Four migrant brown shrikes lie dead in front of a Sagada bird trapper's lantern
A man with a machete approached me as I hung my wet trekking clothes out to dry. Rain flies cracked in the wind as tents rose like mushrooms on a bare hilltop below Mount Ampacao in a blustery late afternoon. The man wanted to know what brought us there to the place, surrounded by a meadow dubbed by some tourists as Marlborough Country. It is normally a cattle pastureland but it became home for the night for a group of backpackers who had come from Bauko town two days earlier, traversing Ampacao and Mount Polis on their way to the hill resort of Sagada. Little did we know that we would become the centre of another kind of storm as night fell.
Conversing in Ilocano, the man warned me that bird trappers would arrive that night and requested that we tone the noise down and shut off the camp- and head lamps as soon as we were done cooking and consuming our dinner. I informed the team leader's group about the conversation and thought no more of it as we cooked and dispatched of a hot pot meal and played "Let's Climb" beneath my group's camp kitchen while passing around slices of lime, a plate of salt and a shot glass of tequila.
A Sagada bird trapper shows off his first catch, a live resident cattle egret
At around 8pm the summit of Ampacao and the opposite edge of the meadow lit up with dozens of powerful Coleman gas pressure lanterns. We were suddenly in the midst of a seasonal mass bird slaughter locally known as "ikik", named after the terrified scream of the daytime fliers as they became ensnared by mist nets wielded by bird trappers standing still behind the lamps. We had pitched our own shelter behind a verge of trees lower down, choosing a natural windbreaker that set us apart from the main backpacking party, but this meant we were only a few metres from where several groups of bird trappers chose to set up later on.
The coarse, shrill cries of brown shrikes echoed across the meadow for more than half the night, making for an unsettling experience. As a member of the local wild bird club I felt outraged by the thought of the normally predatory birds, which fly to the Philippines to winter from the nearby Asian mainland and Japan in mid-September, diving toward the nets along with other bird species to their doom, driven by their little-known attraction to the light, in the manner of moths and winged insects. They are natural pest-killers, and their disappearance could have consequences for local agriculture, the lifeblood of the Cordilleras. But I am also a journalist and my curiosity overcame my rage. I have, since hearing about the controversial activity for the first time in 1987, during my first visit to the nearby hill resort of Sagada, wanted to join an "ikik" party on Ampacao, the centre of the bird trapping industry in the Cordillera range. And so, against my better sense, I and several other members of the climb party walked up to a nearby ridge and watched the mass murder unfold.
Backpackers arrive at a meadow beneath Mount Ampacao, near Sagada
"On a normal day we would trap about a hundred birds or so," said William, as one of the trappers called himself. "On really good days we'd get 500." The mist nets are attached to two long thin bamboo poles held by hand and spreading in a V-shape trap that the trappers wield, like giant tennis racquets in two-handed forearm swings, slamming the helpless birds to the ground as they fly in, skimming the treetops from the wooded valley below. The first bird looked like a resident cattle egret, its neck and head feathers starting to grow orange breeding plumage, and landing like a confused World War II dive bomber in the wash of the lamp. An assistant promptly grabbed the bird and stuck it, still alive, inside a backpack. The next three birds had their necks broken with an expert press of the thumb between the forefinger and middle finger and left scattered in front of the lamp. I approached and inspected the first three kills and determined they were all brown shrikes, distinctive by their Zorro-like black eye strips.
As the backpackers' own party got started at the camp the bird trappers grew angry and shouted curses at the visiting climbers, who were oblivious to the gathering storm. The trappers had explained the noise and the lights at the meadow meant their colleagues positioned at the peak opposite Ampacao would go home empty-handed. We went back to camp and I explained the situation to Kristian our team leader, who agreed the most prudent thing for us to do was not to antagonise the locals. After we returned to our tents we would hear loud footprints passing through, as well as voices inviting us to go up Ampacao and watch the trappers there. We thought it was best to decline the invitation and tried to go back to sleep. The sweepers team set a watch until just before dawn, in case the trappers became hostile and attacked our tents.
Around Ampacao, bird trapping goes on practically each night between September and December, according to the men we met. Rainy nights with fog are the best, they said. Also, Sagada is not the only place in the Philippines where large-scale trapping is done. The practice is known as "akik" in the Dalton Pass area of Nueva Vizcaya province.
A Sagada bird trapper's post, the morning after
I joined the Polis-Ampacao traverse climb because I had never been to Mount Polis before. The former mountain is a major birding destination in the country and so it was attractive for me from a birder's as well as a backpacking perspective, though from what I have gathered, the birders usually approach it from the Banaue side and not the Bauko section as we did. There is not much to be said about the climb itself, which was an easy three-hour, 600-metre vertical ascent on the first day. Large sections of it are now down through dirt roads, some of which are in the process of being paved over. The second day goes through the Bauko villages of Bagnen and Balintaugan, merging somewhere with the Old Spanish Trail before the 200-metre or so vertical ascent to the Ampacao summit. The only real challenge is the lack of a water source on the first day, which means each member of the party had to lug at least four litres of water to the Polis summit. At least we were rewarded with a sea of clouds at the 1,760-masl summit to start the second day.
The highlight of the second-day trek unexpectedly came in Bagnen itself, where a flowering tiger's claw tree drew a large assortment of mountain white-eyes, flowerpeckers and sunbirds all feeding at the crown. We spent most of the day resting between sections of the trail, actually spending less than four hours of trekking. The Ampacao to Sagada section itself took less than an hour on the third day.
I was peppered with questions about the bird trappers by many younger members of our climb party as we waited for our ride home on Sunday morning, so I tried my best to explain the cultural and biological ramifications of the practice. Many of the things I told them are what I am repeating here. It was the best I could do for the poor birds.