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The Guide Without Binoculars

Updated: Jun 13


Finding the right guide during your travels can be difficult. With an influx of third-party vendors selling canned tours offered by large companies, it can be frustrating trying to find

affordable experiences that take you off the beaten path, support local entrepreneurs, and provide flexibility and customization. Sometimes you are forced to do quite a bit of searching to find a truly authentic experience that resonates deeply within you.



Palawan's western coast
Just south of Sabang on the western coast of Palawan, Philippines

On our most recent trip to the Philippines, we made our way north along the island of Palawan toward the beckoning paradise of the Calamian group, an island-hopping destination near the town of Coron that remains no secret to the world. The chaotic frenzy of human activity greets you at the marina where you are pestered by people trying to sell you tickets to “Tour A,” “Tour B,” or “Tour C,” most of which cram you into a traditional pump boat where you sit elbow to elbow with other tourists. You experience a crowded feeling throughout much of the tour and your time may be cut short at some of the most beautiful destinations because of exceeded capacity.



Coron, Palawan, Philippines
Angie soaks up Coron's tropical paradise on the front of our pump boat

We paid a little more for a private tour that had more flexibility with the itinerary. Our guide told us he would avoid certain places at their most crowded hour and that he would take us to beautiful but less popular destinations. We found the guide simply by booking a private tour through the concierge at our hotel. Although we certainly weren’t alone in this tropical paradise, it resulted in a quality experience that included snorkeling on the most colorful living reefs we have ever seen. Check out the short video below.






When we set out to find a local birding guide, things got much more interesting. Doing a quick search on the internet, I pulled up a 2012 article by photographer Bob Kaufmann claiming that anybody looking to bird in Coron should start at the Capayas Creek Kingfisher Reserve. He raved about the local birding guide, Erwin Edonga, but provided little information on how to contact him. I quickly found Erwin on Facebook and sent him a message, but never heard back from him.


I decided to go directly to the reserve to see if I could find him myself. I hired a tricycle driver who took me out over rough, unpaved roads into the surrounding countryside. The road came to a fork, at which point my driver told me we had reached our destination.



House in Capayas Reserve, Coron
House in the Capayas Kingfisher Reserve, Coron


“Really?” I said, looking around in disbelief. There were a few huts along a hillside that led down to a creek overgrown with yellow bamboo. Nothing appeared to be a forest or a reserve of any kind. It seemed to be an extension of the town, just a bit more rural.


My driver thought that Erwin might live in the small, humble home up on the hillside. He yelled his name a couple of times and then walked up the meandering trail toward the house.


Nothing.


“Let me take you to the casa comunal" said my driver in Taglish (Tagalog/English). “I’m sure they’ll be able to find him.”


As the morning aged and the temperatures rose, we arrived at the casa comunal inside the Capayas barangay where we were greeted by several older women and children. The schoolhouse was just behind it with kids playing in the dirt lot out in front. After asking for Erwin Edonga, someone knew his number and gave him a call. Fifteen minutes later, Erwin drove up on a motorcycle and we agreed to meet in several days for a morning of birding.


I realize this wasn’t the most expedient way to find a guide. Moreover, there was no way of ensuring this man would be the least bit reliable. I really did, however, enjoy the quest of finding this mythical Erwin. I felt as if I had found some gem in the rough.



Bird Photography, Coron, Philippines
Photographing birds in Coron, Philippines

Sure enough, Erwin was there to pick us up at our hotel at 6:30 am on Saturday morning with a smile on his face. Riding in the back of his tuk-tuk gave us some nostalgic feeling of discovery, as if we were pioneers being pulled in a wagon across the Oregon Trail.  

In front of the Anie Marie Guest House, Erwin pointed up into the trees and looked back at us in wonder.


“Palawan Fairy-Bluebird!” he exclaimed with delight.


I squinted into the sun, trying to look at the distant speck up in the tree. I snapped a quick docu-shot and then turned my attention to the other birds he began pointing out.



Palawan Fairy-Bluebird
In the right lighting, we may have been able to appreciate the red eye and blue wings of this endemic Palawan Fairy-Bluebird


“Brown Shrike! Pied Triller!”


I noticed that Erwin wasn’t using binoculars. I asked about them and he said he didn’t own a pair. Far too expensive.


He hurried us along, reminding us that we needed to be in front of his house by 7:30 am. There, in Erwin’s front yard, we found a water pipe that had sprung a leak. It was doing a great job attracting mosquitos to the fountain of gushing water. He told us that at 7:30 am sharp, the Blue Paradise-Flycatcher would be there for breakfast. At 7:40 am, it would be followed by a visit from a Black-naped Monarch. The man could not have timed it any better.


In the early morning humid light, I had difficulty capturing crisp images of these two fly-catching birds. But Erwin did a fantastic job of positioning me in the right places to capture images of both of these birds. Here are a few of my best attempts.



Blue Paradise-Flycatcher
My best attempt at capturing a Blue Paradise-Flycatcher in the low morning light

Black-naped Monarch
Black-naped Monarch

Erwin introduced us to the “Feeding Station,” where photographer and reserve owner Ramon Quisumbing had built a structure serving as a blind looking over an area of the creek where they provided crab scraps for kingfishers. Unfortunately, there was no active feeding happening, so we had to work harder for what they call the “Three Kings of Capayas”: Blue-eared Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, and Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher.





We followed Erwin down a trail where we were surrounded by Brown Shrikes, Yellow-throated Leafbirds, Gray-throated Bulbuls, Palawan Sunbirds, Palawan Crows, and Philippine Pied Fantails flitting about in the trees around us.


Brown Shrike, Coron, Philippines
Brown Shrike

Palawan Sunbird
Palawan Sunbird

Here, along the creek we got some of our best close-up views of a singing White-vented Shama. Asian Emerald Doves were found in the forest understory, their gorgeous green plumage occasionally glinting in the dappled sunlight and a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha alighted in the bamboo thicket in front of us.



White-vented Shama
White-vented Shama

The excitement in Erwin’s voice when he found us a new bird was contagious. He even laughed when we got great looks at new birds – birds he’d seen hundreds of times. I really loved his energy. We got a distant look at a gorgeous Western Hooded Pitta hopping around in the creek. I was able to take some unremarkable photos and Erwin then told us that we were lucky to see it. Normally it shows up more frequently in May and June.



Asian Emerald Dove
Asian Emerald Dove

Working our way up the creek, Erwin explained how important it was to move quietly so as not to spook the kingfishers. Sure enough, I managed to find every dry piece of bamboo on the ground and crunch it with a resounding SNAP! Angie shook her head and said “who invited the heavy-footed gringo?”


Just then, we got our first look at Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher – a bird that is surprisingly hard to spot. Previously known as the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, it was split into Rufous-backed and Black-backed Dwarf Kingfishers. These two species are the smallest kingfishers in the Philippines. Despite its bright coloring, the Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher easily blends into its surroundings, masterfully resembling a speck of understory light.



Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher
You win some and you lose some...my best (and worst) photo of a Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher

Along the way, we picked up both male and female Palawan Flowerpecker, a Black-chinned Fruit Dove, several Lovely Sunbirds, and a Yellow-throated Leafbird feeding on an open mango at eye level.



Palawan Flowerpecker
Male and female endemic Palawan Flowerpeckers


Yellow-throated Leafbird
A Yellow-throated Leafbird feeds on a ripe mango

What was so fascinating and thought-provoking about Capayas Kingfisher Reserve was that several human families were living directly inside of it. We walked through people’s backyards who were accustomed to seeing Erwin with birding clients. The kids ran out to greet us in English, including one little girl who sat on the ground in front of her house feeding plastic into a burning pile of trash. Trash littered many parts of the jungle paths. Stray cats and dogs wandered in the forest. In one section of the river where Erwin told us he had previously seen a Ruddy Kingfisher, there was a man with a machete fixing a section of pipe lining the dried-up creek.


We crossed a somewhat dilapidated bamboo footbridge and noticed a woman washing her clothes in the river. The soapy residue slowly worked its way down the river where we noticed a Philippine Pied-Fantail swooping its tail up and down and side to side and some smaller White-breasted Munias hopping along the riverbank.







Out of the shadows rose a quick flash of iridescent blue and passed by us, alighting on a distant snag.


“Blue-eared Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher!” erupted Erwin with glee.


We slowly got ourselves closer to the Blue-eared beauty, it’s blue back shining in the understory light. Before we could get too close, it bolted back the other direction and out of sight.



Blue-eared Kingfisher
Blue-eared Kingfisher


We continued down the river, where a family noisily cleaned the bamboo rafters of their home. They blasted loud karaoke music and swept up the floors around the house. It was then that the third King – the Ruddy Kingfisher – made its appearance across the river from the house. We got some great looks at the Ruddy and its bulbous orange bill, looking as if it were smiling back at us. Erwin laughed excitedly mentioning the name over and over.


“Open! Open!” he would yell when the bird moved into view. “Take pikchore, take pikchore!”



Ruddy Kingfisher
Ruddy Kingfisher

All in all, we had a fantastic morning of birding. 26 species with 9 lifers, 6 of which are endemic to Palawan. However, the most memorable thing about the morning had little to do with the number of birds we saw. It had everything to do with the feeling that Erwin left us with. The guide without binoculars seemed to intrinsically know where each and every bird was around him. He had grown up in this environment and was very much a part of it. All he needed was his naked eyes and ears to find the birds and an effusive enthusiasm and passion to convey to his guests.



Capayas Kingfisher Reserve, Coron, Philippines
Crossing a bamboo bridge in Capayas Kingfisher Reserve, Coron, Philippines

Human overpopulation and resource exploitation have taken its toll on this area of the world. It is a constant reminder of what we risk losing. We felt good that we could support Erwin and his oversight of the reserve. In fact, Erwin told us that he asks the village children to refrain from killing and harassing birds and will occasionally give them money as a reminder that birds and nature can bring tourism dollars. In return, the children will let Erwin know where they've most recently seen kingfishers so that he can do a better job as a guide.


If you’re interested in finding Erwin Edonga, you can try reaching out to him directly, but you’ll probably have better luck reaching out to My Blue Backpack, who can arrange your tour with Erwin. Although he doesn’t speak much English, he knew exactly where and when to find our target birds and how to put us in the perfect spots for photos. Most importantly, his enthusiasm for each and every bird shines through like a ray of golden light and made us feel like we had made the world a slightly better place by booking his tour.


As we set out to leave the reserve, the previously elusive Western Hooded Antpitta hopped out onto the trail in front of us as if to wish us well. This memorable morning couldn't have had a finer ending.





 

 

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