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Philippines

The lush tropical island of Palawan, Philippines is well known as a location for spectacular diving in the northern resort of El Nido.  Though many tourists make the trek up north, very few head south to see the rare feathered gems on the private Rasa Island near the small town of Narra.  This is the stronghold of the few remaining Red-vented Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) .  The endemic Philippine or Red-vented cockatoo is a small psittacine with a helmet crest and red undertail coverts. The white plumage is extremely conspicuous in flight and in the foliage of the lowland dipterocarp and mangrove forest habitats. It is 12.2 inches long and has an 8.6 inches wingspan. The Katala as it is locally called is a social species which roosts, feeds, and flies in noisy groups.  Their habitat is lowland, riverine, and mangrove forests but may be found in forest edge and open fields as well as high in the mountains. Can be seen singly or in flocks of up to 30 or more.  Recent estimates by Widmann (2001) suggest 1000 individuals left in the wild! Rasa probably holds the highest population density with 200 recorded individuals.

Getting here is quite an adventure in itself.  First you need to get to Manila, then get a short domestic flight to Puerto Princesa.  We were lucky enough to be met by Dr. Sabine Schoppe from the Katala Foundation who lives in Puerto Princesa.  We stopped at a nearby restaurant for a quick chat, then she dropped us at the bus station.  Small shuttle vans leave when full direct to Narra and are comfortable.  It’s about a 3 hour drive through lush farmland and small villages, passing the Iwahig prison farm.  Indira Dayang Lacerna-Widmann, the Program Manager for the Katala Foundation had booked us into a small hotel-the Gorayan, and organized a guide for us.  She had meant to meet us personally but found out she would be in Australia at the time of our visit.   


Later that afternoon, our guide Ivy met us and had us fill out some paperwork and pay the fees for conservation, guide and boat.  She’s a lovely lady full of enthusiasm for the cockatoos and very friendly and helpful.  The boat launch site was a few km away so she brought a tuk-tuk for us and she rode her moped.  The boat captain, Benito was waiting for us with a small wooden boat.  We got in carefully-camera gear and all and headed out towards Rasa Island.  Ivy explained that Benito had once been a poacher but he’s now a forest warden to guard the Katala and provide boat transport for eco-tourists. The core project of the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Programme is a wardens scheme to guard the cockatoos, particularly during the breeding season. Former poachers were recruited as wildlife wardens because of their profound knowledge of the species. They are indigenous people of Palawan: the Pala’wan from the south, the Tagbanua tribes and the Cuyunin from the northern part of the province. He got as close to the island as possible given the tides, set anchor and proceeded to fish while we waited. 

Wait we did, the Katala weren’t going to show up early just because a couple of Aussies had flown out there to see them!  Around 6:10pm, we could hear them approaching.  They had been out foraging all day, some on Rasa and some on the mainland.  A few flew in at first and clung to the trees near the bank squawking noisily as cockatoos do.  Then more and more and suddenly the darkening sky was full of them!  Although we were pretty far away in the boat, we could see mostly the silhouettes of the small cockatoos who are similar in size to Aussie Corellas.  They flew from tree to tree, looking for the best perch for the evening until the sky was dark and they quieted down for the night.

We went back to shore, noticing several fishing boats with flickering lights along the way.  Ivy brought us back to the hotel and we had dinner in a nearby restaurant/karaoke bar.  Some of the locals turned out to have beautiful voices!  They encouraged me (as a visitor) to have a go, I proceeded to murder Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” and got good natured applause from the very kind locals.  Then I was glad to hand the mike back!

Wake up call was bright and early-4:30am so we would reach the island by dawn.  Ina opted to sleep a bit more so it was just Ivy and me this time.  Benito was waiting right on time and we were able to get a bit closer to the roosting site.  Although it is possible to land at certain times of the year, they prefer not to as it disturbs nesting and breeding Katala.  We arrived around 5:30am, set anchor and waited for the cockatoos to wake up.  There were signs of stirring about half an hour later as dawn broke and the sky grew lighter.  They were pretty lazy and took their time but gradually more and more Katala would wake up, fly between the trees looking for their friends and of course making noise! 


I sat in the gently rocking boat trying to get photos and video as they flew around the roosting site.  They didn’t linger, hungry cockatoos want to eat so they flew off to foraging grounds on the island and mainland.  As we drove back, I could see several pairs heading to Narra
.

We landed ashore and got the tuk-tuk to a small road in the middle of the village surrounded by family homes.  This was where I got to see the Katala much closer and get better photos. 


There were around 5 or 6 flying between trees in people’s backyards.  Ivy said that the people don’t mind of tourists with the Katala Foundation enter their backyards to see the birds. 
The Philippine cockatoo feeds on seeds, and, to an extent, on fruits, flowers, buds and nectar. The species is very adaptable and even forages on crops, particularly rice in a half-ripe stage and corn. Therefore the cockatoo was formerly regarded as a pest.  Thanks to the Katala Foundation, the locals now treasure their endemic bird and even assist in monitoring the preferred feeding trees and keep logs of Katala visits.  We enjoyed watching them for about an hour, then they flew off.  Ivy showed me the seed pods they eat and some of the log books. 





On the way back to Puerto Princesa, we took a jeepney and hopped out near a small sanctuary where they had several birds that had been confiscated from poachers.  The sanctuary is primarily an alligator farm but it is an interesting place to visit. 












One of the most important aspect of any bird conservation program is to get the local people involved and the Katala Foundation is one of several conservation programs sponsored by Loro Parque Fundacion
.  They organize schools, festivals, field trips and build community pride in the Katala. Annual festivals feature people dressing in Katala costumes! For more information on the Katala Foundation, booking an eco-tour or learning more about these rare cockatoos, please visit their website

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