Saturday, March 31, 2012


With around 20 endemics, the long and narrow island of Palawan doesn’t have quite the same degree of endemism as Luzon and Mindanao but its avifauna is actually quite distinct from most of the Philippines. Palawan shares many species with the Sundaic region, especially Borneo, that lies less than 150 km south with a series on intervening small islands. Palawan is mostly forest clad and has numerous limestone outcrops like the one below…

Palawan is arguably the least impacted island in the Philippines and because of this remains the last bastion of some species that were once common throughout the archipelago, including the now critically endangered Philippine Cockatoo. With fewer than 1,000 individuals now remaining in the wild, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen a small flock of seven along the Palawan coast near Sabang. The following two photos show the beautiful pink undertail coverts of these handsome cockatoos.

The Blue-naped Parrot is another species found throughout the archipelago and on small islands in the Sulu sea. As with the cockatoo, this species is more common now on Palawan than elsewhere, where declines have caused them to be listed as near-threatened.

The islands in the Sulu sea between Palawan and Borneo and east towards Negros and Mindanao also have their set of endemic species. – these are technically not country endemics but they certainly are region endemics. The Grey Imperial Pigeon is a small island specialists, that is not found on larger islands like Palawan. This photo was taken on Pandan Island, a small island off Palawan. It is believed that these birds travel between islands to find fruit – it is otherwise hard to imagine how a large Imperial Pigeon like this could sustain populations on such tiny islands. This species is listed as vulnerable because of a small global range and increasing human pressure on the small islands in the Sulu Sea.

The Philippine Cuckoo-Dove is a Philippine endemic found throughout the archipelago, though formerly considered part of the Reddish Cuckoo-Dove species. It just so happens that Palawan was the only place I caught up with this species.

Palawan proper has some truly stunning endemics and none more so than the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant. Here are two photos of a male taken at St Paul’s Subterranean River National Park. To my eye, this globally vulnerable species is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. The iridescence on the ocelli on the tail and the mantle feathers has to be seen to be believed!

The classy Palawan Hornbill, with their all white tail and bill contrasting with the jet black plumage, is another Palawan favourite. This species is listed as vulnerable in part because of a small global range and apparently declining populations.

The Palawan Swiftlet is a Palawan endemic created by the split of the Island Swiftlet complex.

Though similar in appearance to many other bulbuls, the Sulphur-bellied Bulbul is a Palawan endemic. The pale yellow eye colour is one of the features that separate this species from other Palawan bulbuls.

In most parts of Asia there are some members of the exceptionally diverse babbler family that are skulking ground dwellers (often going by names such as ground-babbler or wren-babbler). Every large island of The Philippines has an endemic or two in this category and I was lucky on this trip to sneak good views of most of them. The greatest delight of all was crippling views of the Palawan endemic super skulker, Falcated Ground-Babbler. The contrast of rich chestnut upperparts against the beautifully etched black and white striping on the underparts is remarkable. This bird was singing just a few centimeters off the ground, allowing me to sneak close enough for a photo, though the understorey was so dark I had to use flash (which robs the effect of top-bottom contrast a bit). Habitat loss and fragmentation on Palawan has apparently caused strong declines in this species and they are now considered globally vulnerable.

In a similar vein, the Melodious Babbler is another Palawan endemic skulking babbler, although this species spends more time in dense understorey than on the forest floor per se. I was lucky to snap this photo of this bird in dense bamboo. This species has also declines and is listed as near-threatened.

The Palawan Blue-Flycatcher is another near-threatened Palawan endemic.

The White-vented Shama is a Palawan endemic, found not just in forest but also secondary growth and fragmented habitats. Although this species looks very similar to the critically endangered Black Shama of Cebu, the White-vented Shama is not considered threatened (Cebu is a lot worse off than Palawan).

The beautiful Yellow-throated Leafbird can be tough to spot (an all green bird in all green foliage). This Palawan endemic is faring better than the similar Philippine Leabird again because Palawan is less impacted than other parts of the Philippines.

The beautiful Palawan Flowerpecker is also considered an endemic although extremely similar to the widespread Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker (lacks yellow rump) and the Bornean endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker (lacks white in malar). I was disappointed not to manage a better photo of this common species.

I will have only one more post from the Philippines after this one – a look at some of the non-endemics.

Friday, March 9, 2012


While en route to The Wildlife Society Conference at Oak Hammock Marsh (Manitoba, Canada) this morning, I spotted a grey Gyrfalcon on a telephone pole. Since it is such a rare treat to get good looks at one of these magnificent tundra-breeding raptors, who sometimes come down to southern Manitoba for a winter get-away, I thought I would interrupt my series on the Philippines to share a few images of the largest falcon in the world in flight.

Let's start with a few images of our bird sitting on a pole. Don't be fooled by their docile demeanor, Gyrfalcon are impressive hunters! Large females can be over 60 cm (2 feet) in length!

In my onion though, it is the flight photos that show off this falcon's most impressive adaptations. Note the powerful down stroke that immediately launched this bird several feet above the pole, the folded-back wings in between strokes that allow the bird to cut through the air like a knife, and the remarkable ability to fly at staggering speeds in a straight line just a few feet off the snowy ground for very long distances (a technique they exploit to flush ptarmigan and other prey). Though the Peregrine Falcon is famed as the fastest flyer, they only earn that title in a stoop, with their more streamlined shape and dense aerodynamic feathering and slightly longer wings in proportion to the body. In level flight, the more robust, barrel-chested, Gyrfalcon is much faster (note the bulky shape especially in the shots below of the bird flying low over the snow). Friends and I once clocked a Gyrfalcon at 90 km/h as that bird was slowing down and coming in to land, so I'd love to know what speeds they can hit at full tilt. The sequence unfolds below...

Sunday, March 4, 2012


The island of Mindanao is the second largest in the Philippine archipelago and boasts a staggering:
32 endemics of its own, +
17 endemic found only on Mindanao and a few neighboring smaller islands (near-endemics), +
23 endemics shared with Luzon and a few other islands, +
41 general Philippines endemics

= 113 endemics or near-endemics!

In short, an exceptionally unique avifauna and well worth a visit. This post will only touch on this exceptional biodiversity.

We begin at one of the most famous sites on Mindanao and one of the premier sites in the whole country - Mt Kitanglad. As first glance, this site seems disappointing because the forest at lower elevations is very heavily fragmented in a matrix of pineapple fields and other crops. However, there are three wooded small mountains viewable and an extremely steep forested gully separating you from those mountains… and these forests are what make this place special, their protection being the result of some hard fought conservation battles, as well as the rugged terrain (the photo below shows the gully and the mountain in the distance).

This beautiful forest is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the critically endagered Philippine Eagle (also known as Great Philippine Eagle and Monkey-eating Eagle). This massive raptor requires large tracts of intact forest and only a few hundred individuals remain in the wild because the Philippine forests are now so fragmented and degraded. The Philippine Eagle is the second largest raptor in the world (technically taller than the Harpy Eagle but not as heavy) and they fly through the subcanopy capturing colugos and squirrels and sometimes even larger animals.

Seeing not one but a pair of Philippine Eagles was, at least for me, the stuff that childhood dreams are made of… here’s the story of how it happened. After a week of incessant rain and the worst birding weather I have ever encountered, I rode an all night bus back to Manila with the intension of flying to Cagayan de Oro and then traveling on to Mt Kitanglad that evening. After delay after delay after delay, it became increasingly apparent, as the hours whittled away in the airport, that my plan was flawed. It was almost dark by the time we left Manila and we approached the Cagayan airport, I hear the engine rev and felt the plane gain altitude. After five minutes of suspense, the captain announced that the heavy fog and rain would prevent us from landing in Cagayan and we were being diverted to Davao. Since the airlines refused to make any arrangements for passengers, I had no choice but to get off in Davao and head to the bus terminal to get a night bus back north towards Cagayan. Many others were in this predicament, so I queued for two hours and, as the last bus of the night was about to leave, I went up to the driver and asked to stand in the corridor rather than miss the last bus. He consented and so I stood for six hours heading back north. I got off in Malayabalay, crashed for an hour on the floor in the corner of the lobby of a big hotel (Philippinos are very kind) and then went to the department of Natural resource to try to get my permit, fully expecting to have to wait until 8 am or later. 48 hours of uncomfortable traveling meant I wasn’t at my freshest but many Philippinos on the same plane and bus were trying to get back to Cagayan to look for lost loved ones missing since the typhoon… this was not the time for complaining! After a week of rain and rotten luck though, it seemed like the tide was changing… after all, the rain was easing and there were hints of blue sky on the horizon. The department night clerk was exceptionally kind and managed, after a string of cell phone calls, to arrange for my permit even before the office opened. He then gave me a ride to the small village at the base of the mountain from where a very bumpy motorbike ride followed by a short hike found me at the forest edge. Since it was already late morning and the bird activity slow, the first order of business was to hike for another hour or so up to the famed “eagle lookout”. As I hiked up, the rain slackened to a drizzle though the birds were few and far between. As many others have done before me, I scanned hopefully across the gully to the far mountain slope and this is what i saw…

If you can spot the white blob in that photo, well done! That white blob was my reward and the instant I spotted it all that discomfort was forgotten. As it turns out, a pair of Philippine Eagles were perched out in the treetops, presumably trying to dry off after a week of rain (even though it was still drizzling where I stood). Distant views, yes ( a white blob you might say)... but inspiring nonetheless. This second photo takes you a little closer (note the bird has changed positions) and the third photo closer still.

After all the depressing things I had seen on the Philippines – the hunting, snaring, logging, the degradation of any natural habitat – this was the most uplifting sight. It is amazing that any of these magnificent raptors survive and it will take a lot of effort to protect their forest so that they continue to survive. As it turns out, the following morning I got a closer look at one of these birds as they rode up the side of the steep gully and appeared briefly at eye level before disappearing into the subcanopy below the ridge where I was standing. Here the reflex “from the hip” photo I managed though unfortunately the bird never turned their head…

The Philippines is home to some beautiful green pigeons and fruit doves. I was not particularly lucky in photographing these on this trip, this poor shot of the Philippine endemic Yellow-breasted Fruit-Dove being one of the few I managed. This photo, backlit and pointing up into a foggy sky, does this colourful columbid no justice whatsoever!

If you recall the Spotted Wood-Kingfisher from the previous post, you will know that the Philippines boasts some truly stunning kingfishers. Mindanao even holds its own endemic forest kingfisher (not tied closely to water), the Vulnerable Blue-capped Kingfisher. As with the Spotted Wood-Kingfisher photo, I also took this photo in the middle of the night while looking for owls.

And here is the near-endemic (Mindanao and three neighbouring small islands) Silvery Kingfisher. Much smaller than the wood-kingfishers (Hacyonid group), this is one of those tiny kingfishers (Alcedinid group) in the same genus as Common Kingfisher. The majority of alcedinids sport bright blue and/or reddish colours but the Silvery kingfisher is truly unique with their black and white contrasting plumage, offset by the bright red legs. This little gem is a bit like a kingfisher in a little black dress… and quite a looker at that! Also like the Blue-capped Kingfisher, this species is listed as Vulnerable.

In addition to the Rufous Hornbill shown in the previous post, there are several other Philippine endemic hornbills. Here are a pair of the much smaller endemic Mindanao Hornbills, a.k.a Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill (the white male below and the darker female hidden above).

Just as the Whiskered Pitta was one of my highlights on Luzon, this stunning Azure-breasted Pitta, a Mindanao near-endemic, absolutely took my breath away! Alas, I had to use flash in the overcast early morning and this photo does no justice to this secretive forest gem (the flash robs the azure breast of much of its intensity). Like the Whiskered Pitta, this species is also globally Vulnerable to extinction.

The Black-bibbed Cuckooshrike is yet another, Vulnerable Mindanao near-endemic. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the vast majority of the range-restricted endemics and near-endemics are threatened by the dire state of the forests, even though Mindanao is arguably faring a little better than most other large islands in the archipelago. Like so many of my photos on this trip, here is a bird in the rain (and refusing to turn their head)!

The Yellowish Bulbul is also a near-endemic. Although much less common than the Philippine Bulbul, this species is not considered threatened.

The Philippine Oriole (now split from the White-lored oriole on Luzon) is endemic to Midnanao and neighbouring islands. I worked hard to see this supposedly common species and only managed this flight shot.

As you have no doubt gathered from reading through these posts, the level of endemism on the Philippines is extraordinary. In fact, the Philippines not only boasts over 200 endemic species, it even boasts its own endemic family, the Rhabdornis! Well, wait a minute, recent genetic evidence suggests that rhabornis maybe should be placed within the Sturnidae (starlings and mynas), hence robbing the archipelago of this rare distinction. Nonetheless, the rhabordnis are an unusual and perplexing genus of brown and white songbirds that hop along branches, sometimes like a nuthatch and at other times pluck fruit, and in the evening roost in flocks. The Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis is a Mindanao near-endemic.

As is the Brown Tit-babbler, one of the many endemics in the large, predominantly Asian, babbler family. The soft, white-shafted, elongated back and flank contour feathers don’t show well in this photo (alas, nor does the head).

The tailorbirds are a fascinating group of small passerines now placed with the newly created Cettidae family (Cettia bush warblers and allies). They are so named from their habit of stitching leaves together with cobwebs to build their unique nests. The Philippines, after the most recent round of splits, hosts an exceptional 7 endemic and 3 non-endemic species of tailorbird! The beautiful yet skulking Rufous-headed Tailorbird is a Mindanao montane endemic, created by the split up of the Mountain Tailorbird complex.

The Rufous-fronted Tailorbird is a Mindanao lowland near-endemic, created by the split up of the Philippine Tailorbird complex.

The unusually plumaged Black-headed Tailorbird is a Mindanao endemic that only occurs in the eastern part of the island (the similar White-eared Tailorbird is another endemic in the western part of the island). This species is a super skulker and I was delighted to photograph this male after nearly half an hour of listening and waiting while he skulked in the undergrowth!

Of the several beautiful endemic fantails, the Mindanao endemic Black-and-cinnamon Fantail is arguably one of the easiest to see but always a delight to watch. They also a a common “leader of the pack”, i.e. they seem to elad mixed species flocks so when you see one you know to look for accompanying species. The fantails have now been elevated to their own family Rhipiduridae (Australasian and Oriental distribution).

In addition to the three Rhabdornis species, there are some beautiful starling species on the Philippines, including two endemics: the Coleto (featured in the previous post) and the Apo Myna. The yellow eye wattle, shaggy crest and long tail of this Mindanao montane endemic makes them very distinctive!

The Mindanao montane endemic Black-masked white-eye is a little unusual looking among white-eyes in that they lack the white eye ring. They are another common member of mixed species flocks.

The Lovely Sunbird used to be considered an archipelago-wide endemic; however the recent split of “Luzon’s “Handsome Sunbird” from the complex leaves the Lovely Sunbird a Mindanao near-endemic. I only wish I had managed a more lovely photo!

The Red-keeled Flowerpecker is another endemic slated for the splitting board. Currently considered to occur on all islands except Palawan, it seems the two major subspecies will soon be considered separate species. the form on Mindanao, shown here, has much less red and black on the belly than the haematostictum (sub)species.

Last but not least, one more common Mindanao montane endemic and “mixed flocker”, the Cinnamon Ibon. It turns out the name is poorly chosen though, because recent genetic work has placed this species in the Passeridae (Old World Sparrows) believe it or not, and no longer with the white-eyes (some other members of the white-eye family still get called “ibons” in some nomenclatures so it gets confusing!). I found the Cinnamon Ibon to be a joy to watch with their unexpected branch-creeping feeding habits (that I wanted to share so much I included this poor photo), unlike any white-eye I know but akin to some of the African weavers…

So ends this glimpse at Mindanao's rich avian diveristy. Next up, a trip to Palawan...
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