by Alexander Elias
with Regie Meulio
One of the great things about being in the Philippines is going to spots where you can have Tabon Scrubfowl (now known as Philippine Megapode) and sea turtles right at your doorstep. WBCP member Alex Elias writes about such trip that he took last summer. This is a great trip to plan for when the weather clears up and there are no typhoons on the way.
April 29 – May 4, 2015.
There are several Pandan islands in the Philippines and maybe even more so in Malaysia and Indonesia. The one I’m writing about belongs to the municipality of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro Province, Island of Mindoro.
It is an island of 28 hectare, almost round in shape and almost flat. It is a coral island. Its shores are rocky with sharp coral rocks alternated with one lovely white sand beach of several hundreds of meters long. And a small beach on the opposite side of the island. Most of the island is forested and one can be surprised by the size of many of the trees.
We went back to Pandan Island after 7 years. Because it was one of the best snorkeling spots we have ever experienced. But at that time we didn’t dive yet nor did we do intensive bird watching. So we were quite anxious to experience birding there and the underwater adventures.
We were in for many positive surprises !! We came in around noon in the scorching heat of May. Calm seas as what they are supposed to be around that time of the year. The number of cottages and rooms obviously increased since 7 years ago. But for the rest it remained quite the same. We would stay for 6 days and 6 nights.
That same afternoon we started to check the direct vicinity of the resort. We saw the common birds for such areas like the White-collared Kingfisher, Black-naped Oriole, Olive-backed Sunbird, Pied Triller, Pied Fantail, Yellow vented Bulbul, Golden-bellied Flyeater, Common Emerald Dove, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Colasisi. Most of the birds showed little fear only. Especially the Common Emerald Doves. Every day a pair were roaming around the cottage like domesticated chickens. The Colasisi, the wife of the owner told us, were once released by them on the island. Just after dawn we could hear the Philippine Nightjar.
The next morning we woke up as usual somewhere between 5 and 5.30 am. We were awaken by really loud and scary screams. First we had no idea what kind of scream that could be. Than we anticipated that it should be a kind of bird. The screams came from everywhere in the scrubby and forested areas behind the cottage. We were anxious to know what animal could possibly create such a scary and loud scream ! Our curiosity didn’t have to wait for long. We saw a few big brown birds with sturdy feet roaming around and loosening the soil beneath the thick layer of dry leaves. The Tabon Scrubfowl ! A lifer for us, high on the ‘wanted’ list. They were everywhere. And we could see and observe them regularly each day. Each morning they roamed the areas thick with fallen leaves right behind the cottages using their feet to displace the leaves and stir the soil to find their food.
We went birding each morning from 5.30 – 6.00 up to 9.30, in time to get our breakfast in the restaurant. And each late afternoon between 4.30 and 6.30pm. Apart from the day we went to Apo Reef.
The first morning session of bird watching, before breakfast, was like a discovery hike on a very accessible trail through scrubs and forests filled with the sounds of birds. We could hear so many, but see so few. Some of the birds we heard, we never saw. Like the elusive Plain Bush Hen. There were many. We could frequently hear their gnawing ugly calls coming the thick brush. We tried and tried by looking into it but to no avail. We frequently heard and sometimes saw the Mindoro type Philippine Coucal. Came across an Arctic Warbler. Heard the Barred Rail. The Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker could be seen very well. The Common or Asian Koel could be heard from afar. And the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers. They love the understory of the forest and they were incredibly approachable.. There are many Mangrove Blue Flycatchers on Pandan Island, enlightening the environment with their beautiful and upbeat songs and calls. At one time we could almost touch one, she or he just didn’t fly away. The Mindoro Bulbul is abundant on the island and very visible.
We couldn’t get far that morning as it was approaching 10am and if we wanted to have breakfast and coffee we had to be in the restaurant before ten. It took us 3 mornings and late afternoons to finally reach the end of the trail which is only a 20 minutes hike from the resort. So were we occupied trying to see what we heard along the trail.
The 2nd morning we heard, just like the first, 4 different calls of doves or pigeons we couldn’t place right away. The first mystery unraveled by seeing very clear and only around 30 meters into the forest behind the cottages, a male Pompadour or Philippine Green Pigeon. We also saw a female, which is in appearance much less impressive than the more colorful male. The first of the four dove like calls which we couldn’t place right away, was solved. It was the ‘ mournful cooo ‘ which the Kennedy guide reports.
Although we could never actually see it and although it isn’t mentioned in the Kennedy guide, we discovered that this Pompadour Green Pigeon makes a 2nd very conspicuous sound, completely different from the first one. It is more a soft whistling, like talking in whistling mode. Something in the style of the Pink-necked Green Pigeon but nicer. Such things are a joy to discover. We could hear both calls of the Pompadour Green Pigeons every day, but unfortunately we couldn’t see them often and less so taking a picture.
So 2 sounds of doves we weren’t acquainted with, were unraveled.
The biggest surprise this 2nd morning was the Hooded Pitta. Strange enough we did not hear it the first day, but all 4 mornings and most afternoons after that, we frequently heard Hooded Pittas and they were all around, but especially abundant in the scrubby area just behind the resort. We could see them frequently. We could observe them from close by and often for many minutes. They weren’t as shy as in other places we saw them. It is a bit of a small Hooded Pitta paradise, so many and so visible.
The 3rd day would disclose another mystery. Especially as we finally reached deeper into the small forest. We heard these mysterious and deep sounding calls already the first morning and afternoon. But even after intensively peeking into the trees we couldn’t find this mystery bird. We knew it should be a kind of imperial pigeon. I decided just to sit patiently on a trunk of a toppled tree on a spot where I heard the deep booming sound alternated with a gruff sound, produced by at least 2 birds. My patience finally paid of. I saw two really big pigeons flying from one tree to another very nearby. Both of them dense with leafs. Finally I could see them both sitting and they were looking at me. The Green imperial Pigeon. So beautiful, spotless and big. Green Imperial Pigeons ! And I who thought they were only living in large areas of primary forests. The 4th day I could even make pictures of a few of them. As we heard them halfway the island up to the end of the trail, we guessed there are more than just one pair. Several pairs obviously.
That day we could add even more birds to our list for this tiny island. Red turtle dove could be heard. Philippine Magpie Robin appeared and was a surprise bird. Didn’t expect that one. A small flock of White Bellied Munia in a small grassy area with lots of bamboo around. Not long after that a few Chestnut Munia in the same area. An occasional Large-billed Crow.
The fourth and fifth day. Bird life is such a mystery. No cuckoo calls at all the first 4 days. Only on the fifth several plaintive cuckoos could be heard and seen from nearby, calling endlessly and so loud. Asian Palm Swifts with their nice cute peeping calls while swerving through the canopies of palms and other trees. Tawny Grassbirds climbing and foraging like Philippine Coucals. Though we were wondering already about their absence, finally the fourth day we could hear the White-eared Brown Dove. And that same day we even bumped into one. Also into the Common Koel which are so hard to see even though they are quite big.
The fourth day gave us another surprise: the Red-bellied Pitta ! What a beautiful bird. After seeing her we got to know her call and could hear several of them that afternoon and the next morning. However, even with lots of patience, we couldn’t see them again. Even though their calls didn’t come from afar.
The last day had more surprises for us. The Eastern Reef Egret. Roaming around the rocky outcrops on the coral flats at low tide and hiding in a small cave like hole in one of those coral rocks.
Being able to watch a large flock of White-winged Terns fishing is not something you’ll see every day along a seashore. We could watch them for over an hour.
During dawn that last day, we were sitting on the beach after having watched the flock of terns catching fish in the sea just offshore. There we could enjoy 3 Great-eared Nightjars flying playfully around each other and continuously making their very conspicuous and loud call ‘tik-wee’.
Pandan island is a small wonder for bird watchers. Birds in high density and often those which are not particularly common or even quite rare. Mindoro endemics however at the time of our visit were limited only to the Mindoro Bulbul and the Mindoro type of Philippine coucal. Even though you can hear the birds frequently, most of them are hard to see. But that adds to the thrill. At least you’ll never be bored trying to see those who produce the sounds. We could identify 37 species in those 5 mornings and 5 afternoons. I am sure there are more, often probably visitors who do not permanently stay on the island and migrants during the migration season. Moreover the terrain is easy. Distances are small. And the resort with all its drinks and food and shelter is always just around the corner.
We made a dive trip to Apo Island ( Apo Reef ) and could see there the following birds on the small island of Apo and on some rocks sticking out of the water away from the island: White Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, White-winged Tern, Black-naped tern and Bridled Tern. Apo Island and the surrounding reefs must be interesting during migration season I am sure.
Info on the island and its resorts.
The snorkeling became even better since 7 years earlier. Much better actually. Big fish can be seen every day while snorkeling and often quite approachable. Turtle sightings while snorkeling are guaranteed. And the corals got better, bigger and more.
The island is easy to reach. Some, who can afford it, hire a plane in Manila which can land on water. Most go by land and ferry. First to Batangas Port in Batangas City. A 4 lane highway takes you all the way from Manila to this Pier. There you take the ferry to Abra de Ilog which is a 3 hours travel on sea. Ferries go almost (!) every 2 hours. ( 02.00. 06.00. 10.00. 14.00. 18.00. 22.00 for Montenegro Lines. There are 2 more lines servicing the route but they go less frequent ) Than your car or a bus takes you to Sablayan town, which is 3 to 4 hours away from the Abra de ilog Pier. No rough roads, beautiful scenery and very little traffic. In Sablayan there are small boats for rent to take you to the resort or a boat from the resort picks you up upon request The island is only a few kilometers away from the shore of Mindoro, so it takes only 10 to 15 minutes to cross over to get to Pandan Island.
The island has 2 resorts. The original one, Pandan Island Resort, is owned by 2 French nationals. This resort has nice looking, spacious and comfortable cottages, though no air conditioned rooms. There are also rooms for rent which are cheaper than the cottages. The rates are really affordable. Less so is the food. And the visitors are obliged to book for at least 2 meals a day. The electricity on the resort is solar. You cannot charge anything inside your room. Only at the bar and the dive shop. There is reasonable wifi. Globe and Smart both have signal coming from Sablayan town. The resort can easily be found on the internet and also booked there. Credit cards are not being accepted. Trips to Apo Island can be organized by the resort. Email address: email@example.com. Mobile phone: +639193057821. The resort is the one protecting the marine life and they are well aware of its astonishing beauty and commercial value. They have no idea however that they also shelter a bird paradise.
The other resort is newer and less known. But they have air conditioned rooms aside from those with fan only while you’re not obliged to eat there. You can bring your own food and prepare your own meals. It will come out much cheaper. Their resort though is not along the beach and there is a very shallow far reaching coral flat just in front of the resort. I have no contact info of that resort.