BY LISELLE SANTOS, HARIBON FOUNDATION
“Your participation will help support Haribon’s search for the three globally threatened species—Black-faced Spoonbill, Chinese Crested Tern and Spoon-billed Sandpiper—under the BirdLife Arcadia project.”
When I read that invitation, I knew that I wanted to support Haribon so immediately, I joined the bird-watching trip to Mindoro’s Naujan Lake National Park (NLNP).
NLNP in Oriental Mindoro is accessible by land transportation from Calapan. It is the fifth largest lake in the Philippines and a designated Ramsar Site as a “Wetland of International Importance.” Because of its rich biodiversity, NLNP serves as a home and breeding ground for many different species, as well as an important stopover site for migratory birds to rest and refuel during the migration period.
After about a five-hour trip from Quezon City and a quick lunch in Calapan, we arrived at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) office in Socorro around 3:30 p.m. Within the next hour, three employees from DENR accompanied us to the next town where a two-storey watchtower stood. The foot of the tower was partly submerged in water because it was high tide when we arrived. Surrounding it were nearby houses and arable land that was turned into agricultural fields by the locals.
High up in the tower, it was a delight to see different kinds of birds whizzing by as the light of the sun softened across the horizon; ringing in the air were songs and flight calls. Haribon biologist David Quimpo was skilled in locating birds and identifying them. With the use of binoculars and a spotting scope, he pointed out the species of birds that came into view, telling us how to differentiate one from the other, their features and how they sound like. Being new to bird watching, I had to listen intently and often checked the field guides that were handed out.
I scanned the expanse of the lake with my binoculars and in the glistening mud I could see pairs of wandering whistling ducks. Over to the east, I spotted rows of Tufted ducks floating on the lake. Meanwhile, whiskered terns, egrets and an assortment of birds flew over the water’s surface, swooping down to snatch food, and then flew back up to fill the sky.
An hour before sunrise the next day, we set out for the lake, which was just a short walk away, and rode a motorized banca. It was still dark when we ventured further out into the lake yet I could see varieties of egrets dotted across the landscape. There were slender egrets with long black bills and elongated legs foraging on the mudflats, some hovering over the water. There were also taller, heftier egrets along the shores while others were flying over the lake with their necks retracted in an S-shape.
As we proceeded armed with binoculars, identifying birds and searching for the three globally threatened species felt like a treasure hunt.
On the right, we had the mountain as the backdrop and it was covered in a mixture of forest, coconut plantations, as well as some patches of grassland and scrubland. Our guide pointed at the serpent eagle as it flew over the forest canopy. We also spotted a monkey vigorously shaking the branch of a tree, which added to the attraction.
As the sun started to peek out of the horizon and warmed the air, the wetlands came alive. Great, little and whiskered terns were everywhere. There were also purple or grey herons, yellow bitterns and a rufous night heron that blended in so well with the surroundings. I also spied a common kingfisher hiding among the reeds only to make itself conspicuous by its iridescent blue upper parts. Our bird guide shot photos and helped us identify the species as they came out.
When we were approaching the two islets in Naujan Lake, we caught sight of the power lines high above the hills. Perched on them were about 50 tiny birds, but they were too far to make out.
It was a joy to watch groups of black-winged stilts wading in shallow water and plunging their heads below the surface to catch their prey.
One of the most impressive sights were the tufted ducks swimming on the lake and gathering in large flocks. By now the water was glimmering from the heat of the sun and on different sites of the lake it was a spectacle to watch groups of the ducks gathering together in great numbers totalling to an estimate of 13,000. As we came close, they took flight and made a “karr” sound while flying away.
From the shrub branches, an osprey darted out and gave us a good view when it flew across the marsh and alighted on a post on the other side. We also spotted a Brahminy kite flying overhead. As the banca floated past, it was a welcome sight to glimpse another osprey springing out from the dense vegetation.
This was my second time to do bird watching in the wetlands and it was such a thrill to be able to identify some of the birds by their size, shape, color, habitat, how they fly, how they sound, and so on. I learned a great deal and had lots of fun in the process.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the three globally threatened species and this made me think of the significance of bird watching: environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.
Birds are important bio-indicators. Changes in bird populations give us an idea of the health of an ecosystem. Extinction and decline in the number of birds is actually a reflection of how we are doing as stewards of this planet. Our actions, or lack thereof, affect them as well as everything else on earth.