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Birding Palawan: Paradise Lost or Found?

Updated: Mar 8


Pamboats at sunset in the Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines


My wife Angie was born in the Philippines and lived there in the Eastern Visayan Region for close to ten years. In 2018, I made my first trip to the Philippines with Angie to visit her mother and half siblings on the island of Samar. On that trip, we traveled through Manila, Cebu City, and explored the beaches, jungles, and chocolate hills of Bohol. All throughout the trip, people told us about the island paradise of Palawan and that we must visit the next time we return to the Philippines (before it's too late). So, on our most recent visit to the Philippines, we made our way to the southwestern-most island of the Philippine archipelago.



Map of the Philippines (Source: Nations Online Project)

The Philippine archipelago is comprised of over 7,000 individual islands, depending on the tides, of course. Palawan is the southwestern-most island, indicated by the red circle. Source: Nations Online Project



Arriving to Puerto Princesa, Palawan


After visiting with Angie’s family in Cavite (South Manila) and Calamba (Laguna de Bay), we flew from Manila to the city of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. Puerto Princesa is the least densely populated city in the Philippines and it has been called the cleanest and greenest city in the nation. Thus, I was excited to escape the frenetic buzz of Manila, the polluted skies, and the reach of humanity over every possible square inch of land and water.


Much to my disappointment, Puerto Princesa wasn’t much different, only smaller. Dubbed as the Ecological Capital of the Philippines, it doesn’t really hold up to its moniker. Upon arriving, hundreds of rickshaw-like tricycles and their drivers greet you, offering to take you into the city. In my opinion, the city is much like other tropical humid hubs, gritty, hot, with an unrelenting stream of grating noise. It does have relatively quite a few trees, which was refreshing to see, although scores were removed after many caused severe destruction during the 2021 typhoon.



Puerto Princesa aerial views

The view from the plane while descending into Puerto Princesa, Palawan



The Telling Tale of the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant


After exploring many roadside barbeque stands selling chicken heads, chicken feet, pork blood sausage, and balut, we walked along the Bayfront and we stopped to take this photo in front of a statue of Palawan’s posterchild bird: the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.



Palawan Peacock-Pheasant Statue

Standing in front of a statue on Puerto Princesa's Bayfront boardwalk commemorating the island's endemic peacock, the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant

 

Unfortunately, the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant tells the story of what is happening across much of the Philippines: human encroachment, ecological destruction, and rampant extinction. Just imagine an island with its very own unique species of Peacock. And imagine an island that would allow it to go extinct. Birders visiting Palawan used to find their lifer Peacock-Pheasant near a private establishment that had habituated a wild bird to regular feedings. Unfortunately, this bird has now died and according to our guide Stephen, there is no reliable place to currently find it.


What makes Palawan Unique


Angie and I were still excited to set out to find whatever we could – whatever was remaining. After all, birding in what has been voted the most beautiful island in the world couldn't be all that bad. Biogeographically, Palawan is part of Sundaland (Sundaica) where the flora and fauna is more similar to that found in Borneo than it is to the rest of the Philippines. Palawan is home to over 300 species of birds, at least 43 of which are endemic (found nowhere else in the world). Our list of target species included the Palawan Hornbill, Philippine Megapode (aka Tabon Scrub Fowl), Philippine Cockatoo, Blue-naped Parrot, Blue-headed Racket-tail, Palawan Blue Flycatcher, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, Palawan Tit, Palawan Flowerpecker, Gray-throated (Palawan) Bulbul, Palawan Sunbird, Lovely Sunbird, and yes, of course, the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.



A couple in Palawan

The crystal clear water and drastic karst topography make Palawan one of the most beautiful islands in the world



How to go birding near Puerto Princesa


Being a birding guide myself at Birding Man Adventures, I know how important it is to support local guides and what a difference it makes in how many birds you end up seeing. With this in mind, we contacted Malampaya Ecotours who lined us up with local birding guide Stephen Tuboc.


There is a lot of good birding around Puerto Princesa. Many head to the Irawan Eco Park and the Balsahan River Trail near the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. Birds to look for there include the Palawan Flycatcher and Blue Paradise Flycatcher. We decided to go birding in and around Sabang, a tiny village on Palawan's west coast, about 50 miles to the northeast of Puerto Princesa. Sabang is known for the famous Subterranean River National Park but it also is home to pristine rainforest, mangroves, and riverways.



Malampaya Ecotours

Our guide Stephen Tuboc (@step_intonature) did a fantastic job helping us find birds and other wildlife around Puerto Princesa


Stephen – Step – picked us up at 4:30 am from our hotel in the dark of the morning and we set out into the unknown beyond Puerto Princesa. We were headed straight to the town of Sabang and the nearby Subterranean River National Park - we wanted to beat the crowds there. It was a Saturday and they expected between 400 and 600 people over the course of the day.


After a one and half hour drive - the latter part akin to a rollercoaster through narrow rural roads - we arrived at the boat dock in Sabang where a magenta sky and dramatic coastline greeted us.


Maganda umaga” (good morning) exclaimed a local pamboat (pumpboat) operator, as he waded out into the water to retrieve his boat. Aside from the boatmen and the fisherman, we were the only people yet to arrive.



Here is a video of our journey into the cave at the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.



Paradise Found


Moments later, we were whisked away along the eastern shore towards the National Park. The motor on this particular boat was without a cover and it assaulted all of our senses. We could forget about talking to each other and the air was filled with the astringent bite of gasoline.


A 20-minute ride and we had arrived to an idyllic white-sand beach with swaying palm trees. Several species of swiftlets bolted in and out of the seaside caves forming in the karst: Step pointed out the different shapes belonging to Pygmy and Ameline Swiftlets – the Ameline was larger with wings pointed back like a boomerang.


Stepping out of the boat onto the sand, we noticed a troop of Long-tailed Macaques slipping quietly out of the forest. The babies played energetically and seemed unphased by our presence, while the larger males moved off into the distance. Suddenly, a flash of red over the breaking waves: a Stork-billed Kingfisher showed itself only briefly.



Long-tailed Macaque in Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

The Long-tailed Macaque is the only primate found on Palawan. Also known as the Crab-eating Monkey, these playful primates showed little fear of humans


We walked up into the forest where a small group of rangers were pointing to a bird in the understory. Step helped us get our eye on it: a Philippine Megapode, a shy, partridge-like bird rarely seen once the crowds arrive. It was not easy to see in the dim morning light, but I could make out the pink flesh of its naked eyes and the large, namesake feet.


I snapped a few unsuccessful shots of what turned out to be nothing but vegetation and a slight frustration began to surge inside of me. This early morning rainforest photography was a challenge! Suddenly, Step motioned to the canopy high above us.


Palawan Hornbill!”


For the next minutes, Step used his laser pointer to cue us onto the whereabouts of a very distant and thoroughly concealed hornbill. Finally, it moved and two other hornbills came along with it.


I fired a few shots of their white vents and long tails high in the canopy, but everything turned out blurred and unsatisfactory. My product is laughable:



Ghost of the Palawan Hornbill

Or is it art? I chuckle to myself.


As soon as the hornbills flew off, Step was pointing out another endemic bird high in the canopy of some dipterocarp tree.


Sulphur-bellied Bulbul!”


Warbler neck was already setting in and my frustration of trying to photograph these birds in the early morning light was growing by the second.



Sulphur-bellied Bulbul

This photo turned out a little better: A Sulphur-bellied Bulbul, an endemic to Palawan



Palawan Bulbul” added Step. It was another species of Bulbul – this one slightly crested – bustling high in the tree.


I went to enter Palawan Bulbul in eBird and could not find the bird listed anywhere. Had the name been changed? Step seemed to think it might now be called the Gray-throated Bulbul. Yikes! – the morning had started out a supreme struggle.


We followed Step along a quiet trail toward a beach at the mouth of the natural feature that draws so many from around the world – the subterranean river. Here, we tried playing back songs of the Palawan Blue Flycatcher. One called back, but we had no luck on visuals.


On the other side of the inlet, the cliffs rose dramatically and were covered in vegetation frequented by several small birds. Step set up his scope and was able to give us good looks at Pin-striped Babbler, Palawan Drongo, Palawan Flowerpecker, Palawan Sunbird, and Collared Kingfisher.



Collared Kingfisher

We first met Collared Kingfisher in Samar near the farm of Angie's mom on our last trip to the Philippines. Nonetheless, we were just as blown away by its beauty the second time around



It was soon time for our canoe ride into the subterranean river – one of the seven natural wonders of the world. We had been told by friends that their experience at the cave was less than ideal; spoiled due to the high numbers of people moving through the cave. The Philippine government limits daily visitors to 1,200 people. 1,200 people!


Fortunately, our early arrival got us into the cave before anyone else. We were reminded by our guide that talking was prohibited inside the cave and for the entirety of the tour it was just us, the river, and the bats. The experience was exceptional and waking up as early as we did was entirely worth it.



Exploring the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Cave

There are three zones in a cave: the entrance zone, twilight zone, and dark zone. Here we are at the entrance zone leaving the cave


Paradise Lost


As we left the cave, three boats were entering and their guide’s light was illuminating the spaces in front of us. Many of the people on the boats were talking and laughing loudly, spoiling the peace we had enjoyed on the way in. I can see why our friends equated the experience to a Disney World ride.


Walking back along the trail we came in on, we must have seen at least 50 people lining up to go into the cave. The birdsong had quieted and the forest felt as if it had been emptied – filled only with the presence on humans.


Step motioned for us to move along and return on the pamboat we had come in on.


“We have to stay ahead of the crowds” he said.


By the time we made it back to the dock in Sabang, personal space was lacking and countless vendors roamed about, hawking their products to swarming tourists. It’s not fair to act as if I’m separate or distinct from the swarming tourists – I am here just as they are and my impact on the resource is similar. This feeling of wanting to view myself as separate or different from other tourists has surfaced on several occasions throughout this trip. The harsh reality of the matter is that just by being here, I am contributing to the growing pressure on this sensitive area.


It’s the perennial paradox: as caring human beings living in the Anthropocene, we want to see and experience the beauty on this planet before it disappears. But just by going there, we may be contributing to its imminent destruction.


I could drive myself crazy with thoughts like this. I appease myself with a poignant “Bahala Na” (the Tagalog way – and somewhat fatalistic way of saying “what will be will be.”)

 

Sabang Mangroves


After a quick snack on a camote que (barbe"que"d sweet potato), we hopped in the van and drove over to a mangrove area that appeared to be very touristy. According to Step, it wasn’t this crowded or included on the tour circuit of so many operators before. But now it was.



Rufous-tailed Tailorbird

The Rufous-tailed Tailorbird seemed to be the most ubiquitous and energetic bird we saw near the mangroves. It is a bird of the Cisticolidae family


That’s okay. When you’re a birder, standing around waiting for a boat is a great opportunity to bird. While waiting in the mangrove, we got great looks at several Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds and our first look at a White-bellied Sea Eagle flying over. Two Dollar Birds sat calmly on a sunny perch, allowing us to to easily observe them and take photos.



Dollarbird

In flight, the Dollarbird has a characteristic white circle (silver dollar) under each wing


Sometimes it’s the smaller treasures that really stand out. Angie noticed some small fish hopping along the water’s edge. Mudskippers! I had never before observed a mudskipper in the wild so this was a very memorable experience.






Our guide in the Sabang Mangrove Forest


Finally, it was our turn to ride a canoe into the Sabang Mangrove Forest. The experience wasn’t the best for birding, as the mid-day sun had heated things up considerably. However, we did see a few mangrove snakes, Philippine monitor lizards, a Striated Heron, a Common Kingfisher, and we got brief looks at a Stork-billed Kingfisher.



Palawan Mangrove Snake

The yellow-green banding of the Palawan mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophila) left a strong visual impression. This is a mildly venemous snake in the Colubridae family. It can grow to a length of six to eight feet long

 


Palawan Water Monitor

The Palawan water monitor was a common site in the Sabang Mangrove Forest



Common Kingfisher

My only shot of a Common Kingfisher. Not my best work. More of a docu shot than anything else



Paradise Found


Our lunch break at Cacaoyan Restaurant provided many good opportunities to see several birds we had not yet met. Most notably, a nesting pair of Lovely Sunbirds put on a resplendent show. Angie and I both thought it was the most impressive bird we had seen thus far. Unlike other sunbirds we have seen, the line on the throat comes to an upside-down V on the neck rather than a straight line. The bright magenta of the upper back and nape along with the blue-green crown really stand out on the male.




Lovely Sunbird

Sunbirds are essentially the ecological equivalent of a hummingbird in the old world. They can hover similar to hummingbirds but cannot fly backwards or move in all directions like a hummingbird can


Lovely Sunbird

Notice the upside-down "V" on the throat of this male Lovely Sunbird



The open area in the back behind the restaurant features an ancient Dao tree (Dracontomelon dao), complete with buttress roots and soaring canopy. The leafy canopies of the trees in the forest around it featured our first sightings of Yellow-throated Leafbird, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Pale Spiderhunter, Gray Wagtail, Ashy Drongo, Ashy-fronted Bulbul, and a female Blue Paradise-Flycatcher.



Chestnut-bellied Malkoha

The Chestnut-bellied Malkoha reminds me of tropical America's Squirrel Cuckoo. Like the Squirrel Cuckoo, the Malkoha is a Cuckoo. However, unlike European and American cuckoos, the Malkoha is not a brood parasite. It builds its own nests and raises its own chicks



Yellow-throated Leafbird

The Yellow-throated Leafbird is an endemic to Palawan. It is hard to find when it is high in the tree canopy foraging because it blends so well with the leaves. It reminds me of a tanager in its foraging behavior



The remainder of the day proved to be quite slow, although we did pick up a few more lifers. We stopped along a dirt road surrounded by broken secondary forest and walked slowly through the afternoon heat up to a cemetery. Along the way, we spotted Common Iora, a bird that reminded us of an oriole because of its rich song, and a nice Spotted Dove. Steph was able to call in a beautiful Black-chinned Fruit Dove, after he proclaimed “give me just one bird” after a long stretch of not seeing anything.



Black-chinned Fruit Dove

The Philippines has a wide assemblage of brightly colored pigeons and doves. The Black-chinned Fruit Dove is one of them


We stopped at a beautiful overlook and sipped on coconut water to kill our afternoon thirst. Then, we traveled down the hill to Buena Vista, a remote outpost on the edge of a mangrove where we found another species of sunbird: Copper-throated Sunbird, both male and female foraged together in a tall mangrove tree.





Paradise Lost


In the evening, after about 16 hours of birding, we stopped for a sundowner at a 5-star Puerto Princesa beachfront resort, a place where Step had regularly seen Philippine Cockatoos coming in to roost. Unfortunately, we were left empty-handed. The Cockatoos had eluded us completely. This is a species that is declining rapidly and is in danger of disappearing due to habitat loss and the illegal pet trade. Angie and I had seen our first Philippine Cockatoo inside a cage at the yard next door to where we stayed in Calamba (Laguna de Bay, Luzon). Its large size, beautiful crest, and curious nature was more than impressive. It's easy to see why people want to keep them as pets.


It just may be the case that the next time we make it back it here (if we ever do) it will be too late for us to see this majestic parrot in the wild. However, I'm going to be an optimist and predict that one day we will find them living wild and free in some unperturbed Philippine rainforest.



Birding in Palawan

The interior of Palawan reminded me of photos I've seen from the tepui in Venezuela. Limestone bluffs rose dramatically from lowland rainforests throughout the countryside


Final Thoughts From Home


Many of our target birds we never found, including the elusive Palawan Peacock-Pheasant. But that's just going to have to be okay, otherwise I would drive myself and my wife insane. I'm trying my best to cultivate the "relaxed birder" approach as opposed to the "must find all targets or bust" approach. Accepting that we often can't see it all is one of the hardest things for birders to do. And appreciating what we do find is regularly ignored.


Some might find this blog post a little too honest. Yes, Palawan is a gorgeous island: it is home to the most beautiful limestone cliffs, turquoise waters, and some of the most spectacular tropical forests I have ever seen. However, like most places these days, it is teeming with humans - both locals and tourists - and it's natural resources are threatened with extinction.



Palawan Countryside


During this trip, we did our best to employ locals who realize that they can make a living only with nature intact. We hope both our dollars and shared enthusiasm for this island's flora and fauna will help protect it in the future. Upon arriving home, we bought carbon credits equivalent to our projected trip emissions through the Rick Steves' Europe Climate Smart Fund. So many of us who travel to see the beauty of the world before it's gone are unwilling to admit that we have an impact and pay to mitigate the damages we cause. It would be prudent to consider this hypocrisy carefully.  

 

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