More than anything this first trip into Northern Negros Natural Park (“NNNP”) was simply a recce. Errol Gatumbato, of The Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc (“PBCFI”), had recommended the village of Patag, accessible from Silay City by jeepney, as a starting point. Through Godfrey Jakosalem, Errol’s colleague in the Bacolod City branch of PBCFI, I was connected with Ching Ledesma, an Environmental & Natural Resource Officer in Silay City. These connections really worked and made our short trip into NNNP possible.
The NNNP covers a wide area and can be approached from a number of points but the advice I was given was to approach from Patag – this was good advice. When we showed up at Silay City Hall to meet Ching we thought we would be staying in a small resort and that Ching would arrange connections with rangers/guides in Patag. Well it doesn’t work that way! She started talking about camping and food! If only we had known!
Thanks to Ching we obtained permission from the Mayor to go into the forest and off we went up to the forest – Ching kindly gave us a lift up to Patag, about an hour’s drive from Silay CIty along a pretty rough road, initially through extensive sugar cane fields and then up into higher ground and the village of Patag. This site is actually quite well developed – a former hospital is now used as a kind of visitor centre, the grounds around it being used as a campsite; there is even a swimming pool plus a few eateries. It is fairly basic but more than adequate.
We bedded down in the city’s nursery, a large hut in the forest with basic cooking and WC facilities and met up with our guides: Rey, Ricky and Brian, villagers who act as mountain guides/patrol. It was a strange atmosphere however – not the peace and quiet one might expect. A religious retreat was going on in the hospital annexe which meant the amplified ejaculations of the converted were resounding – “Praise the Lord, Alleluia” and so forth; these were mixed up with the cacophony of a large number of fighting cocks – a villager is rearing these nearby; I couldn’t make any comment on their prowess as fighters but, boy, do they make a racket and a fairly discordant one at that!
We took a stroll around the nursery and immediately saw Philippine Bulbul which is abundant here according to our guides. In a field on the forest edge, near the Japanese shrine, (this area was the scene of significant bloodshed between Filipino, US and Japanese soldiers during the World War Two ) we saw a Grey-streaked Flycatcher perched on a branch making periodic sorties for prey. In the absence of a Philippine list I presume this was a lifer! Elsewhere in our stroll we had a brief glimpse of a Black-naped Monarch, a fairly common bird.
Ricky, one of our guides, advised that he had a woodpecker nesting in his garden so we headed off into Patag to have a look. Sure enough a beautiful small woodpecker was tending to a nest in a tree about fifteen feet from his house. I pulled up a chair , sat down, set up and took some photographs. I didn’t have the field guide with me so I thought it was probably a Pygmy Woodpecker but couldn’t be sure. Fortunately I was able to get some good shots of both the male and female so knew I would be able to identify it later. The male has this beautiful loud red “vee” on the back of its head.
Ricky then took us to another house where they were looking after a large pigeon which was unable to fly. I had no idea what this was – about the same size as an ‘imperial” type pigeon but definitely a new bird for me. I was for once able to photograph it with my camera and a standard lens!
Now that I am back home with access to the field guide I can confirm the woodpecker as a Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, of the maculatus sub-species; this is an endemic and the first endemic species of this trip and a lifer as well; the pigeon is a Metallic Pigeon, described in the Kennedy field guide as uncommon, also a lifer but not endemic.
On our way home we saw a White-collared Kingfisher. In Thailand this is a bird I normally associate with mangroves and coastal areas; I don’t expect to see it in open country as I did here but it is fairly common in these parts. On return to the hut Luna said she had seen a Coleto in the trees adjacent to the hut.
After a comfortable night in the hut we started early the next morning at 0500 walking in darkness into the forest. There were plenty of bird calls in the dark as we progressed up into the forest but not a lot to be seen and sadly this situation did not improve once it was light. I caught a glimpse of what I now know was a Metallic Pigeon as it flew off – good to see this for real in the wild and hard to mistake on account of size and dark colour; a Balicassiao of the mirabilis (white belly) sub-species showed very briefly; the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly a large dove which my guides went to considerable pains to put me onto, a process not helped by my inability to speak Ilongo, the local dialect, and the limitations of their English; a retrospective comparison of my notes and the field guide confirms this as a White-eared Brown Dove, a very elegant bird in a subdued sort of way: a lifer and another endemic.
So from a birding perspective this first venture into the forest was a little disappointing. It didn’t quite yield the volume of birds I had hoped for. An additional factor was the terrain is rough, none of the comparative highways you’ll find in Kaeng Krachan and developed Thailand! At times our narrow trail involved some moderate scrambling and at times it skirted steep dropping chasms resounding with the noise of cascading water – the sorts of places from which you wouldn’t come out alive in the event of a trip or fall. So the walking required concentration. Add in that I am no longer in the first flush of youth plus I still have a couple of painful cuts on my feet sustained while wading recently in Punta Taytay – not ideal circumstances, totally unprepared in fact!
Mid-morning we headed back to the hut where I had some lunch and a siesta of sorts – the evangelicals and the cocks appeared to be competing with each other. In the afternoon we sat outside the hut: Coleto, Philippine Bulbul and then two birds appeared which really grabbed my attention: what looked like a Hill Blue Flycatcher and a Shrike. I simply took notes in the absence of a field guide and on return was surprised to see no mention of Hill Blue Flycatcher in it and also the possibility of a Mountain Shrike on the basis of my field notes. I have subsequently been in touch with Des Allen who knows a thing or too about the birds here, and he has advised that the flycatcher is likely to be a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and that the shrike a variation of the Brown Shrike in its many guises. I simply did not consider Mangrove Blue Flycatcher as we were a distance away from mangroves and coastal habitat. Mountain Shrike as its names suggests, and in contrast to Mangrove Blue, only occurs at high altitude, from 1500m upwards. Later in the afternoon we took a short walk to the Japanese Shrine and we made out a very furtive Philippine Coucal working its way through some dense trees.
On my last morning a short stroll around the forest edges was interesting: lots of Philippine Bulbul and then a Scarlet Minivet; what I thought was a flowerpecker is likely to have been an Elegant Tit. However I only saw its underside as it was moving through the canopy but I noted all yellow underneath with black throat and bib like a sparrow, black undertail coverts with lighter edges; I didn’t see any of its upperside so in these circumstances, no claims. My guides then managed to locate another White-eared Brown Dove which I digiscoped ….. badly! As we walked we flushed a green-backed pigeon which my guides said was a “Negros pigeon”; now I was thinking “Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon”, one of the most endangered birds in the Philippines but my guides said it was “manatad” which Kennedy confirmed as the Ilonco name for Common Emerald Dove! Phew! There were of course a few additional unidentifieds.
Finally as we headed to the jeepney for our trip back to civilisation, with the evangelicals silenced by an electricity brown-out, some sort of divine consequence for being so intrusive and disruptive I rather fancy, a Brahminy Kite soared nearby. I normally expect to see this bird near the sea so was a little surprised especially as people around me were saying it was a Philippine Eagle! I wasn’t aware that there was a resemblance between the two species but knew it would be easy to sort it out back home. It most certainly wasn’t a Philippine Eagle and Kennedy confirms Brahminy Kite can be seen at higher elevations and around forest edges
So an excellent starter. I now know the lie of the land. I really hope I can return for a few more days on this trip.