Tuesday, July 19

Nature-tripping at Danjugan Island: over land and over sea

Our Danjugan island adventure continues...

Happy to have observed the Beach Thick-knee so early in the day, we headed back to Moray Lagoon on the other side of the island where breakfast was waiting for us.

We took our time enjoying the huge breakfast with an idyllic view of the lagoon. 

A humongous home-cooked breakfast with a great view!

Across the waters, several Black-chinned Fruit Doves and Pink-necked Green Pigeons were also congregating for a meal at a fruiting tree. 

Black-chinned Fruit Doves enjoying breakfast also.

In the mangroves beside the dining area, several moray eels were hiding in the prop roots, as well as under the pilings of the cabana.  No questions as to how Moray Lagoon got its name!

Several moray eels from which the lagoon got its name. They were as large as my arm!

While having our meal with Robin, the rest of the staff of Danjugan had also arrived by outrigger.  One of the managers, Andrew, came up to greet us a good morning and to commment on our optics. We also met our guide for the day, Tikyo, who asked us about the thick-knee, having been tipped off by Ramram (who had the day off), that we were birders.  We happily announced that we had already seen it (showing him the photos) and that we were ready for other island adventures. It was quickly decided that we take the boat with the rest of the staff to Typhoon beach on the the Western side of the island.

The boat ride again took us through the clear waters around Danjugan, giving us great views of the island geological formations and flora.

Fantastic rock formations and coastal plant life around the island.

Typhoon Beach offered alternative accommodations to Moray Lagoon, with its own common dining area and bar.

Typhoon Beach facing the Sulu Sea on the western side of the island

Alternative accommodations to Moray Lagoon Camp on Typhoon Beach.

We took a short walk up to a high point on the island where there was a view deck perfect for hanging out. We had a good view of the forest and of Turtle and Tabon Beach. 

Views of Turtle and Tabon Beach and the Sea-eagle nest.

We could clearly see the the rocky outcrop and the beach where we sighted the thick-knee that morning.  The Black-naped Terns were still flying around.

Can we see the Beach Thick-Knee from here? :-) 

Using the scope, we could see the sea-eagle's nest in the distance. Tikyo even scoped a few young black-tipped reef sharks near turtle beach!  Around us, Pied Trillers, Olive-backed Sunbirds and Golden-bellied Gerygones (flyeaters) were very active.

Olive-backed Sunbirds and Gerygones 

Butterflies fluttered about all around us, enjoying the sunshine and the flowers.

Many butterflies too!

From here we went snorkeling. Several meters off the shore of typhoon beach was a snorkeling area with huge table corals.  We enjoyed almost an hour of watching reef fish, giant clams, colorful coral and other invertebrates.  I especially enjoyed a school of large batfish which Tikyo pointed out to me.  On top of the table coral, a pair of cleaner wrasse would offer their services to larger fish passing through. (Sorry, no photos!)

Noon was fast approaching so we headed back to shore to trek back to the eastern side of the island.  The hike was a pleasant one, passing through view decks, beaches, limestone and coral trails and bamboo bridges.

Scenic view along the trail

Tiny ponds filled up with the high tide

We stopped along the way to admire several plants in bloom.  A vine  which had heavily scented clusters of white flowers was growing all over the island.  We also spotted several epiphytes like hoya and dischidia in bloom.  A lot of the trees were also flowering.

White, scented flowers of a vine, a maroon Hoya, the orange flowers of a Wrightia tree,
 and the dainty white flowers of a Dischidia.
The strange flowers of Palm-leaved Tacca plants growing on the ground.

As we approached Moray Lagoon, we took a short detour to the bat cave which hosted several hundreds of Geoffroy's Rousette Fruit Bats. As we approached the cave, the noise of the bats (as well as the smell of guano!) became more conspicuous. 

The Bat Cave and hundreds of cute Geoffroy's Rousette Fruit Bats!

Water filled the bottom of the cave where the bats roosted and the little sunlight that pierced the darkness reflected back on the walls. Most of the bats were asleep but many were fidgeting, flying around and cleaning themselves as they hung by their hind legs and stretched their bat wings.

Hanging around (literally!): Bats are important pollinators!

As we walked on, we continued to enjoy the diversity all around us: long spined Diadema sea urchins on the side of the lagoon...

Scary long-spined Diadema sea urchins

... a tree with dainty purple flower clusters...
Pretty purple flowers. Is this Memecyon edule? 

... the rustle of Tabon Scrubfowl scratching on the ground...
Always shy: Tabon Scrubfowl

... the weather-beaten and winding branches of Bantigue trees...

Beautiful Bantigue trees growing with other mangrove species around the lagoon.

... Little Herons hunting in the mangroves...

Busy Little Herons waiting patiently for fish

There was soooo much to see on this little island!

Even while having our lunch we would watch all sorts of fish and crabs (and of course the moray eels!) around the dining area.

Different fish under the dining area

Colorful fiddler crabs defending their holes

Huge moray eels looking very intimidating.

Pacific Swallows flew gracefully around the lagoon, perching on the outrigger boat anchored nearby.

Pacific Swallows gliding above the waters.

On a little mangrove island just off the dining area, a pair of Philippine Pied Fantails were aggressively defending their nest, continuously chasing off a Collared Kingfisher and several Little Herons!

Pied Fantail versus Collared Kingfisher (and all other birds!)

Later we took the kayaks out for some more nature tripping.  The waters on the east side of the island was so clear!  We could see the various brown algae and corals and sea grass beds beneath us!

Clear waters under the kayak.

Tikyo led us to the East Beach which changed positions depending on the seasons and prevailing winds. The small beach was perfect for swimming as it had a little clear area from the sands shifting around. 

The moveable East Beach.

Tikyo spotted a lone bat, probably an Island Flying Fox, which he pointed out to us.

Shhh... A sleeping Flying Fox.

As we headed back towards the lagoon, Tikyo left us to continue our exploration on kayak.  We circled Moray Lagoon, getting great views of the camp and of the trails from the water.  

A view of the dining area at Moray Lagoon.

The bamboo boardwalk beneath the Bat Cave

There were several fish in both the shallows and deeps of the lagoon.  Several anemone fish were guarding their homes and fiercely approached our kayak as we passed over them.

"It's an an-anemone!"
Anemone fish and their anemone

Just as we were about to pull our kayak ashore, we were surprised by a flash of blue and white flying across the lagoon entrance.  It was the Stork-billed Kingfisher!  We had seen glimpses of it all day, and it was sort of a lifer for us.  It was of the subspecies gigantea, and unlike the Stork-billeds we had seen in other places in the Philippines, this one had a creamy white head.

Stork-billed Kingfisher gigantea! Not bad for a photo from a kayak.

We paddled furiously to get good glimpses of it as it perched just outside the lagoon.  Birding by kayak: a first for us!

It was truly a fun-filled and busy day exploring the island!  I can imagine spending hours taking in all the little bits of natural history of Danjugan, whether over land, over water or under water!

After a restful night's sleep, we woke up the next morning, packed our bags and said goodbye to our neat little open cabana.  

Our bags are packed, but we're not ready to go!
On the little stone breakwater, a Pacific Reef Heron was hunting in the golden morning light and the Stork-billed Kingfisher again flew by.

A Pacific Reef Heron bidding us goodbye.

"We saved a Philippine island. Now we invite you to explore it." These words greet you when you discover the gem that is Danjugan. Truly, there is something new to see everyday for nature-lovers: both sea- and land-lubbers, like us.

Danjugan Island  a protected marine reserve and wildlife sanctuary, managed by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. located on the occidental side of the Negros Island region. To learn more about Danjugan island, visit: www.danjuganisland.ph 


Wednesday, July 13

Nature-tripping at Danjugan Island: the Thick-knee twitch

Danjugan Island!

After a successful workshop and fruitful birding at Twin Lakes, Adri and I were ready to move on to the next destination on our Negros Island itinerary.  So after an early breakfast with our hosts from the DOT, we headed for the bus terminal to start our journey.  From Dumaguete we took a bus  over the mountains to Kabankalan City on the Occidental side of the island. After a quick lunch, we transferred to a bus headed to Hinoba-an. 

No problem taking public transport: the Ceres Lines bus terminals are very organized
(we took the air conditioned buses, not the one in the photo!)

By mid-afternoon, we had gotten off at an obscure waiting shed in Cauayan where the boatmen of Danjugan were waiting to pick us up. Our island adventure was about to begin!

A view of Danjugan island (on the right) from the mainland

Danjugan island (www.danjuganisland.ph) is a 43-hectare island, 1.5 kilometers long and half a kilometer across (at its widest).  The whole island is a protected marine reserve and wildlife sanctuary, managed by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc.

Our accomodations were at Moray Lagoon, a twenty minute outrigger boat ride from the mainland. As we approached the island, the deep blue-green waters became crystal clear, revealing a vibrant underwater world. 

Entering Moray Lagoon

Moray Lagoon Camp

We were shown to our open cabana which faced the lagoon and after a brief rest, our guide Ramram gave a short overview of the island's history and vision-mission.

A great outdoor classroom!

Looking at and identifying photos of birds posted at the learning center, Ramram quickly guessed we were birdwatchers and correctly assumed that we were here to see the recent island star bird: a Beach Thick-Knee.  He assured us that the thick-knee was still around and it would be no problem for us to see it. In fact, we could go right then and there if we wanted!

Of course!  While we were looking forward to swimming and snorkeling and trekking (and other island activities!), we had to admit that we were primarily there to catch a glimpse at a rarely reported bird in the country. So Ramram took us on a quick walk across the island through limestone and sandy trails to Tabon beach, where the sun was just about to set.  

Trails across Danjugan island: lots to see!

He pointed to the beach and the next cove, saying: "It should be here."  It was low tide and we walked along the quiet beach while Ramram told us of how the thick-knee was "discovered". One of the guides had seen the bird last year and asked his guest to take a photo, since he had never seen the large bird before.  In this age of internet and social media, word spread quickly of the sighting, tempting several members of the bird club to a quick twitch.  My friends Irene and Kitty write about their adventures here  and here. Since the discovery, the staff of Danjugan island have limited access to Tabon beach to avoid disturbing the bird.

Unfortunately for us, the thick-knee was nowhere to be found that afternoon.  With a puzzled scratch of his head, Ramram confidently assured us it was just here somewhere and we would definitely see it tomorrow ("Unless you are really unlucky," he adds with a smirk!).  Adri and I stayed behind as Ramram had to catch the boat back to the mainland.

Picture perfect rain and a sunset

We enjoyed a dazzling sunset with a few Black-naped Terns flying around a rocky outcrop off shore. We watched the rain falling in the distance and the sky blazing as the sun touched the horizon.  It was surely going to be a good stay.

The golden sun touching the sea

As darkness began to fall, we made our way back to Moray Lagoon for a huge dinner.  The only other guest on the island was Robin from the UK, who was actually doing his academic thesis on ecotourism on Danjugan.  While enjoying dinner, we enjoyed the calls of night birds: hawk owls hooting from the mangroves and a frogmouth growling softly across the lagoon.  Once in a while we would hear a splash of water as fish and other night-time creatures moved beneath the restaurant on stilts over the water. Having had a long day, we went to bed early, tucking our mosquito nets snugly under our mattresses and falling asleep to the soft sound of waves lapping on the shore and a gecko on our ceiling.

Waking up to the sound of bird call and waves on the shore.

The skies lightened up early the next day and we woke up to a beautiful view of the lagoon.  But we wanted to check on the thick-knee right away so we quickly geared up and headed over to Tabon Beach before breakfast.

The Beach Thick-knee is crepuscular and nocturnal, meaning it is most active during twilight and at night. We hoped we were still early enough to catch it on the beach.  Adri walked ahead of me, and just before the trail through the mangroves opened up into the beach he gave me a surprised whisper: "There he is!"

Sure enough, on the beach just at the end of a trail was this huge bird! Whichever of us was more surprised, humans or bird, I couldn't tell.  Flushed, the thick-knee quickly took to the air and circled around the shore.  He flew left then right then left again then right again, giving us magnificent views in flight.  He then disappeared around the next cove. Wow.

Beach Thick-knee in flight!

Not wanting to spook it further, we sat down on the beach for a few minutes to allow it to settle down before we took a look at the next cove.  While waiting, the resident White-bellied Sea-Eagle flew past us. As it passed the rocky outcrop, the Black-naped Terns took to the air and began mobbing it!

It's not easy being top predator on the island: a sea-eagle being mobbed by terns

Thinking that the thick-knee was settled by now, Adri and I waded to the next cove quietly. It was high tide and the water was much higher than the afternoon before, reaching way past our knees!  As we rounded the corner, we took a peek.  Huh. Nothing.

Suddenly, from out of the mangrove nearest to us walks out the thick-knee!  Just as Ramram had said, it would be curious enough to check out people on the beach! It eyed us carefully, looking like some prehistoric bird.

Beach Thick-knee on Tabon beach: what a lifer!

After a few awkward steps towards us, it begins to relax.  And then it actually lies down on the sand. Wow again.

Relaxed enough to lie down, but still keeping one big yellow eye on us.

Adri and I take turns looking through our binoculars, and then through our camera lenses.  After several minutes, the thick-knee gets up, walks slowly towards the farther end of the beach and stops again to lie down.  Then finally it gets up and disappears back into the mangroves.

Birding while standing in the water with the thick-knee just around the rock!


We wade back to the beach and take time to relish the moment.  The sun is completely out now, casting a golden light on the Black-naped terns and their little rocky islet.

Resident Black-naped Terns on the rocky outcrop: were they nesting there?

As I settled on the driftwood we were sitting on, I noticed some fresh bloody leftovers: a bit of a hairy jaw and skull!  It looked like some poor bat fell prey to the sea-eagle just that morning.  .

Somebody was a messy eater and left behind some of their food.

Yum, breakfast. It was time for us to head back to Moray Lagoon for our own. It was only 7:00am, we still had a whole day ahead of us to explore the island!

Our island adventure to be continued...