Trekking for the Philippine Eagle

The small river—more like a big stream, flowed noisily down the mountain. I could probably jump it if I got a running start, but with all my birding and camera gear that was looking like a bad idea. The old man whose barn we’d slept in the night before had told us to be careful when we came back down—that we should stay between the rivers. “Don’t cross the water! If you do, two things will happen: your feet will get wet and you will get lost!”
Well I was lost. And my feet were already wet from the steady rain I’d been walking in for the past hour. Getting lost on this mountain was a bad idea. Bad things could happen and getting lost was the least of my worries. There were other dangers far more serious. I turned around and began walking back up the very muddy track the way I’d come.
The path I was slogging up was on Mount Kitanglad on the island of Mindanao in The Philippines—home to the world’s largest raptor, the Philippine eagle. I, along with eight other birders, had come to The Philippines as guests of the tourism authority, to experience the birds of this nation of islands. The main part of our 12-day trip had ended two days before and a handful of us signed on for the extension trip to Mindanao. This was the only chance we’d have to see the massive Philippine eagle, one of the most endangered raptors of the world.
There are more than 7,100 islands comprising The Philippines and on our familiarisation trip, we’d visited just a fraction. As most bird watchers know, islands are often home to endemic species—birds found there and nowhere else. We’d encountered endemic birds at Subic Bay, in Candaba Swamp, on Palawan, Cebu, Olango, Rasa Island, and even around the metropolis of Manila. We’d also, sadly, witnessed vast areas of these same places that were being timbered, mined, turned into agricultural use, or simply encroached upon by an ever-expanding human population. Our Filipino birding guides and the members of the Bird Club of The Philippines indicated that saving the endemic birds of their country is a race against time and a fight against the power of the multinational corporations hungry for the rich natural resources of this emerging country.
The avian highlight of the trip was the extension tour at the end, the trek up Mt. Kitanglad to view a distant (but reportedly still active) nest of the Philippine eagle. We were given fair warning that this trip would be physically challenging with segments we would hike and one stretch we’d traverse via horseback. The island of Mindanao, where the Mt. Kitanglad eagle nest is, is one of the largest and wildest of the islands in the Philippine archipelago. It is also home to a number of rebel and terrorist groups and the accompanying concerns about attacks and kidnappings, according to the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings website. However, I was reassured that the regions of greatest danger were in the southern parts of Mindanao, far from where we’d be travelling.
Philppines-Eagle-groupOur group consisted of seven visiting bird watchers (BT3, Mari from the U.S. Tim, Chris, David, Ray, and Duncan from the U.K.), three Filipino birding guides (Nicky, Adrian, and Ivan) and one Filipino ground agent, Cesar. We left our hotel at 3 am for the 5 am flight to Mindanao. From there we drove about an hour to a small village at the foot of Mt. Kitanglad, arriving around mid-day, along with a soft drizzle. Here our luggage and gear was wrapped in plastic tarps and tied onto the saddles and backs of small horses. We got somewhat conflicting information on how long we’d be hiking up the mountain to The Philippine Eagle Ecolodge. Three things were certain: it was going to be muddy, it was going to be a rugged trail, and we were going to get wet. We were each offered a horse to ride and a few intrepid souls took to the saddle. I was one of these, though the size of my mount and the length of my legs were not a good match. It was nice to be riding and my horse was sure-footed crossing streams and traversing muddy patches, but the wooden pommel of the saddle struck me in a particularly unpleasant spot, and so I gave up my mud-spattered pony for the shoe-leather express.
We hiked up the mountain all afternoon, the sporadic showers keeping the outside of our rain jackets as wet as our uphill exertions were keeping the inside of our jackets. Late in the day we arrived at a clearing, in the middle of which was an open-sided, two-story barn with a cement floor and tin roof: the eco-lodge.
Muddy, tired, and thirsty, we unloaded the gear from our backs, necks, and hips as our local horsemen stripped our bags from their animals. Refreshed with a cold drink and a late lunch we secured our sleeping spots in the upstairs loft. We birded around the lodge grounds until dark, when we went out seeking an ultra-rarity, the Bukidnon woodcock. We heard the bird calling just after dusk and tried to locate it. All we could manage were glimpses of the bird as it flew in low, courtship display around the clearing. One of our group bird photographer David Tipling, was much luckier. David managed to get a shot of a flying woodcock, using his camera’s flash to illuminate the night. The resulting image was astonishingly good considering the circumstances.
Facing a big day the next morning, we soon retired to the upstairs loft and our bedrolls. It was cool at night at this altitude and with the mixed sounds of rain on the tin roof, and the night sounds from the forest, I was soon deeply asleep. During the night at least eight sawmills began operating in other parts of the lodge’s loft. It was such an amazing chorus of snores that I actually recorded it with my digital recorder. Rather than giant stacks of milled lumber, I awoke to my bleary-eyed fellow travellers already getting up for the day’s big adventure. We pulled on our wet and muddy clothes and ambled downstairs for brekky.
On the ground floor, fog and rain greeted us, but the hot food and coffee lifted our spirits sufficiently and soon we were on our way, hiking up the rough and sloppy path toward the eagle-viewing site.
The critically endangered Philippine eagle was first discovered in 1897 by a European ornithologist. Endemic to the Philippines, it was originally called the Philippine monkey-eating Eagle due to early (and inaccurate) observations on its prey preferences. It’s one of the largest and most powerful eagles in the world—rivalling the harpy eagle of Central and South America in its ability to capture, kill, and carry large prey items. Its powerful flesh-tearing bill, long legs and piercing talons are ideally suited to plucking prey items out of the branches of giant rainforest trees. Main prey items of the Philippine eagle are flying lemurs and civets (an arboreal mammal), plus large snakes, lizards, and birds (including hornbills!). These huge raptors require large tracts of rainforest (as large as 50 square miles) for nesting and hunting. Sadly, habitat loss, timbering and mining, and subsistence hunting have had a heavy impact on the species’ population. Current population estimates have fewer than 500 pairs of Philippines eagles on the islands of Mindanao, Luzon, Leyte, and Samar. Philippine eagles do not breed until after they reach full adulthood after five years of age, and then they only produce a single egg. If the egg hatches and the eaglet survives, its parents will care for it for two years—not a high rate of replacement for a critically endangered species.
Mt. Kitanglad, up which we were now trekking, is one part of The Philippines where land has been set aside for the Philippine eagle, which became the national bird of this country in 1995.
From my field journal:
We left before dawn. It was a wet, slippery hike up to the plateau from where we were to look for the eagles’ nest. En route we passed through deep forest broken up by clearings where subsistence farmers and their families were living. We would have to get above the deforestation if we were to get into prime eagle habitat. Wood smoke smell filled our heaving lungs as we climbed higher and higher, the day’s humidity already soaring, turning air into water. We got some good birds along the trail: Tawny Grassbird, Pygmy Woodpecker, Mountain white-eye, and a tiny hanging parrot known as the Colasisi. After an hour-plus hike we arrived at the overlook opposite the eagle’s nest. Our guides knew just where to look. Far across a mist-shrouded valley we could just barely make out a mostly grown eaglet on the nest. As we watched through spotting scopes it alternately jumped and flapped its wings, and absent-mindedly preened while waiting for a returning parent.
phils-eagleAfter watching the eaglet for 20 minutes or so, half of our party elected to head farther up the mountain in search of some other Mindanao specialty birds, including the rare Apo Sunbird. I chose to stay behind to watch the nest, to see if an adult would come in to feed the eaglet. While we waited, the mist cleared, except for a greyish-white plume rising from a draw to the southwest of the eagle nest. I pointed to the column of what I thought was smoke from a fire and asked on of the local guides what that was. “Oh that’s just more mist from the forest!” he replied. But I caught a glance passing between two of our other Filipino guides—something wasn’t right here.
An hour later, the sun was up and already scorching us and the plume of smoke was still rising from the woods. By this time we had two different local guides, two strong fellows who had hauled large coolers up to the lookout with our lunches and drinks. I pointed to the smoke and asked one of them “Is that smoke from a village or a farm?” The smoke so close to the eagle nest made me all kinds of curious: Was it a hunting camp? Were the eagles in danger? Would the camp disturb the birds? Was it someone assigned to guard the eagles?
Then the answer came: “No that’s a camp of The Communist Peoples’ Army.” We had heard about the camps of anti-government factions in remote parts of Mindanao, and of course the U.S State Department warnings were moving to the front lobe of my brain once again.
“Do we need to be concerned about them?” I asked, trying not to think about the worst-case scenario.
“No, they know were here. They won’t bother us. And they won’t bother the eagle, either.”
Just as the small wave of relief came over me, someone in our group spotted an adult Philippine Eagle, flying in from the left, carrying a half-eaten hunk of mammal to the nest. It perched nearby, and then hopped over to feed the eaglet, though we could not see this activity for the intervening branches and extreme distance. For the next four hours we enjoyed our own lunch and watched the eagles going about their lives. It was a genuine privilege to spend quality time with this very special bird.
There were other birds to watch, too, including Apo Myna, Mountain Verditer flycatcher, and a glimpse at a white-browed short-wing. We saw both Eagle parents flying in the vicinity of the nest, and we watched one adult eagle rise up to meet another, smaller raptor and escort it over the far mountain ridge, away from the nest. We got good, if distant, looks and a few remember-the-moment photographs, but now the heat of the day was upon us.
Most of our group headed for the shade. On the hike up the mountain I’d twisted my right knee and ankle slightly and they were now beginning to ache a bit, so I decided to start back down the mountain ahead of the rest of our group. Moving down at a slow pace, I thought they would overtake me about half way. Before I left, I refilled my water bottle and told Ivan Sarenas, one of our guides who had been up here before, that I was heading down ahead of the group.
“OK, but be careful to stay on the path. If you come to a river, you’re going the wrong way! Don’t get lost! But if you do, just stop and we’ll come find you. Don’t go wandering around.”
And those are the words that were echoing in my head as I stood looking at the river. I thought I was being ultra-careful, watching the boot prints we’d left in the mud on our way up. Two hard rain showers had erased some of the prints, but I thought I was still on the right track—I was headed down the mountain, after all. How hard could it be?
From my journal:
I began backtracking from the river but was dismayed to find that all the familiar landmarks from the trek up the mountain were now mysteriously gone. I was on a forest trail, getting soaked by the rain, mud over my ankles, trying in vain to keep my cameras and spotting scope dry, and trying even harder not to freak out about being lost. I waited under a huge palm tree fan for the rain to quit. Once it did I climbed back to a clearing I remembered—about 200 yards— and I listened in a 360-degree circle for any voices or sounds of humanity. Nothing. I walked the perimeter of the clearing—which showed signs of having been clear cut and burned, though not recently—looking for a another trail. I found one that meandered through a gulley and up over a distant rise. Clearly this trail was used, but by whom? Animals? Eagle watchers? Local farmers? My future captors?
Have you ever been lost—I mean more lost than we-missed-our-freeway-exit lost? Lost where your mind starts to abandon ship because your thoughts are tumbling at you from all kinds of crazy places? That’s the kind of lost I was that afternoon on Mt. Kitanglad. I was angry at myself for heading down the mountain alone. Angry at myself for not paying more attention to the trail, and for being slightly panicked now. What would I do if I ran into the wrong bunch of people? I had a decent-sized knife with me, but it would be stupid to try to resist. I did not have any ID on me—my passport (and all my money for that matter) was tucked in my duffle bag down at the lodge. If I suddenly found myself in the midst of a camp full of potentially dangerous strangers, I would do the same thing I’d do in any uncomfortable, culture-clashing situation: try to make friends and show them some birds through my spotting scope. I tried not to think about that.
A half-mile past the gulley, the trail sloped upward. I wanted to be heading DOWN the mountain so I stopped to get my bearings and to guzzle some water. It was then that the fickle hand of fate brought a familiar sound to my ears: a crowing rooster! Civilization! I’m not lost!
Just as quickly, my jubilation turned to doubt as I remembered that the Red Junglefowl, wild forbearer of our domestic chickens, lives as a wild bird here in the Philippines. I stumbled toward the still-crowing rooster, hoping it belonged to some human and not to the jungle itself. Soon I smelled wood smoke and cooking food. My spirits rose. A clearing and a small shack up on stilts. An old woman jumped slightly as I emerged from the forest. She disappeared into the shack, shouted some words, and shoved a man out the door toward me. I raised my right hand in a wave and smiled. He squinted and walked closer. He was middle-aged, about five feet tall and dressed in a T-shirt that was more hole than fabric, long gray pants, and a white stocking cap. Using my hands in a poor substitute for sign language, I conveyed that I was bird watching, and that I was lost. Pointing down the mountain I said eco-lodge and raised my hands in confusion. He said “Eagle lodge” and pointed the opposite direction, up the mountain. I made more inane hand signs: a roof, eating, sleeping, yet he still pointed up the mountain and said “Eagle lodge!” Finally, as frustrated as I, he motioned me to follow him. Birders-in-Gear-PhilsWe walked at an angle through his fields, up the mountain, across two small streams, and about a third of a mile farther along we came to a wide trail between two huge trees. “Eagle lodge” he said again and pointed to the trail. To my great joy, I could see the distinct footprints of large-size European boots, headed down the trail and down the mountain. I thanked my friend with a handshake and a smile, and turned to go, then bade him stay a moment longer. I took my blue, long-sleeved Ohio Ornithological Society T-shirt off and handed it to him, with a bow of thanks. He smiled and held it up—it would be huge on him. Still, I think he appreciated the gesture, and I surely appreciated his help. Once again, I’d relied upon the kindness of strangers to set me on the right path home.
I humped it down the mountain, through another big rain shower, noting with great relief the familiar landmarks from earlier in the day. I strolled into the clearing where the lodge was just as my fellow travellers were beginning to wonder where I could be. I saw Ivan and told him his advice had been good—don’t cross the river. He smiled and said “Glad you didn’t get lost, Bill.”
“Me too!” I said with a sheepish grin.
There’s nothing quite like having a bit of adventure along with your bird watching. Seeing the eagle had been a thrill—an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sometimes the getting there and back is just as exciting.


Bill Thompson, III

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