By JOHNN MENDOZA
When you look up to the sky, do you ever wonder what birds fly over our neighborhood? How many birds can you identify when you look out your car window? What birds line the electrical cables or perch on top of the posts?
There is a kind of awareness and a certain realization that come with bird watching, apart from making people curious and suddenly hungry to know more about the local avian fauna that comprises Philippine biodiversity.
With over 600 species of birds, over 200 of which only found in our archipelago, the Philippines has a rather diverse flora and fauna. Our endemic birds, such as the Philippine eagle, the katala (Philippine Cockatoo), and the Palawan peacock-pheasant, have gained global recognition through the efforts of local conservation groups. Among these are birding communities.
Birding has gained popularity in the Philippines over the years, particularly after Mike Lu began the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines back in 2003. This popularity became even more widespread when communities, such as the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, would share beautiful photos that captured local avian life. Bird photography has opened the eyes of Filipinos to the world of bird conservation.
A vital migratory stop
More than just an avian biodiversity hotspot, the Philippines is also fortunate to be the migratory stop of several transient species of birds, those that take what is called the East Asian migratory flyway. This route is one of the most important in the world, and the Philippines is a critical stop that can make or break a healthy population of global bird species.
Philippine coastal areas serve as resting and feeding grounds for these visiting species of birds as they prepare for the long flight to the south, avoiding the cold weather during the winter season, from their country of origin. The birds would feed on crustaceans, small fish, and other local fauna that serves as food for their stop.
Some of our very popular migratory stops are Olango Island in Cebu, which serves as a temporary home for the Chinese egret; the Candaba swamp, which is a vital route for migratory ducks, geese, and even raptors; and the Bangkung Malapad Islet in Pampanga, where the sighting of the rare black-faced spoonbill was only very recently recorded. These spoonbill species were last found in record back in 1914 on Manila Bay. Sightings like these show the importance of the Philippines as a stopover destination for a great number of birds that are currently on the conservation watchlist.
Batanes: A rediscovery
Just when we thought we have already covered all of the migratory stops in the Philippines, we continue to discover new hotspots. Charls Lee Ibañes, an Ivatan from Batanes, most recently got involved with bird watching. While birding in Batanes, he started to notice birds that were not from the area. This got him curious, seeking the help of fellow birder Jonet Carpio, a bird photographer who is quite popular in the Philippine birding community for capturing images of rare birds.
Apparently, Batanes is a migratory stop and could possibly be one of the last stops before these birds head back to the north, and Jonet and Charls confirmed this. There were a few other birders who tried to enter Batanes but bad weather prevented them from doing so.
Jonet was the luckier one because it was during these stormy times that the migratory birds took a stop on land— and they came by the thousands! Perfect timing, indeed, for both Jonet and Charls and they were able to capture images of several migratory birds such as the rare black-faced spoonbill, the tundra bean goose, and a number of other coastal birds that landed during the storm.
Batanes has long been known as a migrant entry point for birds. But it was through Jonet and Charls that these migrants had been captured in photographs.
The Philippines and bird populations
Some birds are highly reliant on the local environment in the Philippines. Acts of deforestation or conversion of natural ecosystems into agricultural land has greatly affected bird counts. Take for example the streaked reed warbler, whose numbers started to decline in 1990. Then, a November 2017 bird count survey conducted by Desmond Allen, one of the key authorities in birding in the Philippines, showed that there were no longer any sightings of this endangered warbler. Its last known sighting was in 2009, and there was only one streaked reed warbler documented that time. Since then, none have been seen in the Philippines, despite the country being the exclusive wintering site for the warbler.
Desmond mentions that this has largely been due to the shrinking of the Candaba marsh, known to be the wintering site for the endangered warbler. The Candaba Marsh has been shrinking in size as flood control measures affect how new channels of vegetation are formed, coupled with the conversion of the marsh into rice paddies. The more this continues, the smaller the Candaba Marsh will be. This will lead to a notable decline of other species, much like what happened to the streaked reed warbler.
Another species of birds in decline is the garganey duck. Back in the 1980s, the Candaba Marsh was host to some 30,000 birds. Now recent counts only showed as high as 700 Garganey ducks. This decline is widespread. And as the Candaba Marsh gets converted more into agricultural land, these other winter visitors might soon disappear like the streaked reed warbler.
In the little things
Indeed, the Philippines plays an important role as a stopover and refueling site for visiting birds, and actions that damage the natural ecosystem of the country can and will affect these migrating species.
Bird population surveys are already showing steady declines. Avid bird photographer and conservationist Miguel De Leon believes that we can no longer depend on a very broad sense of “sustainable” ecotourism. Now more than ever, we need to have a more eco-protective mindset. Conservation efforts, therefore, have to start with every single one of us. And that begins in the little things.
This translates to conscious efforts, such as avoiding single-use plastics, which are often ingested by marine life, and actively speaking out against the commercialization of important natural environments for birds. It could even be as simple as talking about the state of our Philippine biodiversity to your family and friends.
To make sure that the succeeding generations will have a chance to see our country’s avian treasures, every little action counts.