Subic: Suddenly, hornbills are trash birds

Anyone who's been following my facebook for the past, well, year will know that my lifelong interest in birds has turned into a passion for birdwatching. In a way it's a little surprising I didn't become a birder before, since my uncle Kevin,who's at least a little responsible for me being into birds in the first place, has been a serious birder for way long than I've been alive. I've been trying to convince him to join me for a birding trip ever since I moved to South America for the first time nearly a decade ago. So far, besides always talking about it, it's never really worked out.

Until this year! After lots of planning and discussion, Kevin finally got tickets to come and visit the Philippines for 10 days in early October for some birding. Beyond just being a birder, Kevin is certifiably obsessed with anything in the parrot family, especially cockatoos. I'm an enthusiastic birder who has a tiny budget and not much free time, so even though I go out birding very regularly, I haven't been to most of the "hot spots" of birding in the Philippines. With that in mind, I had to organize the trip with two objectives in mind: to see lots of Philippine psitaccines (for Kevin), and to see as many "new" endemic birds as possible (for me). Ten days is much shorter than most "real" birders spend in the Philippines trying to pick up all the local specialties, so I had my work cut out for me arranging a schedule.

The first stop I had in mind was the Subic Bay, the site of an American naval base for decades before it was converted into a freeport zone. The rainforest south of the naval base was kept in relatively pristine condition during the American era, supposedly as a place for soldiers to practice survival skills and run war games. It's still well-preserved in the modern era, as there is a ban on logging that is actually well-enforced. The birdlife is also numerous and fairly easy to see, as there is very little hunting pressure- my guess is the fact that the local population is relatively prosperous means that there is less hunting and trapping going on. Anyone who's familiar with the way things generally are in the Philippines will know that those two factors together make this place basically a unicorn, and one of the best places to pick up lowland rainforest birds on Luzon.

To my surprise (and delight) Tonji and Sylvia Ramos agreed to join us for this trip, showing us their favorite birding spots in the area. Tonji and Sylvia are two of the best bird photographers in the Philippines, and excellent birders to boot, so I was really excited to have them along with us. A great start to our birding adventure!

For Kevin's sake, we had two main targets for Subic: Blue-naped Parrot and Green Racket-tail, two Philippine endemic parrots that are relatively easy to see there, but extremely rare almost anywhere else. I'd actually already been to Subic for birding, but it was in late 2016 when I had only recently started birding and, to be honest, was a pretty bad birder (not that I'm all that great of a birder nowadays either). Therefore, I was hoping to see a number that I'd missed my first time there, most of which were fairly difficult to see. Still, I could only hope!

Kevin flew into Manila late on a Tuesday night, and the following Wednesday we met up with Tonji and Sylvia to drive up to Subic. Living in Mindanao, I'm used to bumpy roads and cramped buses, so it was somewhat of a novelty to me that there's a well-kept expressway going from Manila all the way to Olongapo City (the city just outside the freeport area). The road into Olongapo itself actually went through some pretty good forest, and we managed to see Philippine Falconet and Whiskered Treeswift without even slowing down the car.

Philippine Falconet, the smallest and cutest raptor in the Philippines (photo actually from Davao).

Whiskered Treeswift (picture taken in Bukidnon, Mindanao)

We arrived in the late afternoon and headed straight towards the rainforest area, to a spot where Tonji and Sylvia knew that both the Blue-naped Parrots and the racket-tails would roost. As it turns out, this was right in the middle of a residential area- yes, in Subic, rare birds are basically also backyard birds. A unicorn indeed! It only took about 30 seconds after we got out of the car before we heard a squawking sound above us and we realized that there were three Blue-naped Parrots in the tree right above us! They were moving around too much for me to get a good picture, but we got good enough views to properly tick them. Walking around the road there for a little bit also got us views of Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, Luzon Hornbill, and Whiskered Treeswift, as well as "trash birds" like Brown Shrike and Yellow-vented Bulbul- about as boring as could be for me, but new birds for Kevin! The racket-tails, on the other hand, were nowhere to be seen.

Blue-naped Parrot! (picture not taken in Subic)

Next we headed to another road area further into Subic where we were likely to get flyovers from good birds like the racket-tails. It was almost sunset by the time we got there, so while we heard things like Hooded Pitta and Philippine Nightjar, we didn't see much in the way of anything new. On the bright side, I did manage to get a quick glimpse of a couple of White-browed Shama, my first lifer of the trip! Shamas are known throughout Asia as popular cage birds thanks to their smart appearance and beautiful song, but they're often rare and hard to see in the wild- probably because of rampant trapping.

Sunset over our second birding spot.

After checking into our hotel and getting dinner in Olongapo, we headed back to the rainforest area to try to do some owling. I've never been as into owling as some "real" birders are, partly because I'm not a fan of waking up stupidly early to stare into the dark for a bird you probably won't see anyway, and partly because I've always had terrible luck with night birds. Unfortunately, in what was to become a trend for our whole trip, that bad luck was a thing that night, as we didn't end up seeing a single damn owl anywhere, including in spots where they supposedly reliably roost. We did have relatively close-by calls from Luzon Hawk-owl, Chocolate Boobook, and Philippine Scops-owl, but none of them seemed interested at all in my caller. We would later find out that October is just about the worst possible month for owls, as they're in the midst of nesting and have little to no interest in courtship or defending their territories. Of course, it might just be because I'm bad at owling.

The next morning, we woke up in time to catch the sunrise nearby where we'd seen the Blue-naped Parrots the previous day, in one of Tonji and Sylvia's favorite spots. Their instincts were right, as the birding was fantastic! Almost as soon as we got there we had great views of a pair of Northern Sooty Woodpeckers, woodpeckers endemic to Luzon that are normally very difficult to find. As the morning went on we got lots more great endemic birds like Luzon Flameback (another Luzon-endemic woodpecker), Philippine Green Pigeon, Guaiabero (another parrot for Kevin!), Luzon Hornbill, Blackish Cuckooshrike, and Coleto, a weird-looking endemic starling with a bald face. Hornbills are big, tasty birds that are relatively easy to shoot, so they tend to disappear anywhere near populated areas in the Philippines, as they're likely to end up in the soup pot. Having them hopping through the trees in huge flocks right next to people's houses in Subic was almost surreal- so different from the rest of the country. You know you're in a great birding spot when you're ignoring hornbills in the tree right in front of you to try and search for more interesting birds!

Female Luzon Hornbill

Horrible picture of the Northern Sooty Woodpecker

White-bellied Woodpecker

Coletos- possibly the weirdest-looking bird in the Philippines.
Alas, even though we saw lots of great birds, the racket-tails were nowhere to be seen once more. We decided to cut our losses and head to our second site. However, as we were on our way down the hill, I heard a creaking sound like a rusty door-hinge- racket-tails! We quickly turned the car around and headed back up the hill, parking so we could observe the area. After about half an hour of scanning big trees where I figured they might be hanging out, we finally heard the call again and saw a flash of green fly in front of us- Kevin's first view of Green Racket-tails. It was just a quick glimpse, but long enough to see the rackets at the end of its tail. Success!

The rest of the morning we spent driving around different birding areas, trying to see something new. There wasn't much to see, as rainforests in the Philippines get pretty quiet after around 8 in the morning as it gets too hot for birds to be too active. However, we were rewarded on one road by a flock of Rufous Coucals, an endemic cuckoo that's essentially only seen in Subic nowadays. This was my first decent view of them, and a great find for Kevin's trip. We were also able to add a couple more common birds to Kevin's Philippines list, like Barred Rail and Brahminy Kite.

After a much-needed nap, we headed out again for birding in the late afternoon, Kevin and I to a trail through the woods I knew had some decent birds. Even though the light was getting bad, we still had some great birds, including Green Imperial Pigeon, Rough-crested Malkoha, Trilling Tailorbird, Luzon Flameback, and Balicassiao. We also had some better views of Green Racket-tail, though it was almost dark by the time we saw them. While enjoying a post-birding beer by the side of the road with Tonji and Sylvia, we were rewarded with views of Great Eared Nightjars flying right over our heads- nightjars so huge they look like owls!

Green Imperial Pigeon
Our last day in Luzon, we started the morning at the Hill 394 Road, a road heading towards what used to be one of the best birding sites in Subic, but was turned into an explosives storage area, and is now (understandably) closed to the public. The road going there, however, is still an excellent birding site, and the best spot to find White-fronted Tit and White-lored Orioles, my two biggest target birds for the Subic trip. We didn't end up seeing either of those (spoiler alert!), but we did start the morning out with a Green Racket-tail that stayed perched in the highest branch of a distant tree, giving us our best views yet. We also had many more Luzon Hornbills, Green Imperial Pigeons, a Rough-crested Malkoha, Sooty Woodpeckers, Luzon Flamebacks, and Stripe-headed Rhabdornis- a smorgasbord of Luzon endemics! Almost enough to keep my mind off missing out on my target birds...

Green Racket-tail! In case anyone was wondering how it got its name...

Male Luzon Hornbill 
Rough-crested Malkoha, a weird-looking endemic cuckoo. Sadly, it seems like all my pictures of this bird are destined to come out looking terrible.

Female Northern Sooty Woodpecker

Female Luzon Hornbill

Luzon Flameback- who knew woodpeckers could get this colorful?
With a productive early morning session behind us, we decided to head further southwards along the coast of Subic Bay and explore some new areas. We checked out a former refugee camp (the Philippines was one of the first destinations of South Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War), which didn't have much of interest, and continued on towards the area occupied by the Aetas, an indigenous people native to this area of Luzon. Many of the Aetas still maintain their pre-colonial customs, depending on hunting and subsistence farming for their livelihoods. They're incredibly knowledgeable about forest plants and animals, and were actually used by the US military to teach soldiers forest survival skills back when Subic was still a naval base. The Aeta population was unfortunately devastated with the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which killed hundreds of Aeta and buried much of their traditional homeland under meters of volcanic ash. Aeta culture has never truly recovered since then, and is now much more fragmented than it was before the eruption. However, they maintain a couple of traditional villages in the Subic area.

We stopped in one of the villages to search for a friend of Tonji and Sylvia who had helped them with the reforestation project on their farm. He wasn't around, so we ended up just walking around a little bit and enjoying the view from a hanging bridge over a river. That ended up giving us a surprise new bird, and one of the best of our Subic trip- a mother Philippine Duck and her ducklings! Philippine Ducks are threatened due to overhunting, but are still relatively common in some fishponds and marshes. However, Philippine ducklings are rarely if ever seen, as they lay their eggs and raise their young in forested rivers, where they're less likely to be eaten by raptors. So this was a truly rare find, and one that left us with a good final memory of our Subic trip.

Philippine Ducklings!
That was essentially the end of our Luzon birding, as from there we headed straight back to the hotel to get our things, then to the Clark airport to our next stop on the trip- Bohol! Overall a great introduction to Philippines birding for Kevin, with lots of endemics, all the parrot targets, and a few bonus lifers for me. Thank you again to Tonji and Sylvia for making it a great trip!


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