Philippine Eagle nest found in Apayao, thanks to IP habitat conservation scheme

Jayson C. Ibañez
Director-Research and Conservation
Philippine Eagle Foundation

In July of 1896, a local Samareño acting as guide to British Ornithologist John Whitehead brought back to camp one of the largest forest birds that Whitehead has ever seen. Then a new species to the western world, this first Philippine eagle specimen from Samar was a jewel among Whitehead’s wildlife collections. It was then one of the world’s greatest discoveries for a biological expedition.

Mother Phil Eagle feeding her one month old chick on the eagle nest at Apayao_Photo by TAbano, courtesy of the Philippine Eagle Foundation
Mother Phil Eagle feeding her one month old chick on the eagle nest at Apayao_Photo by Tatiana Rose Abano, courtesy of the Philippine Eagle Foundation

One hundred nineteen years later today, we celebrate the same spirit of scientific discovery to announce another first in the history of Philippine Eagle research and conservation – the discovery of the world’s first active Philippine Eagle nest on Luzon Island.

On April 24, 2015, the first Philippine Eagle nest on Luzon with a downy chick was finally located by Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) biologists and Isnag research assistants in the lush lowland forests of Apayao Province in the Cordillera Administrative Region of Luzon.

The nest search was everything except easy. Finding the elusive nest involved a total of 3,456 hours of observations, which is equivalent to watching television 24/7 for over three months straight. Field work spanned five years in rugged and remote jungles. In the field, observers spent time mostly on platforms atop trees, scanning ridges and valleys for the highly secretive national bird.

The tedious nest search tested the team’s skills, patience and determination said PEF Biologist and expedition team leader Tatiana Abaño. “In the thick lowland jungles of Apayao, finding an eagle nest is like searching for a needle in a pile of hay”, Abaño added.

The team had gotten impatient. They kept seeing the eagles during four consecutive years of summer field work, but no hints yet of a nest. But at long last, one flying bird carrying prey was found during this year’s expedition.

On a clear day on April 21, a bird carrying a decapitated prey took a long, diagonal dive towards a huge tree. Nearby, another eagle on a perch was also spotted. Together, these observations indicate nesting.

A meticulous nest search followed. For three days, additional eagle sightings helped the team home in on the nest. After climbing 15 different trees around the spot where the eagles repeatedly emerged and disappeared, the nest tree was finally singled out. And on the center of the sturdy nest bowl was a month-old eagle chick dozing off.

Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, Director of Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of DENR was thrilled by the discovery. “New information generated from observing the newly discovered nest will definitely bring eagle conservation in Luzon to the next level” said Director Lim. The PEF works with the BMB in securing the few remaining eagle pairs across the archipelago.

Three reasons make the nest discovery important. First, this active nest allows a detailed study of the behaviour of eagles in Luzon. The island’s flora and fauna and its climate pattern are very different from the other three islands – Leyte, Samar and Mindanao – where eagles are also found. A unique environment leads to new habits and lifestyles. Close observations of nesting adults and their young give researchers the opportunity to understand and explain how distinctive Luzon eagles are from the rest.

Secondly, the nest is the eagle’s center of activity. For a bird that occupies a large territory, it is only when eagles breed that one can carry out a focused and detailed study of its behavior and food needs.

Lastly, eagles are also very loyal to the places where they nest; they use the same set of nests repeatedly. Maintaining the health and integrity of nest sites therefore ensure reproduction and the perpetuity of their kind. Knowing where nests occur also helps conservationists protect nesting territories better. Eagles become sedentary and tied to a particular place only when nesting. Breeding birds therefore become vulnerable if nests are unprotected.

Fortunately, the eagles of Apayao are secured through an Indigenous habitat conservation scheme. The town of Calanasan, in particular, is leading the way. Through the ancient Isnag observance of Lapat, forest habitats were set aside as “taboo” or “sacred sites” where logging, mining, farming and wildlife hunting are completely banned. Rooted in culture and religious tradition, the adoption of lapat has set aside forests as Indigenous “protected areas”.

“The presence of nesting eagles within Calanasan’s lapat areas is a strong proof that the Isnag way of protection is resulting to clear biodiversity conservation outcomes” said Elias K. Bulut Sr., Mayor of Calanasan and staunch supporter of Philippine eagle conservation in Apayao. In 2010, he penned a town ordinance that sets aside 25,000 hectares of forest as lapat.

Right after the nest was found, PEF, DENR and the LGUs of Calanasan and Apayao renewed research and protection of the nesting eagles and it’s young. The PEF held public education outreach and conservation planning with funding from the San Roque Power Corporation (SRPC). SRPC has been supporting eagle surveys across the Cordillera since 2011. “We are glad we invested on this very important initiative. We are very proud that our support has not only helped the PEF advance its work in Luzon but is also benefiting the Cordillera region’s biodiversity conservation program. We encourage everyone who has a stake in the Cordillera to also invest on our national bird” said SRPC President Kenshi Iseri.

In 2014, the Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation (PTFCF) began providing small grants to support further eagle conservation work in the area.

A food habits and nesting behavior study also began in May and will end in August once the young flies off the nest. The result so far is a collection of pioneering information on Luzon eagles’ diet and demeanor.

For example, the latest tally show that a total of 38 animals belonging to five  species of mammals, three species of snake, a huge lizard and a large bird were fed by the eagle parents to the growing young. At an average feeding rate of one prey every other day, the young appeared well-fed and healthy. The timing of nesting and the ways the Apayao adult eagles behave when breeding also differed slightly with the eagles found in Mindanao. The PEF currently knows of 35 wild eagle pairs on Mindanao.

“What our biologists are seeing and recording are precious pieces of biological information” said Dennis Salvador, Philippine Eagle Foundation Executive Director. “For over a hundred years, knowledge about the ecology of Luzon eagles was, at best, speculative. Now we are slowly gathering solid scientific evidence which can help bring about informed conservation actions” Salvador added.

Today the whole Cordillera Administrative Region is celebrating its Founding Day anniversary and the province of Apayao is hosting this year’s festivities. As host to the world’s first active nest in Luzon, the public announcement of this landmark discovery is one of the highlights of its biodiversity forum.

Elias “Butzy” Bulut Jr., Governor of the Province of Apayao is equally delighted of the nest discovery. “We are very proud to host a nest site and several more pairs of the Great Philippine Eagle in our own backyard” he said. “As a fellow Filipino and resident of Apayao, we will help secure the eagle’s safety so future generations of IyaApayao can still enjoy its magnificence” he said.

The Philippine Eagle is a large forest eagle which is found only in the Philippines where it is the national bird. No more than 400 pairs exist in what’s left of tropical forests on the islands of Luzon, Leyte, Samar and Mindanao. The species is an IUCN “critically endangered” species.  (Jayson C. Ibañez is Director for Research and Conservation of the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao City).