Of Babblers and Pitcher Plants:
Remote Birdwatching in Mt. Victoria
by Carmela Balcazar
The Mt. Victoria range is known for its biodiversity significance attracting scientists from all over the world. Recent discoveries of Nepenthes species of plants make this mountain range particularly unique. As the second highest mountain of Palawan with a classification of 7/9 for difficulty, it appeals to mountaineers, as well. For birdwatchers, it was Palawan’s endemic high altitude birds that summoned us to explore its slopes.
Ju Lin, Allan, and I arrived a day earlier in Narra, Palawan and spent the afternoon counting the critically endangered Philippine Cockatoos or Katala as they flew from Rasa island to the main land. I’ve seen them previously but a change in their roosting habits gave our group good views as dozens perched in palm trees in the nearby barangay. For Allan, it made for a lovely birthday gift witnessing more than 45 critically endangered birds jockeying for prime roosting spots.
At the crack of dawn the next day, a short jeepney ride took us to our jump-off point at Sitio Mariwara, Brgy. Princesa Urduja. A single path loomed before us cutting through a vast field of cogonal grasslands bathe in a golden glow of the early morning. At a distance, partially covered with clouds were the twin peaks of Mt. Victoria. Scattered trees along the way, provided unobstructed views for the numerous Pink-necked Pigeons, Black-headed Bulbuls, and Hair-crested Drongos soaking the early morning rays. A lone Slender-billed Crow cut across the blue sky while Chestnut Munias flitted around the tall grass. After some time, the sounds of a river grew louder and the grasslands gave way to an Agoho forest which lined the edge of the Buhawi River. The Agohos provided easy viewing for the Olive-backed Sunbird (aurora race), Palawan Tits, Palawan Flowerpeckers, even Fiery Minivets which my companions spied. Two Crested Serpent Eagles began to thermal as we began our 4 km river trek to Camp 1. The incessant bird calls were tempting if not risky distractions. I managed to catch sight of a Palawan Blue Flycatcher, and a Purple-throated Sunbird but it was hard to look for birds while making my way along boulders and rock-strewed paths. Eleven times we crisscrossed the river as we made our way upstream. Waterfalls, moss-covered rock formations, deep pools, cliff walls, orchids, ferns and forest, we soaked it all in. Along the way, Allan, our “Rock Star”, gave us snippets of geological facts, making for a more interesting and entertaining wilderness experience. Stopping for lunch, we observed Pygmy Swiftlets skimming the water to drink. One particular individual was bigger than the rest, with brownish underparts and a brown back which we later identified as an Ameline Swiftlet. The trail soon became more technical and I opted to pack in my binoculars for safety reasons. Along the way, a Little Heron flew past us.
Seven hours after leaving the jump-off point, we plopped ourselves at Camp 1 at 300 MASL. The serene surroundings were a perfect place to unwind. Mark soon joined us, accompanied by Jehson Cervancia from the Municipal Tourism Office of Narra who doubled as our Camp Manager. They straightaway made us envious with tales of swimming in the clear pools to cool off. We soon settled in for the evening, amidst the cacophony chorus of frogs and crickets, and the background of cascading water. Snugged in my hammock, I quickly drifted into a dreamless sleep.
After breakfast and packing essentials, we headed off for the day’s assault. Early on, a lone Citrine Canary Flycatcher (panayensis race) provided long eye-level and close views. Thankfully – for my bins were packed. It was to be a rather recurring drill on the trail as Mt. Victoria birds were unafraid. We spread along the narrow footpath, each to our comfortable pace.
We passed sections of the trail called the “Nickel Tree” (a ridge with homage to the mining town of Bataraza), the “Seminar”, (a former camp), and the “Playground” (during the rainy season, mud pools attract wild pigs). Then when you think you were within grasp of your destination, you arrive at the aptly named “Sorry – pare ko” section. It should have been named “@#$%*&”. The longer I trudged, the louder my grunts became. Roots, rocks and trees became vital grasp points as I pulled myself up. The trail, at times, was faintly discernible, suggesting that it wasn’t used often or it was early in the climbing season. When I did stop to catch my breath, and rest my weary legs, I was reminded why I loved the forest. Every sense is awaken. You feel the slightest breeze, hear the softest call, catch the tiniest movement, and smell the most delicate fragrance. In this trip, there was more to birdwatching than birds. Flowers and fruits of all shapes, colors, and sizes; mature trees you only read or hear about: Malabayabas, Almaciga, Apitong. Our porters would call out their names and explain their significance to their lives.
It was after the toughest section that we saw our target bird – the Palawan Striped Babbler (Zosterornis hypogrammicus). Somehow, I am led to believe that we had to earn it. More target birds started to appear – White-browed Shortwing (poliogyna race), Yellow-breasted Warblers (xanthopygius race), Mountain White-eye (whiteheadi race), Lovely Sunbirds (shelleyi race), Little Pied Flycatcher (palawanensis race), Citrine Canary Flycatcher (panayensis race), Mountain Leaf-Warblers (peterseni race) and Fiery Minivets. Numerous good sightings had buoyed up my spirit and gave me a much needed boost for the last leg of the climb. Passing two micro falls and at 900 MASL, I found myself at the doorstep of High Camp.
Our water source was a spring where a Little Pied Flycatcher joined me in taking a cold bath. My hammock had a great vantage point to watch Yellow-breasted Warblers as they inspected the branches. And the newly-constructed toilet had excellent views of the birds, if you didn’t mind twisting your neck like an owl to see what’s behind you while you were occupied.
Evenings were spent chilling and listening at the Palawan Scops owl (we dipped on this bird). The owls seemed content to just call from just out of reach down the slopes of the camp. I was pleased at the childish delight of our tour leaders Rommel and Jehson as they photographed and documented frogs. I half-expected them to kiss the amphibians in their glee. We decided to take the optional trek to the summit of Mt. Victoria in the morning to try our luck for the Sunda Bush Warbler and see one of the 10 rarest plants in the world, the critically endangered Attenboroughs Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii), which can only be found at the summit area.
Summit day started with psyching myself with stubborn defiance from age-related aches, resigned wisdom, and dogged determination. The trail became progressively steeper and gnarly. Clambering soon turned into climbing which soon turned into scaling, made tougher with moss-covered rocks and branches. Ropes were set up on near vertical cliff walls. As we gingerly made our way to the summit, one could see the transition of flora as we gained altitude. Mossy forest slowly turned into grassland, then to dwarf forest. I was content to plant myself midway to the summit. Mark’s incessant gentle prodding that it was within grasp convinced me to grit my teeth and do one final push. The famed Pitcher plants started to appear and other beautiful flowers like Sundews (Drosera ultramafica) emerged from the crevices. At 1726 MASL, the summit was windy, surrounded in grey and breaks in the cloud cover offered glimpses of surrounding peaks and mountains. After the customary selfies, the birders (minus me) explored the surrounding summit area for the Sunda Bush Warbler. No such luck. Despite attempts of Mark exploring the other peak called the “Tooth”, and returning to the summit AGAIN the next day, the Sunda Bush Warbler will remain the unicorn for the next birdwatcher willing to climb the summit of Mt. Victoria.
The slow descent from the summit offered opportunities to observe Mountain Tailorbirds. Glimpses of a medium-sized brown bird flying to the small trees had us surmising that it was pipits rather than the warblers we were hoping to find. Iron maiden Ju Lin took a tumble along the ultramafic rocks and acquired a nasty cut on her forehead. The Medical Technician with us patched her up quickly and we were relieved to hear her express more concern about not letting any of her blood ruin her bins. And no – there is no truth to the rumor that Allan kicked her out of the way for the Sunda Bush Warbler.
Arriving at High Camp, the birds were a delightful distraction from aching limbs. A Rusty-breasted Cuckoo made an appearance on a snag at camp. The Yellow-breasted Warblers went on their afternoon routine of foraging and calls from a Red-headed Flameback alerted us to its presence. It was a good day and I looked forward to another night in my hammock where my hot “Flame on” flushes proved to be effective in warding off the cold mountain air.
Content with having summited and seeing our target birds, we opted to spend the next night at Camp 1 instead. Early on the descent, a Falcated Babbler gave us a lovely send-off, still singing when we left him. A White-browed Shortwing alighted briefly on the path, while Yellow-throated Leafbirds and Mangrove Whistlers darted in and out of branches as we ambled along the path. We diverted off the main trail, to view more Palawan Striped Babblers a few feet above us. We cursed our awkward photo-taking skills and slow-focusing cameras but I did managed to take a blurred photo of one with nesting material at its bill. At the Nickel Tree section, Rommel spotted another Palawan endemic, the Blue-headed Racquet-tail eating on a fruiting tree while a pair of Yellow-throated Leafbirds noisily called for attention. But the highlight of the descent was the calls of a Palawan Peacock-pheasant. Tantalizingly close, it wouldn’t reveal itself behind an earth mound. Nevertheless, I was beaming to have heard it. We reached Camp 1 in the early afternoon and had enough time to muse about the past days.
A late breakfast and we found ourselves again at the edges of the Buhawi River but this time heading downstream. We flushed the Little Heron again on the way back while Olive-back Sunbirds serenaded us throughout the trek. A break in the forest cover exposed a Green Imperial Pigeon as it disappeared in the canopy. As we neared our pick-up point, a lone Crested Serpent Eagle soared high above and two Ashy Drongos tapped the end of this incredible trip.
The Remote Mt. Victoria Expedition was organized by Wild Expeditions Palawan headed by Rommel Cruz. A 5 day – 4 night nature trek requiring participants to have a passion for wildlife, a significant degree of fitness, an affinity for adventure, and a sense of humor.