Bohol: Tick, tick, tick, tick...

Even before I came to the Philippines, Bohol had been an island I was already hoping to visit. When you google tourist locations for the country, it's one of the destinations that comes up first, along with the usual things like Palawan, the rice terraces, and Boracay. With a mixture of the dramatic landscape of the Chocolate Hills, countless white sandy beaches, and easy viewing of the rare Philippine Tarsier, it's like it's made for a tourist brochure.

My reason for coming there during Kevin's visit was twofold: first of all, Nikki and her family were there for a quick weekend getaway, so it was a good excuse to spend some more time with her. Secondly, Bohol is home to Rajah Sikatuna National Park, which holds a stretch of pretty good-quality rainforest and some very good birding- a good way to pick up some more endemics and new birds for both of us. We only one night on the island, so it was a pretty tight schedule- the first day for some touristy things, and the second day for some morning birding before leaving for Palawan in the afternoon.

From Subic, we flew from the Clark airport to Cebu City, the second-largest city in the Philippines and just an island away from Bohol. After spending the night in the city, we took the early-morning ferry across the Cebu Strait to Tagbilaran City, the largest city in Bohol. The ride over was a great chance to see Cebu and Bohol from a distance, and enjoy good views of the ocean. It got unexpectedly interesting midway through when we looked behind us and saw a waterspout forming from a stormcloud that had just passed us by. I find it a little bit ironic that I'm from the midwestern US, but the first funnel cloud I ever saw in person was in the middle of the Philippines!

The Cebu skyline from our ferry.

Clouds above the ocean.

Funnel cloud!

Nikki and her parents met us at the ferry terminal in Tagbiliaran City in hired van, and we went into the interior of the island, where a lot of the big tourist sites are. The first spot we stopped at was the Loboc Tarsier Conservation Area, which is where most everyone goes to see the Philippine Tarsier, a rare primate endemic to the Philippines. I wouldn't have visited there on my own as it has a pretty bad reputation in the conservation community in the Philippines, but Nikki's parents were with us and the van driver insisted on stopping there, so we did go in.

Unfortunately it proved to be just as bad as everyone says it is- it's called a "conservation area", but really it's a glorified zoo where tourists can walk along a short path and gawk at some terrified-looking tarsiers just a few feet in front of them. There are supposedly rules preventing visitors from getting too close to the tarsiers, but nobody follows them and they're not enforced- there were lots of people sticking their selfie sticks right in the poor tarsiers' faces right in front of the "NO SELFIE STICK" sign, while the staff of the spot looked on while doing nothing. Some people would even touch the tarsiers. All the tourist activity causes a bunch of stress for the tarsiers, and they apparently  die at the "conservation area" at really high rates, meaning they have to capture more from the wild. Overall it's a huge racket, and I wouldn't really recommend that anyone visit it just because they're not the sort of organization you should be giving your money to.

Not pictured: good conservation.
Following the disappointing tarsier sanctuary, we continued on to the Chocolate Hills, the other big tourist destination for Bohol. Naturally, as soon as we got there and started hiking up to the main viewpoint, it started raining torrentially. We spent what felt like an hour huddled in a tiny pavilion with a bunch of other tourists trying to avoid getting wet, and for a while it looked like we were in for another disappointment. However, the rain finally paused long enough for us to go all the way to the top and actually see the Chocolate Hills- and boy, was it worth it.

The viewpoint is supposedly a spot where one can occasionally see Philippine Cockatoo flying past- there's a tiny remnant population of probably fewer than 10 birds on the whole island, though it's dwindling as they're still being trapped. We kept our eyes peeled for them, getting excited at every distant white shape we saw, though they all ended up just being Cattle Egrets. Nonetheless, birding from the viewpoint proved to be surprisingly good- Pygmy Swiftlets and Ridgetop Swiftlets, both Philippine endemics, were flying past at eye-level, and a young Paddyfield Pipit was hopping around in the grass by the overlook. We heard Barred Rail from the bushes down below, as well as a couple of Philippine Bulbuls. The best birds were the Striated Swallows that flew past a few times, then turned out to be sitting quietly on a wire right by the parking lot. They're by far the least-common of swallows in the Philippines, but definitely the best looking- and I definitely got the best pictures I've ever had of one.

Paddyfield Pipit

A beautiful Striated Swallow
After satisfying ourselves with great views of the swallows, we headed back towards Tagbilaran, stopping at the Baclayon Church, one of the oldest churches in Bohol. The church itself was still closed for renovations, as most of the old buildings on the island were damaged or destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake that struck the island in 2013. We did, however, see a male Blue Rock Thrush outside the church, the only one we saw during our trip.

After bidding goodbye to Nikki's parents, the van took us back inland to Habitat Bohol, the small hotel nearby Rajah Sikatuna where most birders visiting Bohol will stay. I had already reserved a room for Kevin and I, plus the night-time safari offered by Habitat Bohol. Most people who visit the place report nothing but good experiences, but ours was... not. We arrived a little after dark, and found two young guys there who told us they would help us check in then guide us on the nighttime safari. As Nikki was joining us unexpectedly, we asked if they might have an extra room available, or at least an extra bed. They looked at each other a little awkwardly then told us that the manager hadn't left them a key for anything, so the only room that was open was the one prepared for us. We asked if they could call the manager to get a key, but it turned out that somehow neither of them had the manager's phone number. By this time we were already a bit tired and grumpy, so we told them we were just going to go ahead and leave for the night safari and by the time we were back the extra bed situation would hopefully be sorted out.

Thankfully, the night safari turned out to be excellent. We took motorbikes from Habitat Bohol to the park headquarters of Rajah Sikatuna, and from there walked for a couple of hours through the park's roads and trails. While our bad night-bird luck held up, with just a heard-only Everett's Scops-owl and a roosting Philippine Drongo-cuckoo, our night-mammal luck was very good. The road towards the main forest area of the park revealed a distant Palm Civet up in a tree (we mostly just saw its eyes reflecting the flashlight), and a tree in the clearing in the center of the park had two foraging Philippine Flying Lemurs (also known as Colugos), a male and a female. Colugos are mainly interesting to me since they're the main food of the Philippine Eagle, at least those eagles not feeling ambitious enough for a full-sized monkey. The actual trails of the park had less in the way of mammal life, but they did have some cool bugs and herps, with a few frogs, a couple of tiny snakes, a tarantula, and a cool/creepy-looking whip scorpion.

Palm Civet, or at least its eyes

Female Colugo
Whip Scorpion

Common Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus)

The next morning was the one morning we had set aside for "real" birding. As Bohol is part of the "Greater Mindanao" endemic bird area, most of the birds there I was already familiar with. Therefore, I was mostly hoping to see the Bohol Sunbird (the only bird endemic to Bohol), plus the birds that aren't found in Mindanao, like Samar Hornbill, Visayan Broadbill, Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, and Visayan Fantail. For Kevin, of course, we were hoping to see Blue-crowned Racket-tail, the only parrot in the area.

We woke up at 5 so we could get to Rajah Sikatuna again by sunrise. I had already contacted Ryan Sugala, the local birding guide, to show us around the park, but he contacted me right around 5 to tell me he'd be late, supposedly thanks to the slippery roads. We decided to head to the park anyway to catch the sunrise there. We spent about half an hour in the main clearing of the park waiting for Ryan to get there, and seeing what birds we could see in the meantime. We were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow just after sunrise and a lot of activity from the local troupe of Philippine Crested Macaques, but less in the way of birds. A flock of Samar Hornbills flew by briefly, and I heard a few Rufous-fronted Tailorbirds, greater Mindanao endemics, calling out from the bushes, though they didn't seem terribly interested in my playback.

Rainbow over the center of the park.

Philippine Crab-eating Macaques

Ryan finally showed up around 6, and soon after he arrived the bird activity picked up, probably since the sunlight finally reached the valley we were in. Just off the main clearing, we saw a few Bohol Sunbirds flitting around in the top of a tree- too far away and moving too quickly to get a good picture of, but good to see nonetheless! From the same place we also heard a Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, which seemed to have no interest in responding to my playback, as did the other tailorbirds we heard that morning. In a small mixed flock of birds, we saw Philippine Leaf Warbler and Rufous-fronted Tailorbird, as well as more Bohol Sunbirds.

Back in the main clearing, we heard squawking behind us and turned around just in time to see two Blue-crowned Racket-tails! The only parrot seen in Rajah Sikatuna, and a relatively rare one! Just past them was a flock of Samar Hornbills, as well as some Scarlet Minivets. In the big tree where the monkeys were hanging out we saw a Chinese Sparrowhawk- a migratory accipter I'm not used to seeing at eye-level, as they're usually only soaring high above.

Male and female Samar Hornbills

Chinese Sparrowhawk

On the short forest trail loop of the park, we soon heard the loud whistling calls of a Visayan Broadbill, one of the park specialties. We spent about half an hour standing in one place looking out for movement when suddenly I saw a round, reddish-brown bird hop onto a twig up in the canopy- Visayan Broadbill! These are one of the hardest birds in the park to find, so it was awesome to see one after just a little bit of searching on our first (and only) morning of birding in Bohol. It was moving around so quickly I only saw it for long enough to get a (terrible) record shot before it flew off again. Unfortunately Kevin only had a quick view of it, and Nikki didn't see it at all- it's never as much fun when some people miss the target bird, especially when they're standing right next to you!

Visayan Broadbill!
The broadbill was part of a mixed flock of birds that also included Black-crowned Forest BabblerBrown Tit-babbler, and Visayan Fantail- a nice little collection of endemic birds to add to our list. A little further on, we heard a Rufous-lored Kingfisher calling, but it unfortunately never responded to our call. Ian also tried repeatedly to call in Azure-breasted Pitta, another specialty of the park, but we never even heard one- despite the fact they're apparently relatively frequently seen there. Alas! I briefly saw a Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher, but unfortunately the others didn't see that either. As a consolation, we saw a Black-chinned Fruitdove and Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike, as well as hearing Philippine Serpent Eagle and Philippine Oriole. Near the end of the trail, we had a surprise close-up view of a male Colugo munching on some leaves. They're super weird-looking animals, so it was great to see one in the daylight!

The rainforest in Rajah Sikatuna

 On the way out, the monkeys in the clearing once more proved great subjects for photography. We probably would have stayed there for quite a while, but we had only limited time left on Bohol, and just one more target bird left- Northern Silvery Kingfisher. We'd somehow managed to see all of the Visayan endemic birds except that one, so the pressure was on!

"He's taking a picture- do the introspective pose!"
The spot for the Silvery Kingfisher was a ways outside the park, along a muddy river that otherwise didn't seem like a great birding spot. We walked about 500 meters up the side of the river along a slippery path, but the kingfisher was nowhere to be seen. Ian went ahead of us to see if he could see it, while we sat tight. After another 10 minutes of waiting, there was a dart of black flitting down the river, and there it was- Northern Silvery Kingfisher! I'd seen its southern cousin in Mindanao, and this one is definitely a bit different-looking, being a little smaller, with more rufous coloring on its "ears" and throat, and a dark-blue belly. Definitely one of the best-looking of the kingfishers in the Philippines- and that's with a lot of competition!

The river where we saw the kingfisher

Northern Silvery Kingfisher

With all our Bohol targets ticked, we took the motorbikes back to Habitat Bohol. I had heard from Ryan that there was a pair of Everett's Scops-owls roosting behind our room, and that one of the staff knew where to find them. We asked around once we got back, but it turned out that the only person who knew where they were wasn't there, and he hadn't told anyone else (notice a trend here?). Another staff member offered to try and find it, which ended up just being a wild goose (owl?) chase through bamboo thickets in the midday heat, with no owls whatsoever.

Mating Striped Blue Crow in Habitat Bohol

I had arranged with the staff of Habitat beforehand to hire a van to take us to the port right after lunch, as we had a ferry ride out to Cebu at 2 PM. However, noon rolled around and I hadn't heard anything about our ride. I followed up with three different people, all of whom left to check it out and never returned. We were getting impatient and antsy by 12:45, as it was a 90-minute car ride, and after lots of searching finally found the manager, who told me that the driver who was supposed to take us had forgotten about it and was somewhere else. Of course she didn't bother to notify us earlier so that we could work something else out, and instead was trying to find a different car, to no avail. Finally she gave us up and had us take motorbikes all the way to the port, which would make the ride even longer.

Our drivers took us there as quickly as possible, but we still arrived at the port 10 minutes after the ferry had departed. Since we had a flight to Palawan to take that evening and not much wiggle room, this was terrible news. There were no other flights that night, and the next ferry wouldn't leave for an hour and a half. Ultimately, there was nothing to do but take the next ferry and try our best to hightail it to the Cebu airport on time. Miraculously, the next ferry ended up leaving on time and arriving early, and (even more miraculously) Cebu traffic didn't end up being that bad. We managed to make it into the airport with time enough to eat our dinners. I was relieved enough at the good luck that I didn't end up writing the grumpy review of Habitat Bohol online that I had been drafting in my head, but nonetheless I was really disappointed with the organization there. Hopefully they improve, or their competition improves.

Last-minute stress aside, it ended up being a great weekend in Bohol- we saw all our target birds, plus some other good birds to boot, and had a great time seeing the other sites of the island as well. Our next stop was Palawan, which ended up being an adventure all its own- but that update will have to come next week.


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