Knock yer SOX off

In the year or so that I've been living in Davao City, I still have mixed feelings about the city itself (It's safe! But the traffic is terrible!). However, I've ended up absolutely falling in love with Mindanao. Yes, I'm living on that mystical farthest-south island of the Philippines, the one where all the embassies in the developed world warn their citizens not to visit for fear of kidnapping and terrorism. The real story, of course, is far more nuanced than that; yes, there is currently a bloody conflict going on right now in Marawi City, the latest installment in struggles that have been going on in Mindanao since the days of Spanish colonialism. (Though it should be noted that the Maute group, the main aggressors in the situation in Marawi, have no lofty anti-colonialist goals but are instead a bunch of opportunistic thugs claiming allegiance to ISIS)

But despite how tragic the ongoing conflict is, it's on the other side of an island bigger than Ireland, in a city that would take 6 hours to drive to in a private vehicle (and probably more like 8 to 10 by bus) from where I am. Whatever the criticisms and debates of the implementation of martial law on the island (and there are many), the only way it manifests itself in most places for most people is a few more police checkpoints and perhaps a heightened Army presence in some areas. Meanwhile, most of this beautiful island remains perfectly safe and undisturbed.

Aliwagwag Falls, Cateel, Davao Oriental

Through my job, I've had the opportunity to travel a great deal around southern Mindanao where we are carrying out surveys, meaning I get to go to lots of beautiful rural areas most visitors to the area (especially foreigners) would never get the chance to visit. This has taken me from Cateel, in Davao Oriental province in the farthest southeast part of Mindanao, to Isulan, the capital of Sultan Kudarat province in western Mindanao. I've been to 11 provinces in Mindanao so far- 12 if you count the island of Camiguin just off the northern coast, and though I won't get to all of them during my time in the Philippines (some places really are as dangerous as the US government says they are), I hope to visit as many as I can.

San Victor Island, Baganga, Davao Oriental
In addition to travel through work, the birding habit I picked up when I moved to Davao has given me excuses to go to lots of natural places I might otherwise ignored. (Yes, apologies to all, this post is going to include lots of birds. Consider yourselves warned) Even better, it's helped me build up a great network of friends and acquaintances throughout the Philippines, but especially Mindanao. And in the Philippines, knowing the right people can get you very far, as I've been finding out.

The tropical rainforest of Camiguin island, home to lots of interesting endemic birds, most of which I didn't see.

Sometime last year, at a public birding event at the Philippine Eagle Center (shameless plug to check out Birdwatching in Davao, the facebook page that I help to moderate), I ended up meeting a group of birders from Sultan Kudarat province, headed by Ma'am Emelie Jamorabon, the director of tourism in Tacurong City. As it turns out, Tacurong has an important birding area, the Baras Bird Preserve. I was, of course, invited to visit Baras, with lots of the attendees encouraging me to join. I wasn't so sure at the time, since it was a long ways away and on the very edge of areas that are safe for foreigners to visit. Nonetheless, I kept in touch with the people I met there, and bonded them in the way that only people who post lots of bird pictures on facebook can (it's... difficult to explain).

Lo and behold, however, my survey work ended up shifting from the Davao Region of eastern Mindanao to the SOCCSKSARGEN Region in southwestern Mindanao. SOCCSKSARGEN follows the Filipino tradition of naming some regons after the provinces contained within them- in this case South Cotabato, Cotabato City, (North) Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos City. Some areas of this are more or less off-limits to foreigners, such as Cotabato City or most of North Cotabato, but most of it is perfectly safe- indeed, it follows the trend of almost anywhere I've been in the Philippines being safer than almost anywhere in South America (or many big cities in the US).

Mount Matutum, an active volcano and one of the primary landmarks of the SOCCSKSARGEN region

As it happened, a work meeting in Sultan Kudarat a few months ago gave me the perfect excuse to finally stop by Baras for the first time on the way back. Ma'am Emelie was gone, but her staff at the tourism office were very helpful in arranging everything for me to go there. As for the bird preserve- well, I immediately fell in love with. I'll describe it better later, but essentially it's one of the most important heron and egret nesting areas in the entire Philippines, and maybe even Southeast Asia! What's not to love? During my visit to the park, the tourism staff mentioned that the third annual Tacurong Bird Festival was coming up in mid-May of this year. After all the hospitality they'd showed me so far, who would I be to say no to a chance to go back?

In May, as it came closer to the event, I realized that while I'd committed to coming to the Bird Festival, I hadn't actually done anything to arrange the trip. I contacted Emelie and Nof, another friend of mine in Tacurong. Emelie assured me that she would help to arrange the travel and accommodations, and that I shouldn't worry about anything. Nof provided me with some advice about hotels, and then sprung a surprise on me- he'd managed to get last-minute permission to visit Lake Holon, one of the prime hiking destinations in Mindanao, and had two extra spaces if I wanted to join. Bonus! That was a place I'd been itching to get to since before I even moved to the island. I decided also to invite my coworker Jing, another avid hiker. I started packing, and began to get excited for a weekend that was shaping up to be very eventful.

On the day I was scheduled to depart for Tacurong, it became clear that Ma'am Emelie really meant it when she said she would help with transportation- the City of Tacurong actually sent a van to pick up visitors from Davao, complete with armed police officers (just in case). Joining me in the van with me were a group of travel bloggers and photographers who were off to cover the event. The ride was supposedly 6 hours or so, but ended up being nearly 8, thanks to all the construction on the roads- roads in Mindanao seem to be in a constant state of "under construction", especially those going in and out of Davao.

Even so, I ended up enjoying the ride, particularly getting to know my companions in the van. I'll never be a successful travel blogger for several reasons: first, I have terrible discipline- that's why I'm posting this blog entry a month late. Second, I just don't have the personality- these were all incredibly fun, outgoing people who make it their business to make friends and meet people everywhere they go, and record every possible moment for social media. I, on the other hand, need significant amounts of time to recharge and not talk to people, lest I get totally tired out. There is, however, something to be said with being surrounded by social media personalities- there's always something to talk about! Or if nothing else, more selfies to take.

One reason I was a little disappointed about the travel delay was that part of the trip passed through a small part of Maguindanao Province, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and an area where foreigners are strenuously warned against visiting. Of course, that just makes me want to visit it more, especially since it contains the Liguasan Marsh, one of the biggest wetlands in the country and home to some bird species found nowhere else. Of course I'm not foolish enough to actually try and go there, particularly given the current events in Mindanao (sigh), but it would have been nice to see a little bit of it during daylight.

I arguably spent far more time than I should have on this map of southern Mindanao, which I still don't think looks too great. But... at least it shows basically where I went. 

Thankfully our hotel in Tacurong had dinner- a pretty good dinner at that!- and wifi. With everything in order, I turned in early to be ready for the events the next day. The first was theoretically a bird costume contest and fun run beginning at 5:30, but anyone who knows me knows that me and "fun runs" go together like Superman and Kryptonite, or Donald Trump and environmentalism. So I chose instead to sleep in a little, and start my day with the planned symposium on conservation (the fact that I'm more compelled by conservation symposiums than by fun runs and costume contests is probably another reason why I'll never be a successful travel blogger).

The symposium ended up being surprisingly well-attended, with a full-house audience, and an opening address by Lina Montilla, the mayor of Tacurong City, and Nelly Dillera, the director of tourism for all of SOCCSKSARGEN. Speakers included a professor of biology from the University of the Philippines who spoke about bird conservation in the Philippines, Felix Servita, a police superintendent and super-birder who talked about laws protecting wildlife, my friend Nof, who talked about bird photography, and Adri Constantino, a bird guide who spoke about birdwatching. I also found out during the conference that the language spoken by most people in Sultan Kudarat isn't Cebuano, like in Davao or most of eastern Mindanao, but Hiligaynon, a related language that originated in the western Visayas. I actually understand it a little better than Cebuano anyway, as it's a little more similar to the Bikol dialects I got used to in Sorsogon. Not to mention that it has some great words of its own, especially "pispis" (bird).

Many of the environmental issues in the Philippines can be traced back to bigger systemic issues like poverty that leads to illegal logging and hunting, or the extractive interests of oligarchs who have destroyed huge areas of jungles and mountains for mining and lumber. However, some of it is just due to a general lack of awareness or interest- kids will slingshot small birds for fun, and the illegal pet trade is still flourishing. So it was very encouraging to see how many people made it out to the forum.

The audience at the symposium- I swear we were more interested in the presentations than this picture suggests. Photo stolen from Facebook.

After the end of the conservation forum and a quick lunch came what I was really looking forward to for the day: the trip to the Baras Bird Sanctuary. The idea for the sanctuary began about 20 years ago, when a local farmer, Rey Malana, noticed that there were a few egrets that liked to roost in the trees around his farm. Instead of shooting them or cutting down the trees as a lot of people might have done, he decided to plant more trees and put up a fence to protect the birds. This of course attracted even more herons and egrets, and four egrets became more than 20,000. Keep in mind this is a parcel of land of only a couple of hectares, and herons and egrets are not small birds.

Somehow, despite the small size, the Baras Bird Sanctuary became one of the most important bird areas in the country. Six species of heron and egret roost there: Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Great Egret (ornithologists aren't always very creative with bird names), Black-crowned Night Heron, and Rufous Night Heron. Cattle Egrets are the most populous bird there, with around 10,000 birds, followed by Black-crowned Night Heron, with about 5,000. However, all of the birds mentioned above roost and nest there- the Bird Preserve has the first known breeding records of Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Egret and Intermediate Egret in the entirety of the Philippines. In addition, a pair of Glossy Ibis nested there last year, providing another country first (unfortunately they've been missing both times I've visited).

The path in the bird sanctuary. Those spots in the bamboo are all egret nests.

To get a sense of what visiting the sanctuary is like, first picture an egret.

Like this.
Next, picture 20,000 of them. Finally, picture them all crowded together in a space barely bigger than a football field. The birds there next year round, so in addition to tens of thousands of adults, there are more thousands of young birds of all ages. One of the hardest things about introducing people to birdwatching is that the birds are usually far away and hard to see. That really isn't a problem in Baras- you can get up close and personal with as many wild birds as your heart desires. So close, in fact, that visitors to the sanctuary have to wear special super-wide hats at all times to avoid being pooped on- and as I can attest from personal experience, that is a constant danger!

A younger visitor demonstrating the necessary headwear.
Walking through the sanctuary is... a sensory overload. You're surrounded by tens of thousands of birds on all sides, doing all manner of things. The sound can be deafening, and everything smells vaguely like ammonia. You see all stages of the life cycle- there are birds mating, sitting on eggs, and feeding their chicks. Sometimes dead birds will randomly just fall to the ground. The ground itself is full of chicks who fell from their nests- the ones who survived forage along with the local chickens, and try and dodge being pooped on by family members. We even witnessed two chicks killing another chick on the ground, for no apparent reason- the whole thing felt rather Serengeti-ish at times.

On the other hand it was a beautiful sight as well. The bloggers I accompanied weren't always impressed by my random bird facts (first breeding records for the whole country for four different bird species! How can that not be exciting?!), they were definitely impressed by the sheer numbers and closeness of all the birds. It helped that most of the birds there were in beautiful breeding plumage. But really it's just the sensory experience of being exposed to so much birdlife that's amazing about Baras.

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage- normally they're just pure white.

Egret chicks on the nest

"Ugly-cute" is a... charitable... way of describing Cattle Egret nestlings.

Rufous Night Heron- one of the less-common residents at Baras

Little Egret

I was talking to Adri and Trinket Constantino when we heard a loud splat and this chick fell on the ground right in front of us. Thankfully it seemed dazed but unharmed.

These de-nested chicks were seen foraging together on the ground- I like to think that the big one was protecting the little one, though that's probably just me anthropomorphizing.

Brahminy Kites were soaring overhead looking for particularly tasty-looking egrets.
Of course, in addition to the birding itself there were lots of extra activities going on at the Bird Preserve- face painting, lots of souvenirs, and even a crane that could lift you up so you could get a bird's-eye (heh) view of the whole roost area. Unfortunately I wasn't able to go up into the crane since the line to get on it was too long, but I had fun just talking to people I knew there, or people I knew over facebook but was meeting in real life for the first time. There was a camera crew and reporters from a local TV station who of course converged in my direction like sharks toward blood once they realized there was a foreigner they could get good B-roll footage of (it must be an important event if there are white people present!). Once they figured out that I speak Tagalog, they even did a short interview with me, which made it onto TV. Thankfully I only appear for about 20 seconds, and they didn't mention my name or anything.

(those who really want to can see the interview here)

After I'd satisfied myself with enough awkward socialization and bird-poop-dodging, I headed back to the hotel for a quick nap before I went to the dinner and awards night- because of course there was an awards night! I ended up rather enjoying the dinner- there was a short performance of a traditional dance by some local high school students, which was interestingly similar to Malay traditional dances I've seen. Sultan Kudarat is just south of Cotabato City, which is where Islam was first introduced to mainland Mindanao, and still retains a lot of cultural influences from Indonesia and Malaysia, even though the population is mostly comprised of Christian colonists from further north. I also found out that Tacurong City has an official hymn, complete with a very elaborately-produced (and adorable) music video- even better, everyone in the audience knew the words to it! Overall, the dinner was a great end to a very fun and well-put-together festival. I really have to credit the local government in Tacurong for promoting conservation and birding, something that you won't find everywhere in the Philippines. Here's another big thank you to Ma'am Emelie and the rest of the LGU for all the great work they do!

Birders, photographers, tourism staff, and some random foreign guy. (photo stolen from Ian Garcia on Facebook)

An appropriately awkward picture of the members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines accepting a trophy from City Mayor Lina Montilla (photo stolen from facebook)
I turned in for bed immediately after that, partly because I was exhausted from all the human interaction, and partly because it was a very long day the next day. Nof picked me up on Saturday morning very bright and early (5AM!), and after dropping some of my things off at his house, we headed south into South Cotabato province. We stopped in the town of Surallah to pick up my coworker Jing, and then headed to the town center of the municipality of T'boli, where Lake Holon is located.

Some history for non-Filipinos reading this blog before I continue: Mindanao has an... interesting history, even more so than other islands of the Philippines. It was the site of the oldest and most powerful pre-colonial Filipino kingdoms, such as the Rajahnate of Butuan or the Sulu Sultanate. That meant that it was better-equipped to resist colonization from Spain, and as such was never as deeply colonized during the Spanish era as other islands (with the exception of some areas such as Davao or Zamboanga, where they still speak a form of Spanish). Up until the early-to-mid-20th century, it was still mainly the domain of the Moro (Muslim Filipino) and Lumad (indigenous) peoples. However, during the American era and after there were huge colonization programs promoted by the government in Manila, where settlers from the Visayas and Luzon were promised huge tracts of land (to be managed by Chinese and American landlords and agricultural corporations) if they moved to Mindanao. This was done in part to make Mindanao easier for the Manila government to manage. It was also wildly successful- indigenous peoples were deprived of the majority of their ancestral lands (something that's still happening- see my previous blog entry for a little more info), and Mindanao is nowadays 70-75% Christian. The current president of the Philippines, Duterte, is himself the descendent of both Visayan colonizers and Muslim Mindanawons.

Essentially all that was a long-winded way of saying that, even though Mindanao has a very different history from most of the Philippines, most of it still feels very culturally similar to the rest of the country. However, there are certain places where the Muslim and indigenous heritage is still very much visible- Sultan Kudarat has a substantial population of Moros, and the mountains of South Cotabato are still the domain of a number of different indigenous peoples. T'boli, for its part, is the domain of (you guessed it!) the T'boli people. The T'boli used to inhabit a huge stretch of southwest Mindanao, but have been mostly displaced from the lowlands, now residing only in mountain areas.

The T'boli in the Lake Holon area still retain much of their culture, including traditional dress and spiritual beliefs. Another obvious distinction is in language- Tagalog and Bisaya, the most widely-spoken Philippine languages, are both Central Philippine languages, and sound relatively similar to each other with a lot of words in common. The Tboli language, meanwhile, sounds absolutely nothing like any other Philippine language I've heard, with lots of consonants grouped together in strange orders, giving us great words like sfong (blossom), blete (fig tree), or kfung (dust).

Since Lake Holon is part of the ancestral domain of the T'boli, and considered sacred domain for them, the tribe itself has a large hand in managing entrance to the lake (the tourism director of T'boli, Rodel, who I met in Tacurong, is actually a T'boli himself). Entrance is strictly limited to 200 visitors per day, the mountain guides themselves are T'boli, and a good portion of the profits go to the tribe itself. Nonetheless, climbing the mountain is remarkably affordable, especially compared to some other more-traveled tourist traps in the Philippines- my total expenses, including environmental fee, guide fee, porters, food and transportation were less than 2,000 pesos (about $40).

Getting our motorbikes just outside the tourism office.

Before beginning the hike, we met outside the tourist office in the T'boli town center, where Nof dropped his car and we paid the initial registration fees. The beginning of the hike itself was a 2-hour, 26-kilometer drive away from the town center, parts of which are only negotiable by motorbike. Thankfully the drivers we had were very experienced, and somehow managed to strap all our camping gear on the backs of their bikes, as well as get us safely there. I won't really go so far as to say it was a comfortable ride, especially since I was squeezed onto the bike with Jing, the driver, and all of our bags, but living in the Philippines as a tall person who depends on public transportation is sort of an endless exercise in discomfort, so I was able to cope.

The ride there was mostly through huge expanses of farmland, especially banana plantations- it's always a little depressing to see how little lowland forest remains in Mindanao, even the more remote areas like this. As we reached the start of our trail, the land became a little more wild-looking and mountainous, with fewer plantations and more real trees. It was also more treacherous- there was one extra-steep hillside where we had to get off the motorbikes so they could be walked downhill very carefully. Eventually we arrived at our trailhead, a tiny indigenous village known as Sitio Kule. There are two trails up Holon- Salacafe Trail, the easy one, and Kule trail, the harder, wilder one. Naturally, we went with the harder one, as it went through better forest (meaning better birds!).

The village square in Kule

At Sitio Kule, there was time for us to get all our gear in order, see some of the traditional dwellings around, purchase walking sticks (I lost mine about 5 minutes after buying it), and get an orientation. A tourist officer there gave a short talk on the route we'd be taking, as well as a little bit about the history and cultural heritage of the mountain, most of which I now don't remember- should have taken notes! The Kule Trail apparently is also known as the Hunter's Trail, as it's the path villagers would take up the mountain for hunting. I'm hoping that's mostly just a name now, and that the hunting has mostly died down...

The hiking barkada outside a traditional dwelling in Kule (photo stolen from Thess Suropia on Facebook)

After getting our briefing and being matched with our guides and porters (I decided to say no to a porter- partly to save money, but mostly to prove to myself that I wasn't completely out of shape despite not going hiking for months), we finally began the hike. The first part went through a grassland area, where we had a great view of the village below us, and the forested mountainsides above. Eventually we began to get closer to some trees, which is when Nof and I started looking for birds in earnest.

The first part of the trail, looking back at Sitio Kule

Now, mountains in Mindanao in general are excellent birding spots- Mindanao has a huge host of endemic birds, many of which can only be found in high elevations, above 1000 or even 1500 meters. The mountains are, of course,  also some of the only places where there's still good-quality forest left. I'd already been in the mountains around Davao, however, so I had a very specific set of birds I was looking for- particularly T'boli Sunbird and Mindanao Miniature Babbler, two birds that are only found in the mountains of western Mindanao. They'd previously only been recorded on eBird in one spot, Mount Matutum to the south, so I was determined to "discover" them in a new area. They are, of course, both incredibly elusive birds, which is one of the reasons they're considered so rare, so I knew it would take some effort.

As we neared the edge of the forest, I started seeing some of the typical Mindanao mountain birds- Turquoise Flycatchers and flocks of little green Mountain White-eyes up in the trees, a calling Coppersmith Barbet, and some Coletos, odd-looking endemic starlings with bald pink skin on their faces, flying past. Once we entered true forest, we were surrounded by the calls of White-browed Shortwing, a small forest bird that sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. We spotted a couple of Colasisi (Philippine Hanging Parrots) feeding off a fruiting tree, joined by a lone Olive-capped Flowerpecker, another bird endemic to Mindanao. I, of course, was still mostly looking out for that babbler.

Buzzing Flowerpecker in the process of buzzing
As we rounded a corner in the jungle, some movement caught my eye and I zeroed in on a tiny bird hopping around in the canopy. After taking a couple of pictures, I realized that I actually couldn't ID it- and I'm at the point of familiarity with Mindanao birds that a bird I can't ID is usually a good sign! I kept snapping pictures, as it decided to be coƶperative and come down to eye level, although still far away and in bad light. Could it be the elusive Miniature Babbler? The more I looked, however, the more I began to suspect that that wasn't it- it looked just a little different from the pictures I'd seen. That didn't mean, however, that I actually knew what it was. I looked through my book later to try and figure it out, but nothing seemed to match it. Later when our pictures were online, the same process happened- the birding experts first IDed it as Mindanao Miniature Babbler, but then changed their minds. The current best guess is that it's probably some kind of leaf warbler, but it doesn't match any of the known Mindanao birds. It may be just a very strange-looking specimen, or it may be an undescribed subspecies or form. How's that for birding intrigue?

The mystery Phylloscopus
We continued onwards, stopping at a small stream crossing to eat our lunch. There was also apparently a small hot spring nearby, though I didn't see it- no idea if it's actually batheable or not. It was also a great place for a view of the surrounding jungle- truly a wild-feeling place. I could also hear fruit doves hooting mournfully in the distance, and the tinkling of the White-browed Shortwing- though, alas, I didn't see either of them.

Going down the trail.

View from our lunch spot.

Misty trails going up the mountain

We then began a steep, zig-zagging climb up the mountain. Here the birds started to get better, with some mixed flocks including Black-and-cinnamon Fantail, Yellow-bellied Whistler, and Cinnamon Ibon. One of our coolest spottings was a fledgling Olive-capped Flowerpecker sitting in a bush just beside the trail- so well-camouflaged that none of the hikers had noticed it. We snapped pictures of it for a few minutes before letting it be, as its mother was hovering around us looking distressed. 

Olive-capped Flowerpecker Jr.
Just after I finished with the baby flowerpecker, another great mixed flock passed through the trees nearby me, and I hurriedly snapped as many pictures as I could- though the birds were far away and backlit, not the best setting for good pictures. Not that my bird pictures are all that great to begin with. The flock was mostly the usual suspects- Fantail, Whistler, Cinnamon Ibon (all good birds in their own right)- but then I noticed two smaller birds that caught my eye. They had the distinctive babbler shape- big head and a small pointy bill- and even some plumes sticking out back. Could it be? Some inspection of my pictures later revealed that I my suspicions were correct- Mindanao Miniature Babbler! This made Lake Holon only the second site where these tiny birds are known to occur, and though my pictures were terrible, I'm now one of only 5 people who've managed to photograph a wild Mindanao Miniature Babbler. 

Possibly the worst picture in existence of a Mindanao Miniature Babbler

Arguably the second-worst!
With an extra spring in my step after the new lifer and mega find, I continued uphill. We eventually reached a more open area, where many people were sitting around despite the lack of a good view (we were in the middle of a cloud). I soon realized it was because this was the only spot on the whole mountain to have cell service! It was just enough for me to send a quick text to Nikki letting her know I hadn't fallen off a cliff or anything, then I continued upwards through some mountain grassland. I heard Mindanao Hornbill calling from below me, but sadly didn't see any. 

The last part of the hike up to the crater rim definitely made us work for the view- it was long and steep, especially while carrying my big backpack. We weren't feeling hugely optimistic either as we hiked up, as we were still enveloped by clouds, and there seemed to be no chance of a view up top. I'd seen enough Facebook pictures from hikers who'd gone before only to be greeted with nothing but fog, and I was beginning to fear the same thing would happen to us. Sure enough, when we got to the viewpoint on the crater rim, I could see far enough to look down into the jungle, but not the lake itself. Perhaps the babblers had used up all of the day's luck?

But no! Not five minutes after we reached the top, the universe intervened in our favor, and the mist slowly began lifting, until we had a full and amazing view of all of Lake Holon. It's one of those views it's almost impossible to describe, so I won't even bother- that's what pictures are for. 

Not much more you could ask for in terms of a view.

After the requisite selfies and group shots, I wandered around the crater area in search of any other good birds- the T'boli Sunbird perhaps, as this seemed like the appropriate habitat for one. Though the sunbird was nowhere to be found (maybe scared away by all the hikers taking selfies, I did get one more lifer in the form of an Island Thrush, a good high-altitude bird. There were lots of other things of biological interest, including some beautiful beetles and a multitude of pitcher plants- maybe the first time I've seen pitcher plants in the wild. 

I wish I could provide an ID, but unfortunately my IDing skills for coleoptera are even worse than they are for birds.

Canoes on the lake looking like toys...

Island Thrush! 

After a half hour or so of rest on the crater rim, we continued downwards towards the actual lake. It was a steep climb that made my knees very unhappy, but still through some beautiful forest areas, with lots of good birds flying through.

The path down the crater.

Unfortunately, halfway down the mountain my luck really did run out, and a torrential downpour started. We hurried downhill to the side of the lake, where we would take a boat over to the campsite (as it's a crater lake, the lakeshore was too steep to actually hike around). Of course since it was raining, nobody really wanted to get in the boat, so everyone instead huddled inside the tiny bamboo hut where the fishermen-cum-ferrymen hung out. Eventually there was a short break in the rain (or at least it went from a downpour to merely a drizzle), so we got all our stuff into the tiny wooden boats and headed across the lake to the campsite. 

The campsite from across the lake
 The campsite itself is actually a very new feature- it came about in 2002, when a large earthquake caused a portion of the crater wall to fall into the lake, creating a nice flat area for camping. I was surprised to see that the campsite was actually very well-put-together; there were a few permanent shelters where campers could take refuge from the rain, as well as a house where the park rangers lived and prepared their dinner, as well as renting out various equipments to hikers. Unfortunately, as soon as we got into the campsite, the rain started again with a vengeance, and didn't really let up for the rest of the night. That meant we had to set up our tents in the pouring rain, which had the added benefit getting lots of rainwater inside the tents themselves, which proved impossible to get out. As an added bonus, our bags got wet as well, getting a good portion of the clothes inside it wet. Ah, life in the great outdoors!

Despite the wetness and general discomfort, there are many things I'll always love about hiking- such as how easy it is to meet new people. I ended up making friends with a big group of experienced hikers, in part by pretending to be a more experienced hiker than I really was (I've hiked lots! Just... not for a long time). It turned out one of them actually knew some other friends of mine, having guided them on a birding trip. Always comforting to see what a small world the Philippines is. The dinner was also excellent- I'd brought my crappy instant noodles in the anticipation of not having other options, but it turned out that you could actually buy fresh-caught tilapia from the fishermen in the lake. Nothing like hot fresh fish to improve your mood after getting cold and wet.

I slept only very fitfully that night- partly because the tent Jing was nice enough to bring for us was meant for Filipino-sized people, not very tall Americans, and partly because I had to contort myself in odd ways to avoid the pool of water at one end of the tent. Because of that, I was resistant to waking up early, even though I knew I should. Thankfully Nof was more motivated than me, and he made me get out of the tent in time to catch the sunrise. And boy, was it ever worth it. It's difficult to describe the ethereal beauty of mist drifting across a glassy-smooth lake early in the morning, so once again I'm not even going to try, and just post the pictures.

Sitting on the edge of the lake and watching the sun rise, it's easy to see why this is considered sacred to the T'boli. According to one legend (disclaimer: I can't back this up with good sources), a witch brought a group of followers high up into the mountains, promising to bring them into heaven. When they reached the lake, she told them to jump into the waters, as that was the way to get there. They obeyed, and were never heard from again. Nobody's sure if they actually made it there, but the lake was given the name Holon, meaning "gate to heaven".

The lake might look heavenly, but its origins are actually more hellish than heavenly. Lake Holon is actually part of a larger volcanic complex, a stratovolcano called Mount Melibengoy (also known as Mount Parker). About 400 years ago, Melibengoy was the tallest mountain in western Mindanao, more than 2000 meters high. However, in 1641 it blew its top off in a massive eruption that turned the sky in Mindanao black, and rained ash as far away as the islands of Cebu and Panay. Lake Holon was created in the crater that formed after that. The legend of the eruption according to the T'boli is this:

"Long ago, a torrent swept the entire countryside, destroying and burning the forest, and leaving a lake of fire. The torrent carried trees, and the lake smelled of sulfur. There was once a great tree in the middle of a forest where the lake now exists, and it was the stairway to heaven. One day an evil man who was unfit to get into heaven tried to climb the tree but could not. In anger, he spent the next 40 years chopping down the tree, and when he succeeded, the formerly dry place filled with a lake and the land all around Melibengoy was ravaged. Sambulan, a person-like god, lives by a large rock than can still be seen above the north side of the lake."

Lake Holon presents a danger to those living around it; in 1995, after heavy rains the lake breeched its top and created a catastrophic flood that killed nearly 100 people living on the flanks of the mountain. Eruptions are, of course, another danger, as Mount Melibengoy tends to have highly explosive eruptions similar to Mount Pinatubo. Nowadays though, it's perfectly peaceful and heavenly, and is reputed to have the cleanest water of any lake in the Philippines. It's easy to forget the hazard when you're watching fishermen ply the still waters, or listening to the birds singing their morning chorus.

Once I satisfied myself with the sunrise, I started looking around for the different birds, as they're most active in the early morning. Mostly it was the normal birds- Philippine Bulbuls, Buzzing Flowerpeckers, Mountain White-eye, and Turquoise Flycatcher. There was a big fruiting tree over the campsite, which held more Colasisi and Coppersmith Barbet, and even a single Cryptic Flycatcher, a rare bird to find outside of its known spots in Davao City.

Another Buzzing Flowerpecker- this is a member of the mindanense subspecies, which is much darker black than the flowerpeckers seen around Davao. The subspecies actually isn't found here according to the "official" guidebooks.

Mountain White-eye

White-eared Brown Dove

Turquoise Flycatcher
After some walking around, I took a break from birding (I hate taking a break from birding) to eat a breakfast of fresh tilapia and pack up the tent so that we could start the hike back. The great thing about camping in a crater lake is that no matter which direction you're going in, there's always an uphill part! The trail from the campsite up to the crater rim was as difficult as you might expect- very steep, with lots of muddy bits. On the other hand, it also proved to be some of the best birding we encountered- probably because it was early in the morning. There were the usual mixed flocks of mountain birds- bulbuls, fantails, whistlers, and the like. I even saw another pair of Miniature Babblers, though I wasn't able to get a picture (they're tiny and move really fast!).

At a clearing midway up, Jing pointed out to me a couple of Brahminy Kites circling overhead, and just as I was taking a picture I heard a call from above that I recognized as a Philippine Serpent Eagle. Sure enough, one came into view just after that, circling for a little while before flying away. Maybe 30 seconds after the Serpent Eagle, we had a quick glimpse of an Oriental Honey Buzzard flying into the woods. The only three raptors of the day, all within a few minutes of each other! In the same clearing, I noticed a group of Olive-capped Flowerpecker scraping what looked like frog or insect eggs off of a tree branch. According to what I've read online, they supposedly only eat small fruits and flowers, so this may be the first record of that particular behavior.

Philippine Bulbul- the noisiest and most common bird in Philippine forests.

Olive-capped Flowerpecker with an interesting-looking snack.

After maybe a more difficult hike than I was expecting, we reached the crater rim portion of the Salacafe Trail, the route we were taking back down. At that point there were lots of unhappy-looking horses waiting for hikers who really didn't want to make the hike back down (or up) on their own. While we were waiting for others in our party to get up to the top, I wandered around the area trying to find the T'boli Sunbird, which I still hadn't seen. I may have seen one flitting around some native flowers it's known to like, but it flew away before I could get a proper view. On the other hand, I did get some other new birds for the list, such as Little Pied Flycatcher and a great Sulphur-billed Nuthatch- the nuthatches here are even more colorful than the ones in the US!

As I was wandering around I also ran into some fellow hikers, who were extremely impressed that I could speak Bisaya (even though my Bisaya is terrible). A favorite "prank" with Filipinos I meet is to introduce me to their friends and make me pretend not to speak any Tagalog/Bisaya (as is the case with most foreigners living here, unfortunately), just to watch them struggle through a conversation in English. I always end up feeling bad and switching to Tagalog midway through, but I do have to admit that it's a little entertaining.

I also got to enjoy lots of the bad poetry posted around the rest area- for whatever reason, the people in charge of tourism in Lake Holon decided that a good theme for 2017 was "hugot"- a Tagalog concept that literally translates to "reaching deeper" or "pulling out", but in modern slang refers to writing down "deep" feelings, usually in a clever fashion. Think a mix between bad pickup lines and the really bad poetry you wrote about your crush when you were in middle school. The tourism team posted a number of signs with bad hugot lines, and also put up some blank posters for people to write their own. I have to admit that there's something artistic about the particularly bad hugot, the stuff makes you groan and admit appreciation at the same time. Probably because I happen to be a huge fan of terrible fans, something that makes me a trash person but also helps me fit in very well in the Philippines.

Translation: "I've been to so many destinations, yet you're the one I always go back to." *groan*

Turquoise Flycatcher again

Elegant Tit, one of the best-named Philippine birds. 
The hike down on the Salacafe Trail was much easier than the hike up- the trail was wide and even enough it could have been done on ATV (though I really hope that doesn't happen). We had a couple of good views along the way, but the birds weren't all that great- probably partly because there were so many people there.

Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis
As we went further down, I continued to lose hope about seeing the T'boli Sunbird. Perhaps there weren't enough flowers to keep them around, or perhaps they weren't that common around this mountain- after all, they'd never actually been recorded at the site! Still, it was a disappointment, as that had been one of my target birds. I kept my camera out though, shooting any small birds I happened to see just in case.

After a few hours of hiking, we reached the end of the real trail, where there were a bunch of souvenir shops and even a coffee shop! (alas, it was closed) While we stopped for a cold soda and some barbecue, I entertained myself going through my pictures from the day. I zoomed in on a terrible picture I'd taken of a little bird on some vines near the end of the trail, and lo and behold, there it was- a T'boli Sunbird! Literally the last bird I'd seen on the trail, and with a hail-Mary long-distance camera shot at that. The perfect way to end an amazing hike.

Overall I can't recommend Lake Holon enough for anyone interested in hiking in the Philippines. For one thing, it's one of the most beautiful hikes I've done anywhere, not just in the Philippines. For another, the local tourism office manages the whole thing very, very well, which is a little unusual. The trails are well-maintained, the whole area is kept scrupulously clear of any trash or garbage (everything that you want to get rid of must be brought down the mountain with you), the guides are experienced, and almost everything you need can be taken care of on-site if you came ill-prepared, from renting a tent and sleeping bag to cooking food. 

After signing out, turning in all our rented equipments, and paying the guides and porters, we piled onto the motorcycles for the long ride back to our car, exhausted and a little bit dusty from a long hike, but happy. We dropped Jing off midway through so she could head back to Davao, while I continued with Nof back to Tacurong City. We stopped in Isulan so that I could take a picture of the Sultan Kudarat provincial government headquarters, one of the most impressive government buildings in the Philippines. Its style looks very Malay since it was built partially with funding from the Indonesian government, though I don't think that's the only reason considering all the other Malay cultural influences I noticed in this part of Mindanao. 

Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol
The next day, I woke up early to go birding with Ping, Ernesto and Yepyep, three fellow birders from Tacurong. We visited a local pond, which mostly had the typical pond/grassland birds like Spotted Doves, Pied Trillers, and Clamorous Reed Warblers, though we also saw a White-bellied Munia and the endemic (and vulnerable) Philippine Duck, both of which are relatively uncommon birds. It's always good to see enthusiastic birders in new places, and the group in Tacurong has a history of finding some very good birds, like Black-shouldered Kite and Dimorphic Dwarf Kingfisher (both of which would be lifers for me). It was a great way to finish off an incredibly fun weekend in SOCCSKSARGEN, seeing some (but certainly not all!) of the best things the region has to offer and being blessed by the hospitality of the people there. I'm very much looking forward to my next visit, whenever that may be.


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