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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
May, 1998 Vol. 1 No. 5

A Day At The Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Hitting The High Spots On The Birdsí Trail

By Asuncion Sia






"Egrets." My guide, Boy, stops behind a mangrove and puts down the spotting scope he is carrying to point out his find. And there, on a small, still dry spot of sand about 20 meters from where I stand knee-deep in the fast-rising seawater is a flock of Little Egrets, serenely feeding, apparently unaware of the presence of humans in their secluded hideaway.

I am at the Nature Center of the 920-hectare protected wetland called Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, or "The Olango Bird Sanctuary" as it is better known in these parts. I have been here since 0830, the better to catch the birds as they went about their daily routine -- during the low tide, they feed on seashells off the extensive tidal flats, slowly converging in bigger and bigger groups on whatever dry spots are still left as the tide comes in, then finally flying to the mangrove area to roost in its thick foliage when the tide settles in.

These are migratory birds traveling the East Asian Migratory Flyway, one of the most important shorebird and waterbird migratory flyways in the world. Twice a year, they come to Olango, from August to November, when they stop over on their flight from Siberiaís harsh winter to more favorable southern climes, and then again from February to May during their northward migration. Iím here on Olango to catch them as they take a breather before they continue their long journey home. This small island just four kilometers from the east coast of Mactan in Cebu is a critical host for migratory birds, one of the few places left in the world where conditions are still hospitable to these winged refugees of winter and manís predatory ways. Nearly 50 migratory bird species, more than half of the 77 bird species using the East Asian Migratory Flyway, have been spotted here. Terns, plovers, sandpipers and Little Egrets are the most common, but the star attraction is the endangered Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), now the object of my growing curiosity.

I check the time. It is 1307, some 30 or so minutes before the tide reaches the dayís highest point of 1.4 meters. A tide level of 1.2-1.3 meters, Iíve been told, is the best for bird watching. The tide is coming in fast, I figure itís nearing the ideal level. Itís been a hot, slow day, so far. I spent most of the morning under the searing sun, wading in ankle-deep water and trying hard to remember what it was about this place that I came for. Armed with a borrowed birderís guidebook, I tried my hand at identifying the dispersed birds feeding in a tree-less expanse of tidal flat a few hundred meters from where I now watch my first big flock of egrets. They were too far away, too scattered and too shy to get really acquainted with, but I saw -- or think I saw -- Common Terns, Gray Plovers, a Red Shank or two, some Little Egrets, and Godwits. I thought I even spotted an Australian Curlew, but Iím told Australian Curlews donít travel this way. (A rare sighting, maybe?)

So now I concentrate on the egrets, hoping to spot the Chinese Egret among its shorter Japanese cousins (the Little Egrets come from Japan). No such luck, but the birds are beginning to congregate in thicker and thicker flocks, painting the golden sand their mousey colors of white, brown and black. "Letís move to Hide 3," Boy says in a hushed tone (the Nature Center has three "hides," vantage points from which to watch the birds, and these are called, somewhat drably, Hide 1, Hide 2 and Hide 3). Itís 13:18. The water level is just about right, I reckon -- it has reached past my knees.

We move to Hide 3, careful not to speak more than necessary. Birds are skittish creatures, flying quickly away when they sense the presence of people nearby and, more than anything, itís human voices that drive them away.

Once again, Boy chooses a spot behind a mangrove; I start to feel like a paparrazo preying on some unwitting celebrity. But the spot is nearly perfect. I see the birds even before Boy points them out: hundreds -- maybe a thousand -- of them, close enough to see with the naked eye. And behind them, a sea of winged creatures, some seemingly skimming the water surface, others soaring in the distant horizon, a swathe of white, brown and black covering the blazing sun, undulating like so many waves against the brilliant blue sky. Itís an oh-wow kind of a sight. Spellbinding. Awesome. I feel my skin break out in goosebumps.

I feel the water begin to lick the hem of my shorts. Once more, I check the time. Itís 13:30. The tideís come in fast, itís risen much higher than when I last looked. Time to go, unless I fancy getting my clothes wet.

I take one last look at the still thickening flock of birds. An elegant white egret stretches to its full height and flaps its wings, ready for flight. "Is that...?" I ask hopefully. Boy peers through the spotting scope. "No. Itís a Little Egret," he says apologetically.

No matter -- Iíve witnessed what may well be the high point of the day. Maybe next time. á

This article will also appear in the Sun*Star Horizons July 1998 issue.

So You Want To Go Bird Watching


Where To Go.
The bird sanctuary is on Olango, an island four kilometers off the east coast of Mactan Island in Cebu. It is the first and still the only RAMSAR site (Wetland of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat) in the Philippines. In the winter and then again in spring, it plays host to nearly 50 species of migratory birds traveling the East Asian Migratory Flyway, said to be among the most important shorebird and waterbird migratory flyways in the world. It is thus a popular destination for serious birders and conservationists. It is also often visited by mainstream tourists, who are often drawn to the area by the charming islets at the southern side of Olango.

What To Bring.
If youíre going at it alone, itís best to bring food and ample supply of drinking water. You can also buy food (very basic) from one of the stores on Olango Island before you go to the Nature Center; there are no stores within comfortable walking distance from the Center. Overnight accommodations are not provided at the Nature Center, but basic accommodations are available at the Suba Community Center (take a tricycle and ask to be taken to the "Save Nature Society"). Expect to spend about P200 per person (accommodations and meals, which can be arranged through the Center) for an overnight stay.

The Olango Birds and Seascape Tour, a package tour operated by the community of Suba, is also available for groups of 6-10 people from P1,500 per person (special introductory local rate). This special tour includes a cruise around the southern islets of Olango and takes you right into the heart of the bird sanctuary through the village of Sabang. Contact the Coastal Resource Management Project, Tel. (032) 232 1821 to 22; Fax (032) 232 1825; email (See A Tour With A Cause)

Best Time To Visit.
The bird watching seasons are from August to November (southward migration) and from February to May (northward migration); the best months, according to experienced bird watchers, are October and April. Before you set out, be sure to check the tidal calendar. Best time for bird watching is when the tide level is between 1.2 and 1.3 meters.

Getting There.
If youíre joining the Olango Birds and Seascape Tour, getting to Olango and back is a fairly simple affair Ė your tour operator will take care of all the arrangements for you. If youíre going as an independent tourist, take a motorized boat from Maribago or Dapdap (at Vista Verde) to Olango Island. Thereís a commercial service that leaves every hour from 0700 to 1800; one-way fare is P7. Or you can hire a boat for P600 at Dapdap to bring you to Olango and back; the trip takes about 20 minutes. The boat docks at the Sta. Rosa pier, where you can take a tricycle to the Nature Center (ask to be taken to the DENRís Nature Center); fare is P45 for the 15-minute not-too-comfortable ride (yes, itís expensive but itís either that or you go on foot). Thereís an entrance fee (P5 for students, P8.00 for other local tourists, and P80.00 for foreign visitors); if youíre carrying a video camera, you will also have to shell out P3,000 in shooting fees. Fee is good for a dayís tour of the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary (OIWS). The bird watching tour could last anywhere from 15 minutes to a whole day, depending on your inclination (package tours have a fairly set schedule, however). The Nature Center can provide you with a guide and binoculars.

Doing It Right.
The DENR is building three boardwalks for those who donít care much about getting wet, but these arenít finished yet. In the meantime, there simply is no going around all the wading and walking, which can get pretty uncomfortable if you arenít dressed right. To get the most out of your visit, be sure you do the following:

  1. Wear light shorts and long-sleeved shirt. Colors that blend with the surroundings (green, brown, black or dark blue) are best. Bring a hand towel.
  2. Wear rubber shoes or rubber sandals with strong straps for walking and wading in the intertidal area. When in the sanctuary, watch out for sharp corals, shells and sea urchins.
  3. Apply a liberal amount of sunblock on your skin and wear a wide-brimmed hat, preferably one that can be fastened against the wind. You could be standing for hours under the sun.
  4. Birds are shy creatures and usually keep their distance from people. If you want to take pictures of the birds, be sure that your camera is equipped with a tele-lens. The Nature Center can provide you with binoculars, perhaps even a spotting scope.
  5. Finally, PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE ANY OF YOUR RUBBISH BEHIND. Plastics, in particular, are dangerous to birds and marine life.

A Tour With A Cause

There is another route to the bird sanctuary, one that takes you around the pleasant seascape of the southern islets of Olango, through a "Mangrove Tunnel," and deep into the territory of Olangoís winged visitors. This route is open to those taking the Olango Birds and Seacape Tour, a special group tour (6-10 people) conceived by the Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), a USAID-funded project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), as a way to develop the ecotourism potential of Olango and encourage residents to give up their destructive fishing practices, which have already severely damaged the areaís coastal resources. Take this route, discover a whole new way of appreciating nature, and do a good turn for the environment besides.

The tour starts at either the Shangri-la Mactan Island Dock Area or Maribago, where a boat awaits you and your party (if youíre lucky, with a ukulele-playing boatman on board). From here, it takes you across the Hilutungan Channel to the southern side of Olango, where the boat will circle five charming islets (Sulpa, Hilutungan, Nalusuan, Cauhagan and Pangan-an) before docking at Sabang at the northeastern side of the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary. See the clam gatherers of Sulpa. Watch Hilutunganís "sea farmers" maneuver their boats as they tend to their seaweed gardens. Listen closely as your guide tells you about Olangoís "dark side": cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing and a host of other urgent environmental issues simmering beneath the islandís serene, minimalist surroundings. Meet the young boat paddlers of Sabang and see the glimmer of hope in their eyes; these young people, along with the womenfolk in the community, are working together to protect the sea and help care for the bird sanctuary, spread environmental awareness, and start sustainable livelihood alternatives for fishers and shell gatherers. Then bask in the soothing quiet of the Mangrove Tunnel. This is one place where you can actually hear the sound of silence, where even your own voice seems overly loud.

And the birds? Theyíre everywhere -- feeding or napping at the tidal flats, or roosting in the lush mangrove. Even if you donít see them, you can hear them, cheery chirps and whistles that tell you theyíre somewhere nearby, and remind you that you are, indeed, in the bosom of a birdsí haven.

Bernard Hill, a tour manager from Australia, has only one thing to say about the experience: "Of all the tours Iíve joined in Cebu, this is the best one yet!" -- The community of Sabang runs about three tours a week during the birdwatching seasons (late August to November and February to May). Introductory rates are P1,500 per person for Philippine residents and $50 per person for foreign visitors; rates include meals and transport costs for the entire leg of the tour beginning with the boat ride from Maribago or Shangri-la. The itinerary described above may change depending on the tide level. Night camps can also be arranged. Proceeds from the tours go to a special fund for the protection of the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary (OIWS) and the development of livelihood alternatives for the community of Sabang. For details, contact: The Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), 5/F CIFC Towers, North Reclamation Area, cor. Humabon and J. Luna St, North Reclamation Area, Cebu City, Tel. (032) 232 1821 to 22; Fax (032) 232 1825.



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This website was made possible through support provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the terms and conditions of Contract No. AID-492-0444-C-00-6028-00. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID.

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