The Magic of Mt. Kitanglad: Fly, Eagle, Fly! (Part 4) By Alex M. Tiongco

2nd June, 2009 Tuesday

4 A.M. alarms went off in the usual way but it was only Nicky who seemed to have stirred. Much later, it was Felix then Adri and Trinket and Carmela. I did not want to get up and laid perfectly still hoping not to be noticed.

“I’m afraid I shall have to forgo the trek today” I heard Ixi say. “I am still very tired and have not recovered from yesterday’s trek.”

“In which case, I shall stay and keep Ixi company.” Bone tired as she was, Tere’ was still quick to the draw. “It is not good for Ixi to be alone in camp you know,” came her unsolicited explanation.

“Kayo Alex?” Nicky asked. It was still quite dark but I could feel everybody’s eyes fall on my “sleeping” nape.

“Samahan ko na yung mga babae para safe sila.” I said without stirring.

That brought the house down and we all stood up to dress, except Ixi who stood up but did not dress.

“Parang ni rehearse yung dialogue ah!” said Adri laughing.

After breakfast, when everybody was preparing to leave, Ixi burst out of the toilet and said “Can you guys wait for me? I am going na. I feel better already!” She must have realised that having gone this far, she could not afford to miss all the fun and lifers for the day.

Our trek was more leisurely this time. Nicky was well aware of body aches and pains of some of the trekkers. The trek was mostly down hill, slightly steep and muddy. There were several stops for rest and to photograph interesting denizens of  the forest. We visited two new cites in search for the Blue-capped Wood-Kingfisher. At the first spot we heard the strident call of our quarry but were unable to spot it even after long hours of search. We went to another area, a darker piece of woodland this time, but not even a call was heard there.

We walked on until we came upon the path leading to the forest of the Mountain Rocket tails and entered the forest. Here we spotted the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker. I saw it just when Carmela pointed it out in front of us – dark with red crown and I thought it was the same as the flame-back of Malaysia which was quite common there. So I did not take too much notice and looked around at a funny formation of mushrooms instead. When we were about to leave the forest Nicky asked. “Nakita mo ba ang Flame-crowned, Alex?”

“Nakita ko na yan sa Malaysia.”

“Mindanao endemic yan!!” Adri, Trinket and Felixed chorused in dismay.

Other than on the crown, the red spot of this endemic montane bird is on the vent and not the back. I did not see the red vent and therefor did not gain a tick.

“Hey! There is a leech on the cuff of my pants!” Tere shouted in horror.

I saw it working its way up from the cuff. My back was still stiff and I could not bend to pick at it up so I lifted the cuff to reach for it, exposing her ankle.

“Bakit mo pinapapasok sa paa ko yan!!’ Tere’ screamed

In a flash Felix hand reached out, plucked the leech and flicked it away.

I had dagger looks from Tere’ for the rest of the day.

We left the forest and entered the grassland heading for the Eagles’ Point. On the high ground just before hitting the Eagles’ Point, Nicky looked back to the tops of the trees on the valley below and there sitting on a branch of a dead tree were Felix’s Rhabdornis!

Everybody was elated, high fives all around and pictures taken. Felix is one of the few who has bagged the lone Endemic Family in the Philippines. Bachelor boy Felix has the Family at long last.

There is this funny thing about bird watching. It may be difficult to spot a target bird for the first time but once you spot it, you are bound to see it again and again.

Eagles’ Point was our destination for that day hopefully to catch a mature Eagle in flight.  We were dismayed that a cow was tied right next to the nightjar’s nest. We presumed that the nightjar had abandoned her nest.

Felix and I tried to fall asleep. Felix’s snores reverberated in the mountain tops. Ixi and Carmela played with the cow and her calf. Adri and Trinket went birding further on towards the Eagle’s Nest, Tere went to photograph whatever she could nearby. Nicky went back to the forest to photograph the Mountain Racket tails.

Many birds came along including the much awaited White-cheeked Bullfinch which had not been seen for the last several months. Lifers were piling up. But there were no eagles in flight.

These mountains are able to accumulate heavy clouds in a hurry and at one point long after the caravan delivered food to us, the accumulation was so heavy I thought it was going to rain.

“Diba dapat umuwi na tayo? Uulan na yata.” I told Carlitos

“Hindi uulan yan.”

It did not rain all right and we came home later to the Eagle’s lodge to witness waves of mixed flocks:- Mindanao Ibon, Cinnamon Ibon, Black and Cinnamon Fantail, Spangled Drongo, Mountain White Eye, Flowerpeckers etc. They were all sitting ducks from the lodge.

It was only our first rum night but after a shot time, we were dangerously running low. Ixi warned us to leave at least one family size bottle for our last day’s drink-up to go with her cheese and sausage. But the spirit of the rum was strong, too strong we dared not disobey. We finished all the rum.

I felt sorry for Ixi who was torn between being happy to be drinking and being disappointed at the disappearance of the last bottle intended for our last night at the lodge.

3rd June 2009, Wednesday

Whilst we were having breakfast, a lone horseman came galloping in with a small parcel in hand and went straight to the back where Carlitos’ house was situated. In no time at all the horseman went galloping away again. So they have “Pony Express” in Mt. Kitanlad! I looked at Nicky who maintained a nonchalant look.

We were going to use yet another route that morning, this time we went westward, past Carlitos house through the steep muddy incline into the forest behind the dark thick bamboo grove. I happened to look back towards the lodge and noticed the sky to be red and wispy.

“Red skies in the morning, birders take warning!”

We walked on until we reached an area where dried bamboo leaves had accumulated almost knee high. “By God, this could be an ideal nesting sight for snakes!” I thought and borrowed Tere’s stick for poking around.

A strong strident call was heard nearby and all thoughts and fears of snakes were forgotten.

The calls were frequent and aggressive and before 7 AM that day, the most elusive bird for that trip, the Blue-capped Wood-kingfisher was ours.

We walked back to the Lodge and paused before the huge live bamboo wall to have our pictures taken with the sun and our victorious smiles on our faces.

The only thing left to do was to see the Eagle fly!

By this time, we knew the trail to the Eagle Point and to the Eagle’s Nest like we knew the backs of our hands. We were veterans – old Kitanglad hands.

Ixi and Felix decided to stay in the Eagle Point whilst the rest proceeded to the Nest. At the Nest, there were more mixed flocks. We had seen them all before and now know them by heart. But I never again caught a glimpse of the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker. I had ignored it earlier on, now it has refused to show itself. “Nagtampo.”

It was here at the Nest where we discovered how vicious wasps can be compared to bees. Bees do not attack unless provoked and before they sting they buzz you several times as warning. When they do sting, it is absolutely noxious. However, bees sting only once (thank God) as they leave their stings embedded into your skin along with part of their stomachs, and die.

Wasps on the other hand are unpredictable and can sting at will and without provocation or warning. And because they do not leave their stings behind, they can sting several times in one attack. Furthermore, they take no heed of insect repellent. Carmela, Trinket, Adri and even Nicky were attacked at the Eagle’s nest, all of them sustaining several stings forcing us to vacate our positions and move somewhere else. Inexplicably, Tere’ and I  were spared from such attacks.

I had a lively chat with Carlitos out in the sun and got to know more about him and his family. He looked at the bright, clear sky and said “We should be going home early today. It will rain before nightfall.”

After lunch, we went back to the Eagle’s Point. Ixi and Felix were equally unlucky. I guess we shall be going home without ever seeing the Eagle in flight.

Then a soulful, mournful cry was heard from across the chasm. An Eagle was nearby!

Bins were whipped out and everybody fanned the mountain passes scanning the forest across the chasm. We looked everywhere and could not find the Eagle. The ravines re-echoed the mournful cries making it impossible to located the source.

“Ay pu—- — nandyan ka lang pala mahal ko!” exclaimed Carlitos at last, as he bolted forward to grab the scope and took it to a high vantage point.

The eagle was sitting right in front of our noses on a bare tree which was level to our eye sights across the ravine.

It was a mature Eagle, most likely a female as indicated by its dark back coloration which blended well with the forest.

On her left claw was pinned the body of a golden flying lemur, her right claw was thrust forward holding the head.

Every now and then she would shake the head. Perhaps the lemur was still alive.

We were all awestruck.

We waited to see her fly but she just stood there like a statue. Her only movement was when the wind struck her silky feathers or when she shook her right claw.

Fly! Eagle Fly! we said to ourselves. But she remained still.

In the meantime, the heavens were getting pregnant with rain. But the Eagle just stood there and so did we. There was an impasse. Her majesty would not fly. We ordinary mortals were adamant to see her in flight. We were willing to brave the rains and even the floods on this slippery mountain top just for that privilege.

The first droplet of rain fell.

Her majesty stirred.

The statue had come to life.

In one nimble and elegant motion she leaped, spread her wings and flew carrying her prey with ease.

Our hearts flew along with her, beating to the rythm of her powerful wing beats as we watched her disappear from sight.

There was boisterous celebration all around. High fives and hugs.

One thing I learned from this occasion:-  hugging a fellow birder with you bins hanging from your neck will break you friend’s ribs.

To Ixi’s and everybody’s delight, we had rum that night – courtesy of the “Pony Express.”

Our friend the Woodcock did not come. Tomorrow we shall bid him good-bye.

4th June 2009, Thursday

We were all up at 3 AM. We were going to look for the Philippine Frogmouth on the western pass, close to where we spotted the Wood-kingfisher the day before. Dreadfully, I discovered that my flashlight battery was on its death throes.

Rain had fallen moderately the night before, making the trail very tricky. My dying flashlight was almost of no help. We had to be helped along by the other birders who every now and then directed their lights on our path. With our age-dimmed eye sights, it was very difficult for Tere and myself and we resorted to arguing quietly.

“Why did you bring old batteries?”

“Why did you not bring your own flashlight instead of depending on mine?”

“I forgot, eh.”

“Then stop complaining!”

This did not go unnoticed by the others and their snickering became louder than our arguing.

Finally, Carmela said “Huy bakit nyo pinag-aawayan ang patay na flashlight ninyo na yan? Ay sus!”

Laughter in the dark.

Then, there was a loud angry call from the frogmouth to our left.

“Necke’ nandian ang frogmouth sa harap mo!” shouted Carlitos from way behind.

“Huwag kang maingay!”

I grabbed my bins from my breast and touched air. “Hey where are my bins?” I gasped in panic.

“Alex left his bins in the lodge!” Tere’ announced in a loud sing song whisper.

More laughter in the dark.

We did not see the Philippine Frogmouth at all.

At breakfast, we were all quite and pensive. Packing our baggage was done in a kind of frenzy indicative of persons who want not to be reminded of something impending and imminent.

We brought down our baggage just it time to see the dark procession of horses and men who had come to pick us up.

They had come too soon.

Nobody wanted to be the first to mount the horses, so I took it upon myself to make the first move, followed by Carmela. Nobody else followed.

“What shall I do with your walking sticks?” Danny called out from inside the lodge.

“Keep them for us, we shall be back” Tere replied wistfully from the lawn.

When Carmela and I turned to go, nobody else had moved.

The Bukidnon Woodcock did not come today. We did not say good-bye.

We made our way silently into the narrow ravines. I was numb.

From my high horse, looking down at the pass which I took five days before, I saw myself, thirsty but full of expectation, still on my way to the Eagle’s Lodge, a kind of reverse de javu.

I climbed the stair-like waterways, trudged in the mud, smelled the musty, pungent and deliciously earthy smell of the mountain air, marveled at the misty veils surrounding the Plateau of the Sunflowers, drank and exchanged vignettes and vagaries with the gang, looked in vain for the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker, saw the dancing of the Balinese Silhouette Apo Mynah dancers, got dazzled by the twirling of the diamond Apo Sunbird and witnessed the majesty of the Eagle.

It would be a long, long time before I got my soul back from Mt. Kitanglad.

(Alex M. Tiongco of Davao City and Makati is a lawyer and environmentalist).