This must be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, except this haystack was drenched in mountain rain. What were the chances we were going to spot a rare bird in this dense, mountain rainforest? Standing in heavy mist for hours, staring with ever-weakening eyes through binoculars and spotting scope, hoping every flash of feather might be our noble goal – it was becoming apparent that we were not having much luck our first day in the field. After a time, and some sound counselfrom our guide, we decided to head back to our base camp before darkness came. And thus ended our first day of searching for a glimpse in the wild of the elegant yet endangered Philippine Eagle.
How did I get here in the first place? In early 2010, when David first approached me about going to Mindanao and searching for the fabled eagle, I jumped on board – I’ve always loved exploring distant lands, and if I can tack on the opportunity to spot a wild animal, especially one with as dramatic a visage as this eagle, all the better. Fast forward a year and, after flying into the dusty hamlet of Cagayan de Oro in northern Mindanao, I foundmyself spending the first days of 2011 driving up a winding road to Kitanglad National Park in the company of a band of hardcore birders whose ability to spot and identify flying creatures of any and all species truly impressive.
We climbed higher up the mountain, the land growing larger, wilder. Near the village of Dalwangan we were met by a small 4X4 truck that bounced us up even further, until the road was no longer negotiable by anything gas-powered. We transferred our gear to horse and carabao, and hiked the balance of muddy trail to what was to be our home for the next few days – the Mt. Kitanglad “Lodge”, a rustic leftover from the days of Del Monte now used exclusively by hikers, explorers, and the birding fraternity.
Our guide, Nicky Icarangal of Birding Adventure Philippines, assured us we were now in eagle country, and we would begin our search early the next day. Morning arrived still dark with night and, saying so long to the bats, rats and geckos we had shared a roof with, we began our trek further up the mountain. In the growing morning light the bamboo stands and acacia trees began to reveal themselves, and the trail narrowed and became more of a mud wallow in some places. We crossed patches of cultivated land, gardens of cabbage and other growing things the local villagers maintained and used for both sustenance and trade. It was a truly beautiful landscape.
Nicky, and the local villagers who assisted him, Carlito and his son-in-law, Danny, lead us through the forest until we came to a clearing across from twin hills covered by thick jungle, the two separated by a cleavage of green. The clearing looked down upon a riverine valley, and this is where we would look for the bird. We laid up our gear, and for the next seven hours we scanned the forest and skies, hoping to see…..something. Time passed, the rain ebbed and flowed, with the quiet moments occasionally were punctuated by sightings of Serpent Eagles and other endemics. Excellent birders themselves, Carlito continually whistled his eagle call, trying to encourage a response, while Danny moved the scope towards different parts of the forest, hoping to catch a sign. Being in such a beautiful and exotic location made passing the time easy, and I was surprised when noticing how late it had become, and that it was time to start the journey back to the lodge. With last glances back on the hills and valleys, we packed our gear and started the muddy slog back down the trail. We would try again in the morning.
To be continued….