Championing the Isabela Oriole

Joni Acay and Nikki Dyanne Realubit invited members of the club for a 1-day workshop and a chance to see the Isabela Oriole in the wild. Tonji and Sylvia Ramos represented the WBCP at the Seminar-Workshop for the Conservation of the Isabela Oriole held in Isabela State University – Cabagan Campus. This article was first published in Animal Scene magazine, November 2013 issue.

Championing the Isabela Oriole
Photos and text by Sylvia Ramos

It was pretty gutsy. The two young biologists had invited one and all to a field trip to “see the Isabela Oriole in its natural habitat”. Even more amazing was the itinerary: “1 pm to 3 pm –  Isabela Oriole sightings”.  This was only a two-hour window during what is usually a dead hour for birding to see one of the rarest birds in the world. Would these twenty-something years old women really be able to pull it off?

It would be a quite a feat if they did. Birders like to keep lists of the birds they have seen. The Isabela Oriole Oriolus isabellae is one of those enigmatic birds that most birders hope to see, but don’t think they ever will. If ever there were a list of “Philippine Birds Birders Don’t Think They’ll See, Ever”, the Isabela Oriole would be right at the top. There is scant information on the Isabela Oriole’s breeding or feeding habits. Even its call was unknown until 2003. It is probably best known as the bird that “disappeared” for 40 years!

Dyanne Realubit and Joni Acay with two of their team members from Isabela State University. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Dyanne Realubit and Joni Acay with two of their team members from Isabela State University. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

The Scottish ornithologist William Robert Ogilvie-Grant took the earliest known specimen of Isabela Oriole in 1894. He named the species after Isabela, the province where it was first seen. While it was only known to be found in Isabela, Cagayan, Quirino and Bataan, it was not particularly rare. It was even common up to 1961 when 11 specimens were collected near Disulap. And then, inexplicably the Isabela Oriole disappeared from sight.

A lack of bird records does not automatically mean that a bird is rare in numbers. There can be other reasons for lack of bird records such as: the bird is too difficult to identify, found in inaccessible regions, or is difficult to see because of its furtive and secretive habits. However, these reasons do not apply to the Isabela Oriole. In the past, it was not particularly difficult to see. It is a 20-30 cm, yellow-green bird, found in lowland forests of Luzon. And most significantly, there have been groups of serious birders on professionally led bird expeditions and scientists doing surveys and fieldwork were searching the known range of the Isabela Oriole over the years. But to no avail. The bird had mysteriously vanished.

In 1995 there were published reports of two sightings. One individual was reportedly seen in 1993 in Diffun, Quirino Province and one individual was seen in 1994 in Baggao, Cagayan Province. But with only visual sightings and descriptions to go on and without any photographs of the birds seen or recordings of the call, and the reports were questioned by some ornithologists. There are other birds that are found in those areas that closely resemble the Isabela Oriole and could be mistaken for it. The descriptions given in the reports were not full enough to rule out White-lored Oriole Oriolus albiloris. Thus a qualifier, either “provisional or inconclusive” would always accompany the two reports.

And then in 2003, more than 40 years after the last known record, the Isabela Oriole was rediscovered in Ambabok, San Mariano, Isabela. Robert Hutchinson and Merlijn van Weerd separately made regular observations and the first ever sound recordings of two Isabela Orioles. This time the report was accepted without reservations and even further confirmed the following year when in the same area one individual was captured in a mist net, measured, documented, and then released. The lost species had been rediscovered. Its call was now known. It had been observed eating a caterpillar on 4 occasions. It had been observed flying singly, in pairs, with small groups, and with mixed flocks.  Its plumage and physical characteristics had been described. So much more was now known about the Isabela Oriole than before. But so much more was left unknown.

In 2005 its conservation status in the IUCN Red List was changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered. The IUCN is the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN Red List is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and objective evaluation of the conservation status of plants and animals. The Red List has 9 categories. In order of least to most threatened they are: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct. Two additional categories are Data Deficient and Not Evaluated. Critically Endangered means that is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild”. The IUCN states the population of Isabela Oriole is “likely to have an extremely small and fragmented population which is rapidly declining owing to extensive habitat loss” and is “estimated to number fewer than 250 mature individuals”.

Nothing more was heard about the Isabela Oriole for the next few years. Many questions were left unanswered. Were those two birds that were seen in 2003 a pair? Did they have a nest? Did van Weerd and Hutchinson see several pairs or the same pair over and over again? How many Isabela Orioles were left? If they were the same pair, why did they stay in the same exact area even after the big tree where they were originally seen was felled? Did they prefer degraded forest? Were they being driven out by competition with the White-lored Oriole? Did they have any chance of surviving amidst continued destruction of their forest habitat? Could anything be done to halt the forest destruction? These were big questions.

Two young biologists decided to take on the big questions. Joni Acay and Nikki Dyanne Realubit had long been intrigued by the 2003 report of van Weerd and Hutchinson. Merlijn van Weerd of Mabuwaya Foundation, Inc suggested that Joni Acay write a proposal for the 2012 Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Program (CLP). After applying for and winning the 2012 Future Conservationist Award, Joni Acay and Nikki Dyanne Realubit led the conservation of the Isabela Oriole in Luzon, also known as the ORIS Project. Their project was entitled “Establishing Baseline Data for the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Isabela Oriole”.  The objective was to collect baseline data on the population, habitat and threats and promote its conservation in local communities with the overall goal of conservation of forest and biodiversity by promoting the Isabela Oriole as a flagship species. In real life terms this meant lots of fieldwork.

The Isabela Oriole was last seen in 6 municipalities in 4 provinces. There were seven historical records in all. With their one year grant, Joni and Dyanne spent August 2012 to July 2013 visiting each of these sites and looking for the Isabela Oriole. They used the field biologists’ tools: taking transects, using birdcalls, binoculars, scopes, lots of determination and fierce tenacity! They were unfazed that the most recent record was from nine years earlier and the oldest record was from 110 years earlier.

The two oldest sites were both from Bataan, Mariveles in 1902 and Limay in 1947. Both Bataan sites did not yield any Isabela Oriole. The site in Limay where one specimen was collected in 1947 had become the arsenal of the Department of Defense.  The site in Diffun, Quirino where the “provisional” report was made back in 1993 did not yield any Isabela Orioles. But the other five sites did! These were  Gonzaga, Cagayan from 1960; Baggao, Cagayan from 1994; and three local sites in San Mariano, Isabela from 2003, and two other additional unpublished sites reported by Mabuwaya staff. Their first sighting of Isabela Oriole was at the San Mariano, Isabela site after their fourth day in the field. Their study confirmed that the Isabela Oriole is indeed rare. Unless measures are taken to protect its habitat, it is a good candidate for being the first bird to go extinct in Luzon.

The final activity for Joni and Dyanne’s study was a Seminar-Workshop for the Conservation of the Isabela Oriole held in Isabela State University – Cabagan Campus. They invited representatives from the communities where the Isabela Oriole is found to present the findings. They led a group discussion on the reasons and threats why it is Critically Endangered. The group formulated a conservation plan that incorporates measures to protect the bird with addressing the needs of the community.  They intend to apply for another grant so they can continue their research and begin implementing livelihood, management and awareness programs.

Joni Acay welcoming the participants of the Seminar-Workshop. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

Joni Acay welcoming the participants of the Seminar-Workshop. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

It is remarkable how far Joni and Dyanne have gone. Just a little over a year after they began their project, they were leading a dozen participants from the Seminar-Workshop to one of their Isabela Oriole sites. This was the post-seminar field trip. It took a lot of work to get to that point. Just on the day of the field trip itself there were courtesy calls and permits to be picked up at the Mayor’s office, Baranggay Captain’s office, and Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO), two meals en route to the site, a river crossing, and a short hike. Multiply that by twelve months and seven sites. Even if they didn’t produce the bird, it was clear by the way they were treated and spoken to that the two had already earned the community’s trust and respect.

River crossing. All in a day’s work. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

River crossing. All in a day’s work. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

At the site, waiting for the Isabela Oriole to show up. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

At the site, waiting for the Isabela Oriole to show up. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

The weather was uncooperative on the day of the field trip. There was a portion of the trail where the group was supposed to ride on a 6-wheeler truck. But the constant rain that day made the dirt road too slick for the truck to maneuver. There were mumblings about how the birds might not show up in rain. Birds usually hide when it rains. Still, they got the entire group up to the site. It was just before 3 pm. The group was gathered on a clearing facing a small stand of trees when the sun came out. Birds like to sun themselves after a rain! Then Joni heard the call of the Isabela Oriole. She said, “It’s here!” There were two birds that flew in, but then just as quickly flew away.  Was that it? And then one Isabela Oriole perched on a tree just long enough for all twelve people in the group to get great views. They did it. They pulled off an outstanding feat!

They did it! Joni, Dyanne, and the golden treasure. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

They did it! Joni, Dyanne, and the golden treasure. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Isabela Oriole. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Isabela Oriole. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Joni Acay and Dyanne Realubit bring a spark of hope for the fate of the Isabela Oriole. They made an excellent start with their project, but much work remains to be done.  The main threat to the Isabela Oriole’s survival is the destruction of their lowland forest habitat from logging and kaingin (slash and burn).  People need to see the value of protecting the forest. Forests benefit people, not just birds. Protecting the forest ensures that people as well as birds will enjoy fresh air, clean water, protection from floods as well as drought, and a healthy ecosystem. Joni and Dyanne like to call the Isabela Oriole a golden treasure. The continued survival of the Isabela Oriole and its habitat is something of immeasurable value that everyone should treasure.

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4 thoughts on “Championing the Isabela Oriole

  1. Pingback: December 2013 | e-BON

  2. Congratulations Nikdy and Joni for your valuable conservation work on the Isabela Oriole.
    Thank you Sylvia for the inspiring article.

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