Birding Destination: Camp John Hay

by Maia Tañedo and Jops Josef


Many people go to Baguio for its cool mountain air, pine trees, and familiar tourist sites like Camp John Hay. Maia and Jops share another side of Baguio, its birdy side! Who would have thought that there are Siberian Rubythroats and Mugimaki Flycatchers right inside Camp John Hay? Not to mention the good looking regulars like the Turquoise Flycatcher, Blue-headed Fantail, Scale-feathered Malkoha, and more!


The Commute

It was Jops’s and my first time to go birdwatching in Baguio, specifically in the different sites inside Camp John Hay. We had scheduled the weekend so that we had ample time to bird and also to conduct a guided trip for Baguio locals on our last morning there.

We took the 12:15AM Victory Liner deluxe bus and arrived at their Baguio City station in just four hours! I slept through almost the whole ride and didn’t even get to check out the on-board comfort room. It was 750-pesos well-spent: it included a bottle of mineral water, a piece of bread, a stick of macapuno candy, plus power outlets for each seat, recliner seats, and even free wifi.

From the bus station in Baguio City, we took a taxi to The Forest Lodge, our hotel for the weekend which was inside Camp John Hay. We didn’t have a car to go around, so being booked inside the Camp allowed us to walk to the different birding sites we wanted to go to over the weekend.

The sun was starting to rise when we arrived at the hotel

The sun was starting to rise when we arrived at the hotel

A Brief History

In 1903, Camp John Hay used to be a military reserve for American soldiers who wanted some rest and recreation. Its cool climate served as an escape from the heat of Manila and other lowland areas which the Americans were not accustomed to. A total of 525 acres were allotted to the Camp for these purposes.

During the Japanese occupation, Camp John Hay fell under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. After the war, General Yamashita surrendered and Camp John Hay was back under American control. In 1991, Camp John Hay was turned over officially to the Philippine government and was finally opened to the general public. Now it is one of the popular tourist attractions in Baguio City.

Day 1: A Very Birdy Morning at the Eco Trail

After a very early check-in, Jops and I started walking around the hotel just as the sun was rising. Our first birding spot was the Eco Trail. Just outside the hotel, Large-billed Crows and Crested Mynas were up very early. Elegant Tits and Mountain White-eyes were also beginning to stir and started singing and fly around in the trees.

Elegant Tit. They would be our constant companion throughout our stay.

Elegant Tit. They would be our constant companions throughout our stay.

We reached the entrance to the trail, which is also where a zipline feature is situated. Just across was the Le Monet Hotel where we decided to have breakfast (and all our breakfasts during our stay!)

We entered the trail and almost immediately saw a Blue-headed Fantail perched close to the path! There were also more Elegant Tits and Mountain White-eyes flitting among the high branches.

Blue-headed Fantail

Blue-headed Fantail

We walked further into the trail and crossed a small wooden bridge. As the day got hotter, the birds grew more active. Here we saw a number of Citrine Canary Flycatchers singing on bare branches high above us. The Sulfur-billed Nuthatches were also starting to arrive in our area when we saw a very unexpected bird to show: a Siberian Rubythroat!

A surprise Rubythroat in Baguio!

A surprise Rubythroat in Baguio!

As we were waiting for the handsome Rubythroat to come out to a more open perch, the Nuthatches started “descending” on us, creeping down the tree trunks. Distracted by the creepers, we turned our attention on them, losing the Rubythroat in the process…

One of the many Sulfur-billed Nuthatches we saw in the trail.

One of the many Sulfur-billed Nuthatches we saw in the trail.

Along with the Nuthatches came our first lifer for the trip: Olive-backed Pipits! They would fly in and perch on branches and would proceed to walk the length of the branch. They looked to me like versions of Pechora Pipits who preferred tree tops rather than the ground.

Olive-backed Pipit Challenging to photograph as they kept walking around!

Olive-backed Pipit
Challenging to photograph as they kept walking around!

There were lots of them crawling around the tree tops, picking food as they went along. When the wave of birds finally moved on, we tried spotting the Rubythroat but it was gone. We did see another unexpected lifer just a few meters from where we saw the Rubythroat: three Mugimaki Flycatchers! The birds were flitting around in the brush but they soon flew off, leaving me with just one good shot.

Mugimaki Flycatcher I feel very lucky to have seen this one =)

Mugimaki Flycatcher
I feel very lucky to have seen this one =)

We pushed forward and saw more Elegant Tits, Mountain White-eyes, and Sulfur-billed Nuthatches. A number of Large-billed Crows called noisily as they flew through the trees. We stopped after the second wooden bridge and ended our birding in the Eco Trail. It was a very easy trail, not to mention short! But it is a wonderfully birdy place, especially in the morning!

Jops birding in the Eco Trail

Jops birding in the Eco Trail

In the afternoon, we planned to bird in the Tree Top Adventure. It wasn’t as birdy as our morning, but the friendly staff shared their own bird sightings with us.

Day 2: Exploring the Yellow Trail

For our second day, we decided to hit the Yellow Trail, still inside Camp John Hay. The entrance we took was through the Tree Top Adventure. The Yellow Trail, if you complete it, is quite a long walk. Well, at least longer than the Eco Trail. We walked the entire trail for the whole morning!

Part of the Yellow Trail

Part of the Yellow Trail

It wasn’t as birdy as the Eco Trail… BUT I did get to see one of my most awaited lifers: Turquoise Flycatcher! We saw a lot of the usual suspects in the Yellow Trail and met some hikers and bikers along the way. We exited the trail to the calls of a White-throated Kingfisher and found ourselves in the horseback riding area.

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Turqouise Flycatcher. I was so happy to finally see this bird! I waited almost 4 years!

Day 3: Guided Trip in the Eco Trail

Our last morning in Baguio was dedicated to a WBCP guided birdwatching trip. We had 8 participants who were very very lucky that morning! The first bird they saw was an Oriental/Himalayan Cuckoo! The bird seemed to follow our group for the rest of the morning.

Oriental/Himalayan Cuckoo. Sadly, it did not call to be properly identified.

Oriental/Himalayan Cuckoo. Sadly, it did not call to be properly identified.

At the start of the trail, we were already treated to good, close-up views of Sulfur-billed Nuthatches, Elegant Tits, and Mountain White-eyes. Further down the trail, we head a distinct call: Scale-feathered Malkoha! Everyone was amazed at seeing this bird as it skulked around low trees. Such an awesome lifer for them! The group had seen almost all there was to see in an hour’s time!

Scale-feathered Malkoha. Awesome lifer for first-time birders!

Scale-feathered Malkoha. Awesome lifer for first-time birders!

The Eco Trail is such a great place to conduct a guided trip for beginning birders. The trail is very easy and there are definitely a lot of birds to see. Imagine having Citrine Canary Flycatchers, Elegant Tits, and Sulphur-billed Nuthatches as your first lifers!

Guided trip participants birding in the Eco Trail.

Guided trip participants birding in the Eco Trail.

To Sum It Up

We spent two and a half days inside Camp John Hay. We didn’t have a car to go to the trails and walked instead, so being booked inside the Camp was a plus. We birded both the Eco Trail and the Yellow Trail inside Camp John Hay. The Eco Trail is a short trail with very minimal inclines. The trees are quite tall here but the birds do come down for better views and photographs as well. In our experience, it was much more alive with bird activity in the morning.

The Yellow Trail is quite a walk and the trail goes quite high. In some portions, you are walking alongside a considerable drop and are at eye level with the tree tops. This can make birds both easier and more difficult to see, depending on where they are. The Yellow Trail is also popular with hikers and some bikers too.

All in all, it was a great weekend up in the Camp. I was able to tick off four lifers (three for Jops) during our weekend stay, and quite literally didn’t even break a sweat! 

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We’ll be back soon, Camp John Hay!

BIRDLIST:

  1. White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus – heard only
  2. Philippine Hanging Parrot/Colasisi Loriculus philippensis
  3. Scale-feathered Malkoha Dasylophus cumingi
  4. Himalayan/Oriental Cuckoo sp. Cuculus sp.
  5. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
  6. Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos maculatus
  7. Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
  8. Blue-headed Fantail Rhipidura cyaniceps
  9. Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
  10. Citrine Canary-flycatcher Culicicapa helianthea
  11. Elegant Tit Periparus elegans
  12. Tawny Grassbird Megalurus timoriensis
  13. Chestnut-faced Babbler Zosterornis whiteheadi
  14. Mountain White-eye Zosterops montanus
  15. Sulphur-billed Nuthatch Sitta oenochlamys
  16. Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus
  17. Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
  18. Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki
  19. Turquoise Flycatcher Eumyias panayensis
  20. Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
  21. Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
  22. Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Logistics
While Baguio is not the first choice for a montane birding destination, the trails of Camp John is certainly a good birding fix if you find yourself there for the weekend get-away with family or friends!
Getting There
As mentioned above, it was big bonus for us to have our accommodations inside Camp John Hay allowing us to walk to the sites without needing a car. But getting to Camp John Hay is very easy wherever you find yourself staying in Baguio. Having a car is a bonus, but taxis are abundant in the city and available 24-hours so getting inside Camp John Hay is really no problem. And certainly the cabbies in Baguio live up to their reputation of being honest and courteous.
So drive yourself or take a cab to Camp John Hay. For the Eco Trail park/go down at the drive way of Paintball Republic (16.399838, 120.613425). If you wish to hit the Yellow Trail, find your way to the Tree Top Adventure (16.398381, 120.617328).
Eco Trail
At the entrance of the Paint Ball Republic, you’ll see a path going down to the right. Go down that path over a small bridge, and past the Butterfly Sanctuary/Farm. That’s usually where birding starts. Best spots would be the dip along that trail where you will find a small bridge and the immediate areas that surround the swamp.
While people say that the Eco-Trail would bring you out in another spot in Camp John Hay, we never went past the area where there’s a longer wooden bridge (well, definitely longer than the first two) and the area above. Mainly because we felt it wasn’t as birdy as the earlier areas of the Eco Trail and directly coming from the long trip up Baguio, we weren’t really ready for what seemed a long climb up 😛 But you would notice joggers/walkers coming from the other direction, so that’s might be worth exploring. Mind you, this trail is popular for joggers/walkers so expect a little disturbance and few quizzical looks.
Yellow Trail
This is a long walk that would start from Tree Top adventure and have you end up at the horseback riding area of Camp John Hay behind Le Monet Hotel (important information on this later!).
The entrance of the Yellow Trail is inside Tree Top Adventure which doesn’t open until 8AM. But no need to wait for it to open, just ask the guards of Tree Top Adventure nicely and they will let you in.
From the entrance of Tree Top Adventure, go down the path on the right side of the briefing area. You will reach a fork at the end of the path (to make sure you’re not yet lost, you will see a path on your right going up leading to the gate of the American Embassy (meaning: stay out :)).
At the fork, take the path going right. That’s the start of the long walk to the horseback riding area, the end of your journey. A stretch of that trail would give you fantastic views of the valley of the eastern side of Camp John Hay, an opportunity to check out raptors thermalling above. While it wasn’t very birdy when we hit this trail, according to Rene Calado, who usually birds in Camp John Hay, this is the area where one could find Chestnut-faced babblers, Citrine Canary flycatchers, Red Crossbills, Cuckoos, and Olive-Tree Pipits.
We spent walking this trail from 7:30AM to 12:NN, so pack something to eat, water and a hat. Navigating the trail is straight forward, there are no forks that would make you lose your way. To be wary of mountain bikers along the trail, but they’re very considerate.  And just to make sure you’re on the right track, half-way through the trail, you’ll reach a cemented road leading up the American Embassy (16.388969, 120.619096). Again, it’s the Embassy, so stay out 🙂 Just cross that road to the other side, and continue your trot along the Yellow Trail.
Map
Other areas to explore
While talking to the staff of Tree Top Adventure at the first fork, we learned that the road going down to the left is another trail that would end near Baguio Country Club. So that might be also worth your while.
It was just our first time birding in Baguio, so we spent all of our birding time inside Camp John Hay. But because of the general environment of Baguio birding could be everywhere. Other sites that were reported in the WBCP database for Baguio City would be Ambuklao Road leading to the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary and Tam-Awan Village.
Some Tips
This is just our observation during our stay there, but birding in Baguio starts pretty late probably because of the cold climate. No need to wake up really early, and one can grab a leisurely breakfast at 6AM before heading out to bird around 7:30AM.
Breakfast options at 6AM inside Camp John Hay would be very limited. While there might be options in the Baguio-Ayala Land Technohub (we never really explored but there’s Starbucks, Pancake House, and Army Navy there), we highly recommend having breakfast at Le Monet Hotel. This is the hotel across the Paintball Republic (start of the Eco Trail) and near the horseback riding area (end of the Yellow Trail). Like all boutique hotels, Le Monet offers buffet breakfast priced at P650/head.  But who would want to really fill-up before a hike? So we ordered ala carte, with options ranging from the usual breakfast fare (choice of meat, 2 eggs, toast/rice, and coffee/juice) priced at only P250/set. Their servings were very generous that during our last day breakfast, we decided to split one order and with an additional order of French toast.
Another thing that we liked about having breakfast at Le Monet was that the staff were very courteous and accommodating. By our second morning, we were on first name basis with the waiters, they were asking questions about birdwatching (because all our gear would be on display while having breakfast and the act of gearing up before heading out), juice and coffee were no longer an either-or choice, and we even got free coffee refills to boot 🙂
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2 thoughts on “Birding Destination: Camp John Hay

  1. Pingback: February 2015 | e-BON

  2. At the Tree Top Adventure if you took the left fork off the Yellow Trail, you’d find a tall steel view deck which you can climb up and bird from. Maithri Jansz and I climbed it and saw the Turquoise Flycatcher there as well as a pair of Bushchats, Elegant Tits and Sulphur-billed Nuthatch. For us, it was birdier than the longer right fork leading to the horse rentals and Le Monet.

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