Salt on a Bird’s Tail
by Rache Go
photos by Irene Dy, George Inocencio, and Mike Lu
I received an email from the WBCP e-group about an invite to visit Pacific Salt Farms in Bolinao, Pangasinan. Main purpose of the visit was to help identify the bird species present in the farm. I stared at the blinking cursor in front of me, should I send a message to join this trip or just keep quiet and wait for reports through the e-group after a couple of days. Well, without further ado, I sent a message to Mike Lu that I wanted to join the Bolinao trip.
I’m a novice to bird watching, I can’t ID a bird as fast as anyone in the club without fumbling with the bird book or without a wondering expression on my face. It’s natural for me to have second thoughts about the trip, but it’s a way for me to learn as well. And I have never seen a salt farm in my entire life!
March 18, 2017 around 6 am. WBCP members joining the trip parked their cars at the Quezon City office of Pacific Farms, and loaded all our bags and equipment in a van while waited for our hosts. As we waited, all 7 birdwatchers stayed outside the compound looking for birds in the neighborhood. We were able to see sun birds and a shrike to name a few. By 7 am, our hosts Mr. Johnny Khonghun and Mr. Gerard Khonghun signaled the driver to leave for Pangasinan.
It was a 4 1/2 hour to 5 hour drive from Manila to Bolinao. We were honestly hoping to get a nap inside the van as we traveled, but was in for a surprise instead. Our hosts planned to give as a feel of the eco tour that they currently have in the farm, and also wanted to get to know each one of us better. No idle time 🙂
We arrived at the farm past 12 noon, we were served a hearty lunch in a nipa hut by our gracious host. The pinaupong manok stole the show! The secret ingredient? Their own gourmet salt package as “Aro-En“, the Ilokano term for “love it”. The farm takes pride in their salt produce and for me as someone in the food business, this was a very interesting product. I wanted to know more about their gourmet salt, but we were there for the bird survey. We needed all the time we have to survey the property.
We were ushered for Kapihan, to the office were Gerard showed us the map of the 500 hectare salt farm (yes, 500 hectares!) that we are going to explore. As we sat down on the long table and were served coffee, 3 generations of farmers (called as the 3G) gave us an overview of how the salt farm started to the present. After thanking our speakers and hosts, we gathered our stuff and headed for the salt lake- which was believed to be as salty as the Dead Sea. (I do not have any basis for comparison for this, I have never been to the Dead Sea.)
We boarded a locomotive at the salt farm which allowed us to view how many metric tons of salt (I have no idea…) to where the birds are. The place was pretty amazing right from the beginning… seeing the all those salt and crystalizers! At the end of the ride, we start our trek together with Gerard and Andrea, the farm’s biologist to see the birds.
Armed with cameras, scopes and our binoculars we started bird watching. We have the initial 21 bird species Andrea gave us as a guide and we were all excited to see other bird species as well. I guess I was the most excited one among the rest (C’mon! I’m the most inexperienced in the group!), it just didn’t register when you look at me because of the glaring sun.
Most of the photos taken were against the sunlight that day. Good thing the scopes helped a lot aside from the bird calls we were hearing to identify the birds. We eventually (not planned) divided into 2 groups, one moving forward towards the dike while the others stayed behind for awhile to identify more birds in a certain area. Well, 500 hectares is no joke, its was difficult to stray away as the salt ponds tend to look the same after a while and one can get lost. I am not kidding.
We stayed and surveyed the area for birds past sundown, stopping once in awhile for water and a cold towel. None of us were sure far we trekked that day, even if you’re tired- you have no choice but to continue walking or stay in the middle of the salt ponds in the dark. To be honest, the trek that day was fun. I’m not saying this to convince anyone, but the birds we discovered in the area and the view was worth the heat of the afternoon sun. (there was no shade in the area!)
We ended our bird survey for the day and headed back to the office at dusk. We needed to hurry as the path we’re taking didn’t have lamp posts and which was scarcely visible in the twilight. We reached the office quarter past 7 pm, just in time before it became pitched dark. Upon arrival, we got into the waiting van and headed for 45 min drive to Alaminos where we will be staying for the night, have dinner with our hosts and do the 1st set of bird lists for that day.
Dinner in front of the rest house was simple but delicious. We watched a video of an ecotourism spot (yes, birds again) as we ate.The sea breeze was perfect that evening after all that heat in the salt farm. After dinner, the bird list for day one was started. We also checked the list we have against the initial list Andrea had before. It didn’t take long to finish the list. Some of us took the opportunity to take a walk in front of the rest house to the jump off point to hundred islands to bask in the moonlight before retiring for the night. We probably went to bed past midnight, only to get moving 4 am the next day.
4 am: Everyone was ready to leave Alaminos for another 45-minute drive to Bolinao. This time stopping at the first station where the view deck was. We had our breakfast of sticky rice with mangoes and hot Malunggay tea. Since it was still pitch dark, it was an opportunity for everyone to take photographs of the moon, the stars in the skies and with the help of the scopes… Jupiter and Saturn! Yes, people! That’s how awesome that breakfast was while we waited for the break of down to see the flock of birds flying from where they roosted! Irene was even able to identify some nocturnal birds by their bird calls and her bionic eyes (seriously, I don’t know how she was able to see those birds in the dark!)
True to what our hosts and resident biologist told us, flocks of birds started to show up, as if they were flying to show off! We stayed around the area for a little bit more before we rode the van to bring us to where the boat was to check out the neighboring Bangrin Marine Sanctuary where we saw more egrets, herons, ducks and grebes. At the end of the boat ride, we started to trek again where we left off at sun down.
We were advised to use the umbrellas as the heat was stronger than yesterday afternoon. The heat of the sun was far more stronger that morning at around 10 am, as we reached the evaporator areas. There was no shade again as we walked through the salt ponds, (thank heavens for those cold towels!) it felt like death march that day! Though it was all worth it when we saw the hidden treasures of Pacific Farms. The birds we saw were fantastic! I never saw that much wild birds up close without using binoculars or scopes! We silently passed the ponds as not to disturb them, but I guess it was lunch time for them that they didn’t mind us there, in fact they were the ones flying near us as they feasted.
We headed back to the office just in time for lunch before headed back to Manila. Despite being all covered up (long sleeves and all), I realized my hands got sunburned from all that heat. The hearty lunched served by our gracious hosts made me forget about the nasty sunburn my hands received. As we dug into our lunch, our hosts gave us the privilege to try out their gourmet salt with the best refreshing dessert on a hot Sunday, watermelons!
I really want those gourmet salts, I could imagine the kitchen experiments I can do with them especially in enhancing the products from my commissary. Just minutes before we traveled back to Manila, we were brought to one of the salt harvesting ponds to experience harvesting our own salt, and trying another viand of their gourmet salt, the bitter salt. Yes, bitter salt. Best to use for enhancing coffee and chocolate (imagine my face beaming when I tried the bitter salt and imagining the possibilities!) The farm’s Might Egg was also harvested from one of the salt ponds for us to eat as a snack on the ride back to Manila. Mighty Egg or Energy Egg is one of the unique offerings of the farm. Producing only 3,000 mighty eggs per year, these duck eggs are submerged and slowly cooked on the farm’s very own salt lake for 4 days. (all natural!) It has a distinct taste, oozing with flavors from the whites up to the yolk. It was said to contain the spirit of the earth, providing people consuming them an extra rush of energy.
We reached QC half past 8pm. ( I am not really sure what time it was ha ha ha!) We thanked Mr. Johnny & Gerard Khonghun for their hospitality and giving us the chance to experience this one of a kind eco tour which doubled as a farm to table tour, not just a bird survey for the farm. As we said our goodbyes, those Brown-breasted Kingfisher lingered in my mind.