miraclecello (miraclecello) wrote,
miraclecello
miraclecello

DUCKS, DEATH AND A DAM REBORN


The aerial hunt unfolded just metres above us in the middle of San Roque, the world's 12th largest dam. Our aluminium skiff had flushed more than a thousand Philippine ducks from the surface, but a pair surprisingly headed straight at us, buzzing our heads. That was when we noticed that the trailing bird was not a wild duck. Its wings were tucked in the classic stoop, the grim reaper dive position assumed by peregrine falcons as, like living, breathing missiles they chase, bludgeon and pluck from out of the sky their stunned prey.


A peregrine falcon, perched atop a power pylon in Los Banos. Photo illustration only

Our jaws had been on the deck as we came upon the single largest flock of Philippine ducks ever recorded this decade that I did not have the presence of mind to capture the aerial dogfight. The team's remit was to conduct a bird survey, manually count all the avian species taking flight over the 200-metre deep giant water pond, swimming in its waters or sitting on its trees and other flora that had sprouted over the past two decades since the mega-structure was carved from the southern wall of the Cordillera mountain range between Pangasinan and Benguet in the late 1990s.


Bee-eaters nest on the dried-out bank near the Itogon, Benguet tail of the San Roque dam

For a raptor, the collective name for a group of birds with hooked beaks and huge, sharp talons used to kill and disembowel prey, be they mice, snakes or other birds, the peregrine falcon does not look much. The wings are long thin and rather flat, and in terms of long-distance flight they do not hold a candle to the ducks who cross vast seas to winter in more balmy climes like the cousins of the Philippine ducks, who do not migrate. However in a stoop falcons have been clocked at nearly 390 kilometres an hour, making them the fastest living animals on the planet. It was my first ever experience to witness a falcon hunt which, despite ending in failure for the raptor, left me in awe. For starters, our 20-inch long wild duck is probably as heavy as the female falcon, the larger of the species that fly to the Philippines in the winter after breeding and nesting on cliff faces in southern Japan and Taiwan. One reckons they must have strong wings and grip to be able to lift meat as heavy as themselves up to the treetops. The other question in my mind was, would it not be easier to target sitting ducks, that is ducks stationary and afloat on the water? Maybe unlike ducks they cannot risk having their wings getting wet.


All wild ducks are called "papa" by Ilocanos

Of course you have to be rooting for the prey in this case, especially as it is the Philippine duck, a vanishing Filipino species of which there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. Like all Ilocanos, the people around the dam call the Philippine duck, and all other wild ducks the “papa”. The main identifying feature is the black eye strip on an orange head and neck, but it really stands out in flight under the sun, even when it is taking flight for dear life, because of its speculum, a part of its wing feathers that turn bottle green to royal purple and other colours, depending on the angle of the sunshine.



The presence at the dam of this large flock, for a species found only in the Philippines and which has been decimated by sport hunting -- as well as the increasing presence of its non-human predators here -- are a measure of success by the energy and utilities companies involved in the vast project, to restore the ecology of what had essentially been a mountain-edge ecosystem that had been gouged and flattened and stripped of its green cover to build a mammoth receptacle for generating electricity as well as irrigating farmlands of the Central Luzon region. I was basically a makeweight as Gina, Jon and Jops, stalwarts of the country’s Wild Bird Club, did most of the heavy lifting. Over two days, we counted about 40 or so species, including Philippine ducks and migrant tufted ducks in and below the dam, as well as ospreys, Philippine serpent eagles, Brahminy kites, falcons as well as white-throated kingfishers and blue-throated bee-eaters above the water. We got to explore the tail of the dam, where water pours down from the Cordillera mountains via the Agno River and where bee-eaters dug holes to build nests on the exposed river banks. If I were to do an honest-to-goodness Cordillera backpacking traverse, I would have to find the trailhead around here.



It is an amazing thing how the country's top polluters also have the best programmes for safeguarding the Philippine environment. Outside of the power plant complexes, including at coal-fired generating plants where they live around expended ash ponds, Philippine ducks have been extirpated in many other habitats due to relentless and illegal poaching. The San Roque Dam's administrators told us their ambition is to eventually transform the 1,250 square-kilometre drainage area into a habitat for transplanting Philippine eagles from a captive breeding facility outside Davao city. But the reforestation is now only on its first phase. While ipil-ipil grows fast and provides some cover, it is a poor platform on which to build the food chain for the giant apex predator, which would likely starve to death. The next stage is to replace the cover with a dipterocarp forest, the Philippine eagle's natural habitat.


Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member Jops Josef behind the San Roque Dam spillway


The aerial hunt unfolded just metres above us in the middle of San Roque, the world's 12th largest dam. Our aluminium skiff had flushed more than a thousand Philippine ducks from the surface, but a pair surprisingly headed straight at us, buzzing our heads. That was when we noticed that the trailing bird was not a wild duck. Its wings were tucked in the classic stoop, the grim reaper dive position assumed by peregrine falcons as, like living, breathing missiles they chase, bludgeon and pluck from out of the sky their stunned prey.


A peregrine falcon, perched atop a power pylon in Los Banos. Photo illustration only

Our jaws had been on the deck as we came upon the single largest flock of Philippine ducks ever recorded this decade that I did not have the presence of mind to capture the aerial dogfight. The team's remit was to conduct a bird survey, manually count all the avian species taking flight over the 200-metre deep giant water pond, swimming in its waters or sitting on its trees and other flora that had sprouted over the past two decades since the mega-structure was carved from the southern wall of the Cordillera mountain range between Pangasinan and Benguet in the late 1990s.


Bee-eaters nest on the dried-out bank near the Itogon, Benguet tail of the San Roque dam

For a raptor, the collective name for a group of birds with hooked beaks and huge, sharp talons used to kill and disembowel prey, be they mice, snakes or other birds, the peregrine falcon does not look much. The wings are long thin and rather flat, and in terms of long-distance flight they do not hold a candle to the ducks who cross vast seas to winter in more balmy climes like the cousins of the Philippine ducks, who do not migrate. However in a stoop falcons have been clocked at nearly 390 kilometres an hour, making them the fastest living animals on the planet. It was my first ever experience to witness a falcon hunt which, despite ending in failure for the raptor, left me in awe. For starters, our 20-inch long wild duck is probably as heavy as the female falcon, the larger of the species that fly to the Philippines in the winter after breeding and nesting on cliff faces in southern Japan and Taiwan. One reckons they must have strong wings and grip to be able to lift meat as heavy as themselves up to the treetops. The other question in my mind was, would it not be easier to target sitting ducks, that is ducks stationary and afloat on the water? Maybe unlike ducks they cannot risk having their wings getting wet.


All wild ducks are called "papa" by Ilocanos

Of course you have to be rooting for the prey in this case, especially as it is the Philippine duck, a vanishing Filipino species of which there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. Like all Ilocanos, the people around the dam call the Philippine duck, and all other wild ducks the “papa”. The main identifying feature is the black eye strip on an orange head and neck, but it really stands out in flight under the sun, even when it is taking flight for dear life, because of its speculum, a part of its wing feathers that turn bottle green to royal purple and other colours, depending on the angle of the sunshine.



The presence at the dam of this large flock, for a species found only in the Philippines and which has been decimated by sport hunting -- as well as the increasing presence of its non-human predators here -- are a measure of success by the energy and utilities companies involved in the vast project, to restore the ecology of what had essentially been a mountain-edge ecosystem that had been gouged and flattened and stripped of its green cover to build a mammoth receptacle for generating electricity as well as irrigating farmlands of the Central Luzon region. I was basically a makeweight as Gina, Jon and Jops, stalwarts of the country’s Wild Bird Club, did most of the heavy lifting. Over two days, we counted about 40 or so species, including Philippine ducks and migrant tufted ducks in and below the dam, as well as ospreys, Philippine serpent eagles, Brahminy kites, falcons as well as white-throated kingfishers and blue-throated bee-eaters above the water. We got to explore the tail of the dam, where water pours down from the Cordillera mountains via the Agno River and where bee-eaters dug holes to build nests on the exposed river banks. If I were to do an honest-to-goodness Cordillera backpacking traverse, I would have to find the trailhead around here.



It is an amazing thing how the country's top polluters also have the best programmes for safeguarding the Philippine environment. Outside of the power plant complexes, including at coal-fired generating plants where they live around expended ash ponds, Philippine ducks have been extirpated in many other habitats due to relentless and illegal poaching. The San Roque Dam's administrators told us their ambition is to eventually transform the 1,250 square-kilometre drainage area into a habitat for transplanting Philippine eagles from a captive breeding facility outside Davao city. But the reforestation is now only on its first phase. While ipil-ipil grows fast and provides some cover, it is a poor platform on which to build the food chain for the giant apex predator, which would likely starve to death. The next stage is to replace the cover with a dipterocarp forest, the Philippine eagle's natural habitat.


Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member Jops Josef behind the San Roque Dam spillway

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