It has been a long time since the last blog, and I could go on about how busy I am, but at this stage if you read me regularly then you will know how swamped with work I am. So instead I will jump straight in to the amazing trip that Paul and I went on in the beginning of June.
Due to Paul having some more time off, we decided to use the free flights we had (because of our cancelled flight to Cebu in January) to go off and try for the Philippine Eagle at Mt. Kitanglad, in Mindanao. We had a chance in January of this amazing bird but were unlucky with the weather and missed it. This time however, it was not to be missed. There were a few other birds that we wanted to see but the eagle was the star.
After a plane, car, motorbike and then a long hike with horses, we got to camp and our home for the next 4 nights. We were both excited but nervous. It was the beginning of June and no one ever travelled up to see the eagle this late in the season. The last tour group to come through was at the beginning of May and the weather had started to turn, from the drier, to the wetter months. The accommodation is basic, but I loved it. Up the mountain and within throwing distance of the forest, we stayed in what I could best describe as a large barn. No electricity and no running water. It was brilliant. The night we arrived, I picked up a number of lifers by just being at camp. Behind the camp, in a large bamboo bush was a Little Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula westermanni) which was to be a regular bird seen at this particular spot throughout the few days that I was staying there. At night, you could set your watch, to the time when Bukidnon Woodcocks (Scolopax sp.) started to fly over, making a raspy, rapid sound, like a speeded up sound of a horse. These were also regular, like clockwork, in the morning too. Then, just before bed, on the first night, we heard a call and went rummaging through the forest with our guide. After some torch searching we found another species I was excited to find, a Philippine Frogmouth (Batrachostomus septimus) just sat on a branch looking down on us with its ‘large smiling beak’. I got some great views before it flew off. But nothing was compared to the King of birds…
We had three days planned up the mountain at the ‘viewing platform’, which was a number of bamboo tied together to provide a place to sit and some plastic over the top for shade. It was located just over an hours hike away from camp, on top of a grassy hill overlooking a valley, with a ridge, and the side of the mountain which was lush green with vegetation. We could see about a kilometre of the side of this mountain. On the first day, just as we got there, we heard a tree fall in the forest, and the sound was amazing!! It was far away but you could hear this almighty crashing sound which resonated through the valley and trees. Like a large wave crashing on a beach.
We set up the scope and waited…. and waited….. and waited some more. At times the clouds were so thick we couldn’t see that far and it took a long time before we saw the top of the mountain in front of us. I was kept entertained by the White-cheeked Bullfinches (Pyrrhula leucogenis), a great looking bird. Though not as colourful as its European counterpart, that I am more familiar with, the bright white cheeks stands out against its olive brown keel and shoulders, a bright sign you can see as it flies past, and there were many.
But, unfortunately, the weather turned and we had to abandon the day after 5 ½ hours of watching. There was no sign and we had to slog our way back in the rain, similar to January. Paul said that someone had mentioned to him that Mindanao had, oppose to the regular wet and dry season, a wet and wetter season. I could believe that.
We got to the platform and within 20 minutes Paul had found the eagle! Perched on a tree, surveying its kingdom. The excitement buzzed in the air as each of us got a quick look through the scope before letting the next person have a look. But as soon as it had appeared, it disappeared. It must have flown off to hunt. Regardless, it was a good view of a stunning bird. We were then at a bit of a loss. We had planned all day here and we had seen it, but not for long. Should we stay or was that the best we would get?? Paul mentioned, which we all agreed with, that we should stay for perhaps another hour, just to see if he popped up again, and then travel further up the mountain. So we sat and we waited again…
We didn’t need the full hour, in half that time the bird reappeared at the closest point of the mountain. Over the ridge, and valley, there it stood, typically on a large dead tree. Our guide tried calling him in by shouting his best impression. I was lucky enough to be on the scope as he took flight. Almost 2 metres of wing shot out and the huge body seemed to command the air to lift it off of the tree as it flew directly towards us! As I watched, I could see its eyes pointing straight towards me, as the entire body followed. It landed on the ridge which was between us and the mountain. Giving perfect views through the scope! I could also see it with the naked eye, it was that close. Our guide and his son, Carlito and Danny, were getting just as excited as we were. You always know it’s something special when the guide, who has been taking out groups for years, gets excited. But it wasn’t over. The bird took flight again and landed in a tree about 150 metres away, it was close!! We stood, open mouthed, at the closeness we were with this bird. After taking pictures and getting great views, it dived down into the valley and out of sight. We packed up and started up the mountain, with an almighty spring in our step from the brilliant views we had of this amazing bird. In text sent to other birders; stunning, beautiful and the best views ever were sent! Words could not describe how happy we were with the views. We couldn’t have asked for more, BUT the King had other ideas…
Having now explored the mountain a bit and seen spectacular views of the eagle, we decided to try some of the lower forest, for a few possible birds that had been seen recently. We navigated our way through the thick undergrowth and through habitat full of vines, trees and shrubs. Half-way through the day, we were surrounded in forest but could see through the canopy. Then, out of nowhere, Carlito shouted
There, on the next ridge over, sat the Philippine Eagle! Again, hunting from a large dead tree and only about 200 metres away. We were in the right area for it, and was not expecting it today, but it had found us. As Paul went back along the path, to try and get a better picture, I started to fight my way through the canopy to get a better view. Out of nowhere I heard
“It’s flying! It’s flying”
So I looked up, just in time to see it glide over my head! I wasn’t directly under the bird, but I could see all of its feathers and body movements as it threw down its wings as it flew. In a split second, all that I could see, hear and think was eagle. Everything else just faded away and I was awe-struck by this magnificent, powerful bird. It then landed in a tree, just down from where I was. I looked up and there he was, staring down at me (or at least in my direction) less than 40 metres away! It bobbed its head, it rolled it around and it scanned the forest around me. Then, out of nowhere, I got an impression of what it was like to be one of the monkeys that this bird hunts. I felt, just for a moment, like I was being hunted. I could see his powerful talons and the razor sharp claws which were at the end of each toe. The HUGE bill for ripping and shredding was pointed towards me a few times and I could see his blue eyes and his iris, pointing in towards me. All this I could see without my binoculars with a slight chill, a mixture of excitement and fear ran through me. In that moment I was in no doubt, if he was hungry, I wouldn’t stand a chance!
The others had arrived around me and started taking pictures. Then, after posing for a short while, it flew off and we didn’t see it again. But what more could I have asked for?! This huge wild bird had flown over, in all its glory, and had caught me in a trance. All of us silently sat down and just had a moment of self-reflection. No one spoke for what seemed like 20 minutes. Each one of us having had great views and were amazed at our luck. Paul showed us his pictures (link at the bottom) which are brilliant. We had used up all the best words in the text the night before, so how we were going to describe the views from this day was a challenge.
We did see other great birds throughout our time up the mountain, but honestly thinking back, the only bird that I can think of is the eagle and that moment in the forest we were staring at each other. It was a great time away but the end had come. I’m not sure if I will be able to make it back someday, and honestly I’m not sure I want to. Those views were better than any bird in captivity and this individual was wild. If I were to go back and not see it, would it taint my experience and take the edge off of what I had experienced or would it just make me appreciated the first trip more? I don’t know that but what I do know is that if my current level of work stays as it is, I’m going to be lucky if I get any time to look out of my office window for birds!!
As always Paul took some great pictures, of the eagle and other birds, which you can find here