Adri and I had always planned on going but it seemed like a huge trip to plan. When Edna gifted us with return trip travel vouchers we were finally on our way! Because of the limitation on the voucher to book the trip 3 days before actual travel, it turned out to be our least planned, most crammed trip ever! Dramatic seascapes, iconic stone house villages, rolling hills - here we come!
While it was primarily the typical tour type trip, Batanes was too important a birding area for us not to plan some birdwatching as well. Nearer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, several bird species were unique to this set of islands comprising the northern-most islands of the Philippines. While none of them are endemic, many of the targets are difficult (if not impossible!) to find elsewhere in the country. Surprise migrants are also always an opportunity, however, our trip was timed too late for most migrants as it was approaching the peak of summer.
We did our birding research, as it was probably the most difficult to plan for, as most tourist-y attractions were routine already. Thanks to WBCP-er Christian Perez, we got in touch with a guide who knew where to find the birds and was familiar with many of them as well. He had also guided several other birders before, so he was familiar with the typical birding schedule. Rogers Amboy (+639998826833, +639178752430) turned out not only to be a great bird guide, but a wonderful tour guide as well, and our 4 days in Batanes was chock-full of local culture, history, folklore, and yes, birds.
It was so interesting to learn the Ivatan names for the birds, I am kicking myself for not taking more detailed notes. Dachio, piyek, avuchivuchid, sayay, vadug... such pretty and unfamiliar sounding names!
We had four main targets for Batanes and I am over the moon to have seen all of them!
On the top of our list was the tiwayway or Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher. Summer is the perfect time to see these birds because they breed on the islands from March to August, and are rare migrant to Luzon, Palawan and Mindoro. Our first sighting of these birds was on our first "official" birding day - during our tour of Sabtang island. Kuya Roger took us to a dry creek bed and sure enough, a pair of them were quite vocal.
In the days to come, we found out that they were actually very common. In Batan, we heard them by the highway anywhere there was substantial tree cover, we saw them crossing the highway, and we saw and heard several on the foothills of Mt. Iraya. Most of the locals were familiar with the tiwayway, and also knew that it was the perfect time to see them as it was more difficult on other months.
Our second target was even more common. Again, if you asked the locals where you could see the piyek (silent "e"), they would say: everywhere. The Chestnut-eared Bulbul is the only bulbul in Batanes, and like most other bulbuls it is noisy and... bulbul -like. Kennedy says it is not common in open country, but we found it very common, even around Basco.
I was really happy to see the piyek because it's the last remaining bulbul species in the Philippine field guide that I hadn't seen (including all the Streak-breasted Bulbul splits!).
As with many smaller islands, there is an owl a birder has to find. Fortunately, Kuya Roger had a sure site for it, around the farm of one of his friends. He said that they started appearing a 10pm... which would have been the latest owling hour I had ever gone. As luck would have it, we were walking up to the farm at 7pm, a bantulok conveniently called from a tree right beside us, and we saw it 3 hours ahead of schedule.
Getting a photo though proved to be a little more difficult. It was confusing to be chasing several vocal Ryukyu Scops Owls which seemed too be all around us, but we finally got good photos. Of course Adri had much better photos with his digiscoping set-up than I did with my hand held long lens.
On our last night we decided to go owling again, this time by ourselves as Kuya Roger had to go diving for lobsters. We walked to and from the site, and when we got back to our inn, one of the locals asked us what had us out so late (730pm was considered late!). We said we were looking for bantulok and he said that they were quite difficult to actually see. He seemed puzzled at our agenda. I guess crazy birders are not yet the norm here.
Our fourth and final target was the most challenging of all. The vuyit was named after is eerie, ghostlike call "vuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-yeeeeet!" We were a little hopeful about finding it as a couple of weeks before WBCP-ers Paula and Charlie had photographed just by the side of the road. But 3 days into our trip, there was still no glimpse of it, only a faint call from the distance when we were at Racuh a Payaman, a communal pastureland in Mahatao. Desperate times called for desperate measures. we actually had to "go birding" in the traditional sense, to get this bird. So on the the morning of our fourth day, we hike up the foothills of Mt. Iraya, to the farm of Uncle "Jungle-boy" - farmer/hunter/pit viper catcher. He led us uphill to some fruiting trees and we lay in wait. We saw several vadug while waiting, the endemic Batanes subspecies of Philippine Cuckoo-dove, a very handsome bird, great to see... but not really our main target.
We covered four corners of the small hill: Adri, myself, Kuya Roger and our driver for the day Alex. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Alex going over to Kuya Roger. Adri soon joined them and I trudged uphill to see what was up. Had they spotted the vuyit?
In the distance was indeed a pair of Whistling-green Pigeons! They were perched on the branches of a leafy tree, well camouflaged but visible. Not the greatest of views but clear and long! We all enjoyed looking at them fall asleep for several minutes until rain threatened to fall and we ran back to take shelter in Uncle Jungle-boy's house.
Tiwayway, piyek, bantulok and vuyit! check, check, check, check! Birding in Batanes was definitely a highlight of our trip!
Here are some of other birds we saw and their local names:
Dachio (Lowland White-eye) was a very common bird and the subspecies is endemic to Batanes.
The luluji (Blue Rock Thrush) was also seen everywhere! Not only on rocks, but on house roofs, on electric wires, on the highway barriers... everywhere. They were also very vocal, and their singing was very pleasant to hear. They weren't very popular with the locals though, who considered them "dirty" birds.
Most of the landscape of Batan island is pastureland: the iconic, rolling, grassy hills dotted by patches of trees and vuyavuy palms (used to make the traditional vakul headgear) and spikey pandan. Commonly seen foraging by these patches of vegetation are rails: ripdi (Buff-banded Rail) and more frequently the alan (Plain Bush-hen).
The alan were also considered pests as they would eat ripe bananas and papaya right from the tree.
White-breasted Waterhens were also seen in more watery environments. This pair was seen near a small ricefield.
Common also to the grasslands were very vocal Zitting Cisticolas. This was also an endemic Batanes subspecies. Unfortunately, I took them for granted, and didn't get any photos. Too bad because they had my most favorite local name: avuchivuchid. Another bird I took for granted were Chestnut Munias which occurred in large flocks. They were called lalachiao.
Also running around the short grass, already yellow-brown under the summer sun, were several Paddyfield Pipts, tilin.
Pastures = bovines and Cattle Egrets obligingly illustrated why they were called so. Kuya Roger just called them Cattle Egret, so I never found out what they were called in Ivatan.
The dramatic seascapes with waves breaking over rocks and cliff faces were a perfect back drop for dark phase Pacific Reef Egrets.
Swallows, both Pacific and Striated were all over, gliding gracefully over land and sea. Their mud nests can be seen under the eves of the many lighthouses all over Batan island. Swallows are collectively called hapnyit.
I was looking forward to seeing migrant starlings but the timing wasn't right. We did see several Brown-headed Thrushes though, enjoying the ripe fruit of a tree Kuya Roger called malaapdo. Kuya Roger described large flocks of migratory birds he called lagamitan avayat. "Avayat" means "habagat" (southwest monsoon) and the birds came when the winds change. At first we thought he was referring to the starlings, but when we showed him the photo of the thrushes, he said that these were the birds too. Maybe these birds - thrushes and starlings, which were of similar jiz, were all called lagamitan avayat?
The malaapdo was certainly a bird magnet and we were fortunate that one was fruiting early (the other trees we had seen still had mostly un-ripe fruit). It attracted bulbuls and even Black-chinned Fruit-doves - another endemic subspecies. The fruit dove, just like the Emerald Green Dove had the most familiar name of all: punay (emphasis on the second syllable though).
Another common migrant we encountered were wagtails. They were in the canals, walking in what little water was left. They were called duwad.
One local name that escapes me is what the Brown Shrike is called. We saw quite a lot of them. Strangely, they all looked quite bedraggled. Kuya Roger mentioned that they used to catch the Brown Shrikes as they came in large numbers during fall migration, and that their beaks could give a nasty nip if you happened to get your finger caught.
While we didn't see any migrant starlings, we did see the resident Asian Glossy Starlings.
We flushed a Philippine Coucal, talukuk, on our hike at Mt. Iraya. It looked very different from the Luzon race, its wings were black rather than chestnut, so it was more similar to the Mindoro subspecies. The Lesser Coucal had a similar onomatopoeic name - sijuk.
Also very common were the Collared Kingfishers - tagalit. We mostly saw them by near the beaches.
There a few migrants as well - Common Kingfishers, Common Sandpipers, Whimbrel and Grey-tailed Tattlers.
We saw several raptors also. A white-bellied sea-eagle could be seen hunting from the balcony of our inn. In the hills of Dipnalban, we saw a Peregrine falcon or sibnit hunting. All small raptors (probably including kestrels and the hobbies) are referred to as sibnit.
At Sabtang, we were thrilled to see a sayay (Osprey) successfully catch a fish on a beach right beside the highway.
The drama of the catch was even made more powerful in combination with the landscape. The image summed up how I felt about our trip. Batanes certainly lived up to its expectations - its impressive panoramas and gentle people and rich culture makes me want to go back. Not to mention the birding! Migration season next time? What other manumanok will we see then?