The Magic of Mt. Kitanglad (1): In search of the Holy Grail of Philippine birding. By Alex M. Tiongco

[The author, a Dabawenyo, wrote this report last year, about the birders’ trek to Mt. Kitanglad in Mindanao’s Bukidnon, in the hope they would see the majestic Philippine Eagle fly in the wild. Mindanao’s Davao City, home to the captive Philippine Eagles (for study and breeding) is hosting the 6th Philippine Bird Festival and 1st Asian Bird Festival on September 24 to 26.]

I still cannot write my report on this trip. I cannot seem to be able to allow myself to filter into words the magic we experienced on Mount Kitanglad. Pictures should be a better presentation of our experiences there, but I have no camera. The only pictures I have are those very vivid in my mind.

The Kitanglad mountains in Bukidnon is a long ridge constituting the second highest peak in the country. (Kitanglad Range’s highest peak, Mt. Dulang-dulang, is 2,938 meters above sea level). Mt. Apo being the highest stands at 3,142 meters).

Kitanglad Mountaing RangeThe Kitanglad ranges harbour about 80% secondary growth forest which prompted the government to declare it a Totally Protected Area in the year 2000. This is one of the few places in the Philippines where the highly endangered Philippine Eagles dare to breed.

During my visit there however, I could see, judging solely from the places that I went to, that portions of the plateaus and plains of Bukidnon have been transformed into settlements and farms and the forests are confined to the steep slopes and inaccessible areas. Of course, I am not aware of the metes and bounds of the areas that are declared TPA  (Totally Protected Area).

I had always planned on seeing the Philippine Eagle some day, but stories from birders of extreme hardship during the trek, of mud and leeches, of basic accommodations, have prompted me to keep on postponing my journey.

The Philippine Eagle is the largest eagle in the world and is found only in the Philippines. Its habitat is the steep incline of montane dipterocarp forest. Being a bird adapted to hunt beneath the forest canopy, its wing span is not quite as long as some condors which are adopted for soaring over open country but it surely has very broad  wings needed to maneuvre under the forest canopy. It requires about 130 square kilometers of forest territory within which to hunt. It breeds and lays only one egg every two years and young is reared for as long as 20 months.

With the fast disappearance of our forest, hunting for trophy, the eagle’s unusual slow breeding pattern and long rearing period of its young, only about 500 breeding pairs remain in the Philippines, most of which are confined to Mindanao where its prey mainly consists of flying lemur.

The Philippine Eagle is now considered critically endangered.

“Have you ever seen the Philippine Eagle?”  was a question which filled me with an emotion I could not express. Being one of the more active birders in the Club and a part of a Bird Guide group, I was running out of excuses for not having seen it.

The straw  that broke the camel’s back came, not surprisingly, on another mountain – Mount Arayat in Pampanga. We had gone there with Dave Robbins and Debbie McGuinn, kindred souls of my age, Americans and new members of the Club, to look for Malcohas which were to be their lifers.

As we reached a certain elevation, the twin peaks of Arayat showed itself over the tree tops. There Tere’ spotted some migrating raptors thermalling over the distant peaks.

“Are they Philippine Eagles?” Dave’s seemingly innocent question came from behind me.

“No,” I replied,  trying to be an instructive senior birder, “Philippine Eagles are huge and white.”

I do not know what it was, but even with my attention fully on the soaring dark dots in the distance, I could feel Dave’s knowing smile creeping in.

I turned around embarrassed just in time to see Dave wipe off his smile, for he had made The Trip earlier in the year and had been a witness to the magnificence of the Eagle.

And so the trip was planned. Eight intrepid souls in search of the Holy Grail of Philippine birding led by Nicky, the premier Bird Guide in the Philippines.

INTREPID 8: Tere, Carmela, Felix, Adri, Trinket, Ixi, Alex and Nancy
Eight intrepid souls from different walks of life all brought together by the Philippine Eagle   – three plucky senior citizens, Ixi Mapua, a Vet Med graduate from UP Diliman and a doting grandmother, Tere’ Cervero the other grandmother, Mass Com – UP and an executive of a shipbuilding company, and myself – ex lawyer, ex priest.  Then there were the young guys in their 30’s:- Nicky Icarangal, no introduction needed, Felix Servita – the cop and currently a 3rd year Law student, Carmela Balcazar an Animal Science cowgirl from UP Los Banos and an executive of Villa Escudero, and Trinket Canlas, a Biology Professor at the Ateneo. Our baby was Adri Constantino another biologist at U.P. who is in his late ‘ 20’s.

The trip was for 6 days from 30th May to 4th June 2009. Traditionally, this was the height of summer but something is not quite right with the World today. With her ever dwindling forests and burgeoning carbon saturation besetting her atmosphere, seasons have become skewed and we found ourselves right at the start of the rainy season.

30th May, 2009 Saturday

“It has been also raining on Mindanao all week. The fledgling might have already left the nest but there is a chance it might still be hanging around the vicinity of its nest and if we are lucky, we may be able to spot it.” Said Nicky as we headed for the airport on the gloomy Saturday morning of our departure.

The birders were all early and twittering at the airport. The heavy inclement weather was not reflected in their happy faces full of expectations of Mindanao lifers galore and deep adventure in the mud and ravines of the famous Mt. Kitanglad. I was secretly worried about the weather, I had been to various mountains on birding trips and I know what steep slippery slopes could do to plucky senior citizens.

Heavy bags and equipment were pooled so as not to exceed the allowable airline limit for cheap fares. In the end we had a total of 30 kilos allowance unused.

Birders travel light indeed.

The Cebu Pacific flight to Cagayan de Oro was not on time, it was 30 minutes early which worked well for us as we were all raring to start our adventure. After checking that all bags and equipment were all accounted for at Cagayan, we boarded 2 vans for a buffet breakfast (pesos 90 each) at Sunburst Restaurant. After all provisions for our 6 day adventure were bought (cases of beer and bottles of rum) we were on our way to Barangay Dalwangan, Bukidnon about 3 hours away, our jump off point for the Eagles’ Lodge which was to be our Base Camp for out adventure on Mt. Kitanglad.

Felix who is with the records committee in the Club reminded us to be on the look out for the Oriental Magpie Robin on Mindanao which had been split from the rest of the world and therefore was now a Mindanao Endemic. We strained our eyes looking out of the vans for the familiar and common black and white bird with no success.

During our pit stop on our way to the jump off point, the driver told to me that we must hurry as the heavens indicated rain and we must reach Barangay Dalwangan, Bukidnon with an elevation of about 800 meters before the rain does as the roads leading up would get very slippery.

I looked to where he pointed and saw nothing but a few ordinary looking clouds, you would see in Manila although some were moving with urgency. I would never have known that those clouds were on their way to rain.

This was my first intimation that people in this highland are able to feel rain long before it comes.

As the vans laboured their way to higher elevations, the trees started to grow shorter and shorter until we found ourselves in a cold and barren looking scrubland. We must have been in Pineapple country as patches of pineapple plantations dotted the land, many of which are seemingly abandoned.

Then it started to rain.

The vans scraped on, sometimes reversing to be able to forge ahead. Then Nicky spotted a small raptor. One quick look at the distant figure and we all jumped out of the vans into the rain and cold, to have a better look at it. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. Our first “Lifer” of the trip.

“Lifer” is a technical birdwatcher’s term meaning a bird of first impression, a species seen for the first time.

We reached Barangay Dalwangan, the last frontier, the jump off point for our assault of Mt. Kitanglad. We got off the van into a shed housing a sari-sari store. Horses appeared with their horsemen as if on cue. The horsemen quietly collected our bags for re-bagging into plastic sheets for protection against mud and rain and into jute sacks for loading onto pack horses.

There was this musty, pungent and deliciously earthy scent about the people there, the same kind of smell in my childhood of the farm hands at Wangan and Eden in Davao City at the foot of the other tall mountain in Mindanao – Mount Apo.

The lead horseman sped away on his gallant looking horse to check the road ahead and disappeared around the bend.  Before even the first pack horse was loaded, he was back with the bad news – the river we were going to ford was swollen and impassable.

We had to wait until the water subsided.

The river was not visible from our shed and I had visions of the fury of muddy water rushing against the banks. We busied ourselves bird watching around the store, sometimes leaning for support against a huge stack of bags slightly smelling of poultry.

Everett’s White-eyes, Sunbirds, a Lucistic Eurasian Tree-sparrow – nothing that we would like to see on Mt. Kitanglad.

Ixi asked the store owner what was in the sacks.  It was chicken dung – so much for support to watch Everett’s White-eyes.

A commotion was heard from up river. People came out of their houses and ran in the rain towards the river. We wondered what it was. Have they found a crocodile or a big snake perhaps? One child came back finally and announced that one young man who had recently got married had tried to ford the river on his horse to come home to his new wife and was quickly swept down, horse and all. The horse was able to scurry back to a bank down stream after the man fell off but the man was still missing.

We felt sorry for the man and sorrier still for his new wife who has just began life with her man and now undergoing the agony of the possibility of facing the prospect of a shattered dream. It was getting dark and birds were no longer about and hope for the man’s survival seemed to have dwindled as people were starting to come home with long faces.

We went  down to check stream at the other bend of the road. The river which we surmised would have been pretty narrow, has really swollen and judging from the strong rushing white froth that formed angry eddies, would have been dangerous to cross.

The musty, pungent and deliciously earthy scent was quite pervasive in this part of the river. I asked Tere’ if she has noticed a peculiar scent and she noticed that too.

It must be the smell of the mountain air which has been imbibed by its inhabitants.

Then, a group of men came bouncing back in all smiles. The young man was finally found further down stream badly bruised but very much alive.

It was decided that we were not going up to the Eagles’ Lodge that night and we shall have to settle in for a night in the shed – on the floor which we had muddied where we had carelessly tread not realizing that we had to be sleeping on it.

As I eyed the dirty floor, the old and very common saying came back to haunt me – “tread softly and carefully as you go.” I vowed to follow it for the rest of the trip in the forests of Mount Kitanglad and perhaps even after that.

The store owner was kind enough to open her house to us for the night and even cook dinner.

We were so thankful for the nice clean and commodious sitting/store room which was to be our solace for the night. A piece of clean floor never looked so inviting. So without a word, we all removed our muddy shoes and socks, folded the hems of our pants so they won’t touch the sacred floor where we were going to spend the night on, prior to entering the house.

Dinner was a sumptuous meal of sautéed canned sardines, a delicacy among the highland people whose ordinary everyday fare is fried chicken. The rice was simply delicious!!

The night was cold and full of strange sounds, not from the night birds and other animals outside for there was hardly any sound from there, but from the charivari of snores of tired and frustrated birders – discordant but happy sounds as they indicate deep and restful sleep which was essential if we were to complete the trip.   (To be continued)
[Alex M. Tiongco, of Davao City and Makati, is a lawyer and environmentalist).