The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

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The Thrill of a Temporary Habitat

I-Magazine, Phil Center for Investigative Journalism, September issue

THE 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.

Then 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.

Today 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.

First 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.

The 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.

Artificial 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.

In 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.

The 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."

Sales 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 organization.

If 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.

Hectare 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.

In 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.

Numbering 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.

In 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.

It 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.

Ideally, 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.

Wooded 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 disturbing them.

"I got it into my blood that a country is both people and biodiversity," says Jensen, "and I should respect all living things."

The 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 paved over.

Alas, 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

The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines will begin free monthly birding trips open to the public starting in October 2003. See their web site for more information on the club and on birds in the Philippines.

There 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.