Birdwatching is a truly specialized hobby that tests the perseverance and patience for anyone who is interested in doing so.
This is because birds are elusive creatures, and spotting one — let alone seeing it up real close — is like a game of hide and seek.
But for true hobbyists, the entire forest of Alcoy town in southern Cebu can be their playground.
The 1.6-hectare protected timberland in Barangay Nug-as of Alcoy town, 93.4 kilometers south of Cebu City, is the largest, remaining national forest reserve in the province of Cebu.
Called Nug-as Forest, the limestone mountain range that is 750
feet above sea level actually encompasses three municipalities in the south — Argao, Dalaguete, and Alcoy.
The mountain’s enormous and broad structure, coupled with thick trees covering its steep slopes, looks intimidating compared to the sea waves of Cebu Strait softly kissing the white-sand shore at its feet. This could have explained why most visitors of Alcoy, a coastal town with only eight barangays and a population of 16,600, prefer the beach.
But while the slopes of Nug-as Forest in Alcoy can be intimidating to some, it is a haven for endangered birds and a great spot for birdwatchers who hope to see avian species that can only be found in the island of Cebu.
Nug-as Forest is about four kilometers from the town center and once the prospective birdwatchers have reached the hearth of the forest, they are completely unplugged from urban life.
Mobile phone communications, either through text or call, do not work; and electricity, as well as safe water supply, is sparse.
Two forest wardens from the Kapunungan sa mga Mag-uuma sa Yutang Lasangnon sa Bulalacao (KMLYB), a group of Nug-as residents dedicated to preserve the forest life in their community, will greet and instruct tourists on how to play hide and seek with the birds found in the area.
Teodoro Amaca and Pedro Villarta, both forest wardens since 2002, guide birdwatchers to five locations where endemic birds in Cebu — such as the famous Cebu black shama, fondly called as siloy, the Cebu hawk-owl, and the Cebu flowerpecker — are found.
Prior to the actual birdwatching, Amaca asks birdwatchers not to wear brightly colored garments.
Only those with earthly shades such as dark blue, black, dark green and brown are allowed since birds can quickly spot foreign colors like white, pink, red, and yellow.
“You must be discreet when you want to see a siloy or a Cebu hawk-owl,” he said in Cebuano.
Teodoro advises birdwatchers to limit their team to five members. Boisterous laughter and loud talk are prohibited once they begin their trek inside the forest.
Villarta, on the other hand, carries a portable electronic speaker in which bird calls are recorded and played.
He knows exactly what particular trees birds like the Cebu hawk-owl frequently roost on. Once he locates the tree, Villarta instructs birdwatchers to hide behind a tree or a clump of bushes.
“I will be playing their bird call to communicate to them, and tell them to come here. They can measure the distance and point the exact location of the sound’s source so it’s better if we find one of their favorite spots. When my bird call ends, they usually reply and that’s my cue to signal everyone to duck and not to make noises because their replies meant that they are coming to us,” explains Villarta.
Flashing lights from phone screens or cameras are prohibited during birdwatching, and wardens are the only ones authorized to beam a specialized flashlight to the direction of the birds in order to avoid blinding the creatures.
“You can only use your flashlights when you are still trekking towards the birdwatching spot. You have to turn it off once you reach there, otherwise (the birds) won’t come,” says Villarta in a pre-trek briefing.
Once the birds finally land on a nearby tree, total silence must be observed in order to see them for a longer duration.
Birds can be nocturnal and diurnal, but the forest wardens recommend bird enthusiasts to come over to Nug-as Forest before the break of dawn if they want to spot a siloy or a Cebu flowerpecker.
Villarta says siloys usually go out before sunrise to hunt insects as their first meal of the day, and once the sun has fully risen, the chances of spotting one of these elusive birds can go from little to nada.
Siloy (scientific name: Copsychus cebuensis) is endemic to Cebu, which means it cannot be found in other places aside from where it was discovered.
Its feathers is a mix of black and dark blue and its height only reaches to a maximum of 20 centimeters. When combined, these characteristics make the bird even more elusive to the naked eye despite its inability to glide over towering trees.
But that also make the shrubs and bushes within Nug-as Forest great places to spot a siloy.
Binoculars, and non-flashing cameras with powerful zoom lens are recommended in order to spot a siloy at close range. But only a few have actually seen a siloy, much less take a picture of it, according to the forest wardens.
At around 4 a.m., the siloys in Nug-as Forest fill the dawn air with their melodious singing.
This is the cue for every birdwatcher to begin a quiet search for them.
But since siloys are known to be shy, their rhythmic tweeting can also be interpreted as a form of mockery to those who are unfortunate enough not to spot them — even though they may just be sitting on a thin branch in a nearby bush.
Siloys are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) since 2008. But Amaca and Villarta say the bird’s population might be increasing based on recent sightings of siloys in the woods of Consolacion town and Danao City, both in northern Cebu.
“Our group is continually checking their status in Consolacion and Danao, and hopefully we can extend our personnel and efforts up to there,” Amaca says.
The IUCN placed the population of siloys at 3,300 as of 2016, but its number was still considered as decreasing, citing continued forest clearings in the south of Cebu.
The siloy’s smaller cousin, the red-banded Cebu flowerpecker (scientific name: Dicaeum quadricolor), had a more dramatic decrease in their population since the 1980s after rampant degradations in the forests of Cebu. These birds — distinguishable for its red marking across the chest which resembles a bleeding heart — are harder to spot.
Cebu flowerpeckers only grow up to 11 centimeters and the IUCN once declared it as extinct in 1988. But a group of Cebuano researchers from a university in Cambridge in the United Kingdom rediscovered their presence in Alcoys’ forest in 2004.
Even if avian experts managed to locate the Cebu flowerpecker, the latest count from the IUCN reveals that as of 2016, their population is only 105. They were classified as a ‘critically endangered’ species whose population has been continually decreasing.
In the IUCN’s Red List spectrum, species declared as ‘critically endangered’ is only a step away from being extinct.
The Philippines is home to several species of hawk-owls, which are the smaller members of the owl family. These nocturnal creatures hunt food at night.
The Cebu hawk-owl (scientific name: Ninox rumseyi) used to be classified as the same species as the Philippine hawk-owls.
However, they were declared as different species by bird ecologists who conducted a specialized study on their conservation status at Nug-as Forest in Alcoy in 2012.
Avian scientists from the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. (PBCFI) and the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) concluded that the Cebu hawk-owls have large, yellow eyes unlike the Philippine hawk-owls which have wide, blue eyes.
The hoots of a Cebu hawk-owl also differ completely from the Philippine hawk-owl, as the former’s melody usually ends with a low note while the latter has monotonous hoots.
The Cebu hawk-owl reaches only to a height of 30 centimeters, which is surprisingly small for an owl.
Villarta says Cebu hawk-owls are considered inferior avians in the forest ecosystem. Bigger predators such as the common Philippine red-hawks and the common brown owls, which grow to more than 24 inches, frequently bully the hawk-owls.
“Hawk-owls are shy but completely territorial. When they spot a human within their territory, they either fly away or start pecking the person. But usually they just fly away, and when they do, it is like a sign of giving up their territory to the new invader,” he explains in Cebuano.
Cebu hawk-owls are creatures programmed by Mother Nature to be monogamous, which meant that when they reach maturity, it is a necessity for them to look for a ‘lifetime’ partner to hunt and expand their territory. A pair can claim a territory with a radius of at least 10 kilometers while a lone one at two kilometers.
“Birdwatchers who want to see a Cebu hawk-owl should not let their presence be felt by these birds because they are territorial. If they see you, and they fly away, they will never go back to that place. And it’s also regarded as a threat to them because it’s like they are being cornered to hunt in fewer places with more predators closing in to them,” Villarta says in Cebuano.
The IUCN also classified the hawk-owls in Cebu as an endangered species, with a current population of only 400.
‘The Big 5’ tourism campaign
Despite studies being made on their conservation status, which dates back as far as 2004, news on the presence of these endemic birds has only reached to the provincial government of Cebu sometime in 2010, which eventually intervened to create measures for their protection.
But the information drive and spreading of awareness about these endemic birds around the province was not enough, and it prompted the administration of Gov. Hilario Davide III to include the town of Alcoy into their tourism office’s community-based, eco-tourism campaign titled “The Big 5.”
Provincial Tourism Officer Joselito “Boboi” Costas, speaking to reporters present during the pilot-testing of the birdwatching leg of The Big 5 at the Nug-as Forest last July 21, says that aside from boosting the potential of Alcoy’s tourism industry, this particular activity is meant to allow tourists to appreciate nature and the environment.
Capitol and the municipal government of Alcoy have built the Nug-as campsite last June, where travelers and birdwatchers can stay safely for the duration of their birdwatching and trekking activities in Nug-as Forest.
The campsite has a two-storey semi-concrete house that can shelter up to 16 people inside. Tent spots and campfire locations can also be found within its premises.
Costas says they adopted a foreign tourism model that incorporates the community in the tourism offering by training the residents of Barangay Nug-as to handle housekeeping and develop other skills needed to compliment the birdwatching activity, which in turn can be their means of livelihood.
“It’s tourism that promotes and preserves the diversity of nature,” Costas adds.
Alcoy is ready
The Big 5, which is expected to be launched this August, will be the first time for the local government unit (LGU) of Alcoy to manage this kind of tourism model.
Alcoy Mayor Michael Angelo Sistoso says that while birdwatching as a tourism campaign can be a challenging task, he assures the public that their LGU can handle it.
“You know what? It’s great that we can offer other tourist spots aside from our beaches,” he adds.
Since Nug-as Forest is a remote area that has no communication facility, concerns on safety were raised about birdwatching activities. As a solution, Sistoso reveals that all future birdwatchers and visitors bound for the Nug-as woods are required to register first with the tourism office of Alcoy.