CLASSIC PHILIPPINES BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Classic Philippines: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at the Belmont Hotel, which is connected by bridge to the main international terminal at Manila airport. The sprawling Manila conurbation is situated on the island of Luzon, the largest and most northerly of the major islands in the Philippines.
We will set off very early in order to visit an area of parkland where Ashy Thrush, a species that few visitors to the Philippines ever saw in the past, is nowadays quite reliable as there are several pairs here that have become used to people. This is also a good place for Lowland White-eye and Grey-backed Tailorbird. We will also scrutinize any wintering Arctic-type warblers in the hope of finding Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. We also have a first chance for Philippine Eagle-Owl in the pre-dawn, although we will probably need good fortune to encounter this impressive bird during the tour unless there is a reliable roost site known at the time.
Next, we will visit a wetland area that is a reliable place to find the endemic Philippine Swamphen. Other wetland species either here or on our journey today are likely to include Yellow Bittern, Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Javan Pond Heron, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-browed Crake, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Moorhen, Whiskered Tern, Collared and Common Kingfishers and Clamorous Reed Warbler.
Open country birds in the Philippines which we will likely observe today or later in the tour include Spotted and Zebra Doves, Red Collared Dove, Asian Palm Swift, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Barn Swallow, Long-tailed Shrike, Pied Triller, Philippine Pied Fantail, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Striated Grassbird, Golden-bellied Gerygone, Zitting Cisticola, Asian Glossy Starling, Crested Myna, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Chestnut Munia.
Afterwards, we will continue to Subic Bay for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Classic Philippines: Day 2 The American naval base at Subic Bay protected an extensive area of lowland forest but, following the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the base was handed back to the Philippines. The eruption itself decimated large areas of the forest, leaving the larger trees alive but destroying much of the lower canopy and understorey. The area has, however, largely recovered and now represents one of the few remaining accessible tracts of lowland forest on Luzon.
As we walk quietly along the tracks and roads through the forest, endemic and near-endemic birds we may well see include Philippine Serpent Eagle, Philippine Falconet, Grey-rumped Swiftlet, Philippine Cuckoo-Dove, Philippine Green Pigeon, White-eared Brown Dove, the attractive Scale-feathered and Rough-crested (or Red-crested) Malkohas, noisy but jumpy Rufous Coucals, Philippine Coucal, Philippine Hanging Parrot (or Colasisi), Guaiabero (another small parrot), Rufous-crowned Bee-eater, Luzon Hornbill, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Northern Sooty Woodpecker, Luzon Flameback, the rare Green Racket-tail, Blue-naped Parrot (of the critically endangered Luzon race), Blackish Cuckooshrike, Balicassiao (a drongo with an amazing repertoire of imitations), Coleto (a strange, bald-headed starling), Philippine Bulbul, Trilling (or Green-backed) Tailorbird and White-browed Shama. We should also see Stripe-headed Rhabdornis, one of three ‘Philippine creepers’ that were formerly treated as an endemic family, the Rhabdornithidae, but which are now considered to be aberrant starlings. More widespread species include Red Junglefowl, Green Imperial Pigeon, Whiskered Treeswift, Brahminy Kite, Oriental Dollarbird, Coppersmith Barbet, the impressive White-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Woodswallow, Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, Large-billed Crow and the migrant Ashy Minivet and Brown Shrike.
A number of nightbirds occur here, including Philippine and Great Eared Nightjars, Chocolate and Luzon Boobooks and Philippine Scops Owl. We also have another chance for Philippine Eagle-Owl.
We will also be hoping to find some endemic species that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere on the tour. These include the unobtrusive and uncommon White-lored Oriole, the rare, canopy-loving White-fronted Tit and Philippine (or North Philippine) Hawk-Eagle, though all can be hard to track down.
As well as its many birds, Subic also hosts a large roost of Golden-crowned and Large Flying-foxes.
Classic Philippines: Day 3 After some final birding at Subic we will embark upon our journey to northern Luzon. Much of the route passes through paddyfields but the road also climbs up over the Dalton Pass, made famous in ornithological circles by a large-scale ringing (banding) programme in the 1960s and 1970s. Our journey will eventually take us to the southern flanks of the Cordillera Central, the mountainous homeland of various ethnic minority groups, including the Igorots and the Ifugao, some of whom were still practising head-hunting until relatively recently!
As we begin to climb up from the lowlands we will stop at the Lagawe gorge, where we will search for the gorgeous little Northern Indigo-banded Kingfisher (and we should also encounter Striated Heron and Pacific Swallow, before following the road up to Banaue for a three nights stay. This small town is the site of some of the famous rice terraces constructed over 2000 years ago by the Ifugao.
Classic Philippines: Days 4-5 We will drive higher and higher along the road to Bontoc until we reach the highest motorable point on the road at around 1900m (6234ft). This area lies in the rugged Mount Polis range and the vegetation is predominantly mossy oak forest laden with orchids and pitcher plants, together with stands of pine and areas of grassland on the drier slopes. The summits are often wreathed in mist, but on a clear day, the views can be stunning. Sadly, the stands of montane forest nearest the road have been degraded, but it is still possible to see many of the more typical Luzon montane forest species and, with persistence and luck, some of the rarer ones.
We will set off before dawn and aim to arrive at the highest part of the road while it is still dark. If the weather is fine we have a good chance of hearing the plaintive piping of the Luzon Scops Owl, but seeing this species is a different matter as it is typically well-hidden in the dense oaks, which themselves can be hard to access. Nevertheless, we will have a fairly good chance.
Then, as dawn breaks, the first Island Thrush appears on the road and we will listen carefully for the low, booming calls of the Flame-breasted Fruit Dove. This is another elusive bird whose numbers are very much reduced by hunting, but, if we are really in luck, we will hear the flutter of heavy wingbeats and see one sitting quietly in the canopy of a roadside tree. As the day brightens Philippine Bush Warblers give their loud explosive songs and thankfully they are generally rather easy to see. Long-tailed Bush Warblers on the other hand give their higher buzzing songs from the densest vegetation and are typically more tricky, though with patience we should see one creeping, mouse-like, through the forest floor vegetation. Philippine Shortwing may also test our patience but we should also get to see one or more. Ridgetop Swiftlets sweep low over the road, Eastern Buzzards and sometimes other raptors perch up, migrant Olive-backed Pipits flush from land cleared to grow cabbages and we should find a Mountain Shrike or two, typically perched on a prominent snag near the road. Blue Rock Thrush is regular and the uncommon Brown-headed Thrush is also possible.
Many of the other birds at Mount Polis are found in mixed species flocks, and after long periods of inactivity there is a flurry as Elegant Tits, Sulphur-billed Nuthatches, Chestnut-faced Babblers, Mountain Tailorbirds, Negros Leaf Warblers, Little Pied and Turquoise Flycatchers, Citrine Canary-flycatchers, superb Blue-headed Fantails, sedate Green-backed Whistlers, Warbling White-eyes and dazzling Luzon Sunbirds sweep past. If we are lucky we will also find Yellow-crowed Flowerpecker in a mixed species flock and hear the raucous shrieks that will alert us to the presence of Montane Racket-tails as they flash past.
Later in the day, we will move downhill, further towards Bontoc, where, in a small but picturesque gorge, we will search for Luzon Water Redstarts as they dart from boulder to boulder in a clear mountain river, flashing their russet tails. The insect-like songs of Benguet Bush Warblers can often be heard issuing from the grasslands on the steepest slopes at these lower altitudes, and with persistence, we should see one of these mouse-like creatures.
Classic Philippines: Day 6 After some early morning birding at Banaue, concentrating on Bundok (or Thicket) Flycatcher and Yellowish White-eye, we will head southwards to Los Banos, situated not far to the south of Manila, for a two nights stay. This will be largely a travel day.
Classic Philippines: Day 7 We will spend the day at nearby Mount Makiling. Mount Makiling is a volcanic mountain about 70 kilometres (42 miles) to the southeast of Manila that still preserves an extensive area of rainforest. The forest extends from near sea level to around 1000m (3281ft) and more than 50 Philippine endemics have been found breeding in the area, which is kept as a research reserve for the University of the Philippines at Los Banos.
As the light slowly builds there is a chorus of screams and chatters from Spotted Wood Kingfishers, which are unusually numerous here (and easier to see than at Subic). By carefully scanning the tracks through the forest, we will have another chance to see the lovely Philippine Pitta. We also have a good chance of encountering Grey-throated Sunbird, the stunning Flaming Sunbird and Striped Flowerpecker, as well as a backup opportunity for most of the endemics mentioned for Subic Bay. We have even seen the rare Luzon Bleeding-heart here, but the chances of a repeat performance are extremely low.
During the afternoon we will explore an area of grassland, scrub and larger trees at the foot of the mountain. Here we will be looking in particular for the endemic Spotted Buttonquail and Plain (or Philippine) Bush-hen, and we may also find Barred Buttonquail, Barred Rail, Striated Swallow and Scaly-breasted Munia.
If we have not yet seen either Luzon Boobook or Philippine Scops Owl we will try again at Makiling this evening, as they are both common here.
Classic Philippines: Day 8 This morning we will catch a flight to Cagayan de Oro on the island of Mindanao, the second largest and most southerly of the larger islands of the Philippines. From Cagayan de Oro we will drive to the Kitanglad Mountains of Bukidnon province for a three nights stay.
Our baggage will be transferred to horses to be carried up while we will walk up to our ‘camp’. The trail passes through areas of fields and cultivation before finally entering some forest. Indeed, our ‘camp’ (which consists of a lodge house with dining area and bathrooms together with a series of modern tents under very large arched tarpaulin-covered shelters) is surrounded by relict patches of forest and a good number of species can be seen here.
This afternoon and evening, we will commence our exploration of Mount Kitanglad.
As dusk falls we will take up position near our campsite, where we should see Bukidnon Woodcock in its display flight. This species was discovered by our 1993 Birdquest group and the species is now known from a few of the highest mountains in the Philippines, although Mount Kitanglad remains the best site.
As the light fades further, Philippine Nightjars begin to call, and just a few minutes later, we should hear the first growls of the Philippine Frogmouth. We will hope to see both these species during our stay on the mountain, as well as Great Eared Nightjar and perhaps also Everett’s Scops Owl. The fascinating Giant Scops Owl is also present in the woods around our camp, but it usually calls only briefly and irregularly through the night and can be hard to see at this location. We will, however, make a concerted effort!
Classic Philippines: Days 9-10 The highest point of the Kitanglad Mountains reaches nearly 3000m (9843ft). Much of the higher slopes of the range are still clad in rich montane forest dominated by dipterocarp trees, whilst at the highest altitudes there is mossy forest dripping with epiphytes. Numerous species of trees, plants and butterflies are restricted to this range alone or are shared with the Mount Apo range. The area holds many fascinating birds, some of which are extremely rare and little known.
During our stay, we will work the lower slopes and also higher trails reaching around 1800m (5906ft) in order to see all the specialities. Around our camp and in the nearby relict patches of forest we will come across foraging mixed-species flocks, often dominated by superb Black-and-cinnamon Fantails, Warbling White-eyes and Cinnamon Ibons (the latter is an enigmatic species that was formerly placed in the white-eyes but is now considered a sparrow!). Alongside these will be the impressive Buff-spotted Flameback, McGregor’s Cuckooshrike, Grey-hooded Sunbird, Olive-capped Flowerpecker and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker (the Philippines form of the latter is a good candidate for a split as Fire-throated Flowerpecker). Less obvious, although common on the mountain, is Rufous-headed Tailorbird, and we will also hope to see some of the other species of the understorey such as Brown Tit-babbler, the Mindanao form of the Philippine Shortwing (vocally distinct) and one of the Mindanao forms of the Long-tailed Bush Warbler (which differs vocally from the race on Luzon and has a much shorter tail, so likely represents a distinct species).
We will spend some time in the mossy forests at higher altitudes where we will search for the superb Apo Sunbird, the extraordinary ‘bug-eyed’ Apo Myna, Mindanao White-eye and White-cheeked Bullfinch.
With a bit of luck while on Kitanglad we will see as well as hear the dazzling Hombron’s (or Blue-capped) Kingfisher, and we also have a chance of seeing the very localized Red-eared Parrotfinch. One of the hardest birds of all at Kitanglad is the Bagobo Babbler (or Bagobo Robin). Trapping has shown this species to be relatively common, but it is extraordinarily skulking and seems to possess a ‘cloak of invisibility’, so it is hardly ever seen by visiting birders, though we may well hear it.
Whilst walking between the patches of forest, we will cross areas of cultivation where will see a variety of open country birds such as Pied Bushchat, Tawny Grassbird, Paddyfield Pipit, Grey and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and perhaps Black-winged Kite. Bare trees and other snags attract Short-tailed Starling, Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis and Grey-streaked Flycatcher and with luck, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, whilst flocks of Eyebrowed Thrushes move swiftly between the areas of woodland. Rusty-breasted Cuckoos sometimes call from prominent perches, but we will have to work harder to find the skulking Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo, a species which seems to disappear when it is not singing. Overhead, small numbers of Philippine Swiftlets may appear and shrill shrieks announce the presence of Mindanao Racquet-tails which typically flash past in a blaze of emerald. Indeed, our eyes should be on the skies for a variety of raptors is possible here, including Pinsker’s (or South Philippine) Hawk-Eagle, Grey-faced Buzzard, Brahminy Kite and sometimes Rufous-bellied Eagle.
The bird we will all be hoping to see whilst we are at Kitanglad is the Philippine or Monkey-eating Eagle, one of the largest raptors in the world and ranked as Critically Endangered due to the continued destruction of the Philippine rainforests. Current population estimates range from 3000 individuals to as low as 180, and Mount Kitanglad is the most reliable accessible site for finding the species. If we are lucky, a nest will have been located and we may see an adult bringing food such as a Philippine Flying Lemur. Philippine Eagles only nest every other year, however, as the youngster remains dependent for many months after fledging, and the birds on Mount Kitanglad have become irregular nesters in recent years, apparently ‘skipping’ a season or more, perhaps due to food shortages. In the years when they are not nesting, we will hope to track down one of the adults or perhaps the dependent youngster (which can be extremely vocal). This magnificent bird is very much a forest raptor and spends long periods perched under the canopy. From time to time, however, they can be seen soaring up into the sky before gliding off down a forested valley to hunt.
Classic Philippines: Day 11 After some final birding on Mount Kitanglad we will walk down from our camp to the foot of the mountain, from where we will drive to the Davao area for an overnight stay.
We should arrive in time for some initial exploration, and if luck is on our side, we will encounter the rare Japanese Night Heron. A small wintering population of this endangered mega-bird has been found in the Davao area in recent years, although both the number of individuals and the ease of a sighting has varied greatly from one year to the next. More predictable is the localized Cryptic Flycatcher, while the smart Red-keeled Flowerpecker is positively common. At night we will have another chance for Giant and Everett’s Scops Owls (chances for both average better than at Kitanglad).
Classic Philippines: Day 12 This morning we will visit a site on the slopes of Mt Apo where we will be hoping to find the little-known Mindanao Minature Babbler (or Mindanao Plumed Warbler) and the range-restricted endemic Whiskered Flowerpecker. A number of other Mindanao montane endemics that we should have already seen will also be present. Also in the area, we may well find the distinct and localized juliae form of Purple-throated Sunbird, another potential split as Orange-lined Sunbird, alongside the now-endemic Everett’s White-eye, and we will have a chance of at least hearing, and hopefully seeing, an undescribed form of shortwing which lives at lower altitudes than Philippine Shortwing on Mindanao, and is colloquially known as ‘Morris’s’ Shortwing after our own Birdquest leader who first discovered it!
Afterwards, we will head south to the Tboli region for an overnight stay.
The Tboli area is nowadays the best accessible locality for the increasingly rare Mindanao Lorikeet. They are still fairly common in the area and we have a very good chance of seeing a number going to roost. Another major speciality is the range-restricted Tboli Sunbird, already split from Apo Sunbird by some authorities and a fairly common bird in the Tboli area. In addition, White-eared Tailorbird occurs here at the eastern limits of its distribution but we will need considerable luck if we are to find one.
Classic Philippines: Day 13 After some more birding in the Tboli area we will return to the Davao area for an overnight stay.
Classic Philippines: Day 14 We will have another opportunity to find any species we are missing in the Davao area before heading east. We will make a stop at a coastal area where, in recent winters, the Critically Endangered Chinese Crested Tern has sometimes been present amongst the Black-headed Gulls and numerous Whiskered Terns, as well as smaller numbers of Gull-billed, Great Crested, Common and Little Terns.
We should also find a good variety of shorebirds including Black-winged Stilt, Pacific Golden, Grey (or Black-bellied), Kentish, Mongolian and Greater Sand Plovers, Eurasian Whimbrel, Far Eastern Curlew, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Terek, Common and Marsh Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Common Redshank and Common Greenshank.
Strangely, the ubiquitous Collocalia swiftlets that occur from sea level upwards on Mindanao are treated by the IOC as conspecific with the Ridgetop Swiftlet of northern Luzon, a purely montane form, rather than as conspecific with the far more widespread Grey-rumped Swiftlet. That treatment certainly makes one wonder.
Afterwards, we will continue to Bislig on the eastern coast of Mindanao for a four nights stay.
Classic Philippines: Days 15-17 From our base near Bislig we will explore the extensive area of forest that is universally known as ‘PICOP’. This acronym stands for ‘Paper Industries Corporation of the Philippines’ and ‘PICOP’ was a gigantic logging concession granted to this company after World War II. Large areas have indeed been logged, and some have even been re-planted with commercial plantations (a rare event in the Philippines), but the company took its obligations seriously and made great efforts to prevent illegal logging and squatters. The result was that some superb areas of forest remained, complete with one of the best selections of birds found anywhere in the Philippines. The company has, however, long since lost the concession and as a result, illegal logging has become rampant, while droves of squatters have moved in and the habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, for the moment PICOP still holds a fantastic array of endemics and is the only readily accessible area of lowland forest remaining on Mindanao.
Here we have a good chance of finding Mindanao and Writhed Hornbills, the spectacular Southern Rufous Hornbill, Common Emerald Dove, Short-billed and Amethyst Brown Doves and Black-chinned and Yellow-breasted Fruit Doves. Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon is harder to find and we will be very fortunate if we come across a Spotted Imperial Pigeon (surely one of the Philippine’s most threatened birds). Loud squawks and screeching announce the presence of Blue-crowned Racquet-tails and other canopy species present include Violet Cuckoo, Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo, Black-bibbed Cicadabird, Southern Black-and-white Triller, Philippine Fairy Bluebird (now becoming rare here), Philippine Minivet, Philippine Leafbird, Philippine and Black-naped Orioles and the aptly-named Handsome Sunbird.
Overhead a variety of raptors, including Philippine (or Steere’s) Honey Buzzard and Crested Goshawk, may be joined by Purple Needletail, Philippine Spine-tailed Swift and Pygmy and Ameline Swiftlets.
The forest undergrowth and mid-storey also demand attention and we will hope to find some mixed-species flocks which hold the lovely Philippine Trogon, the Mindanao form of the Balicassio (sometimes split as Short-tailed Drongo), Yellowish and Yellow-wattled Bulbuls, Yellow-bellied Whistler, Black-naped Monarch, Mindanao Blue Fantail, the stunning Southern Rufous Paradise Flycatcher, Mindanao Pygmy and Rusty-crowned Babblers, Philippine Leaf Warbler, Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher, Orange-bellied, Southern Buzzing, Pygmy, Bicoloured and Olive-backed Flowerpeckers, and Naked-faced and Orange-tufted Spiderhunters. Black-faced Coucals clamber around the tangles of vines, Rufous-fronted and Black-headed Tailorbirds sing loudly from the thickets (although both can be hard to see) and we will hope to find Striated Wren-Babbler (formerly known as Streaked Ground Babbler) and Philippine Pitta, both denizens of the forest floor.
Naturally, we will make particular efforts to locate some of the most sought-after endemics while we are at PICOP. The beautiful Azure-breasted (or Steere’s) Pitta favours areas where there are outcrops of limestone in the forest, and we will want to hear its strident calls as these are the best clue to its whereabouts. We will then track one down as it calls from an elevated perch, a glorious vision of turquoise, black and red!
The mixed flocks may hold both Short-crested Monarch and, much less commonly, the stunning Celestial Monarch; both species are an almost impossible shade of blue. In the vicinity of these mixed flocks we will look out for the increasingly rare (Mindanao) Wattled Broadbill, a quiet and unassuming species that looks truly bizarre, but sadly is becoming steadily scarcer. From deeply shaded gullies we may hear the quiet song of the uncommon and poorly-known Little Slaty Flycatcher, while at dawn we will listen for Winchell’s (or Rufous-lored) Kingfisher and hope to find one sitting high in the canopy. The striking Southern Silvery Kingfisher is found, more typically, around small forest pools, whilst Brown-breasted Kingfisher sits on the roadside wires. Philippine Magpie-Robins tend to sing from a prominent perch before disappearing into a thicket.
We will aim to arrive at the forest a little before dawn on one or more days. Mindanao Boobook occurs here and we have a good chance of hearing the distinctive calls and then seeing one (or a pair) in the twilight. There are also more chances for Chocolate Boobook, Giant Scops Owl and Philippine Frogmouth should we still be in need of any of these.
Serious rarities we have seen very rarely at PICOP include Mindanao Bleeding-heart, Philipppine Dwarf Kingfisher, Southern Sooty Woodpecker, Blue-backd Parrot
Whilst we are at Bislig, we will also visit the vicinity of an abandoned airstrip where the wet grassland, pools and paddies hold a number of interesting birds including Wandering Whistling Duck, Philippine Duck, Swinhoe’s and Common Snipes, Australasian Grass Owl, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler (a winter visitor which has a limited distribution in northeast Asia) and White-bellied Munia. More widespread species include Little Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Golden-headed Cisticola and Olive-backed Sunbird. If we are in luck, we will also find Black Bittern, King (or Blue-breasted) Quail or Watercock.
Classic Philippines: Day 18 After some final birding at Bislig we head for the town of Compostela for an overnight stay. While based here we will explore some montane forest fragments where we should find another restricted speciality, Lina’s Sunbird. We also have a real chance of finding the rare Mindanao Brown Dove and the localized Flame-crested Flowerpecker. If we are truly in luck we will actually see as well as hear the retiring Bagobo Babbler (or Bagobo Robin). Island Thrush is quite common, Spotted Imperial Pigeon and Metallic Pigeon are both possible (although rare), there is a somewhat strange-looking form of McGregor’s Cuckooshrike and we have another chance to find the much-wanted Red-eared Parrotfinch. After dusk, we will look for the diminutive and often retiring Mindanao Scops Owl.
Classic Philippines: Day 19 After some final birding in the Compostela region we will head back to Davao and take a flight to Manila and an onward flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan island for a four nights stay.
Classic Philippines: Days 20-22 In contrast to the frenetic bustle of Manila, Palawan has a distinctly calmer and more relaxed atmosphere, as do most of the provincial regions of the Philippines. Indeed, it almost seems that the island is one large friendly village.
Unlike other islands in the Philippines, much of Palawan is still well forested, and, from a biological viewpoint, is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating areas in this diverse archipelago. A narrow island with a chain of mountains extending its full length, Palawan is about 400 kilometres (240 miles) long and effectively connects Borneo with the rest of the Philippines. In consequence, it shares many of the faunal and floral characteristics of both areas. This is well reflected in the island’s avifauna, for a number of birds of Malaysian origin can be found here but nowhere else in the Philippines. In addition, Palawan has many Philippine endemics, including over 25 species which occur only on this one island.
During our stay, we will visit a series of forested localities accessible from Puerto Princesa. The choice of locations will depend on the most recent birding information. For example, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (formerly St Paul’s) National Park that lies on the northwest coast of Palawan near Sabang may or may not be included. The scenery in the park is beautiful with forest reaching right down to the coast from towering limestone crags. There are some attractive beaches here, but undoubtedly the park’s best-known attraction for the general visitor is the famous ‘underground river’ (a large cave system). The park used to be regularly visited by birders, but the habituated male Palawan Peacock-Pheasant that made the location famous eventually disappeared and so these days it is less often included in an itinerary.
There are many interesting birds to see on Palawan. The most spectacular of these is surely the strikingly beautiful Palawan Peacock-Pheasant. This little-known and uncommon species is extremely secretive. In common with the other peacock-pheasants, it has a loud, strident and somewhat discordant call, and we may hear one, but we would normally have to be very lucky to see one. From time to time, however, there has been a male that became habituated to humans and remarkably tame, and so we have in the past enjoyed ultra-close views of this stunning little pheasant. We can only hope this is also the case during our visit.
Probably the second most tricky endemic (not counting Palawan Striped Babbler, which requires an arduous camping expedition into the mountains!) is the attractive Red-headed Flameback, but with persistence, we should succeed.
In third place is the large and strikingly-plumaged Falcated Wren-Babbler (formerly known as Falcated Ground Babbler), which can be tricky to see as it creeps through the undergrowth. When seen well this is a simply stunning bird with the long lanceolate black and white feathering that gives it its name.
The fascinating near-endemic Philippine Megapode (or Philippine Scrubfowl) is also somewhat secretive and likewise attracts attention with its call, a haunted, mournful whistle, but we do have a good chance of seeing this species feeding quietly on the forest floor. We may also find the widespread Hooded Pitta, which, although another forest-floor skulker, calls from an elevated position and flashes blue and white as it swoops unerringly through the forest, and we will have another chance to find the endemic Philippine Pitta. Keeping low are the endemic Ashy-headed and Melodious Babblers, while the rich song of the endemic White-vented Shama is another sound that we will have to track through the forest until we spot the bird that utters it.
Palawan’s endemics are not all found on the forest floor, however. Blue-headed Racket-tails screech from the tree tops, Palawan Hornbills flap past, Yellow-throated Leafbirds and Palawan Fairy-bluebirds live up to their names and Blue-naped Parrots (almost endemic to the Philippines) favour flowering trees that often attract Palawan Flowerpeckers. The endemic Palawan Crow with its characteristic, duck-like ‘quacking’ calls and flapping flight is definitely an unusual critter, Spot-throated Flamebacks call from the taller trees, Lovely Sunbirds give their monotonous ‘chip-chap’ calls from the treetops (their distinctive, if uninspiring, voice is one of the reasons for the split of Lovely from the Handsome Sunbird of the rest of the Philippines) and Palawan Tits move noisily through the canopy, while in the middle storey we should encounter Palawan Drongo, Palawan and Sulphur-bellied Bulbuls, Palawan Blue Flycatcher, the stunning Blue Paradise Flycatcher and Pale Spiderhunter. Secondary habitats attract the Ashy-fronted Bulbul, while overhead we will soon see the Palawan form of the Ameline Swiftlet.
During our visit, there will be good opportunities to look for night birds. At dawn and dusk, we will listen for the call of the Large-tailed Nightjar, which is very much a slower version of the disyllabic call of Philippine Nightjar, and watch for them sitting on a prominent perch as they call. The endemic Palawan Frogmouth has a highly distinctive voice and we should find this hairy little frogmouth sitting and calling, its head a mass of wispy feathers. Also having a very distinct call is the endemic Palawan Scops Owl, whose low and often very quiet croaks are all too easily passed off as a frog! We will also be on the lookout for the superb Spotted Wood Owl and we may perhaps encounter a Brown Boobook.
Amongst the many other species we may well find on Palawan are Crested Serpent Eagle, Thick-billed Green Pigeon, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Greater and Lesser Coucals, Asian Koel, Plaintive Cuckoo, Brown-backed Needletail, the fabulous little Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, the noisy Great Slaty Woodpecker, Fiery Minivet, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Ashy Drongo, Dark-throated Oriole, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Black-headed Bulbul, Common Iora, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Common Hill Myna, Olive-backed Sunbird (the form here has an orange breast) and Brown-throated and Purple-throated Sunbirds. We may also come across one or two of the more uncommon species such as the shy Blue-eared Kingfisher, the handsome Ruddy Kingfisher or Oriental Hobby.
We will also explore an area where we have a good chance of finding the diminutive Palawan Flycatcher, an endemic that is uncommon and localized, as well as retiring, so seeing one often takes persistence.
We will visit an area of mudflats on the edge of Puerto Princesa favoured by Chinese Egret, a globally threatened species that winters in good numbers on Palawan. We may also find a few common shorebirds and, in areas of mangrove, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Copper-throated Sunbird and perhaps Mangrove Whistler.
The attractive Red-vented or Philippine Cockatoo is a Philippine endemic that has its stronghold on Palawan and we will visit a known roosting area where we should get wonderful views. This Critically Endangered species is under intense pressure from the cagebird trade and only survives in good numbers on Palawan. White-bellied Sea Eagle, Pacific Reef Heron and sometimes Lesser Frigatebird are possible along the coastline.
Before dusk one afternoon, we will take a boat to a small island in order to look for the restricted-range Mantanani Scops Owl.
Classic Philippines: Day 23 After a final morning session on Palawan there will be a chance to wash and change at our hotel, followed by lunch. Our tour ends with an afternoon flight from Puerto Princesa to Manila.