Monday, September 22

Remembering Imugan

Last week I sat in the audience as Ateneo de Manila University held its annual Special Academic Convocation to honour selected individuals who excel in their respective fields and who exemplify the values of the University.  This year there were 6 honourees: an educator and mentor who continues to inspire students, a cardinal who devotes his life to peace-building in Mindanao, a woman who fights for social justice, an artist who has defined the Philippine ballet and dance, a government employee who upholds justice and fights corruption and a pastor who changed the lives of an indigenous peoples.

The Special Academic Convocation honored selected individuals who exemplify the values of the University (banner from

While many of my co-faculty recognized those being celebrated, the last awardee was known to less, but I recognized his photo right off from one of my earliest club trips with the bird club. Pastor Rice and the Ikalahan community had welcomed a large group from the bird club several years ago, in June of 2006, for a short overnight birding outing.  As the info-video highlighting Pastor Rice's contribution to education, sustainable development and community building played in the darkened theater, images of Imugan in Sta. Fe were flashed and memories of a very memorable trip resurfaced.

Sta. Fe was a long drive from Manila, past the winding road of Dalton Pass. We were a large group, and I remember arriving at Imugan just as Peter and Leni S., Ate Lyds and her daughter, Rene and Beth B. were leaving.  They had arrived earlier and had already gone around birding, in fact they had even gotten quite lost in the wilderness for a few hours!  It was a larger group of birders who replaced them, 15 in all, and upon settling down at the community center, we all immediately headed out to check out the waterfalls.

The waterfalls at Imugan

I remember blue butterflies dancing in the canopy, a jade vine wrapped around a tree, its purple (not jade!) flowers dripping like chandeliers, the group stopping to glimpse a blue-headed fantail (a lifer for many, including myself!) hiding in the gully.

Birders having fun at the falls.

The waterfalls fell sharply from the rocks above, forming crystal clear pools. We happily splashed about the cool waters- there were fish in the pools, tiny crabs in the rock crevices and dragonflies everywhere!

Clear waters, butterflies, crabs and damselflies

As it was late afternoon already, we were all ready to settle in for the night.  There was no electricity in the community center, so we ate our dinner by candle light.  

Dinner and conversation by candlelight

The locals left us after dinner, with wishes of a good night's sleep and a reminder to please lock the doors and windows before we retired for the night. After dinner we stayed up for the usual exchange of stories and I remember that the night was so inky black that you could barely see your hand if you extended your arm away from your body. The darkness of course inspired all sorts of scary stories and otherworldly exchanges and we had a few good laughs before finally calling it a night.

The peace of the night was interrupted by loud popping sounds which roused us from our sleep, alert and alarmed.  It turned out it was just Ixi, attacking some cockroaches with her slippers while shouting at them in Spanish! (Anyone who has travelled with Ixi after this knows she always carries a small can of bug spray now)  Being up, many took advantage of braving the cold night wind and taking a bathroom break at the outhouse.  These midnight episodes all gave us something to talk about in the morning and for several years after.

When morning came, we fell into little groups and went about birding separately.  I remember seeing Chary (whom I had just met on that trip), demurely washing her face in one of the clear streams that bordered the community path. It was certainly an idyllic setting.

The idyllic community pathways bordering a stream,
behind me is a hanging bridge to the community center.

We: Alex, Ruben, Tere, Des, Felix, Adri and I  had decided to bird along the road, with Des's suggestion that hunting should be minimal out in the open, therefore the birds less shy.  With Mang Boy missing, I had volunteered to drive Alex's Terrano, but Alex, being the gentleman he was, volunteered to drive himself.  This was the only time in the past 9 years that I have known Alex that we had ever seen him drive.  It turns out that it was the only time he had driven after an indeterminate number of years!  When I think of the narrow, winding roads falling off to the mountain's slope on one side, navigating landslides and crossing an incoming "top-loaded" commuter jeep, parking on non-existent shoulders to bird... I'm still not sure if I was thankful Alex had volunteered to drive sparing me the stress of it all!

Adri and I had just come from a short trip to Sagada the weekend before, and so the birds we saw were no longer lifers, having just seen them in the Mountain Province, but it was great to have a review of what we would much later (after several other trips) would come to know as "common" montane birds:  elegant tits, sulphur-billed nuthatches, chestnut faced babblers, little pied flycatchers, mountain white-eyes.  This was a time when not one of us had a long lens camera and the thrill of having a nuthatch creeping up a pine tree trunk barely a meter away was just that - the thrill of having a bird so close (and not having to worry about getting or bungling the shot!).  I remember Des flushing a pair of Philippine nightjars, one of which landing on the grass by the roadside.  Des carefully approached it, trying to find it hidden in the (not-so-long!) grass.  And just as he was about to step on it: away it flies, surprising all of us again!

Roadside birding with Tere, Alex, Des and Ruben

As I check my birding notebook , I realise I did get a few lifers though: mountain leaf warbler, citrine canary flycatcher and yellowish white-eye.  But the most memorable lifer was: a mountain shrike!  It is one of my unforgettable birding moments, clear in my mind: a shrike perched on a branch just over the hill, very close in front of us. And just as I say "Is that a Mountain shrike?"  It is just Des (who was quick to confirm - thankfully!) and Felix who spot it, right before it flies off, leaving everyone else wondering how I could mistake a now-perched Philippine bulbul for a mountain shrike!

My lifer: the endemic Mountain Shrike.
I took this photo at Mt. Polis, five years after Imugan.

This was pre-blog, pre-SLR camera, pre-automated excel generated bird list. Only memories, a bird list in my birding notebook and a few point-and-shoot camera photos to remember it by.

The citation for Pastor Rice and my birding notebook from 2006.

Back in the University, sitting in the theater, I look back on all this.  

And as I listen to the citation read by the emcee, and listen to one of Pastor Rice's daughter's accept the award, posthumously awarded, I silently give my thanks to the Ikalahan community and to Pastor Rice.  (Read his daughter's touching response here.) I had never known of how deep his contribution was to nation building: an American missionary who arrived in the Philippines in 1956 and who, as his daughter said, was probably more Ikalahan and more Filipino than many of us.

This young Ikalahan boy is probably a teenager now.

(read our old trip report here

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