Birding at Makiling Botanic Gardens and IRRI

Text by Rosa Theresa O. Albano
Photos from Francisco O. Albano and Cristina Cinco


My son and I woke up unusually early; we were excited to go birding for the first time in Los Banos, Laguna; and it was for the record, our maiden trip with members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, so I was conscious we should be there on time as early as six in the morning.  It was a Sunday, so expectedly there was a dearth of transportation going up the College of Forestry at UPLB so we hurried our way through the foothills of Mt. Makiling en route to the Botanic Gardens where our birding would commence.  Some members of the club were already waiting at the gate of the gardens; and we gladly introduced ourselves as new members and we met Tinggay Cinco, Gwen So, Nina Lim, Mads Bajarias, Nancy Dimayacyac and Doc Jan Aquino.  We waited for the rest of the group at the parking area; but the bird calls were already engaging our attention and we had a glimpse of a pair of Guaiaberos, a few Philippine Bulbuls; and then luckily we managed to snap a photo of a Balicassiao perched just above us.  When Gina and Rocco Mapua, Monique Obligacion, Dale and Tina Pagkalinawan arrived, we immediately registered at the gate and started our trek around 6:30 AM.  The garden was supposed to open only at 8:00 AM but we had a prior coordination with the management so we were allowed an early entrance and we were the only visitors during that very early morning.

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As we entered, towering trees beckoned us.  Then we heard an interesting wi-wi-wi bird call which Mads Bajarias identified as the secretive Philippine Drongo Cuckoo.  We  heared another call and another; but initially none had revealed to us; until a Scale-feathered Malkoha muttered a sound and disclosed itself in a delightful sidewise pose with its face bathed in sunlight.  I was surprised that this endemic Malkoha that is known to skulk in dense tangles could actually be gregarious in some of its habits.

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We further walked downhill and settled in a space near an abandoned building where we heard a repeated tuc-tuc sound.  After patiently deciphering the call, we saw a group of hornbills that hovered stealthily and luckily we managed to snap a photo of what appeared to be a curious male Luzon Hornbill eminently perched just around 45 degrees above us.   In a flash, I was convinced time and nature conspired to reveal those six endemic species in a row to a new birder like me, and as early as 7:30 in the morning, I already felt it was a lucky day!

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What made the Makiling Botanic Gardens an ideal birding site was the proximity of the creek.  The water volume was moderate, and the trail was safe.  So after discussing safety considerations, we decided to proceed to the creek.  We noticed that the waters running through the boulders were milky.  Could the storm that passed by Luzon two weeks ago have affected the water quality? Nonetheless, the group followed the sound of a kingfisher down the waterways and after a long while, an Indigo-banded kingfisher was seen perched briefly on a stump.  We dallied along the sounds of the runnel hoping that another surprise would awe us but it seemed the somewhat milky waters were not drawing the birds so we ascended into the narrow pathways back to the garden front yard and there we continued to explore the grove of lush vegetation where we found a group of Rough-crested Malkoha at the same tree where the hornbills perched.  We also had some fleeting glimpse of Red-keeled Flowerpeckers and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis.  Around 9:15 AM we decided it was time to culminate the Makiling trip but we were not yet slated for IRRI because it seemed we were headed for a birding side trip at TREES Hostel just within the College of Forestry about 400 meters from the botanic gardens and which did not prove to be a disappointment because we immediately had a spectacular view of a Philippine Serpent Eagle across an azure sky.  I heard through the grapevine that several bird species would flock to the trees surrounding the hostel during the fruiting season but even without the abundant fruits at that time we were fortunate enough to have a better view of several Stripe-headed Rhabdornis on the tall trees.

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Around 9:40 our convoy was moving to IRRI.  Accordingly, there were two identified birding sites, the lowlands and uplands but the former was unavailable so we proceeded to the latter where rice was growing.  From afar we immediately saw Eastern Cattle Egrets interspersed with Intermediate and Little Egrets at the rice paddies.  At the first birding site, we only saw a sodden-clad Eastern Yellow Wagtail and then later a Zitting Cisticola appeared; but the heat of the sun was not alluring for the birds except for a loud brown shrike perched on a post several meters away.  There were also the airy Barn and Striated Swallows, Chestnut and Scaly-breasted Munias and the intermittently present Zebra and Red Turtle Doves that suddenly flutter from the ground.  We observed that the bird diversity was scarce so we gathered to a second site near a reservoir where Mads instructed us to walk parallel to each other until we flush what was hiding beneath the ground foliage.  It was a useful technique which demanded some form of alertness and quick identification skills otherwise the more agile birds could easily be omitted; but group cooperation compensated for this difficulty and we promptly noticed a quail that flew like a bullet.  After the elusive quail vanished unidentified, a Cinnamon Bittern followed then a Paddyfield Pipit and finally a Horsefield’s Bush Lark.  There was a slightly elevated piece of land which was a water reservoir.  Gina led us to crawl up the reservoir which seemed dark and serene for awhile; so we initially thought we went on all fours for nothing but to our surprise, a congregation of immature Black-crowned Night Herons that were perhaps dozing, awoke and flew one after the other.

Despite the heat, we wanted to see what was whistling at the other fields so we went to the last site where we saw Greater-painted Snipes and an Oriental Pratincole; and upon close scrutiny, the said waders were actually sharing the paddies with Wood and Common Sandpipers.  We could have explored more but it was already past twelve noon and the heat was making us too famished to advance; so we concluded our trip with a lunch at a Thai restaurant nearby.

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Overall, the trip was very rewarding.  We fairly managed to bird at two equally important though ecologically contrasting sites in one setting.  Indeed, nothing could be a truer testament of the ancient proverb “birds of a feather flock together” than birding with the Club.  It was marvelous how a group of people of different backgrounds could spontaneously share their common passion and respect for nature.  For a newbie, it was a rare privilege to watch birds at Los Baños, Laguna with proactive members of the Club; and I am profoundly expressing my appreciation for sharing with us an experience which only nature or wild birds for that matter can truly inspire the human emotion.

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