Landing pad: A bird sanctuary in the city

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Who would think that driving along Roxas Boulevard, the Philippine capital’s cultural strip along the famed Manila Bay,would lead to such a sanctuary, somewhere at the edges of Coastal Road, just around a turn near the Cavite province toll gates? On my way there, the sight of low-flying planes taking off from the nearby Ninoy Aquino International Airport instantly drew a smile from me–the birds I might be seeing at the sanctuary must be super birds, resilient enough to co-exist in the skies with modern bird-like flight machines.

The place is called The Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area. When I arrived, accompanied by officers of the Department of Tourism, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, I was agreeably among the average Metro Manila residents, who the tours’ bird experts jokingly referred to as “those who only know the maya”– a brown little chirper which usually flies over the capital’s streets, and perches itself along with fellow mayas on lampposts and power cables. Surprisingly, no average city dweller would leave the confines of the habitat area knowing just the maya. And if one goes often enough, he might end up being a passionate birdwatcher too, just as my guides are.

The critical habitat area is being primed as an ecotourism site by my hosts, as staggering numbers show. As of 2004, at least 5,000 heads of birds were counted in the area. The environment department, in its own counting to date, has recorded 52 species. The Wild Bird Club has counted over 100 species. In both counts of the environment department and the Wild Bird Club, the presence of the Philippine Duck and Chinese Egret (vulnerable and endangered species, respectively) were identified. Meanwhile, the 2004 count identified great numbers of Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt birds–species that stop over at the habitat area and the rest of the Philippines, since the country is part of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway of migratory birds that travel all the way from Russia to New Zealand from September to March.

Of course, such figures, no matter how huge, are incomparable to the experience of simply seeing the birds, and this is what the government and non-government agencies are aiming to share to people: a chance for them to have an experience of the wilderness in an urban setting.

Earning bird -watching wings

The 100-hectare-plus critical habitat area is composed of two islands: Long Island, which is part of Las Piñas City, and Freedom Island, which is part of Parañaque City. In each of these islands are lush mangrove and mudflat areas which serve as feeding and nesting grounds of the migratory birds.

A first-time bird watcher, I was not equipped with bird watching skills and was thus made to watch the birds from afar at first. At Long Island, our first stop, I and other amateur bird watchers peeked through a telescope set up in a viewing deck. The deck overviews a thick forest where Black-crowned Night Herons were flying over the trees. It was around 7:30AM., a time when these birds usually come back to the forest to nest after nocturnal feeding escapades. The sight of them flying in groups gives off the impression that they are casting a black blanket over the trees, a blanket that very quickly disintegrates into pieces as each black heron leaves the group to descend on its own nest within the leaves. Some of my companions, during their turn at the telescope, said they actually saw a few land on these camouflaged nests. I tried my best to see some of these nests through the telescope but I could not, perhaps because the morning sun was getting more glaring as the minutes went on. One of the tourism officials accompanying us said this is usually the case in the morning, which is why they advise bird watchers to come as early as 5:30AM, to see more birds easily.

“People come here as early as five thirty in the morning?” I asked. Yes, they said, from private individuals to government officials, from students to scientists, all converted into avid birdwatchers–they all flock to see the birds early, “because the birds will not wait for you!”

The bird experts assured us, though, that the time was just perfect to enjoy the next part of our adventure: trekking into the heart of Freedom Island to see the home of the birds, close-up. We walked on semi-cleared paths lined with kapok trees, whose white, cottony blossoms decorated the path. We were taught about each kind of tree and shrub we passed by.

Apparently, if one is to become an avid bird watcher, one needs thorough knowledge of plants that attract birds. The presence of native fruit trees such as atis (sweet sop or sugar apples, bearing fragrant white meat around each of its hard black seeds) and aratilis (sweet-sour juicy cherry-looking berries, each one no bigger than the size of raisins or peanuts) assure that the birds will be sufficiently nourished. Guava and papaya trees are ideal feeding trees, too. Even the grass should be preserved, because these also serve as homes for caterpillars, which are also food for the birds.

It seemed as if my restlessness to see more birds was being sensed by the birds themselves–they were becoming more and more elusive as the morning heat became more intense. At that point, I noticed the bird experts accompanying us–these professionals were not as obsessed as I was with seeing birds, they were in fact exercising another bird-watching skill necessary for amateurs to develop: listening. Each bird makes its own characteristic sound, and knowing these sounds can be helpful in identifying bird species. As we were walking, a dominant sound in the air was a repetitive, soft, and sweet chitroot! I would have not heard until the Wild Bird Club experts pointed it out to me. They were even imitating the sound, as if to answer back to the birds!

Chitroot! Chitroot! The chirping was by Tailorbirds, given such a name because of their ability to elegantly “sew” with their beaks the finest of nests, made up of leaves. And as we walked further down the path and deeper into the forest, we finally chanced upon a newly sprouted bitaog (ball nut) tree, just about four feet in height, carrying on its branches a nest no bigger than my hand–with two little white eggs the size of quail eggs, speckled with fine black streaks. After being allowed to quickly look at the nest without touching it, we were advised to step back and leave it. The same distance and reverence for the birds is exercised even by professional bird watchers. Ecotourists are noted for upholding the same values of respect and care for environments, which is why they are the main targets of the government in promoting the critical habitat area as a specialized tourist destination.

Ecotourism takes off

So much has been said in the local press about a supposed 12-billion peso reclamation project that threatens the survival of Freedom Island, Long Island, and the birds that have made the critical habitat area either as their stopover spot during migrations, or their permanent home. During the press conference after our trek through the forest, one point was made unquestionably clear: that enjoining local and international ecotourists to see the sanctuary will lead to its permanent preservation and upkeep.

Apart from notably being responsible tourists, ecotourists are more often knowledgeable in green living practices. These are the tourists who see to it that as they travel, they do so with the least impact on the natural environments they visit. They conserve resources, practice recycling, and do not leave trails of waste in their path. They are used to roughing it up, and make do with the simplest accommodations. Planned development on the critical habitat area will cater to these low-maintenance guests. The tourism and environment officials were actually reluctant to call these proposed structures “developments”. They preferred to call the plans “enhancements”–the planting of more fruit and flowering trees; the construction of wooden view towers, observation shades, boardwalks, and a limited number of eco-lodges; the establishment of nature trails; and the setting up of directional signs.

In the Philippines, the tourism department cites a growing influx of ecotourists who are bird watchers. They follow the trail of migratory birds, visiting countries along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway to witness the birds’ stopovers, taking photographs or notes on the bird species that they see. These ecotourists ultimately help in monitoring the survival of thousands of bird species. And with their earth-conscious practices, they also get to ensure the birds’ survival.

When I asked if anyone can come to the sanctuary andexperience themselves as bird-watchers, no less than the tourism department’s undersecretary, Atty. Ma. Victoria B. Jasmin, was quick to say yes, and that in fact, “I hope we have converted you! I was converted too!”, she enthused. The undersecretary recalled how her first sight of colorful, sweet-singing birds flocking to the sanctuary at dawn forever changed her perspective of the city and of nature. These two things can co-exist, she pointed out, and The Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat Area is living proof of that. She urged us to come back, especially on December, during the peak of the birds’ migrations. She and the experts promised that there will be more birds at that time, and perhaps only the stone-hearted would not be touched by the beauty of the birds during that season.

I needed no further convincing of the urgency to preserve the bird sanctuary. After all, these birds are the real travelers, and who are we to stand in their way? We may pride ourselves in becoming more responsible tourists, but in the end, we are all dependent on creatures such as birds–who have been journeying even longer than us, conquering distances that our human arms can never ever span.

Basic must-haves for a bird-watching expedition

Binoculars: An ideal binocular magnification is 8×42. This will aid the bird watcher in seeing the colors and details of the birds.

Earth-colored clothing: Brown, khaki, or green long-sleeved shirts and pants will allow the bird watcher to camouflage himself, thus enabling him to come in closer contact with the birds. Bird watchers must also bring hats or umbrellas in the same hues, as additional protection from heat and other elements.

Water bottle and snacks: Since bird watching can take hours, and as the sites are usually remote from tourist centers, one is advised to bring water to drink or crackers to nibble on, in case of hunger and exhaustion. Do be mindful of keeping your litter and not throwing them in the trail.

Backpack: Earth-colored backpacks are best for keeping drinks, food, notebooks, and cameras during bird-watching treks. A backpack will also keep the bird watcher’s hands free from holding on to items during the trek, allowing for more freedom and ease in movement through rough or grassy paths.

Sunblock and insect repellant: Though wearing proper attire as stated above can be enough to protect a bird watcher, some may prefer to take extra caution. One can apply sunblock as protection against extended exposure under the sun, while applying insect repellant lotions can shield one from being bitten by insects common in lush forests.

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