PHILIPPINES – Two rare species of water birds were spotted for the first time at the Candaba Swamp in Pampanga during the annual Asian Waterbird Census on January 14. According to Michael Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), the last nearby sighting of the black-faced spoonbill, one of the rare species, was along Manila Bay in 1914, although there were other sightings in Batanes and Palawan.
Another rare water bird spotted for the first time in the Candaba swamp was the pied avocet. It was last seen at a Cavite lagoon in 2005.
The two species are originally from Mainland China and usually spend the winter in Taiwan. Carmela Española, a biologist from the University of the Philippines speculated that recent cold weather in Taiwan might have caused the birds to move further south.
“Siguro talagang malamig ang winter ngayon doon kaya, lumipat sila dito. (Maybe this winter has been too cold there, so they moved here),” she said.
Other species such as egrets, eastern marsh, Philippine mallards, oriental hobby, and common kingfishers were also spotted during the census conducted by the WBCP and officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Lu said that 12,613 water birds were counted during the half-day census, a number lower than the approximately 17,000 water birds counted last year. Early tilling of rice lands surrounding the bird’s sanctuary might be factor for the lower number of water birds this year, according to Lu.
However, current water bird populations are only a fraction of what they once were.
“In the 1980s they would routinely count 100,000 wild Philippine ducks and mainland Asian garganays (wild ducks) in one day, just for the two species,” said Lu.
The decline is a reflection of the status of birds native to the Philippines – of the 593 birds found in the country, 181 are indigenous. Of these, 25 are considered endangered, half of them critically.
Thirty years ago marshes covered some 32,000 hectares of the area but due to the spread of agriculture and urbanization, only 72 hectares remain. Among the approximately 50 wetlands in the Philippines, the Candaba area is a key staging ground for birds that return to continental Asia in the spring. But as the swamp has shrunk so has the supply of fish, snails, insects and other food. Rice paddies and communities that raise hogs and domesticated ducks surround what remains.
In a press release last month, DENR Secretary Lito Atienza praised the efforts of Candaba Mayor Jerry Pelayo who set aside half of his personal property, including part of a large fish pond, as a sanctuary for the migratory birds. The mayor also banned the trapping of birds, declaring the marsh a protected area and asked restaurants in surrounding towns to stop serving wildlife dishes. Pelayo said he has also asked hog farmers upstream not to dispose of pig waste in streams that empty into the swamp.
“A lot of the wetlands are under threat because people keep reclaiming them,” said WBCP’s Michael Lu. “Since the area is all titled property, if owners drain the swamp, the habitat would disappear and there is nothing the government could do,” he added.
Despite the grim statistics for bird populations, environment secretary Atienza is optimistic about the future of bird-watching in the country.
“I see very bright prospects, particularly in the area of eco-tourism, not only because we are drawing more and more migratory birds each year, but we also have lots of our endemic species. But the more important thing about bird-watching is that more and more people and local officials like Mayor Pelayo are getting involved, and this is good for our environment.”
Atienza also said that bird sanctuaries in the country are becoming “safe havens both for the migratory birds and our endemic birds.” DENR records show there are 159 bird-monitoring sites scattered throughout the country. The bird census is undertaken annually during the second and third weeks of January.
The Philippines forms part of the East Asia-Australasian Flyway, one of eight major migratory water-bird flyways around the globe. It extends from the Arctic Circle in Russia and Alaska to Australia and New Zealand in the south, encompassing 22 countries. Around 50 million migratory water birds from over 50 different populations, including 28 globally threatened species, use this flyway every year.
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