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Storm birders brave the forces of nature on Freedom Islands

Little Egret on a boulder. Photo by Anjo Galauran

By Khrysta Imperial Rara, VERA Files

Photos  by Anjo Galauran

"Bird on the rocks!" the guide shouted excitedly. "To your right, top of the second boulder from shore, below the tree branch!"

A flurry of activity ensued as some 30 people hurriedly adjusted their binoculars and turned to face the rough waters surrounding Freedom Islands off the Coastal Road to Cavite.

Seven boulders dotted the shoreline meters from where the people stood on the road.

Some of them raised one shoulder to steady their umbrellas while their hands held their binoculars and wiped water off the lens.

It wasn't easy. The rain was pouring in torrents and the wind was trying to steal the only protection they had. They were bird watching during a rainstorm, something most people wouldn't do. But some of them were enthusiastic first-time birders and not even tropical storm Gener (international codename Saola) could dampen their spirits.

Storm birding entails observing birds during or after a storm in the hope of finding pelagic or sea birds blown in by strong winds from the open seas.  Inland birds, meanwhile, face the danger of being blown out to sea where they would die unless they find an island or ship to land on.

In cold countries, birdwatchers even observe birds during blizzards.

Storm birders get a kick out of experiencing the forces of nature first-hand just like the birds, albeit with raincoats and umbrellas. Some, however, opt to watch the avian species from the comfort and safety of their homes.

That Sunday before Gener intensified into a typhoon the next day, some people were birding at the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism area (LPPCHEA), right on the coastline of Manila Bay.  The cold winds were blowing inland, the salt spray from the agitated waters obscured their view, and the rains soaked their cell phones and cameras.

Black-crowned night herons. Photo by Anjo GalauranBut the birds did not disappoint. They were there in full regalia though in small numbers, seemingly enjoying the harsher side of tropical weather.

"As soon as I saw my lifer, a white-collared kingfisher, I knew I had just witnessed something majestic," averred Angerica Hainto, 18, referring to the first bird she had ever observed in the wild.

She added: "Before, I thought mayas were the only birds in Metro Manila. Now, I don't mind getting drenched in the rain anymore since the magic of seeing a bird up close through the lens is a profound experience. It made me appreciate nature more."

Keeping the white-collared kingfisher company on the rock was a little egret. They stayed there under the rain, not feeding, not preening, but just staring out to sea, seemingly oblivious to the elements.

Then the kingfisher noticed the birders and flew to another boulder near them, his eyes keenly observing them!

With the aid of a scope, they saw the colors of the bird's plumage, still vibrant despite the rains.

During a brief lull in the storm, they spied a couple of chestnut munias flying low among the tall grasses while flocks of more than a hundred black-crowned night herons soared above them, southbound.

Neither did the rains discourage some barred rails, pied fantails, cinnamon bitterns, zebra doves and Pacific swallows from going about their business.

Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) president Michael Lu explained that most of the birds had either taken shelter from the storm or had not yet arrived since migration season starts next month.

Birds from all over Northern Asia take refuge in the islands from September until April to feed and escape winter back home, thus making it an ideal ecotourism site.

Around 8,000 birds from 80 different species have been counted there during migration season. But the birds, both migrant and resident, are now threatened by two powerful forces — climate change and reclamation.

Lu said climate change has altered avian migration patterns and described instances when resident birds bred in January instead of the summer months.

Some migrant species even come earlier than expected, thus creating imbalance in the local ecosystem.

There have been sightings of new migrant species like the geese that were never before seen in the Philippines.

Government is also set to reclaim the island's shoreline in the name of development.

Three islands used to compose LPPCHEA. The smallest island was excavated to build the road that connects the other two.

"The remaining islands are the last mangrove islands in southern Manila Bay," Lu lamented. "They are also host to resident species like the endemic Philippine Duck."

True to their reputation, the ducks were nowhere to be seen that day. But thousands of trash-filled plastic bags littering the shores were seen.

Twice a year, WBCP leads volunteers in collecting trash carried by the tides from Metro Manila and its environs.

In the early 2000s, birders noticed flocks of migratory birds in the area and kept records. These records convinced former President Gloria Arroyo to create LPPCHEA  and protect the bird sanctuary.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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