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Burma Exploration and Philippine and Bhutan Tour Reports

by Ben King


1998 PHILIPPINES TOUR: Tension was rising as the second day of our Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle watch was in its final hour. We had spent a large part of the previous day at a good overlook hoping, with no luck, to see an eagle. The only brush with an eagle was one heard while we were inside the forest and couldn't see the sky where it was soaring. We had also spent a large part of today at the overlook without seeing an eagle. It was nearly three in the afternoon and the latest previous flight sighting was about 3:30. We were beginning to fear that we might actually not see this magnificent eagle at its usual site and wondering if there might be an alternate site where we'd have a chance. Suddenly Gerry Shemilt spotted a large bird on the other side of the deep forested valley we were watching. "It's the Philippine Eagle." The huge bird was below eye level flying up the valley. Close inspection with binoculars showed it was carrying a Flying Lemur in its talons. It perched briefly in a large tree and continued its flight up the valley and out of slight, giving everyone an excellent, though short, view. There were relieved smiles all around. We had seen the whopper!

Our sighting of the eagle carrying the lemur was the first indication that the eagles are nesting again this year, a hopeful sign. However, this year's nest is several miles above the site used only a few years ago. While the original site is still forested, disturbance has increased dramatically in the last few years, in spite of the area being declared a national park six years ago. Logging, burning and cultivation continue to accelerate. This year's drought has dramatically increased the number and size of fires and the normal dry season hadn't even begun yet. There isn't currently a site as good as the Mt. Katanglad area for observing the Philippine Eagle and we can't predict how much longer we'll be able to see it there. If seeing this bird and the other fascinating endemic species of the Philippines is important to you, do it soon, before it is too late.

Amid gloom and doom predictions about our species total due to the dryer than normal conditions in the Philippines this El Niño year, we had a grand trip. Our total of 136 endemic species was a new record for any tour, beating last year's record by 3 species. Yes, some were more difficult to find, but we found most of them anyway. We saw 2 species that have never been seen on a tour before, the Visayan Flowerpecker and an undescribed species of shortwing that was discovered only three years ago. We also found again all five species that we first found on a tour in 1997: Whiskered Pitta, Furtive Flycatcher, Luzon Striped Babbler, Mindanao Sunbird (first described in January 1997), and Bagobo Babbler. We saw the Little Slaty Flycatcher for the first time on a KingBird Tour ,and better yet, saw all 4 of the difficult endemic Ficedula flycatchers. An undescribed Cuculus cuckoo gave us good flyby views in Mindanao, our second sighting of this species. The Flame-breasted Fruit-Dove gave us a wonderful show as it stretched to get some fruit in a completely exposed position -- a rare treat. We had long satisfying looks at the recently split Visayan Broadbill, and great scope views of the Red-eared Parrotfinch. All got a brief, but good, look at the nearly extinct Cebu Flowerpecker. We again saw 4 species of pittas (Azure-breasted, Whiskered, Red-bellied and Hooded); five species of hornbills, all 3 monarchs, Chinese Egret, Philippine Duck, Philippine Hawk-Eagle, eight Philippine Cockatoos (the most we've ever seen at one time), 3 racquet-tails, the Azure-rumped Parrot, the 2 exotic endemic malkohas, three endemic coucals, the Palawan and Philippine Scops-Owls, the Philippine Frogmouth, Philippine Trogon, ten kingfishers (including Blue-capped, Spotted, Rufous-lored, Silvery and Indigo-banded), Sooty Woodpecker, all five cuckooshrikes, Philippine Fairy-bluebird, all 3 shamas, Luzon Redstart, 2 wren-babblers, Flame-templed Babbler, Golden-crowned Babbler, 7 tailorbirds, Blue and Rufous Paradise-Flycatchers, all 3 fantails, 13 flowerpeckers, all 11 sunbirds, both spiderhunters, Philippine Bullfinch, Apo Myna and Coleto. It was a superb trip with great birds, gracious hospitality, good company and tasty food.

1998 BHUTAN TOUR: We had gone as far as we could easily go on a steep muddy trail and I played the Satyr Tragopan tape one last time before returning to the road. When the tape was finished, we waited for a response. So far, over several days, I had played the tape repeatedly in good areas with no response whatever. Suddenly, our local guide, who was standing a bit away from us, quietly indicated that he had seen something; whispered "tragopan," and pointed to a place only a few yards away. We froze and played the tape again and again. We saw and heard nothing. So we stepped off the trail and into the forest. Fortunately there was little undergrowth and the visibility was excellent. We walked a short distance in the direction we thought the tragopan had gone and I played the tape again. "There he is, behind us," came an urgent whisper. We all turned and several of us got quick glimpses as he walked out of sight. We moved to a better vantage point and I played the tape again. Soon we spotted him walking from left to right below us. He disappeared quickly and we moved a bit again, hoping to improve our view if he reappeared. He soon emerged and proceeded to walk in full view for about a minute to everyone's delight. His path took him through a patch of sunlight which just seemed to intensify the brilliant red of his plumage against a lush green background. The Satyr Tragopan is one of nature's most spectacular creations.

A few days later, we had good but distant scope views of the Beautiful Nuthatch. It was exciting and satisfying but we wanted more, so we returned to the site two days later in hope of upgrading our look. There were no birds at all at the site, so we walked on to try to find this rare and little known bird. About a half kilometer away, we found a pair that allowed us to watch them at our leisure over a period of about twenty minutes at distances of 40-70 feet at and below eye level with our scopes. Wow! While the tragopan is spectacular, these little fellows are exquisite. We couldn't take our eyes away from them. The fine sky blue lines and edging on the black back are unique in the bird world. We were torn between the nuthatch and the tragopan as our bird of the trip. Another candidate for best bird was the Blood Pheasant, of which we saw 42 in five separate flocks one day. We were able to watch them at length from our bus only 30-50 feet away. These are indeed strange, exotic creatures.

Our most interesting find was 2 Rufous-tailed Thrushes, Turdus naumanni naumanni, which was apparently the first sighting for the Indian Subcontinent, as well as Dusky Thrush and Red-throated and Black-throated Thrushes. We again saw the Chestnut-breasted Partridge, for which we got the first modern record on our 1997 Bhutan Tour. Our sighting of the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker was probably only the second for Bhutan. There were close up views of Ibisbills, Purple Cochoa, Dark-rumped Swifts, an exquisite male Ward's Tragon in the scope at only 40 feet, Blue-fronted Robin, Wallcreeper, 5 species of parrotbills (Great, Brown, Black-throated, Blue-spectacled and Grey-headed), 14 species of laughingthrushes (including Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-chinned, Blue-winged and Scaly), 4 of the small wren-babblers (Bar-winged, Spotted, Rufous-throated and Scaly-breasted), the Red-faced Liocichla, 4 shrike-babblers (including Black-headed and Green), 5 scimitar-babblers (including Slender-billed and Coral-billed), Red-billed Leiothrix, Silver-eared Mesia, Cutia, 2 barwings, 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated), 6 yuhinas, Hill and Rufous-throated Partridges, Kalij Pheasant, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Pin-tailed Pigeon, lots of Asian Emerald Cuckoos, 4 species of hornbills (including great looks at the Rufous-necked), Crimson-breasted, Rufous-bellied and Darjeeling Woodpeckers, Alpine, Rufous-breasted and Maroon-backed Accentors, all 4 bush-robins, White-throated Redstart, 4 forktails, 3 rockthrushes, Long-billed, Plain-backed and Long-tailed Thrushes, Indian Grey Thrush, Broad-billed and Black-faced Warblers, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Rufous-fronted, Fire-capped and Sultan Tits, lots of great views of Green-tailed, Fire-tailed, Gould's, Crimson and Black-throated Sunbirds, Tibetan Serin, 4 rosefinches, 3 separate sightings of the Crimson-browed Finch, Scarlet Finch, and Spot-winged Grosbeak.

We also saw some nice mammals, including Yellow-throated Martin, Goral, Grey and Capped Langurs, Rhesus and Assamese Macques, Barking Deer and several squirrels. Add to the great birding, the good company of the group, the fine hospitality of our Bhutanese hosts and good to excellent food and it was a grand trip.


Suddenly a series of nasal "wank" notes cut the still air, the telltale alarm calls of a tragopan. We froze to get the direction and distance. Slowly, we tried to work our way quietly through the moderately dense bamboo. Unfortunately, we sounded all too much like a herd of elephants crashing through the vegetation. We were at about 8,300 feet (2,500 m.) in extreme northern Burma (Myanmar) about 7 miles (12 km) east of the India border and about 80 miles (133 km) south of Tibet in the southeastern Himalayas on the first ornithological expedition in over 60 years into this remote and long closed area. We had found quite a few large pheasant tracks and were searching the steep slope for tragopans. Both Blyth's and Temminck's were known to be here. I was hoping for Blyth's as we regularly see the Temminck's in Sichuan on our West China Tour. We moved in the direction of the alarm notes and before long we realized we were beyond where the calls were made. Dismayed, we thought we had lost the bird. Our local guide, a short and agile hunter, bounded up the slope and found the tracks in the snow which indicated the tragopans' direction. We followed the hunter and soon he was pointing at a distant object. I caught up and finally spotted a brilliant scarlet patch about 60 yards away. It was the tragopan, but he was facing away and only the back of his head was visible, not enough to know which tragopan it was. He quickly stepped out of sight. I was getting a bit frantic as I took a few steps forward. Finally, the flaming red patch was again in view, this time with most of the bird's back exposed. The sharp demarcation between the flaming scarlet of the hindneck and the basically brown back indicated Blyth's. He was still facing away but soon turned his head just enough to show the bright yellow face and throat which is diagnostic of Blyth's Tragopan. He then walked out of sight. The others soon caught up and we were able to follow the tragopan for about a quarter of a mile, getting intermittent views for everyone. I was especially pleased as it was my fifth and last tragopan and I may have become the first person to see all five in the wild. Tally ho! The Blyth's Tragopan has been the most difficult to see because all the places it lives have been off-limits to Westerners for many years. Ours was the first positive identification of this species in the field by Western ornithologists in at least 60 years. Several of the expedition members also saw the Temminck's Tragopan later the same day and the following day as well. The fact that we were able to follow these birds and get good observations testifies to the low hunting levels in this area, and suggests a healthy population of these spectacular birds.

A few days earlier, as we were preparing to trek on to our next camp, Bob Ferguson noted a large heron flying up-river in the early morning fog. Abandoning our trekking plans for a while, we moved over to a high bluff above the river valley to see if we could find it. We scanned and scanned with our binoculars but could see nothing as the fog gradually lifted. Finally, about a half mile up-river, I saw a grey-looking heron. I quickly set up the scope and peered eagerly into the eyepiece. White-bellied Heron! There it was in the early morning sunlight, one of the rarest and least known herons in the world! It had the long plumes extending from the crown and neck of a breeding plumaged adult. We watched it for a long time as it preened itself, getting good views of the white belly contrasting with the plain grey head and neck. Later we walked up-river for a closer view, but got only a glimpse as it flew away. Three more close fly-by sightings of the White-Bellied Heron were had before the expedition was over.

This was a dream trip come true. The center of montane bird distribution in Asia is the southeastern Himalayas, that is: SE Tibet, extreme NW Yunnan, extreme northern Burma and eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Ever since World War II, all this area and the areas close to it were completely closed to Westerners. However, in the 1980s the peripheral areas started to open up, a process that accelerated in the 1990s. Gradually we edged closer to the core area as we visited Sichuan, Bhutan, NW Yunnan, and West Burma. However, this was the first full-blown expedition right into the core area (except for Dr. S. Dillon Ripley's trips into eastern Arunachal Pradesh) by western ornithologists since before World War II. It was immensely exciting. Organized by Dr. Hugh Buck, we were a team of five western bird-folks and a crew of 90 Burmese. We're planning to offer this same expedition in November of 1999 as a KingBird expedition. It is a rugged trip, requiring camping and trekking up and down difficult terrain. Because of limited camp sites on the steep ridges, we'll have to limit the trip to 8 participants. If you're in good health and physical condition and wish a marvelous opportunity to explore some beautiful pristine wilderness, this expedition will be right up your alley.

We found 2 new species for Burma and SE Asia: (1) the Goldcrest, an expected Himalayan species and (2) the Snowy-throated Babbler, Stachyris oglei, previously thought to be an Arunachal Pradesh endemic. This babbler was quite a surprise as it is a lowland species and the high mountains that form the border between India and Burma are an effective barrier for many lowland species. Our sighting of 20 individuals of the exquisite Beautiful Nuthatch suggests that this species is far more common here than at any of the few other known localities. We found the little known Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush and the Spot-breasted Laughingthrush to be rather common. The Blue-spectacled (Greater Rufous-headed) and Rufous-headed Parrotbills were both common. Coral-billed and Red-billed Scimitar-Babblers were seen fairly frequently, while the Collared Treepie was observed several times. We saw the Black-headed Shrike-Babbler twice and the Ibisbill several times. Two Pale-capped Pigeons near Rangoon were a special treat. It was a grand adventure, with great birds and a superb Burmese crew who took excellent care of us.

In late April, I returned to Panay in the central Philippines to try again to see the endangered Negros Bleedingheart, which is nearly extirpated on Negros and only recently been found to exist in small numbers on Panay. I had spent two weeks on Panay a year ago searching for this species without any luck. I wanted to try again before it was too late. I arrived at the research camp in NW Panay after a searing hot and humid four-hour climb/walk and began firming up my search plans in consultation with the scientists in residence. Early that evening one of the fellows studying civets left for a night search, but I opted out as I was still resting from the walk in. Later as I started preparing for sleep, I heard a loud commotion. The guide, Jun, and the civet researcher had found a pair of roosting Negros Bleedinghearts and photographed them by flash at only 1 meter! "Were they still there when you left?" They said both had flown but one settled not too far away and was still there when they last looked. Jun agreed to show me the site, only 15 minutes walk away. Enroute I dimissed the possibility of the bird still being there. That would be just too easy -- but, quite acceptable. As we neared the site, my anticipation and tension ratcheted up several notches. When we got to the site, Jun searched the trees with his flashlight and within a minute announced, "There it is!" I shifted as quietly as I could to see the spot on which his light shone. I focused my binoculars and there, only 40 feet away, was a beautiful Negros Bleedingheart! We had a side view from where we were and the white underparts with a large dark patch on the side of the breast, with a broad white band behind it and the broad white wing bar against dark upperparts were conspicuous. After soaking up this view for a few minutes, we moved around to where we hoped for a front view, and there it was, the bright red slash down the center of the breast. Wow! Here was one of the rarest and most difficult birds in the world to see -- a species most likely to be extinct within ten years. I watched for as long as I could hold my binoculars up and then headed back to camp. A most unorthodox sighting indeed, but very satisfying.

I spent the next three mornings in the area in hopes of seeing the bleedingheart again, but failed. However I did see the endangered Visayan Hornbill and Jungle Flycatcher and heard the extremely endangered Rufous-headed Hornbill. About mid-morning on the fourth day, I left the camp and saw another Negros Bleedingheart about a kilometer from the original sighting. I was able to follow it a couple of hundred meters and got some excellent views of this exquisite little beauty before losing it. After Panay, I spent a couple of days on Negros and saw the Negros Striped Babbler.

My next destination was Tawi Tawi, a site I had delayed visiting for many years because of violent political instability. The trip was pleasant and enjoyable but unimaginably hot and humid. Five minutes walk was enough to completely drench all my clothes with sweat. While my visit was uneventful, a potent reminder that all the problems aren't solved were the 4 guards, armed with automatic weapons, accompanying me on my first day in the field. However, as hospitable as the Filipinos usually are, it would be difficult to match the hospitality I found on Tawi Tawi, a pleasant experience indeed. There are three endemic species on Tawi Tawi of special interest: the Sulu Hornbill, the Blue-winged Racquet-tail and the Sulu Bleedingheart. I saw 3 Sulu Hornbills well and 1 Blue-winged Racquet-tail poorly. The bleedingheart has not been seen in decades and its current status (existence?) is unknown. The hornbill and racquet-tail are endangered. Seeing the Sulu Hornbill was especially exciting as it was my last Asian hornbill. The racquet-tail was the last of its genus for me.

Burma Expedition and China Exploration, January 2000 Newsletter

Ben King, President
P.O. Box 196
Planetarium Station
New York, NY 10024
Tel: (212) 866-7923
Fax: (212) 866-4225

Copyright © 1992-2012 John Wall