletail and perhaps Blue-naped Parrot.
Day 10: Subic Bay to Manila
This morning, we head back to Manila where the tour of these incredible islands will conclude and we will catch our respective flights home.