Tuesday, February 14, 2012


With the latest splits, there are now over 200 endemic bird species in the Philippines (the exact number depending on which taxonomist you prefer to consult). The level of endemism is staggeringly high, with between 35 – 40% of the bird species found in the archipelago being endemic (depending on taxonomy).

The island of Luzon is the largest island in the Philippines with about 28 endemics of its own (again, give or take depending on your taxonomy). In addition, there are about 39 species that Luzon shares with only one or two other islands and then a further 41 Philippines endemics that are found either throughout the archipelago or throughout with the exception of Palawan. So, for a visitor to Luzon then, there are over 100 Philippine endemic species to search for – a truly staggering array! This post showcases just a small sample of these species…

Luzon was originally clad in dense tropical forest, though very little remains today and the forest that does remain is heavily impacted. At most birding sites, one sees a mosaic of forest with agriculture or other land uses such as the paddy fields seen here at the village of Bay Yo near Mount Polis.

Even at forested sites I visited in Luzon, the state of the forest was somewhat depressing. This is a photo of the Hamut camp area, one of the premier forest sites in Luzon. As you can tell from the photo, the forest in this area is quite fragmented and every day I was there I saw or heard evidence of hunting or snaring.

Given the archipelago’s biogeography (high endemism in a small area, resulting in a plethora of range-restricted species) and the overwhelming human pressure (over 94 million people in an area just under 300,000 km2, roughly the size of Italy or Arizona), it is hardly surprising that a staggering one quarter of the country’s bird species are considered species at risk (and the latest taxonomic revisions will only increase this figure). The break down is scary: 14 Critical, 13 Endangered, 48 Vulnerable, and 57 Near-threatened species… and 102 of these 132 species (77%) are endemics! And, in addition, there are 5 Data deficient endemic species that all probably warrant a very high threat status! It is not surprising that people use phrases like “Armageddon birding” to describe their visit to the Philippines. A large chunk of global biodiversity is apparently slipping away to extinction before our eyes!

The Philippines boasts one of the smallest raptors in the world, the Philippine Falconet, endemic to the Philippines and found on most islands except a few like Palawan and Panay. These tiny little falcons capture more invertebrates than vertebrates.

The Philippines is also home to some beautiful parrot species such as the spectacular racquet-tails. Here is one of the smallest parrots, the endemic Guaiabero, found only on Luzon, Mindanao, Leyete and Samar. As with several other green canopy dwellers, they can extremely difficult to spot in the foliage. See if you can spot this female in the first photo before looking at the cropped second photo.

Only recently split from the Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, the Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo is one of those “new” endemic species (formed by a recent split). This species is found on all the islands except Palawan, where the very similar Asian Drongo-Cuckoo occurs. Notice the subtle white markings on the undertail coverts. Like many of my photos from the Philippines, this one was taken in the rain!

The malkohas are a fascinating group of large cuckoos with roughly a dozen Asian species in the genus Phaenicophaeus (though some argue that Raffle’s Malkoha should not be placed in this genus. They are often brightly coloured, with a few exceptions, most having red or sometimes blue bare skin around the eye. The Philippines has three species, two of which are Luzon endemics: the Scale-feathered Malkoha and the Red-crested Malkoha shown here, with their most unusual crest (also known as Rough-crested Malkoha for obvious reasons)!

The Philippine Trogon is another Philippine endemic found on most of the islands except Palawan and a few others. This stunning bird is somewhat of an outlier at the far eastern edge of the family’s distribution — there are many trogon species in the moist forests of the Asian tropics but they are one of the Asian families that do not cross Wallace’s Line into Wallacea nor the Australasian realm. The soft pink breast, contrasting with the deep red belly, of the male Philippine Trogon is stunningly beautiful (who says males don’t look good in pink) but alas I never quite managed the head-on photo I was hoping for…

Kingfishers, on the other hand, have a more cosmopolitan distribution and some of the Asian species are forest birds that not closely tied to water (“wood-kingfishers”). The Philippines is home to no less than 15 beautiful kingfisher species and six of them are endemic! One of the endemic “wood kingfishers” is the Spotted Wood-Kingfisher (found only on Luzon, Panay and Negros). I photographed this male at 4 am on Mount Makiling. For a bird that I assumed to be roosting, he seemed rather awake.

The massive Rufous Hornbill is almost one metre in total length and watching and hearing them fly over the few remaining tracts of forest in the Philippines is a special treat. This endemic if found on most of the islands, although there are distinct subspecies on some of them. The Luzon race shown here has an all red bill, unlike other races that have a red and yellow bill.

The woodpeckers are yet another group that are well represented in Asia that do not reach the Australasian Realm proper (though three of them drift across the line into Wallacea). There are six species in the Philippines, which is not as diverse as elsewhere in Asia, two of which are endemic… well, wait a minute, maybe there are more species and more endemics? Four different subspecies of the Greater Flameback occurring on the Philippines have now been split by several authorities. These are: Luzon Flameback (Chrysocolaptes haematribon) on Luzon and a few smaller islands, Yellow-faced Flameback (C. xanthocephalus) on Negros and Panay +, Buff-spotted Flameback (C. lucidus) on Mindanao and Basilan, and Red-headed Flameback (C. erythrocephalus) on Palawan +. If you accept those four taxa as full species, the equation certainly changes! Though some people may refer to the flamebacks are goldenbacks, in the case of the Luzon Flameback, the latter is far more appropriate as you can see in this photo of a male.

The Sooty Woodpecker is a large Philippine endemic woodpecker found on several islands. The first photo show the dark, almost black, race found on Luzon and the second photo shows the paler grey race found on Mindanao. Both of these birds are females (lacking red in the facial area)

The Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker is the other Philippine endemic woodpecker… but wait once more… this is yet another species on the splitting block, with the subspecies found on islands in the Sulu Sea now often considered a separate species (Sulu Woodpecker Dendrocopos ramsayi), increasing the Philippine woodpecker tally even more! Since I never managed a good photo of the Luzon subspecies, here is a female of the yellower fulviasciatus race fond on Mindanao.

The bulk of the species shown so far are found at relatively low elevations but there are some Philippine endemics that only/usually occur at higher elevations. The highest elevations in the Philippines are all under 3,000 m ASL so there is not really any true montane zone; however the upper slopes are clad in a unique habitat called mossy forest. This photo shows mossy forest on Mount Polis in northern Luzon at an elevation of about 1800 m ASL.

The mossy forest is home to one of the most sought-after Luzon endemics – the Whiskered Pitta. Pittas are colour, predominantly ground-dwelling suboscine passerines found mostly in Asia with a few species in Australasia and Africa. Their ecological equivalent in the Neotropics is the antpittas. Although more colourful than the antpittas they are equally difficult to see and you will find many an Asian birder sneaking around on trails in the early morning hoping for a hopper. With a small distribution, not only being restricted to Luzon but being further restricted to only a few mountain areas, the Whiskered Pitta is listed as Vulnerable. This large pitta (very similar in plumage to the smaller Red-bellied Pitta) has developed legendary status for defying to show themselves to those who seek them. As you might have guessed therefore, there is a story behind this photo! I spent six days at the remote location known as Hamut Camp in the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Luzon. This was during the big typhoon and it rained non stop for the first four days! Yes, that’s right, 96 hours of incessant, driving rain. I could do little else but lie in my tent trying to keep my equipment dry. You can imagine how frustrated I was! On the fifth morning, the rain appeared to be letting up so I headed up the ridge but i was forced to keep my camera in my bag or hidden udder a rain poncho. I did not see many birds but around 10 am I heard a Whiskered Pitta calling along a narrow ridge. It was my chance to make up for four days of rain. Well, to cut a long story short, after over an hour of waiting without nervously and motionlessly (pittas are sensitive to ground vibrations) and believing that I had missed my chance, who should down the trail to within a few metres of me – the beauty photographed below! I still can’t quite believe that this bird even allowed me to slowly take my camera out from under it’s rain cover and take this shot! Even more fortunately it was only drizzling at his point so I didn’t wreck my camera in the process. The pitta was so close I had to lean backward to get the bird wholly in the frame!

One of the commonest endemics on most islands (except Palawan) at all elevations is the Philippine Bulbul. This taxon was recently the subject of a three-way split (the Visayan Bulbul Hypsipetes guimarasensis and Mindoro Bubl H. mindorensis being separated out from this species).

The Sulphur-billed Nuthatch was formerly considered to be conspecific with the more widespread Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, that has a red bill. It is found on most islands, except Palawan where Velvet-fronted Nuthatch occurs.

The Philippines has two endemic titmice: the Palawan Tit (Palawan endemic) and the Philippine endemic (all other islands) Elegant Tit. This is another species that one finds at all elevations.

Asia is famous for her babblers so it should come as no surprise that the Philippines boast quite a few endemics. We start with two of the Luzon endemic babblers: first the Luzon Striped-Babbler, a lowland species with a restricted distribution in northern Luzon that is listed as Near-threatened.

The second is the Chestnut-faced Babbler, a Luzon montane endemic (~1,000 – 3,000 m ASL), shown here feeding on fruit in mossy forest.

The exquisite Luzon Water-Redstart is endemic to Luzon and Mindoro. Like other similar water-redstarts elsewhere in Asia, they frequent fast flowing mountain streams. This one is perched on a rock in the stream below Bay Yo, shown in the first photo in this post. Their requirement for clear mountain streams (becoming increasingly rare in Luzon) and their limit range make them Vulnerable to extinction.

The Luzon Bush-Warbler is another Luzon endemic that is confined to montane areas. Unlike many other skulking congeneric bush-warblers (Cettia), they were unexpectedly tame and surprisingly easy to see, in stark contrast to almost every other Philippine bird! Photographing them in the think understorey in the constant rain was a challenge however…

The Blue-headed Fantail is one of three endemic fantails on the Philippines. This species is endemic to Luzon, Panay and Negros and, although it occurs at most elevations, seemed more common at higher altitudes.

The Citrine Canary-Flycatcher is one of two species in the genus Culicicapa, the so-called “Canary-Flycatchers”, though they are not actually flycatchers (now often placed in a newly created family called Stenostiridae, “fairy-flycatchers” or “fairy-warblers”). This species has a peculiar distribution, being found on both Sulawesi and the Philippines, i.e. with one foot on either side of Wallace’s Line!

The whistlers (family Pachycephalidae) are a predominantly Australasian family with only a few representatives in eastern Asia. Their occurrence on the Philippines is therefore somewhat of a mirror image of families like trogons and woodpeckers discussed above, i.e. the Philippines is near the western limit of their occurrence. There are four whistlers in the Philippines of which three are endemic (the fourth, Mangrove Whistler, is the true outlier in the family, occurring on Palawan and further west into Malaya and India). The Yellow-bellied Whistler is found on several islands, and also at all elevations. The second photo shows a bird foraging by gleaming (I just could not tell what they plucked from the leaves).

The Green-backed Whistler is endemic to Luzon and Mindoro and is typically found in montane forests (shown here on Mount Polis).

The Philippines also boasts couple of intriguing endemic starling family members. The Coleto is found on all islands except Palawan. With their bare pink face, they are quite unique!

The Philippines also hosts several endemic sunbirds. The Metallic-winged Sunbird is found on several islands and at all elevational levels. This is a male.

The flowerpeckers seem to be roughly equally distributed in Asia and Australasia and there are 14 species on the Philippines, and 12 of these are endemic! . The Flame-crowned Flowerpecker is a montane species found on both Luzon and Mindanao, although the subspecies on these two islands look very different. This is a Luzon male with yellow underparts and an orange cap (on Mindanao they have white underparts and a red cap).

I hope you enjoyed this small picture of Luzon’s exceptional endemism!


  1. Really liked your Whiskered Pippet adventure! However I think I like the Luzon Flameback Woodpecker the best - such colour! Funny that you should lament on the dearth of Evening Grosbeaks when you have experienced so many stunning avian beauties! : )

  2. Birders are a greedy bunch Sherry! Btw, did you hear about the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch near Erikson?

  3. thank you for this...I saw a bird I have never seen or heard before. It had yellow wings and black feathers on the top, and had a deep, long whistle. I found the photo of that bird on your page!


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