A New Hope for Haring Ibon

MT. APO NATURAL PARK, MINDANAO. It came out of its shell on December 23, 2013 heralding a new hope for the vanishing breed of the largest and most majestic eagle in the world – the Great Philippine Eagle. It is the world’s rarest raptor, albeit critically endangered because of the continuing loss of its natural habitat, the country’s old growth forests, and hunting, though illegal remains rampant and unchecked.

It was just 24 days old when we saw it alone in the nest which the red lauan tree dearly holds. Occasionally it flapped its wings, sometimes it stood up, made few small steps, and sat down. Oftentimes it stood still, but mostly it slept.

We were wondering where its parents were, but were told they could be hunting for food. Usually only the male adult hunts for food, while the female takes care of the chick. But the female adult was nowhere beside the chick, and so we thought, until it was spotted by the chieftain who guided us. The female adult was up in one of the branches, hidden away from our view, but occasionally we could see its head turn to watch over her offspring, and then back again to watch the horizon and the valley at the back of the tree.

This went on for more than two hours, neither parent nor offspring making nothing spectacular. The male adult was nowhere in sight too. So when the chieftain reminded us of the time, we unhesitatingly packed our gears for another slippery hike down the mountain. But the chief suddenly shouted and everybody came in frenzy. The mother came down and joined her baby! So hurriedly we unpacked and excitedly started clicking our shutters.

The mother eagle started picking up some leaves, cutting off some small branches and laying down these twigs around the chick. At first we could not fathom what she must be doing, but the chief said the mother is blanketing her baby with leaves and twigs to protect it from the creeping cold. Indeed it was and what an experience to witness this motherly care to her baby.

Yet the baby was not easy to sleep. It got up and crawled to its mother’s breast who dearly cuddled it up until it began to sleep. And when we couldn’t see any more action, we then bade goodbye to our guide and the tribal folks who gave us hot coffee as while we were photographing this spectacular scene.

(Photography Lesson: I borrowed the Canon EOS 1DX from Canon Marketing Philippines, Inc. (CMPI). Canon has been a supporter and sponsor of WBPP, and is regularly lending their demo camera bodies and lenses. It was my first time to use the professional body and it was a mistake not to study all its operations. I just found out a day later that the photos I took on my first day of use were all taken in JPEG mode. It should have been in RAW to be able to store all posible details. The photos above and below were all taken in large JPEG files, lots of details have been lost. They could have been sharper and can be enlarged have they been taken in RAW. Lesson, read the manual and check all the settings before using an equipment. And always shoot in RAW mode.)(

Carlo Gomez and I, who are both officers of the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, Inc. (WBPP), came a day before the rest of the officers to prepare the way for the First WBPP Philippine Eagle Expedition. We made coordinations with the regional environment office, the local government unit and the Tribal Council. It was not just the slippery terrain brought about by days of heavy rains that made our climb difficult, coordinations with authorities must likewise be hurdled with in order to gain access. Still, we were able to have that precious three hours to see the Philippine Eagle in the wild. I could have forgone those three hours, but it was unforgivable to Carlo to let the day pass away without him seeing and photographing the crown jewel of Philippine biodiversity. He came all the way from Puerto Princesa City in Palawan where he is based.

The chick was then 25 days old. As the entire Board of Trustees of WBPP have already arrived, most of the officers occupied the easiest site to reach. it was the site where we stayed the other day. To lessen the crowd, Carlo and I decided to hike farther to another site.

We all saw the mother eagle standing over her chick. Like a praetorian guard, this female adult didn’t move its feet even a bit nor changed position for the entire afternoon that we were there. It was amazing to see it stood still with only the head turning to watch over the horizon before it or to see moving creatures on the mountain slopes and the air above.

(Other members of the WBPP Board of Trustees and Execom Officers who joined the expedition were Rey Sta. Ana, Tirso Paris, Ramon Quisumbing and Jimmy Javier. Ramon brought along his brother Jayjay who is also a WBPP Member to accompany him and the group.)

When another raptor passed by above us, this female adult suddenly became alert with its crest slowly rising to attention. The eyes were fierce-looking and its head slowly following the flight of the raptor above. It was prepared to fly and attack, just to protect its baby and the food behind. It was amazing to see this eagle’s head turn even 360 degrees as it watched over the flying hawk.

There was not much activity that afternoon, so when the rains started pouring in and the fogs began settling down, we hurriedly left the sites for fear that we would slide all the way down the mountain to the village. A few of our porters, and even the horse, could not escape the slippery trail.

(Photography Lesson: In using Canon EOS 1DX, I noticed that video recording may be enabled by choosing Movies in the use of the Live View. While in this setting, one can still shoot still photos, but the settings of the photos taken follow the settings made for the video.  If the video has partial metering and higher ISO, then the photos taken under this setting follow those settings and not those settings made for still photos. To avoid this, one must always return to Stills option in using the Live View. This does not apply when one shoots stills without using the Live View Mode. The photo above was taken while the Live View is in Movies setting. The photo below was taken in Still mode. See the difference in sharpness and noise. The Still mode is better.)

The chick has now turned 26th day old. We made it sure to be early that day in order to see the male eagle, but we did not expect that we would be derailed for a few times by the muddy and slippery road that our 4×4 vehicles navigated with great difficulty and with much help from human muscles. When we arrived at our usual sites, alas it was all covered in fog!

As soon as the fog began to fade away, we made our first glimpse of the nest with the mother eagle covering its baby with her wings, like an umbrella over it, protecting it from the rains. Even with a thin fog veil, the sight is one to behold – another expression of motherly love. For a second, we also saw the male eagle fly out, but it eluded our frames and made us all cry out into frustration and cursing those muddy and slippery portions of the road that robbed us of our precious minutes.

Then the fog came down again engulfing the entire valley and ravine. Sometimes the rains stopped, but then the fog would come in again. Often times both would be come one after the other, sometimes they came at the same time, yet the caring mother stool still providing shelter to its baby, making sure that it does not get wet nor feel cold.When the fogs clothed everything below and above the mountain, the valley and the ravine, all we could see was a blank canvass before us. When suddenly loud calls and cries could be heard from the nest, suddenly a flurry of activities were happening in there. The father eagle has arrived but no chance for us to photograph the encounter as the fog as thick as cumulus clouds have blocked our view. So when the veil was slowly lifting, we could barely see the mother and the baby already busy with something.

(Photography Lesson: I chose not to increase contrast and push the black for clearer photos in order to show the effects made by the fog. The photos above and below were processed to show the fog as I saw it. Sometimes removing the haze and the fog effects by various techniques (yes, you can remove it) to show a clearer photo diminishes the dramatic impact that photo may convey… Another lesson: I was so much obsessed in getting close-up photos and in zooming in at the eagles I forgot to take photo of the larger scene to show the entire habitat, and to take photos in portrait vertical dimension. A bare 300mm would have made this possible, or even a kit lens.)

The male eagle had brought a prey. We could see the red flesh meat on the nest but we could not determine which kind of animal the prey was. It was well clamped on the nest by the mother eagle’s big claw, and slowly its beak pierced the flesh piece by piece and feed it to the hungry chick.

If she gets big chunks of meat, she swallowed them all. But when only a little piece was scrapped from the prey, she feed it to her baby. Most of the times, she pierced small pieces which the chick quickly swallowed.

We were told that monkeys are the favorite preys of the eagles there, and so are other big birds and even boars, wild pigs. They also prey on cats and chickens that loitered around a few of the houses on the mountain tops. The folks have many stories about the eagle’s hunting and preying habits, but even if a few of their domestic animals have been preyed upon in the past, they have loved and protected the eagle. The “Banog,” as they called it, is part of their life and culture and has been with them since time immemorial. Like the old growth forest in their ancestral lands, the Philippine Eagles have been part of their lives and the lives of their ancestors.

The red lauan tree where upon its belly the Philippine Eagle has made its nest would have been cut down, and so is the forest upon which it stood would have been cleared out to pave the  way for a road for use of a mining company. There could have been no Philippine eagle in the area had the miners able to gain foothold in the ancestral domain. The Bagobo Tagabawa tribe, led by their chieftains, their datus and their Tribal Council, made a stand to say NO TO MINING in their area which is an old growth forest,  and embraced the glory of their forest, nature and the mountains, against the lure of royalties from the miners.

As the mother fed her baby, so we were served with native coffee. I called it the Bagobo Kape, a mixture made by the village folks from the coffee beans they grind and cook. They plant both robusta and arabica coffee, and serving coffee to guests is a tradition of the tribe. Nothing beats sipping hot native coffee, while witnessing the king of birds feed its chick, on the hitherlands of Mt. Apo, amidst the fogs and the rains.

There was an instance when a big chunk was fed to the chick. I though it could not swallow that piece but it easily did. Maybe it was a chicken or another big bird or a monkey, everybody could only guess, nobody is sure though, but it was an amazing experience to see the lord of the forest feed its young. It is not too late for us to protect it, just like what the Bagobo Tagabawas have been doing. We need to protect our forest. We need to support and help them protect it.

Thanks to Canon Marketing Philippines, Inc. and to Roy De Guzman Daantos for loaning the Canon 1DX body and 600mm II lens.

Thanks also to DENR-BMB led by Director Mundita Sison-Lim, DENR-XI Regional Eagle Watch Team Leader, Barangay Chair, the Tribal Council, and the Bagobo Tagabawa folks for the opportunity and access.

Kudos to Jocer, Aning, Aljo, Nonoy, Toto and others who helped us reach the mountain tops.

Thanks also to the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) Region XI.

January 2014, Mt. Apo Natural Park.