Monday, February 28, 2011

Corregidor’s other heritage--birds!

Corregidor is a tadpole-shaped island located 48km west of Manila. It is about 6km long and 2.4km wide, and has a land area of 900 hectares. It used to be an important defense base during the Spanish and American regimes, and had suffered heavy damage during WWII. Now it is an important tourist site that attracts history buffs, nature lovers, and photography enthusiasts. Recently, word of the diverse bird life on the island started to attract birdwatchers as well.

Corregidor is under the jurisdiction of Cavite province, but the coastline right across it is part of the Bataan Peninsula. The island is accessible via the Sun Cruises fast ferry from the old Hoverferry Terminal in Manila, or the M/B El Corregidor from Mariveles, Bataan. Nearby birding sites are the Mt. Palay Palay National Park and the Caylabne Bay Resort in Cavite, and the Balanga wetlands and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Bataan.

Development and commercial activities on the island are under the administration of the Corregidor Foundation Inc. There are no residential structures in Corregidor. Apart from employees of the tourist establishments, no one else lives there. The forests are relatively lush but mostly secondary-growth. This is because every inch of the island’s original vegetation has been wiped out by fire during the war. Monkeys are common even in areas with high human traffic. Hunting is prohibited on the island.

Corregidor is mostly rocky and there are no major water bodies inland. Geologists say it is a remnant of an inactive volcano, but could still awaken at some point in the future.

Day 1
Our group of 15 birders and bird photographers (including two kids) got to the island a little after 9am on Saturday, Feb. 19. Upon arrival, we got on board a tram that took us around the regular tourist circuit. The tour, which ended shortly before the ferry’s 2:30pm return trip to Manila, gave us the opportunity to recon sites that looked promising for birding. Already we noted that the island was teeming with Asian Glossy Starlings and Black-Naped Orioles. We also saw a family Red Junglefowls foraging on the side of the road.

After the tour, we were brought to McArthur’s Inn and Cafe where we were booked for the night. We were supposed to stay at the Corregidor Inn, but a booking snafu on the part of Star Cruises forced us to go to McArthur’s (although some of us suspected that we were deliberately edged out in favor of a big group of photography students from a Manila university).

McArthur’s is located at the beach front, near the statue of the general after whom it is named. The inn’s facilities and service quality fell below expectations, given the rate they charged us. Thankfully, we were mostly outdoors the whole time we were there. Behind McArthur’s was the Corregidor Hostel, a basic accommodation option for groups of eight or so. There was also a campsite nearby where visitors can put up tents for a fee.

Bottomside birds
We left the inn to go birding around 4:30pm. We followed the road from the Bottomside going uphill. Just a few meters from the inn we spotted Pygmy Woodpeckers. A little further up and we spotted a Common Emerald-Dove, a male Blue Rock-Thrush and our first Pink-Necked Green-Pigeon.

We were about a kilometer uphill when our vehicle arrived. We went to the Battery area, where some of us earlier saw the junglefowls. We birded the vicinity in groups of 3-4. We saw flycatchers, bulbuls, more junglefowls, and a variety of doves and pigeons, including Yellow-Breasted Fruit-Doves, Philippine Cuckoo-Doves and White-Eared Brown-Doves.

Then we decided to walk to the hospital ruins via a lesser-used trail. Some guides had told us earlier that the Brahminy Kites roosted there, and would darken the sky like clouds when they fly out in the morning. By then we had noticed that at least one Brahminy Kite would be seen in flight every time we looked up.

Exotic cockatoos
On the way to the hospital, we saw Pied Trillers, Crows, and more doves. But what excited us the most was the pair of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos that made a lot of noise right above where we were walking.

There have been sightings of cockatoos reported on the island before, and a tourism brochure had mentioned Philippine Cockatoos. It is possible that the reported sightings were of this pair, but they were misidentified as the Philippine variety. If so, it is likely that the pair is either both female or both male, as there was no indication that they had multiplied since they were first sighted several years back.

It was almost dusk when we got to the hospital ruins. No Brahminy Kite was roosting yet, but just as when we were about to leave, we saw about a dozen converging at a distance behind the ruins, and they looked like they were flying in. We stopped to wait for them to roost, but it was like they sensed we were in the area, because they seemed to change direction and sort of retreated.

The sun had already set when we got back to the inn, but there was still an orange sunburst across the horizon. We took advantage of the last light to learn rock balancing at the beach in front of the Kiosk where we had our meals. When it got too dark for that, a birder took out a star map and this time we watched the sky, not for birds but for star formations.

Day 2
The next morning, we were ready to leave the inn at 5:30am, but it was almost 6am when our vehicle picked us up. We proceeded to the Topside grounds where we came upon some tourists waiting for the sunrise. There was already light when we got there, but the sun was not out yet. It was windy and a bit chilly.

We divided into smaller groups and assigned trails for each group to cover. One group took the 300-step trail that went down to the Middleside Barracks (just a few meters below the hospital ruins), another group covered the Battery area road network, and another group took the trail going to the Suicide Cliff.

I was with the group that went down to the Middleside Barracks. We saw more doves and pigeons along the trail, and then on the ruins and behind them. There were Pompadour and Pink-Necked Green-Pigeons perched in the open. Green Imperial-Pigeons were seen mostly in flight. More Emerald Doves were seen all over what remained of the three floors of the barracks.

Brahminy Kites
We were going uphill from the Middleside Barracks on our way to the pickup point, when a few meters away, through gaps in the canopy, we saw a flock of at least 100 Brahminy Kites swooping down the ravine beyond the trees. The noise they made sounded like they were on a feeding frenzy. The spectacle lasted some 30 seconds. Then we saw a few kites flying upwards or in circles just over the ravine. This was a little past 8am.

Our sighting confirmed the guides’ description of the kites. A flock that big could really block the sky like clouds if you were directly under it. A few years ago, birders watching from Ternate, Cavite just across Manila Bay saw a flock just as big. The kites were circling above the area where some illegal fishers had just detonated a dynamite. It looked like the birds were anticipating dead fish to float to the surface. It is likely that it was the same flock that is roosting in Corregidor. The island had earlier been the release site of rehabilitated Brahminy Kites. Some of the birds we saw could have been the same ones that were released there, or their descendants.

Our breakfast back at the Kiosk was supposed to be at 730am, but it was almost 9am when we left the birding areas. After breakfast, a group of six birders decided to go to the tadpole’s tail side. The others decided to stay and explore the Bottomside further. The group that went tail-side reported seeing a Crested-Serpent Eagle. The ones who stayed saw more woodpeckers.

We had lunch at La Playa, a restaurant at Corregidor Inn. It had a nice view of Bataan Peninsula across the bay, and we saw more kites flying about. From the other side of the restaurant, we had a view of a forest canopy where pairs of Black-naped Orioles chased one another.

Our boat left the island 230pm on Sunday, Feb. 20. But the birding did not end for some of us. Bird photographer James Biron went out to the deck and continued taking pictures of sea birds in flight. And halfway between Corregidor and Manila, a Pomerine Jaeger decided to fly by the boat, and into his camera’s cross-hairs (sighting will be submitted in a separate report).

Others notes
On the whole, birding in Corregidor was easy. We chalked up at least 40 species, nine of which were endemics. This is a very conservative count, considering that we did not do any call playback, we birded only from the roadside and existing trails (we did not venture deeper into the forests), we did not do any night birding, and we did not have a dedicated vehicle to take us to the different sites on our own time.

The few vehicles on the island had to be shared with the other tourists, so our arrangement was limited to drop-off and pick-up. Because of this, we were only able to cover the head side of the island’s tadpole shape; the tail side was given only a quick survey on the second day.

Birders who wish to visit the island are advised to arrange for a dedicated vehicle. With your own ride, not only can you cover more sites, but you can also stop anytime you spot a bird on the roadside. Note, too, that cellphone signals could be hard to come by in some birding areas, so it could be a challenge to call someone to pick you up. Also, it is probably best to go on weekdays. Corregidor on weekends is overflowing with tourists. You are likely to come across DSLR-toting people in the trails.

Trip photos:

Alain Pascua’s album

Lydia Robledo’s album

James Biron’s album

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