Friday, April 24, 2015

Amazing Banaue leg, or almost 600km in 38 hrs)

We left Baguio around 8:00am because of the long drive ahead.  We were headed for the municipality of Banaue, in the province of Ifugao, a distance of about 200 kms. We passed La Trinidad, famous for its strawberries and shortly after we were on the scenic mountainous Halsema highway.  Because of the long drive, Kris was on his "mad driver" mode early and I felt what a pinball must feel like.  

The van suddenly stopped because somebody up front, (either Kris or Anthony),  saw a big bird on a bare tree on the side of the road.  I had my short lens attached (because I was trying to shoot landscapes, which was impossible, considering our speed and movement), so I fumbled for the tele-zoom but by the time I looked up again, the bird was gone.  Anthony ID'ed it as a Buzzard but since I did not get a clear look, I am not counting it on my list.  

We drove on and when we reached a part of the road where there was a shoulder, we stopped, to stretch our legs and take in the spectacular scenery. We had been on the road for two hours already. 

I was the last out of the van but as soon as I was out, I saw a black bird bigger than a starling but smaller than a crow. I knew it was a lifer. Island Thrush.

Island Thrush, lifer # 201.

Anthony Balbin, fellow WBPP member and our guide

Rafael Vita, from Madrid

One of the views along the Halsema Highway

We also saw Mountain Verditer Flycatcher in the same spot but there was no clear shot.  

We moved on and our next stop was the highest point along the Philippine Highway system. 

Crested Myna

After a few minutes, we pushed on again.  We had been traveling for about four hours already and the road was continuously winding, twisting, zigzagging, no stretch of a straight road whatsoever. We stopped for a quick lunch in a small hotel in a small town.  And then we pushed on again.  We reached the the town of Bontoc at about 3:40pm.  Loaded gas and we continued our journey.  Along the way, we saw the road that leads to Sagada. I also noticed road signs that had places like Kalinga, Mountain Province, etc.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, it was a fun journey for a geography buff, pinball feeling notwithstanding.

We reached the area of Mt. Polis around 4:20pm.  But the twisting mountain road was dark (because dark rain clouds have virtually blocked the sun), wet (and still drizzling), foggy, and there was a landslide.  Kris stopped and sent Anthony ahead on foot to check if there was a way through. Later that evening, Anthony relayed that walking along the road, he could hear sounds of rocks falling.  He had walked about 30 meters when another van overtook us and went ahead.  We knew then that there was a way through.  As it turned out, we traversed that dark, twisting road with rocks on both sides for about 30 minutes. Because of the landslide, there was only one lane.  Luckily we did not meet another vehicle because I do not know what would have happened.  

We finally reached the town of Banaue at around 5:00pm.  We stopped at the outskirts and had our first sight of the world famous rice terraces. Although what we saw was not yet the UNESCO Heritage site, (which was Batad and Bangaan), we still stopped and gaped and took some photos.  

Our unofficial welcome party...

After a short period, we proceeded to our hotel.

Our official welcome greeting...

We stayed at the Banawe Hotel.  Our rooms had a veranda overlooking some terraces.  So naturally, after putting down our bags and kicking off our shoes, we went to the veranda and saw several birds that looked like Pacific or Barn Swallow flying about.  After a couple of minutes, Anthony's keen eyes detected something and he blurted, "iba 'to" (these are different). Then Marta wsa in our room bidding us to go to theirs down the hall.  We found Rafael at their veranda photographing something on the veranda of the room beside theirs.  When he finished, Anthony and I took our turn.  It turned out that the birds were Red-rumped Swallows. 

Red-rumped Swallow, lifer #202

When we returned to our veranda, we found a nest in one corner of the roof.  A few minutes later, two birds arrived and promptly went inside the nest, not minding our presence.  

Nesting in our veranda

We were told that there was a Chocolate Boobook (Brown Hawk Owl), that frequents the parking lot and pool area of our hotel.  We asked the guards and they confirmed it.  So after dinner, Anthony and I staked out the pool area. A few minutes later, Marta and Rafael also came.  But the problem was, it was drizzling. So after waiting for about an hour, we turned it. 

One of our, (Anthony's and mine), targets in Banaue was the Chestnut-faced Babbler.  So even before sunrise, Anthony and I were already at the pool area. There was a lot of chirping but we could not see anything.   Soon, Marta and Rafael were also there.  But they left to have breakfast after a few minutes.  They were anxious to start our tour to Bangaan Village and Batad Rice Terraces, both UNESCO Heritage sites.  

Anthony and I decided to wait a few minutes longer and we were soon rewarded when several Chestnut-faced Babblers arrived.  Getting a photo though was another thing.  The birds were near but constantly moving under cover of the leaves.  The overcast skies and the light drizzle made things even more difficult.  But we were not going to leave without a decent shot, not when the bird is so near.  Fortunately, one perched long enough in an open branch to get these shots.  

Chestnut-faced Babbler, lifer #203

Another photo of the Chestnut-faced Babbler

After getting our shots, we headed for breakfast.  Then we rode a jeepney to Bangaan Village.  We explained to our guide that we will be stopping along the way to take some photos of the scenery, but more importantly, to bird.  It turned out that our guide, has undergone some DOT-sponsored training on birding (under Adri Constantino).  We passed a road (still within the town proper), that had terraced rice paddies on both sides and somebody saw a bird so we stopped.  (Anthony and I were still hoping for a Mountain Shrike).  But there were no birds except for a couple of Philippine Bulbuls on a nearby tree.  Our jeepney's engine though would not start.  I thought they would call for a replacement vehicle but our guide and driver called to guys nearby and they pushed the vehicle till it started.  I asked what was wrong and the driver mumbled something about his alternator.  (In my mind, I was saying, so now what?, either he will not turn off the engine whenever we stop or he will always park in an incline).  True enough, he never shut off the engine during our numerous stops for fear that he cannot get it started again.  

These are the birds we spotted enroute to Bangaan village.

Bi-colored Flowerpecker. Second time to see this bird but no decent shot in both instances

Whiskered Tree Swift, lifer #203.  An unusual looking bird. Was hopping it would at least perch on a tree but nope, it was happy perching on the electric cables. 

Blue-headed Fantail. 

A pair of Blue-headed Fantails

Yellowish White-eye

Philippine Coucal

A closer look at the Blue-headed Fantail

We saw a brownish bird slightly smaller than a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.  It was also very skittish.  I never managed to get a decent photo but Anthony was able to manage one or two and it has since been identified as a Green-backed Whistler. This bird made an appearance when I first went to Bangkong Kahoy in Dolores, Quezon.  But I never really saw it there and I had no photos whatsoever. However, this time I saw the bird clearly (just no photos), so I included it in my bird list. This would be lifer # 204. 

Bangaan village, viewed from the highway

We left Bangaan around 11am and decided to go to Batad Rice Terraces.  From the place where the jeepney parked (it was an incline so the driver shut off his engine), to the place they call the view deck is a downhill walk of about 45 minutes (according to our guide).  Of course, that usually means, more than 45 minutes for the ordinary tourist (like us).  I am in the tour business so... hehehe  

An uphill trail is always difficult for me (because of my weight), while going downhill always scares me that I will stumble and roll down the hill (or in this case, a cliff). So going up is difficult for my heart while going down is hard on my thighs and legs.  I was treading my way down carefully when a couple of local people overtook us.  What made it amazing was they were all carrying supplies, (and they made it look so easy, even the children).

The "boy" in blue must be carrying 40-50 bottles in those two baskets.

Two cases of softdrinks in can

Another two cases of canned soda

The road is being widened and concreted. A few minutes before I passed this place, two dynamites were detonated to make the big rocks into smaller rocks (so that it can be loaded on a dump truck and brought to another place).

Of course, we birded along the way...

Looking at the Metallic Sunbird, which I never saw :-( 

Finally, we reached Batad... and I took a few minutes just to look at the place and take it all in.  I was at the Great Wall in Beijing last year and while I was looking at wall, I couldn't help but wonder how such a massive construction was accomplished without modern equipment.  The rice terraces brought the same thoughts... That these were made "mano-mano" (by hand), step by step, brick by brick, mind boggling...

Batad Rice Terraces

Batad Rice Terraces

It would have been nice to stay longer. Maybe spend the night but all we had was these few minutes. So we headed back, reluctantly.

Anticipating the long uphill trek back, and not wanting to slow down the group, I decided to start back ahead a few minutes ahead. Walking alone, I had the luxury of stopping to catch my breath without worrying that I was holding the group back. Somewhere along the trail, it started to drizzle so I had to pack the SLR and long lens in my backpack and cover it up with the rain cover. And of course, a few minutes later, I saw another lifer.  It was a small brownish bird , the size of a flowerpecker with a red patch on top of its head.  I had my point and shoot out so I tried taking a photo but I was not successful. So I unpacked my bag but by the time I was able to open by backpack and take out my camera, I already missed the shot.  According to experts, what I saw was most likely the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker.  This would be my 205th lifer.

With much effort, I made it back to the jeep (whew!). We bought ice-cold gatorare at a road side shack and I swear, pink gatorade never tasted so good.  While we were drinking, a Scale-feathered Malkoha did a quick fly-by.  Rafael and Anthony tried to get a shot but they were not able to.   We went back to our hotel, got our stuff and settled for another mad drive to Subic, a distance of about 360 kms.  We passed Lagawe, the capital of Ifugao province, then several towns in Nueva Vizcaya, stopped in a Joliibee in Solano for a late lunch, passed several towns in Nueva Ecija, then Tarlac, then TPLEX which later merged into SCTEX, which brought us to Subic.  We finally reached the Subic Park hotel in Subic, at 10:00pm.  In 38 hours, we had driven almost 600 kms, passed through about eight provinces in three regions.  Needless to say, we were very tired when we got to Subic that we all retired to our rooms and agreed to see each other at the breakfast table. We were to tired to eat dinner but Anthony and I went to a nearby mini-stop for some lucky me noodles. 

And that was how Day 6 ended. 

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