Phil Center for Investigative Journalism, September issue
RECLAMATION AREA, MANILA -- For a group of early risers, the
pre-dawn darkness is not just for the birds. Here in this
damp, reclaimed portion of what used to be the edge of Manila
Bay, these hardened urbanites savor the unexpected sounds
of the city before the construction machinery comes to life,
and before the traffic and dust fill the air.
as the sun rises and illuminates their surroundings, their
heads move skyward, binoculars seemingly stuck to their eyeballs.
Usually the chorus begins with a blurted "uy," alerting
the others. Then follow gasps of recognition and joy.
they came for a special sight. "Ganda (Beautiful)!"
calls out Annette Tamino, a young biology teacher, pointing
at a flock of brown birds, which looks ordinary from a distance
to the naked eye. But these oriental pratincoles are anything
but ordinary. Up close, they are four times the size of the
ubiquitous tarat - that little brown bird one usually sees
flitting around in the backyard -- and have long slender wings
and a deeply forked tail. They also look like they have black-and-white
chokers around their necks, and their rumps are white.
sighted here in June, these oriental pratincoles are part
of the only colony of this uncommon species seen by these
birdwatchers nesting in a city. Just 50 birds, this colony
is nursing its young in a large vacant lot surrounded by construction
activity in the reclamation area, one of the busiest commercial
development sites in the country.
reclamation area is considered a prime birding site in Metro
Manila, as are the American Cemetery and the Libingan ng Mga
Bayani, both in Fort Bonifacio. But in discovering the oriental
pratincoles' sandy nesting area, members of the recently formed
Wild Bird Club of the Philippines may have stumbled onto a
highly unusual habitat, an accidental artificial environment
for a wild bird.
marine environments are not so uncommon in Philippine coastal
areas, where shipwrecks and bundles of old tires have long
played host to many ocean species.
an overdeveloped, overpopulated and undergreened metropolis,
however, bird environments of any kind are hard to come by.
For birds to be lured to a place, it has to be relatively
undisturbed by people, near food sources, and must have lots
of vegetation and old trees.
oriental pratincoles, which are wetland birds, are supposed
to be common throughout rural Luzon and Palawan. Ironically,
development apparently drew these birds here. To prepare the
land for building, construction crews had cleared the grass,
exposing a sandy surface mixed with seashells. Little did
anyone expect that the pratincoles would soon appear from
no one knows where and start to nest in the less disturbed
portions of the site, having found the sandy stretches similar
to the dry riverbeds that are their natural nesting places.
"Wow, I never thought I would see these birds in the
city," says birdwatcher Mike Lu, with the enthusiasm
of a rock-and-roll groupie who had just met Bono. He compares
the feeling of seeing bird species for the first time to "the
thrill of the hunt but without the blood."
manager of a family business during the week, Lu leads weekend
"birding" expeditions as president of the Wild Bird
Club. Its membership is all of 20 people, mostly professionals
and office workers who were first exposed to birding through
the occasional nature tours run by Haribon, the environmental
anything, the pratincoles' habitat so close to heavy construction
is an indication of the richness of the Philippines' bird
diversity, especially in the Manila Bay coastal ecosystem,
where many other bird species abound, such as the varieties
of the larger nesting herons that have also been sighted in
the reclamation area.
for hectare, the Philippines is among the top three countries
in the world in bird diversity and endemicity. Manila Bay
is considered an "Important Bird Area," an international
designation and one of 117 such areas in the Philippines that
need to be protected to save the country's - and the planet's
-- bird diversity.
Metro Manila alone, members of the Wild Bird Club have seen
over 70 bird species, many of which are endemic or found only
in this country. But they also include imported Indonesian
cockatoos that escaped from their masters and now live happily
on a wooded hillside on the Ateneo campus.
less than two dozen in Metro Manila, serious birdwatchers
nationwide are even rarer than the country's most endangered
birds, the Philippine eagle, which are said to number no more
than several hundred in the wild.
comparison, there are millions of birdwatchers in Europe,
North America and Japan, countries where bird diversity and
endemicity don't even approach that of the Philippines.
is nature constituencies like bird enthusiasts that need to
grow in the Philippines for wild birds and wild life in general
to have a chance to survive in the rush to pave over wild
and open spaces. As of now, birders have enough numbers to
discover new habitats of the birds they love to watch in the
wild. But they are way too small to have any influence on
the fates of these habitats.
a wild bird area like the pratincoles' nesting spaces should
be set aside by the developer as a sanctuary, according to
Arne Jensen, a bird specialist from Denmark who has been living
in the Philippines for 13 years.
spaces and wild life parks are hallmarks of some of the great
cities of the world. Jensen recalls that as a young boy in
his native Copenhagen, he would spend his free time in the
city's "green belts" getting to know bird calls.
There were watch towers installed by the government from where
he and other children could observe bird habitats without
got it into my blood that a country is both people and biodiversity,"
says Jensen, "and I should respect all living things."
reclamation area, which is still mostly vacant and faces one
of the planet's most famous sunsets, could be a chance to
provide even a small permanent home for the vast array of
birds that live around the bay. (The Wild Bird Club has spotted
groups of black-crowned night herons, zebra doves, and tawny
grassbirds, among others.) Commercially, that potential crowd
drawer could give the reclamation area an edge over other
high-end centers in Makati and Pasig, which are almost completely
nothing of the sort is being planned for the reclamation area
so far. Where the pratincoles are presently gathering food,
feeding their chicks, and thrilling a handful of birdwatchers
every weekend appears to be but a temporary habitat. Owned
by a leading bank, the land is dotted with signs announcing
plans for a restaurant row, a discount department store, and
a hospital. - Howie G. Severino
Wild Bird Club of the Philippines will begin free monthly
birding trips open to the public starting in October 2003.
See their web site www.birdwatch.ph
for more information on the club and on birds in the Philippines.
are many books on birds in the Philippines. Among them: Philippine
Birds by John E. duPont, A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines
by Robert S. Kennedy, et al., and A Photographic Guide to
the Birds of the Philippines by Morten Strange.