23 Jun 2014

A trip to see Palawan Peacock Pheasant - 13th to 21st June 2014

When I was young I used to hide from tense TV dramas by skulking behind the sofa or going to see what Mum was doing in the kitchen. The prospect of the England football team's first two World Cup games in the Brazil World Cup finals induced a similar kind of unease, so it seemed a good time to take a short birding break in the Philippines.

I bought John E. DuPont's "Philippine Birds" shortly after the 1985 reprint, but it sat unused on the bookshelf for a long time. I've had a couple of pre-Internet era Trip Reports on the Philippines ( by Dave Sergeant and Brian Gee, bought through the Oriental Bird Club) for twenty years.  When "A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines" (OUP, 2000) came out I got that one, too. These days there is quite a lot of information on the internet, with Paul Bourdin's "A Birder in the Philippines" blog being both both entertaining and informative.


I first became aware of Palawan Peacock Pheasant thanks to Ian Merrill's fine photo on the cover of (Oriental Bird Club Publication) Birding Asia 6. A perfect main target for an overseas birding trip it would seem.  There is just one habituated individual male PPP that comes to the Ranger Station at Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP) as it is now known.

The Pheasant has been showing regularly for over ten years now, but it won't live forever.  We were reminded that the bird was still around because Abdel Bizid (with us in Taiwan) saw it in mid-May 2014. The procedures for getting permits to enter the park seemed complicated, but we were confident we could work out how to do it.

Beachfront at Sabang, gateway to the Underground River

Manila is only one-and-a-half hours flying time from us here in Hong Kong, but having viewed the costs of guided birding tours on Palawan, we decided that these were rather expensive and probably rather more intense than we wanted.

Deciding to "wing it", we flew to Puerto Princesa, Palawan's main city. The following morning we went to the PPSRNP office, submitted our passports, and were issued a permit.  A local bus to Sabang  took just over three hours to cover 80 kilometers.
"Blue Bamboo Cottages" Sabang

In late afternoon we went on Sabang's "Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour" (an example of "Community-based Sustainable Tourism"), and had decent views of Stork-billed Kingfisher and flybys of Blue-eared. At the mangroves we noted that the path to access the western end of PPSRNP was "Temporarily" closed.

The vast majority of visitors travel from the quay at Sabang to the Park HQs and cave entrance on a flotilla of six-person "bangkas" or outrigger boats.

Your outrigger is ready, Ladies and Gentlemen !

The following morning (Sunday) we were first in line to get our permit endorsed, paid 250 pesos each, caught our "bangka" and hit the beach at the National Park first. But we found that, already,  the park workers were around in numbers and it was hard to see or hear any birds.  The park people near the beach said that the "Peacock" usually showed "between five and six".

Large numbers of flotation-jacketed daytrippers were soon in the park too, on their way to the cave entrance to the underground river. We found that the eastern end of the forest trail away from the Ranger Station was "Temporarily" closed, too. So it appears that access to the rest of the forest is problematic right now.

We did the underground river trip (it involves a second boat into a big cave, the cost was included in our p250 permits). The underground river tour was okay, but we returned to Sabang disappointed. We cheered ourselves up with Mango smoothies near the quay….

Endemic White-vented Shamas were breeding near our accommodation…

The guide book and the posters give the impression that PPSRNP permits can only be obtained in Puerto Princesa, but enquiring at the Sabang office during a midday lull in proceedings, it turned out that we could visit the National Park again the following day. I explained we were birdwatchers and wanted to start early. A new permit was issued, cheaper at p150 each because we didn't want to go into the underground river cave.  I told the dispatcher lady about our desired early start, and we had a boat arranged for 05:00. This cost p1,200 (return) because we had chartered it for ourselves.

We woke up in time, the boat operator was only slightly late, and we got to the Park HQs beach at 05:30. On an overcast morning it was still very dark under the forest canopy and we had to be careful not to stumble over the many huge Monitor Lizards that lurked around the Ranger Station. Of the Peacock Pheasant there was no sign. We decided to look at the boardwalk to the cave boat area, and keep checking the well-swept surrounds of the Ranger Station. As it got lighter we had a glimpse of Hooded Pitta, but it scuttled away.

Later I found Tabon Scrubfowl near the boardwalk and returned to tell Jemi. She was just coming from the Ranger Station to tell me that the star of the show had made his entrance. For the record, the time was 06:20.

Behind the building, watched casually by one or two Park Rangers, a male Palawan Peacock Pheasant - ( THE  male Palawan Peacock Pheasant ) was feeding on a few scattered rice grains.

It was a photo opportunity that probably would not have been possible before the digital era. I cranked the ISO up to 6400 and snapped away with the 500mm lens hand held.  Again, the Image Stabilisation made a big difference, but but nothing could slow the movement of the bird's head, which caused the discarding of most shots.  Palawan Peacock Pheasant is usually at the top of most birders' Philippine bird lists, and it soared to the top of our short Philippine bird list, too.

After several minutes the PPP turned like a miniature jewelled galleon, and marched back into the forest.

After that everything was a bit of an anticlimax, but a view of Palawan Hornbill through a gap in the canopy was very welcome.

From Sabang we got an "Air-conditioned" (it was freezing) van northwards to El Nido.

This part of our trip to Palawan was really more "sightseeing" than "birding", I confess.

The scenery was nice and a day trip to a waterfall turned up Palawan Flowerpecker and Yellow-throated Leafbird, another Palawan endemic.

Our final two nights and one full day on Palawan were based at Puerto Princesa. We hired a van (p2100) for six hours and went out to the main highway south.  Following information on Paul Bourdin's blog, we birded an old "Zigzag road" that goes over a wooded hillside after the 33km marker. Despite the threat of rain we had some good birds there.

Hill Myna - should be "split" by now…?

Great Slaty Woodpecker

Black-chinned Fruit-Dove

Blue-naped Parrot

Blue-naped Parrots

That evening, we went on a popular tourist trip on the Iwahig River to see firefles. It was very dark for seeing anything apart from the fireflies, so a bit of open shutter "painting with light" was something to try.

Here the guides' red torch (to excite the fireflies) and the fireflies themselves seem to form a riot of colour.

Fireflies, Iwahig River, Palawan
Well, - I  liked the result, anyway.

We returned to the "Zigzag Road" (there are many such in the Philippines, I think) to try for night birds, but nothing responded to our recorded bird calls.

Later, while driving back towards Puerto Princesa, Jemi spotted a big lump in a tree a few yards from the main road. We backed up a hundred meters or so, and the "lump" was still there, sitting on a low, bare branch.   The clear white heart-shaped face of a tyto owl was looking back at us !  Barn Owl is not in the Philippines, it seems, so it must have been Grass Owl, in a fairly typical habitat of grassland and rice paddies. Sadly, we got no photos, as it flew soon after the vehicle backed up for a closer view.

Palawan made a pleasant change from Hong Kong, and we saw about 75 species in our time there.

Postscript  (originally written 23rd June)

My "hiding behind the sofa" act hasn't done the England World Cup Squad any good, though. They lost their first two group games and will play Costa Rica  tomorrow.  Four months ago I was telling people in Costa Rica that I'd be thinking of them when the match took place.

So I shall, but whatever happens, England are "toast" , and Costa Rica are deservedly through to the last 16.

"Pura Vida !"

4 Jun 2014

Taiwan : Anmashan National Forest Area and Yunlin County 30th May 2014 to 2nd June 2014

This was a short break, with four of us Hong Kong birders looking for some of Taiwan's mountain birds, many of which just happen to be spectacular endemics. Many Thanks are owed to Meiling Tang, who did most of the preparatory work. As well as Jemi and myself, Abdel Bizid was the companionable fourth member of the "Team". 

This is just a few impressions of the trip, accompanied by photos.

We have the 1991 "A Field Guide to the Birds of Taiwan" by WU Sen-hsiong et al.  We've also got Mark Brazil's "Birds of East Asia" which covers Taiwan.  The OUP "Field Guide to the Birds of China" (Mackinnon and Phillipps) also includes Taiwan.  All three books use different English names for many of the birds, with varying degrees of "splitting", too.  So, that's my excuse if I've got some of the English names wrong !

One good thing about flying from Hong Kong is that you get a choice of destinations in Taiwan, all just over an hours flying time away.  It's so easy, I deserve a kick up the backside for not trying Taiwan before.

We were picked up in late evening at Taichung Airport to be guided by well-known Taiwanese guide Kuen-dar CHIANG. It was only about an hour-and-a-half to get to our cabins below the 13km point of the road to Dasyueshan National Forest Recreation Area.

Out at dawn the next day we headed a few kilometres up the road where a female Swinhoe's Pheasant crossing in front of us seemed a good omen. Further, we stopped near a well-known (known to local photographers, anyway) site where food had been left out for the birds.

An adult male Swinhoes's Pheasant was already pottering about the grass verge, eyeing the five of us and one local with a vaguely expectant air.

The light level was low but even, and cranking the ISO up to 6400 on the 5D Mark III froze movement sufficiently for decent results. (Don't worry, that's as technical as I'm going to get !)

Nearby we also saw a female Swinhoe's Pheasant down a slope.

Also present in the area were Steere's Liochichla 

and a pair of Taiwan Sibias.

We went back to the accommodation in late morning to clear our stuff... 

..and Jemi found a Malayan Night Heron wandering around at the back of the rooms.

Malayan Night Heron is common and widespread in Taiwan's lowlands these days.

The end of the road is at km 49, but shortly before we got there there was another area with birds feeding on the mossy roadside, including Taiwan Rosefinch ( the formosanus race of Vinaceous, - now accepted as a "split" from Vinaceous by the Oriental Bird Club, among others).

….and the "common and confiding" White-whiskered Laughingthrush.  

It's unusual, to say the least, that a "Life Tick" will come right up the the car, but these birds showed no fear of humans at all. This species isn't just confiding, it wants to be your new best friend. Kuen-dar noted that it is feeding of the birds by photographers that has modified their behaviour in the last few years.

We pottered around the summit trails ( they mostly contour, there was no effort involved) in the gathering gloom until it was time to go back downhill to our accommodation at km 43.

We paused for views of another Taiwanese Endemic,  Flamecrest. The light was murky, but we got clear views of the crest.

Being held up by the Flamecrest encounter brought us another piece of fortune, because in the gloom we "Book-ended" our day by getting a second magnificent galliform, Mikado Pheasant.

Mark Brazil wrote an article on Taiwan in OBC Bulletin no. 16 (Nov 1992) in which he said that seeing this Mikado Pheasant "requires…inordinate good luck…".

These days, it seems we can thank photographers for putting food out regularly at certain sites. Such activity may be contrary to National Forest rules, but, anyway, we were very pleased to see the pheasant.

Both the pheasants, and several of the other endemics qualified as "Beer Birds" - that is, birds you might have a beer to celebrate the sighting of.  However, the restaurant at Anmashan doesn't always have beer to sell (Kuen-dar had warned us), so the pheasants were suitably toasted with green tea.

The following day we did more birding around the summit area, and, as it was a Saturday, there were more human visitors around.

Collared (Johnstone's) Bush Robin was seen along the road, usually jumping from the roadway and disappearing into the bushes. But this one near the summit office paused long enough to give decent views.

Also present were a few owstowni race Grey-headed Bullfinches (or "Beavan's Bullfinch") - whatever.

Here's another White-whiskered Laughingthrush, checking the wheel arch of our vehicle for insects.

Having scored the two pheasants on the first day, day two inevitably seemed like a bit of an anti-climax. But the scenery was fine, and there were more birds, including endemics, to look at.

We got decent views of the local endemic race Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler (above) near the summit of Dasyueshan. Taiwan Bush Warbler was much shyer, though.

Downhill on day three (a Sunday), we saw lots of vehicles coming up and found local picnickers at every possible point along the road. 

We stopped near a bridge for Asian House Martins

Nearby, there were some Yellow Tits, an endemic I had particularly wanted to see.

After a late lunch we headed roughly south to Yunlin county, arriving in late afternoon.  

Yes, that's a Fairy Pitta on top of the monument. Some years ago, developers wanted to dig gravel of out the hillsides behind Huben village, and the presence of breeding Fairy Pittas was one pillar of the protest by the locals.  In the end, the developers didn't get their way, although Pitta breeding habitat has also been lost nearby due to the building of a dam in the area.

As the sun set we looked around some tracks near a temple at Huben Village but didn't see much apart from a Taiwan Barbet and Grey Treepies.

The best was was later, as we joined some more Taiwanese birders and another local guide (Mr Chang) to look for Mountain Scops Owl.   Here's the bird he found.. 

The following morning we visited the Lungkuomai Forest Trail which is a rustic sort of park and a breeding site for Fairy Pitta.  For a small town park the variety of birds present was very impressive, including this bathing Black-necklaced Scimitar-babbler; -

And also Taiwan Scimitar Babbler..

And Chinese (Taiwanese) Bamboo Partridge was delightfully noisy, if not actually confiding. The Taiwanese race is sonorivox, seems very different from mainland Bamboo Partridges.

Two fulvettas were present.  Firstly Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, which has been split from the other fulvettas in south China formerly that were all previously known as "Grey-cheeked.." (and now are called things like "Huet's" and "Hainan Fulvetta", to name but two).

And there were Dusky Fulvettas in the park. Taiwan has the nominate race brunnea

In a nearby stream there were bathing Collared Finchbills, of yet another endemic race - cinereicapillus.

Fairy Pitta was what we'd come to see, and we saw three or four individuals….. 

As we left, we saw a Crested Serpent Eagle (with "serpent")….

In 1866, Robert Swinhoe assigned a local Taiwan name for this race of Crested Serpent Eagle : -  hoya.  (According to the Helm Dictionary of Scientific bird Names, by James A. Jobling)

In total, we saw over eighty species, fully two-thirds of which were endemic species or races.

A reference I had mislaid prior to our trip was the Oriental Bird Club's magazine, Birding Asia 2.  This contains a long paper by Dr Nigel Collar titled "Endemic Subspecies of Taiwan Birds - first impressions".  Having found the magazine since we came back, the paper is an interesting outline of  which subspecies the author thought could be elevated to full species status, and which forms should not. Many of the recommendations in this ten-year-old paper seem to have been adopted.

We "dipped" on Taiwan Blue Magpie and the  Taiwan Barwings wouldn't show themselves either, but overall we were very pleased with Kuen-dar's trip and arrangements.

A very memorable three-and-a-half days of birding…Thanks to Meiling and Abdel for being good companions, and to Kuen-dar CHIANG for his expert guiding !