Friday, June 2

Hope and the Katala

The Philippine Cockatoo (or Red-vented Cockatoo) is classified as Critically Endangered, which means that the risk for its becoming extinct in the wild is very high!  Once fairly common throughout its range, it has suffered greatly in the past decades from habitat loss and the pet trade.

The critically endangered endemic Philippine Cockatoo.

In fact, I have to admit that as a child, we did have a Philippine Cockatoo in the family named Pablito.  Creamy white with the distinctive orange and yellow feathers on his (we never did find out if he was a he or a she) undertail, Pablito was a delight. We grew fond of him, despite the chewed down wood furniture and the constant ruckus and squawking.  Sadly, he met an untimely end with one of our dogs when he was accidentally let out of the house.  Before that, I had no idea that we had cockatoos in the Philippines, as I associated parrots with the exotic wilds of the South American jungles or the dry landscapes of Australia down under.  

As a novice birdwatcher two and a half decades later, I was finally given the chance to see Philippine Cockatoos, where they belong: in the wild lowland forests!  

In 2005, less than a year into birding, Tere had invited Adri and myself on an impromptu Palawan birding trip.  It would be the first time I would ever visit Palawan as a birder! We were all so excited! On top of the usual birding itinerary at Puerto Princesa, she had also arranged a trip to Rasa Island in Narra with the Katala Foundation, specifically to see the cockatoos.

And see them we did!

I will never forget the afternoon van commute to Narra, arriving in time for dinner and being met by Debbie and given direction on what to do the next day. Before sunrise, we walked to the beach at low tide in the dark, to be transferred to a larger outrigger boat which would bring us off shore to the roosting site of the Philippine Cockatoos at Rasa Island.  As we approached we could already hear the loud, noisy calls of the parrots, even in the dark.  Our guide, Fred, was explaining to us how the population had quickly grown from around 20 individuals in the late 1990s to over a hundred, thanks to the efforts of the Katala Foundation in protecting Rasa Island and in engaging the former poachers, now turned wildlife wardens. Rasa Island was known as the last stronghold of the Philippine Cockatoo.

Against the lightening sky, we could see the silhouettes of the birds busy with their morning rituals: preening, stretching, playing, squabbling. The still sea, the pinks and periwinkles of sunrise, the island jungle: it was all beautiful.  

The cockatoo roosting sight on Rasa Island in 2005

Clockwise from top left:  Fred explaining to us the history of Rasa Island, Dusk lightening the skies, silhouettes of the cockatoos (we had no long lenses in 2005!), Adri and Tere birding on the boat.

That morning, we counted 92 individual cockatoos at the roost site, before they flew off towards the center of the island or to the mainland to feed. Ninety two critically endangered Philippine Cockatoos in the wild! 

A rainbow over Nara (2005)

On our way back to the mainland, a rainbow touched the sea in front of  Narra, a clear sign of hope.

Fast forward to 2017, I had never set my eyes on a wild Philippine Cockatoo again since that encounter a dozen years before.  I had visited Palawan several more times, having fallen in love with the easy birding.  But I had never gone back to Narra.  Peter and Indira Widmann, the passionate and energetic leaders of the Katala Foundation, were now our good friends with whom we had shared several meals and adventures (read about our Siargao trip here!).

I suppose it was finally time for me to see the Katala again.

In April, during the Holy Week break, Adri and I once again found ourselves in Puerto Princesa on an impromptu visit.  Peter and Indira were generous and gracious hosts, arranging again for us to visit Narra.  This time, we were off to visit the Katala Institute for Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation (KIEBC). The KIEBC serves as venue for research, conservation education, rescue and rehabilitation and habitat restoration. Currently, the center is still undergoing major works and not yet fully operational  It can only be visited by appointment.

It was a quick, 2 hour drive now to Narra, the road network having been vastly improved over the past several years.  We had coordinated with the Katala staff, and Anna, the education officer gave us great directions and we found the KIEBC with no problems at all.

As we got down from our car, the joyful song of a Common Iora welcomed us.

A cheerful Common Iora welcomes us to the KIEBC.

We met Anna, and the rest of the cheerful staff who were there:  Angel (who was in charge of the animal husbandry) and Yud (who was in charge of the rescued turtle's care). We were given a brief presentation on the KIEBC and its goals, as well as the current and future plans for the site. And then we got a very special tour!

Yud talked to us about the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Project.  She showed us the 3 different species of turtles which had been rescued and were currently being rehabilitated at the center: the Asian Box Turtle, the Asian Leaf Turtle, and the elusive (And also critically endangered!) Philippine Forest Turtle (which is endemic to Palawan).

Signage at the KIEBC and Yud showing us the "leaf" design of the plastron of the Asian Leaf Turtle

The girls explained how the turtles were being taken care of and the intricacies of the rehabilitation.  It was great to hear them so passionate about their work!

We were shown around the various parts of the center, with the girls carefully explaining each part and casually telling stories of their on site experiences.  There were 3 rescued Katalas from Balabac (who obviously associated people with food), and 2 more from Narra: a male named Silver and a female named Violet.  Sadly, they could no longer be returned to the wild, but I think they were doing very well at the center.

There were also two very shy Palawan Porcupines who gamely came out of hiding in their spacious enclosure after a fair amount of coaxing  by Angel.

The spacious enclosure of the Palawan Porcupines provided them with a lot of hiding places!

Many wild birds and herps also enjoyed the center, and one of the showcases was a mini-wetland area.  Dragonflies were flying all around, and sometimes, the girls said, Wandering Whistling Ducks would come to rest in the grassy water.

A wild skink sunning in the leaf litter at the tree nursery.

Valuing wetlands at the KIEBC: pond dipping anyone?

With a lot of work still being done at the KIEBC, and with staff as enthusiastic and impassioned as the girls, I am excited for all current and future projects.

With the enthusiastic staff at the KIEBC

So the original plan was just to drive to Narra in the afternoon and be back by sundown at Puerto.  However, Anna had mentioned that, since it was nearing late afternoon anyway, would we not like to take a chance and see the cockatoos roosting in town?

How can one say no to that?!?

So Anna led us into town, to a known roosting site.  Apparently, the cockatoo population on Rasa Island was growing so big that some of the younger generation was expanding their territory!  Some were reported to no longer return to the island to roost in the evenings, but stay in some parts of the mainland! (Isn't this a great testimony to the success of the Katala Foundation's work on Rasa Island?)

I turned out that the roosting tree was across the street from a small sari-sari store.  So we set-up our optics and began the wait.  It was only 4:00 pm, and the cockatoos were reported to come at sunset.

Wait, wait, wait.

People began to get curious of our presence (non-local alert!), but we were obviously there for the cockatoos, so they began to reassure us in their own unique ways.

"Ah, are the cockatoos there," said a passerby with a look at the roosting tree. "No, it's too early yet," as he glanced at his wrist watch.

"Just wait," said the sari sari store seller. "They'll come maybe at 5:00."

"They'll arrive soon," said a woman sweeping the street.

"They'll be there," said a grandmother tending to her potted plants.

As the minutes wore on, the comments got longer.  Questions flew left and right from each person passing the street or buying something from the store: where we were from, how we heard of Narra, were we really there just to see the cockatoos.

Kids playing would glance at us, and then at the roosting tree, shake their heads and then be on their way.

At past 5:00 pm, people were becoming quite concerned for us.

"It's still bright, they usually come near sunset."

"Are they not yet there?"

"What bird is that on the tree?  Oh it's only a kingfisher."

"They're coming."

Adri spotted a single white Katala flying across the sky! One cockatoo! We didn't even have time to lift our bins or our cameras.

At 5:30 pm, we were already causing a major commotion on the quiet street.

"Still not there?"

"Maybe they're on the beach.  Did you check on the beach?"

"Sometimes, they roost out on a tree at the back of the house," said a man while pointing to a tree barely seen behind a two storey cottage. "But they don't seem to be there either. I'll check and come back."

Even Anna was beginning to get anxious and began to call all the local volunteers to check.

And the best comment yet was from a man on a bike who stopped in front of the small crowd we'd created:  "You know, when you wait for them they don't come!"

(To everyone's credit, this comment was boo-ed loudly, but not after hard laughter).

The owner of the house we were standing in front of assured us that the cockatoos were coming, and proceeded to show us a daily log of photos taken with his smart phone and began to detail when the cockatoos started roosting on the street.

A daily log on his phone: this was taken a few weeks before.

Two houses down, a group of balikbayans were curious about our presence and everyone tried to explain at once why we are there.

Ok, now, even Adri and I were getting antsy at the non-arrivals.  We were already comforting ourselves with the single sighting of the flyby.

And then, at 6:00pm,  the welcome sound of loud calls and squawking.  Five perfectly white cockatoos land on the kapok tree (locally called duldul) in an awkward frenzy!

"See? They're here. Just like we said." And just like that everyone is relaxed and excited at the same time.

Later more cockatoos join in.  We let everyone peek through the scope and our binoculars, even the balikbayans were excited.  And even more cockatoos come.

Enjoying with us and some balikbayans what to them is a daily sight.

And more cockatoos fly in. And more.

Count the cockatoos on the kapok (dulul) tree at sunset!  How many can you see?

Soon the kapok tree is a noisy, crazy, beautiful ruckus. 

Adri and I couldn't quite decide which cockatoos to focus on.  

Later, the cockatoos came even lower, landing on some fruiting malunggay (moringa) plants in someone's backyard.  The owner, Mang Danny, turned out to be one of the Katala Foundation's boatmen, and he invited us to take a better look.

Cockatoos feeding on moringa fruit.

All households in Narra are required by ordinance to plant malunggay trees in their backyard: for the nutrition of both human and bird!

Hanging out: literally.

I could clearly see that most birds were ringed, and Mang Danny explained that the birds fledged each year were ringed with a specific color of band. He mentioned that all these birds expanding territory were mostly young birds, of the generations produced since Rasa Island became protected.

We left when it was too dark too see properly, almost 7:00 in the evening, with a smiling Anna walking beside us. In the end we counted 54 Philippine Cockatoos. Fifty four noisy, white birds.  Fifty four beacons of hope.

Where there is passion, where there is the will to work hard and to fight hard and to persevere together, there is hope.  Hope for the Katala and the every creature that they share their place on earth to live.

This past May, Indira Dayang Lacerna Widmann won the prestigious 2017 Whitley Award (Whitley Fund for Nature) for her work with the Philippine Cockatoo.  Congratulations to her and the entire Katala Foundation!

On June 30, 2017, Narra will celebrate its annual Katala Festival. It's a chance for everyone to support the Katala Foundation and people of Narra in their conservation efforts.