The Magic of Mt. Kitanglad (3): Where Splendor and Magnificence acquire new meaning. By Alex M. Tiongco

Birders were stirring before the wake-up time of 4 a.m.  Head lights were donned and switched on as people began their morning ablutions and to dress. I found out to my dismay that I had not brought a headlight and only had a hand held flashlight with weak batteries. Tere’ was worse. She had neither.

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A Giant Scops Owl called loudly sending me twitching but Nicky explained that these were quite difficult to spot.

We began our trek at first light after breakfast. Although it had not rained the night before, the ground and the grass were wet and slippery.
I knew that Ixi and Tere would never be able to negotiate those steep slippery terrain loaded with their backpacks. So I took on Tere’s back pack which I consolidated into mine whilst Danny carried Ixi’s. Upon seeing how loaded I was, the group called me Sherpa! And the moniker stuck till
the end of the trip. I wondered why they did not give the same name to Danny.

The pace of the trek was brisk and purposeful with barely any stops to bird. Soon the cold, the mist, the thin morning mountain air took a toll on our cold aged bodies and very early in the trek, we, senior citizens, were out of breath. Each little step upwards in the mud became excruciating and we fell behind. Soon the front liners were out of sight but that did not worry us because Danny kept a close eye on us.

Danny produced walking sticks from branches and saplings along the way which greatly aided our climb. Carmela said that walking sticks save 30% effort. Ixi took two sticks to save 60%, one on each hand. Tere, Trinket and myself had one each. In spite of these aids, there were several missed steps and falls but nothing serious, so we prodded on.

In an open field prior to entering a patch of wet forest, we caught up with the group inspecting a family of Short-tailed Starlings making their home on a tall dead tree, and strangely, a White-collared Kingfisher. Nicky told us to be on the watch for the Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis which was a special quest for Felix. Felix had been with Nicky to Mt. Hamut the month before where he spotted the Grand Rhabdornis. He only needed to see the Stripe-breasted to complete the whole Family of Rhabdornis which is endemic to the Philippines.

Being so forewarned, we made several false sightings of the Stripe-breasted which proved to be anything but. Felix’s quest was not to be fulfilled that day.

We entered the forest and heard several loud gawking calls. Mountain Racket-tails! It was at first difficult to spot these green birds among the green leaves in the canopy but as soon as we got accustomed, we had clear, close-up views. Sighting several of them proved to be the rest we needed.

We left the forest and entered a huge grassland. This was the domain of the White-cheeked Bullfinch which Nicky advised had not been sighted for the last several months. We heard no calls either.

Finally, we reached the Eagle’s Point about 1,480 meters up with its inviting bamboo shed. That was easy, I thought, heaving a huge sigh of relief. I took a huge slug from my water bottle, took off my shirt for my body was then hot from all that walking and climbing.
The cool mountain air was absolutely soothing to my skin.

Carlitos discovered a nest of a Philippine Nightjar with two eggs. We were very careful not to disturb it.

I sat on the grass and took another slug from my bottle which was then  empty, thinking to take a nap and wait for the lunch caravan with the fresh supply of water.

“Alright, lock and load!” declared Nicky.

“What?!” I exclaimed, “Akala ko dito natin abangan ang Eagle?!”

“Hindi. Sa Eagle’s Nest tayo mag-abang. Malamang nanduon pa ang fledgling”

“Gaano ka layo yun?” I ask Danny
“Mga isang oras pa.”

“At ang Apo Sunbird?”

“Ah mataas yun. Isa pang oras galing sa Nest, matarik, madulas.”
It felt queasy as I put my wet shirt back on and laboriously hoisted the very heavy back pack. Sherpa indeed!!

So it was true that the trek up would take about five hours! So Eagles’ Point was a different place from Eagle’s Nest!  Being with such a familiar group, I had not bothered to do my own research of Mount Kitanglad and therefore was not properly informed and psychologically ready.
The climb became arduous and the trail more muddy and narrow and the under bush overgrown and at times thorny. Portions of tightly packed light brown earth which were not muddy were extremely slippery. There were other potions where you had to hug the cliff face for fear of falling through the bushes into the ravine. I eyed what was left in my water bottle and dreadful thoughts entered my mind. Water was going to be my Waterloo for this trip.

I cannot help but wonder at the energy the other people who have done their research and have paced themselves properly. Tere and Ixi kept a close eye on any interesting thing they could photograph along the way, – pitcher plants, mushrooms, frogs, bugs, leaves, etc.  Carmela never seemed to run out of rhymes to sing to herself. Nicky, Adri and Trinket were forever looking out for birds and Felix for the Striped-breasted Rhabdornis.

I could not afford to be the nuisance to the others so I thought of the wonderful stories I was going to tell to the other birders in Manila after the ordeal was over. I created fantastic stories in my mind which carried me aloft just thinking of the joy of narrating them.
Presently, the lead trekkers disappeared behind some tall grass. We tail-enders kept on. Then we heard some voices close to the ravine and some distant whining. Danny broke through a wall of grass and we followed to where everybody else were ohhing and ahhing for there in the opposite mountain forest across the ravine just below our eye level was the Fledgling Philippine Eagle, calling!
We were at the Eagle’s Nest!

Splendor and Magnificence acquired new meaning.

I looked at the Eagle in great awe and knew that there was absolutely no need to create fantastic stories for this trip.
We took turns at Ixi’s scope, the only one we had, for closer looks. I took four turns or so at the scope as I could not seem to have enough of its Majesty.

The Eagle is a chameleon. When it turned its back on us, it blended with the forest. When it faced us its breast was cloud-like. When it tucked its crest, it seemed shy and unassuming, its innocent bright blue eyes spiting the glory of the sheen of its white breast coat. When it showed its crown, it held dominion over the sun.

We sat there in the sun basking at the Eagle’s glory until we heard Nick call out “Alright lock and load, malayo pa ang Apo Sunbird.”
“Pahirapan na.” Danny said with a knowing smile

I felt a bit of dread but having bagged the Eagle, I was ready for the Apo Sunbird.

The trail was steep and full of tribulations indeed!  The danger of falling into the ravine was more real. We seemed to have trodded for an eternity with absolutely no breaks. We were in deep forest. Everything was dark. Mist was in the air. It seemed like rain.
“Uulan ba?” I asked Danny.

“Hindi.” came the quick reply.

I felt that Danny was not telling the truth just to allay my fears. I started to dread the trek down those steep slopes in the rain. Happily, true to what Danny said, it did not rain that day inspite of the heavy dark clouds.

Then we heard  a raucous call. Apo Mynah! I hastened my step to join Nicky, Felix, Carmela, Adri and Trinket up front who were looking at it. The bird had flown by the time I got there.

“It is here!” Tere said softly from way behind me.

I rushed back almost colliding with Ixi who promptly gave way, and got there just in time to see it fly. No tick in my list.

Tere’ wore what could have been the biggest smile for the day “Boy, that was the most beautiful black bird I have ever seen!

“Don’t you think so?”
I was so exasperated for having run back and forth with nothing to show for it.

Trinket and Adri said from up the trail “Tere, bumalik ang mynah sa puno mo! Ituro mo sa sherpa mo!”

Tere’ looked and looked then grabbed my collar, pulled it towards her and said, “There!”  pointing at a tall tree. I could feel her hand twitching on my collar. I could not see it and was starting to panic as we were standing at the edge of the ravine. Then a big black object moved above where I was looking and there it was, yellow face, crest and all! Now unafraid, I took a small step closer to the edge of the ravine to have a better look.

There were smiles all around, a very conspicuous sigh of relief was felt. Funny how a beautiful bird could energize tired bodies and vanish all fears.

“On to the Apo Sunbird!” I said.

The  hardship trail was again becoming monotonous. After a long while, I caught up with Ixi sitting on a fallen log munching trail nuts. I was too thirsty to swallow anything.

“Are we not too old to be trekking like this Ixi?”

Ixi looked very much surprised at my question. “Alex, we have gone this far so we might as well go on. This could be our only opportunity to see the Apo Sunbird. We may never pass this way again.”  She said between delicious bites.

On to the Apo Sunbird!

At long last, Nicky stopped climbing and called on to the Sunbird.

The forest was eerily silent, and dark, and foreboding. My heart sank.

We moved further up and called again. Still nothing.

I began feeling extremely heavy I could stand no longer. I leaned on my stick and closed my eyes. Then there was a faint reply in the distance. A bolt of electricity ran through the group. We moved cautiously upwards in great anticipation. I positioned myself quickly next to Nicky. I would not miss this for the world in case I would never pass this way again.

There was a subdued commotion behind us. Carmela, Trinket, Adri and Felix had spotted it up close beneath a dark low canopy. I and Tere’ and Ixi went back to their position but were not lucky, so we went up again to Nicky who beckoned at us bright eyed and smiling.

There in the faint, misty, thin, glimmer of mountain sunlight was the Apo Sunbird gleaming amid red mountain flowers! It flitted about among the flowers showing its various facets so much like a twirling diamond magnifying a faint ray of sun.

I could not take my eyes away but the path was too narrow to hold on to so I left Nicky, Ixi, Tere, Adri and Carmela who had then moved up to take pictures and join Felix and Trinket who were sitting on a log below. All of a sudden another Apo Sunbird perched so close to us we could almost touch it, sending Felix, Danny and me in a paroxysm. Trinket took out her point and shoot camera for this one clear chance to capture the bird up close. “Dali, Trinket, Dali!”  Trinket was so affected by our twitchings, she bungled her shot and it came out blurred.
“Ang gulo kasi ninyo!” She said jovially.

The Apo Sunbird is the only sunbird found in this high elevation. Nicky checked his altimeter which showed 1980 meters.

In one long sweep we had seen all we wanted to see for the day. We had assaulted and conquered Mount Kitanglad. Her precious jewels were now ours too.

We came down on light feet but shortly after we started our descent, Nicky called for an unusual halt. What could be wrong? I heard strange voices close by below. Who could be up this far and high on our mountain?

It was the lunch caravan making its way towards us!

Water! Cool, Clear, Sweet, Water!

Food, Glorious Food!

It was 1 PM and our last prior meal was at 5 AM.

The way down was a jazz. It was each birder to his/her own interest down to the Eagle’s nest. For the first time today, I took time to look around and enjoy everything else that the forest can reveal in the nooks and crannies of her green cloak – different species of Pitcher Plants, fungi, bugs, frogs, lizards, snakes, and of course birds!!

The forest had become a gentle and yielding ally, no longer an adversary to conquer and force to yield her much guarded jewels. I had passed her stringent tests, I was now counted as among her own.

On one steep slope, I slipped and slid down on my back but was none the worse for wear – good job my Sherpa back pack protected me from sharp rocks. Trinket and Ardi covered their mouths to suppress their laughter.

“Bakit pinipigilan ninyo yung tawa ninyo?” I asked amused.

“Kasi baka mangyari din sa amin e.”

But the hard boiled egg in my Sherpa back pack which I had miserly saved from my breakfast for later was completely crushed from the fall and was crunchy from bits of eggshells embedded therein. But it was the best tasting hard boiled egg in the world!

In lean times, every little thing you have is the best; in times of plenty, nothing satisfies. I promised always to be thankful for every little everyday blessings from now on. I realised that dapat siguro, mababa lang ang kaligayahan natin.

We all converged at the Eagle’s Nest confident that the Fledgling would still be there waiting for us. It was. We sat around looking and chatting idly. This fledgling is fully grown but still incapable of hunting and was at the stage where it was still strengthening its wings for flight by hopping from branch to branch in this enormous tree. Carlitos said that it had not been fed for the last 10 days and was due to be fed anytime.

Another leisurely stop at the Eagle’s Point and delightfully, a few Apo Mynahs, the birds which I had earlier risked my life in the ridge for to see, were there looking like silhouetted Balinese dancers on the tree tops.

We were simply hanging around and hoping to spot a mature Eagle in flight but that was not to be. We did sight several thermalling Oriental Honey-buzzards which upon sighting made our hearts leap until proper identification.

We stopped briefly at the Plateau of Sunflowers to check on the Red-eared Parrotfinch for Tere’ and we caught several glimpses of them flying about.

Even without recent rain, the waterway paths were still muddy and slippery. Tere’ discovered that she had left her walking stick at the Plateau so the faithful sherpa parted with his stick. With our very tired and aching muscles, any fall, even minor ones, could result in injury. So we three senior citizens were extra careful, helping each other out in difficult terrains and reminding each other of the dangers of letting our swords down as we neared the Eagle’s Lodge.

“The most dangerous part of a difficult and long trek is when you are near home and think you are safe and let your guard down” warned Ixi.
We were last at the lodge and caught the rest well into their beers!

After carefully depositing our beloved walking sticks safely by the entrance, it was beer!
Beer, cold, beer, the first sip being the longest and the best!

Simple joys like taking our extremely muddy shoes and socks off were luxurious activities.

But birders will be birders and Trinket or Adri espied what could be a Striped-breasted Rhabdornis on a bamboo leaf far away and everybody hurried to the scope.

“Felix first, Felix first!” exclaimed Nicky.

Felix was roughly pushed up front, hitting his forehead on the scope, barely missing his eye, but the Rhabdornis was no longer there.
Dinner and beer were brief and sweet. Although our souls were waxing on account of the great accomplishments for the day, our bodies were tired and required rest. We had trekked a total of 10 and a half hours.
I checked on the beer supply before turning off and discovered the brewery to be busted. We shall have to survive on rum from now on.  (To be continued)

[Alex M. Tiongco of Davao City and Makati is a lawyer and environmentalist]