Zamboanga City, Birding, and the 9th Philippine Bird Festival
by Albert Balbutin Jr.
War. Religion. Kidnapping. Words unfortunately associated with Zamboanga City after headlines focused on the fighting that had occurred there in September of 2013.
Mangroves. Birds. Diversity. What about these words? Mangroves riddle the seaside landscape of Zamboanga City. Not bullet holes. Birds like Barn Swallows perch atop buildings, not snipers. Chabacano, Yakan, Tausug, Bisaya, Tagalog, English, and more are spoken in this 98-baranggay-paradise called "Asia's Latin City." A place where the Spaniards left a fort just as old as Manila's Intramuros in the north, but also a language colorfully created in time by Zamboanga City's people, making Chabacano, a Spanish-Filipino language, the predominantly spoken language in the city.
Granted, it's been 6 months since the "Zamboanga siege", as newspapers have been fond of calling it, but it only lasted one month; a small blip in the radar of Zamboanga City's landscape of history, nature, and people. The people are still there, congregating, sharing, and loving. The birds still fly free. Silvery Kingfishers (Alcedo argentata) and Philippine Falconets (Microhierax erythrogenys), both endemic (or can only be found in the Philippines) have not ceased their foraging or nesting.
However, let's not forget about those displaced by "the siege". Their immediate needs taken away from them by men with guns. Regardless of what side of the siege they were, these were men mostly from outside of Zamboanga City, or at least outside of the city's warm embrace of tolerance.
With all that said and done, when does the healing begin? After Typhoon Yolanda had struck, donors from all over the world participated in providing aid for those struck by "a surge" pushed upon them by the typhoon. But what about those struck by "a siege" pushed upon a populace by small groups of fighting men? Where were the donors? The aid? The answer came in the form of two things for Zamboanga City: its natural beauty and its love for festivity. Perhaps part of the healing process is for people both inside and outside of Zamboanga City to regain their consciousness of the vast riches that lie within one of Mindanao's oldest cities.
The 9th Philippine Bird Festival couldn't have come at a better time and to a better place. Zamboanga City holds one of the largest watersheds in the country, Pasonanca Natural Park, which is also an Important Biodiversity Area, PH 112, encompassing 17,511.9 hectares (1). And for the first time, it has been discovered that a species of migratory bird, the Great Egret (Ardea alba), is actually breeding in the mangroves surrounding a college campus there. That means this bird may no longer be designated as "migratory", or a visitor to the Philippines. They can now be referred to as "residents" of the country. All this suggests that the environs and residents of Zamboanga City are still healthy, a place healthy enough for Great Egrets to call home. Healthy enough for people from different parts of the globe to visit once again. This realization probably would not have occurred to Zamboanga City visitors, or even to some of its residents, had not the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and the Zamboanga City government put together the 9th Philippine Bird Festival.
Mt. Baluno, Zamboanga City
One of the many environments one can visit in Zamboanga is Mt. Baluno. There, Philippine Bird Festival delegates from around the world were guided by Joel Baysa who had been guiding bird tours for more than 12 years. They had trekked down a dirt road where a beautiful Bagras tree (Eucalyptus deglupta) also known as the Mindanao gum or Rainbow gum, stood to welcome visitors. Within this same facility, nests of Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta) were found on beams in the ceilings. A Philippine Falconet (Microhierax erythrogenys), the smallest raptor in the Philippines, welcomed us as it stood perched with its black head and wings. Further down more birds were spotted, like the Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata), a beautiful bird with whisker-like white streaks on its head.
Pasonanca Park. Watershed and source of water for Zamboanga City
The 17,511.9 hectare Pasonanca Park provided delegates intimate views of egrets, eagles, and kingfishers. Without the delegates knowing at first, a Philippine Serpent Eagle (Spilornis holospilus) perched itself above a footbridge near the entrance to the park. After trekking for sometime, a Silvery Kingfisher (Alcedo argentata) revealed itself. Both the Philippine Serpent Eagle and the Silvery Kingfisher can only be found in the Philippines.
Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology (ZSCMST) Mangrove forest
ZSCMST is credited to having grown and maintained the only mangrove forest within the heart of Zamboanga City. Surrounded by homes and barangays, the mangrove forest lines the school's fishponds and has grown sufficiently enough to become a new home for Great Egrets (Ardea alba / Casmerodius albus). In fact, it was here that members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and ZSCMST administration headed by Dr. Milavel D. Nazario discovered that Great Egrets were breeding and nesting there. The school also created a brand new viewing deck that allows visitors to see the Great Egret nesting area, as well as other birds such as Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), Rufous Night Herons (Nycticorax caledonicus), and Brown Shrikes (Lanius cristatus).
Wetland areas of Baranggay Victoria, Zamboanga City
Zamboanga City's 98 barangays are full of rice paddies, fish ponds, and natural wetland areas that migratory and resident birds visit and live. Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), evident by their pink legs and black wings show a preference for open areas close to foraging sites with a good degree of visibility (Johnsgard 1981). Fortunately, habitats like this are still commonly found in barangays surrounding the Zamboanga City center. A harmony of Great Egrets, Little Egrets, and Black-winged Stilts, surrounded by Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) flying swiftly around them is a common but unforgettable site in these wetland areas. With the Barn Swallow, the flagship bird for the 9th Philippine Bird Festival, it is a reminder that the Zamboanga City birds, like the Barn Swallow itself, represent the overall harmony of human and nature.
Below is the list of 15 birds noted by the Communications Division of the Haribon Foundation during its visit to the 9th Philippine Bird Festival in Zamboanga City between February 26 and March 2nd, 2014. However, many more birds were sighted by the delegation as a collective, estimated to be at least 30 bird species.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus)Elegant Tit (Parus elegans)Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta)Gray-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta)Great Egret (Ardea alba / Casmerodius albus)Guaiabero (Bolbopsittacus lunulatus)Philippine Falconet (Microhierax erythrogenys)Philippine Needletail (Mearnsia picina)Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos maculatus)Philippine Serpent Eagle (Spilornis holospilus)Rufous Night Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus)Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata)
The 9th Philippine Bird Festival delegates
Two festival delegates visiting the Philippines for the first time, Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij or Jay and Bank Sp of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, made sure they were ready before hand. "We did a lot of research on Philippine endemic birds before coming here," Jay had said at one point during the festival. "I think I have about at least 25 lifers," he said excitedly. He was so busy birding throughout the event that he had yet to stop and count how many different bird species he added to his list of birds. "I've been birding since I was 15," later explained Jay.
John Bakar of the Borneo Bird Club was also excited to see his own set of lifers. He shared a bit about Borneo's own endemic, the Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasis gymnocephala), while Wolfgang M. from Germany, a self-proclaimed "beginner birder", had already frequented Africa for his own bird tours. Pamela Lim from Malaysia was well-equipped with lenses as well as birding experience, exhibiting both when she had decided to sit and wait for a Silvery kingfisher to reveal itself on a river bank in Pasonanca Natural Park. This method of waiting for the birds was further supported by Gina Mapua, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, when she said, "Sometimes you don't go to the birds, you let them come to you."
Angela Colmenares-Sabino of Earth Island Institute Philippines and Glacy Macabale of Save Freedom Island Movement were two of the many delegates based in the Philippines. Glacy and Angela are currently working to preserve both the communities and wildlife surrounding Freedom Island in Manila Bay where tranquil ponds and large Mangrove forests still reside in the midst of reclamation and construction slowly closing in on its shores. The Katala Foundation was also present. Known for its campaigns to conserve the rare and endangered endemic, the Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), the foundation sent a delegate from its home base on the beautiful island of Palawan.
Birds… and sperm whales!
John Cofreros and Jenalyn Carlos, students of the Hospitality and Restaurant Management program at Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology (ZSCMST), guided Philippine-based delegates Angela of Earth Island, Glacy of Save Freedom Island Movement, and J. Kahlil Panopio of the Haribon Foundation though their Mangrove forest on campus. After viewing some of the Great egret nests, John and Jenalyn then led Khalil to a huge mound, about 20 meters long. It was there that John and Jenalyn revealed that there was a sperm whale buried under the mound. "It was found on the shore not far from the city a few years ago. People were following the truck carrying the whale all the way to our school!"
On September 19, 2012 a 16 meter (52 foot) dead Great Sperm Whale was found near Sacol island off the coast of Zamboanga City. According to news articles published at the time, the city veterinarian Dr. Mario Arriola had concluded that it had died of natural causes and had been dead for several days before being spotted by the coast guard. According to Gina Mapua who had spoken to ZSCMST's Dr. Milavel D. Nazario, the whale was buried on the campus of ZSCMST so that after 5-7 years the bones could be recovered and studied by students. Although John and Jenalyn will have graduated long after it is exhumed, it is safe to say that their growing knowledge of birds, as well as whales, will be put to use well before then.
"Help people help the environment" is an underlying cause for NGO's like the Haribon Foundation, and to see first- hand the results of man-made violence juxtaposed beside Zamboanga City's care for their environment has proven difficult to absorb. But for the residents of Zamboanga City, they have shown that they not only have the utmost tolerance of people regardless of religion and language, but that in the midst of violence and misconceptions perpetuated by those outside Zamboanga, they can also appreciate the nature around them as well. Elton Earl Alviar, another young resident of Zamboanga City had noted that he had lost a friend during the siege. But at another point of the conversation, he was excitedly teaching us words in Chabacano, Bisaya, and Yakan, directing us to places of interest in the city, and making our mouths water describing the wide array of cuisine purveyed by both the Muslim and Christian communities of his home city.
If the residents of Zamboanga City can plant mangroves, conserve their watersheds and wetland areas, while being understanding and tolerant of the different perspectives that live within the city, why can't other places in the world do the same? Indeed, the people of Zamboanga City and communities like them around the world are the first people nature conservationists and peace-loving tourists alike should visit when asking such questions.
1. Pasonanca Natural Park, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Interim PENRO Zamboanga City, retrieved March 10, 2014 - http://r9.denr.gov.ph/images/PENROs/ZC/pasonanca%20natural%20park.pdf
2. Dead sperm whale via National Post - http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/09/19/burial-for-a-dead-whale-in-the-philippines/ Dead sperm whale via NBC News - http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/09/19/13961569-it-takes-a-whale-of-a-grave-to-bury-ocean-giant
For more information on these birds, type the bird names provided in this article into the BirdLife International website. BirdLife is an international partnership of nature conservation NGO's, of which the Haribon Foundation is a representative for the Philippines. - http://www.birdlife.org/