When my ornithologist friend Cagan Sekercioglu asked me to join him and our expert local guide Tim Fisher, on a birding trip to the Philippines, he told me that the Philippine rainforests were among the most biodiverse and unfortunately among the most destroyed. The trip would take us through a number of islands with the hope of seeing and photographing a lot of the birds of the Philippines. The thought of seeing a new country, and doing it in a non-traditional way appealed to me and I took the trip. It turned out to be one of the most interesting trips I ever took. What made it interesting was how we did it, where we did it and the emergent mindset the two created.
First, the 'how we did it'. It was my first time birdwatching, and I was lucky to be with two experts. I always thought of birdwatching as a leisurely sport for which the minimum age to start was over 50. I was wrong, very very wrong. It is an intense sport, and gets more so if you are with experts. If you are competitive about it (my friend is in the world top 100) it requires a lot of strategy. There are two big variables and one consttraint. The variables are the total number of birds you want to see, and the number of rare birds you want to see. The constraint is the time you have in each region. If you focus on the rare birds, you have to spend a lot of time in specific places. You may or may not see them but then you miss many common ones, but if you focus only on common ones you may miss that one elusive bird that may just go extinct before you get around to do the trip again. They all count toward your overall global bird score. In either case you have to study the birds, read previous trip reports and create the optimum path that takes you through the right elevation and right kinds of habitats.
Our strategy was to spend a lot of time in the rainforest to get all the birds, especially endemics and/or species threatened with extinction. After all, the number of birds you see and photograph is directly proportional to the time you spend on the field. That is why almost every day we woke up sharp at 3:00 am, had breakfast at 3:30, went on the field at 4:00 so that after a 2 hour hike (often up a mountain) in the dark, we would be ready to see the crepuscular birds just as the sun is rising. If you are even 30 minutes late you could miss whole categories of animals. We had lunch on the field and returned every day around 5-6 pm giving us some time after dinner to do night birding for owls. Almost every day we went to bed before 9pm.
Getting the rare birds is tricky. There are 600+ birds in the Philippines, of which nearly 200 are endemic, which means that they are ONLY found in the Philippines. You want to focus entirely on those, others can be seen elsewhere. The problem with endemics is that they are endemic, you can't see them elsewhere. If you miss that one rare endemic bird that lives on the top of Mt. Kitanglad, guess where you have to go again to see it? And there is no guarantee you'll see it each time so focus is razor sharp when searching for these birds, and everybody is silent. Some of these waits took us more than 5 hours. You have a lot of time to think when you are waiting to hear the call of a bird for five hours on a mountain.
It was during one of these long waits that I realized that birdwatching is much like venture capital . You look at a vast landscape, whether it is a dense jungle with figs and mahogany, or a wetland with Mangroves, and most of the time the landscape is barren. It seems like there is nothing to see, or everything you see is something you've seen before. But then, in the distance among a flock of common birds, you see something unique like a Scale-crested Malkoha camouflaged among a bunch of similar trees. That's the company you want to invest in. You focus right away to make sure the bird you are seeing is the real one, you look for identifying characteristics; that's what diligence is. Once you are sure you get close with your camera and binoculars and take the picture. There is your investment. Often times the bird flies away or hides before you get a shot, so you have to sometimes be patient to find the investment or run fast to chase it down, this means getting off the trail path and into the wilderness where you can easily get lost. Yes, you have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes to find the best investments. Most importantly, good birds don't show up in a linear way, just like good investments, and you always always have to keep your eyes open. Luckily for entrepreneurs, VC's often do more than just take a picture but I digress.
A little bit about the rainforest, which is the "where we did it" part. We all know documentaries about rainforests where we are shown vividly colorful animals displaying all sorts of dazzling behaviors. Well those documentaries take years to make, and most of the time when you look at a rainforest, especially a lowland tropical one like the one in the island of Palawan, you see nothing but dense, dense flora. What amazed me beyond anything else is the speed at which plants rot and decay in the forest. Life is so active that nothing stays on the ground for long. With the help of constant rain and fungus like I've never seen anywhere, dead plants decay fast. It's not when they are dead that they start decaying either. As soon as a new leaf forms, there are 3-4 different fungi on them eating it alive and 2-3 different animals doing the same. To survive in the forest, natural selection forces you to reproduce fast, develop fast, and spread fast. Otherwise you are eaten. Ants and termites are everywhere (including in your socks) and when they bite, they draw blood. Interestingly this dense activity of life is what gives endemic species an advantage, it's hard for introduced species to make their way in. You don't have a lot of time to wonder around and take breaks when you are walking in a lowland tropical rainforest, which brings me to my final point about the emergent effect of both birdwatching in a dense rainforest.
Simplify your life! That's what it boils down to. Places we stayed often did not have electricity (that simplifies things a lot, though we had to carry ice on horses to enjoy a cold beer), they have little or no cell phone coverage. The forest is so dense that focusing on the path and the birds is all what you have energy for. The result for me was a vast simplification of my life for two weeks. Eat, walk, find birds, sleep. That's it. With such simplification comes focus. Pictures of the birds you are looking for are clear in your head, what you are doing, and why you are doing it is crystal clear. We slept in very modest housing, on a sponge bed 10cm thick, but nobody cared. The result of all this clarity is that it is addictive. You start thinking that the mountain life is your normal life and that all this civilization is temporary. Maybe it appeals to a primal need, which is hunting of course. Whatever it is, I highly recommend that you do such a trip, even do it looking for birds, but do it in a harsh environment that forces you to focus and simplify. You will love the feeling.
As for our trip result, we observed 255 species of bird of which 122 were endemic, a Philippine record for the 13 days we had, according to our guide who'se been the premier birder in the philippines for the last 30 years.