Zamboanga: The Spirit Must Soar

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As it hosts an international bird festival, Zamboanga City flies high towards ecotourism renown.

Bird-watching requires patience. This was something I learned from a bird-watching assignment a few years back, just in the outskirts of Metro Manila. Bird-watchers must have the patience to get up before dawn, knowing that the most elusive of species will not wait for them if they start on late in the heat of noon. Patience dictates upon birders to be still and silent for long periods deep within forests so as not to distract a bird, and prolong sightings. Patience requires birders to travel all the way to the far ends of countries, as if the birds they chase to see calls on them to also fly.

I flew to Zamboanga City in Mindanao to participate in the 9th Philippine Bird Festival, staged by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and the Department of Tourism Region 9. Compared to bird experts of the Club, I guess the only trait that enabled me to keep up with them throughout their journey in Asia’s Latin City to see beautiful birds, was patience. Not armed with technical expertise or high-tech lenses, the birds are quick in shying away from my naked gaze every time they are pointed out by guides. At one point, I was concerned with how I would be able to write an account of bird-watching in the destination if I was unable to see any birds.

It was then that I was confronted with the fact that anyone who travels to Zamboanga City, bird-watcher or not, must bear something apart from patience – trust. The traveler needs only to have faith that the place’s merits are all within reach to be appreciated. Why strain to chase birds when there is much more of this city, the third oldest in the Philippines and the third largest by land area, to behold? As soon as I opted to look around to simply see more of Zamboanga City, the birds came, in flocks.

EVEN FOR THE NOT-SO-PURE-OF-HEART

Zamboanga City was identified by the tourism department as an ecotourism destination for bird-watchers by virtue of its lush birding sites. My first day of bird-watching saw me chase after bird-watchers in the west side of Mount Baluno at Baluno Ecological Research and Training Center. The views along the forested drive on the mountain’s slope was breathtaking, but took some time that, by the moment we got to reach the Center, it was almost high noon and most of the birds have left to avoid the heat. The bird-watchers were nevertheless generous in sharing the descriptions and times of their sightings. The Philippine Falconet, the smallest raptor in the Philippines, was sighted at 8AM. An endemic bird, the Serpent Eagle, was spotted at around 10 AM. Just right on the ground and hunting for worms for protein was the brown-andred- beaked Rufous Hornbill. I didn’t see any of these birds, not even the ground-hunting hornbill which stood as close as four feet to the birders, rendering my bird watching checklist zero on my first day.

Seeing how the birds will not be easy to spot given the conditions, I resolved to just take in the scenery on day two of our birdwatching saga. We were first dropped off at the Biodiversity Monitoring Station at Tumaga River. I actually found it easier to trek the rocky and summer-dried river in my insistence to chase the heels of the birders. When I finally caught up with some, one was kind enough to let me see through his lens, and lo and behold, it was focused on a brown Serpent Eagle perched on a branch.

Ten minutes into our trek, we reached the Intake Watershed. Trekking along the trails of the watershed required more stillness as some birders claimed of having spotted Silvery Kingfishers here. A fellow journalist at one point broke the silence by citing how he’s “watching the bird watching the bird-watchers,” which sent the media teams laughing. Very soon, we had to assume the silence of the bird-watchers again, straining to find the reported Silvery Kingfisher.

The Silvery Kingfisher is the only black and white kingfisher in the Philippines, and found only in Mindanao and Bohol. As soon as some of the birders spotted it again from a distance, hiding behind leaves, they tipped us on how we can see the bird more easily by looking for its “red boots,” its red-orange claws. We trekked to a spot with a better vantage, but by the time we reached it, the bird has flown. As we walked back to join the rest of the birders to exit the watershed, my photographer PJ caught a lucky break and captured an image of the bird with his camera. This made asianTraveler the only media team to have a shot of the elusive bird during the coverage, to which former president of Wild Bird Club Anna Gonzales remarked, “The pure of heart are blessed.”

The final day of bird watching, and my last chance of seeing more, was at the huge fishpond of Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology, the first documented breeding site of Great White Egrets in the Philippines. Here, finally and without even trying, I was surrounded by flocks of the Great White Egret. This longnecked, yellow-beaked bird, which turns black while nesting, and whose legs turn pink, is formerly migratory, but liked ZSCMST’s pond so much that it stayed to breed. On another side of the pond were flocks of the more common Little White Egret, which hunts by wiggling their claws under the water to look like worms and attract worms. Lastly, I saw Black Crowned Night Herons, with the young looking twiggy and almost like leaves, while the transformed adults were handsome, adorned by gray and blue feathers. Three kinds of birds in a day and in less than an hour – I guess I may not be pure of heart, but I may not be that bad after all.

THE NEST OF FAITH

A few years back, a Zamboanga City tour starting off at Fort Pilar may simply underscore the site’s historic and architectural glory. Fort Pilar used to be the southern outpost of Spanish domain in 1635 and was declared by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts as one of the “National Cultural Treasures and Important Cultural Properties in the Philippines. But as my coverage occurred less than a year of the Zamboanga City crisis – when a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front sieged the city and held locals as hostage in an attempt to raise the flag of the secessionist Bangsamoro Republik in September 2013 – starting off the city tour from Fort Pilar reminded me of how Zamboanga City has for ages withstood conflicts and remains the home of people who refuse to be defeated by terror, and choose to be brave.

Such is the city’s pride in its resilience that the major site of the conflict at Barangay Sta. Catalina, the KGK Building at Lustre Street where the rebels stationed themselves during the conflict, is now even integrated into the city tour. But then again, passing through Ground Zero before we proceeded to the Yakan Weaving Village, El Museo de Zamboanga, Pasonanca Park, Jardin de Maria Clara, Parke de Cienca, and other landmarks of the city, was even a great strategy, in my opinion. As much as the sight of sunlight streaming through bullet holes in concrete give the entire block an eerie feel, and though it was absurd to see travelers taking selfies with the ruins in the background, I was traveling with fellow countrymen, after all, who are not being disrespectful, and rather simply being Filipinos, ever-willing to move forward despite bearing the scars of the past.

And so at the opening ceremonies of the bird festival in Paseo del Mar, schoolchildren paraded and shook the ground with dances, donning bird costumes that became even brighter and more colorful every time the dust settled after their every stomp. International delegates from Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia either gave mini-lectures in their booths at the festival grounds, or taught children how to make raptors out of folded colored papers.

And as if to give me the perfect, firsthand, and the most physical bird sighting ever, a student from Zamboanga City State Polytechnic College, Fatima Shanena Jimenez, painted a green bird on my left cheek. I saw her drawing beautiful birds for free on the faces of other children in a face-painting booth in the fairgrounds, so I asked her to draw one on me too. She was shy and hesitant at first but eventually indulged me, her smile beaming through her veil as she painted. She is Tausug.

I looked at myself on a mirror, seeing Fatima’s drawing of a bird on me. As the young like Fatima can keep the faith and remain joyful residents of their home-of-a-city, I trust that other travelers like me shall go to Zamboanga City, and keep coming back.

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