The combined stench of rotting fish and guano was incredible.
Soaked and shivering, we shelter beneath a dripping grove of Argusia trees on Tubbataha’s South Islet, counting birds. Chilly raindrops are the least of our concerns-more exotic stuff was falling from above.
“Nine Black Noddies in five tree nests,” observes my partner, TMO Ranger Segundo “Seconds” Conales. I strain to hear above the cacophony of over 20,000 seabirds flitting in and out of foliage, forming a dense cloud above the island.
Conales spends up to six months a year in Tubbataha. “The most exciting part is when we have to chase down poachers in the high seas,” he says. “Counting birds is chicken feed.”
We tread lightly, visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” flying to mind. I jot the latest numbers on my waterproof plastic slate and push on.
Led by Danish ornithologist Dr. Arne Erik Jensen, we are here to assess the number of seabirds in the Tubbataha North and South Islets as part of a nine-year-old bird conservation initiative by the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Jensen became a regular birdwatcher at 14, egged on by the lyrical chorus of bird songs he and his family heard during forest visits. The volunteer for the Danish Ornithological Society soon became a pro in the field and fought for 12 years against the development of Saltholm Island, one of Europe’s most important waterbird breeding sites.
He first visited the Philippines in 1990 when he was invited to assist in rapid biodiversity assessments for Mt. Pulag and the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. He was blown away, describing the country as a “veritable paradise for biodiversity, with more unique species per kilometer than any country on earth.”
“More than anything, a lifetime of ornithology has made me an environmentalist by faith,” says Jensen who is instrumental in establishing both BirdLife Philippines and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
Last time I was here was in 2008, and I still recall Dr. Jensen’s advice when counting his beloved birds: “Never look up with your mouth open.”
Tale of Two Islets
At the heart of the Sulu Sea lie the twin atolls of Tubbataha, a spectacular world brimming with wealth both beneath and beyond the blue, that form the Philippines’ last great seabird rookery. Protected as a core zone, the two islands are completely off-limits to outsiders.
In 1911, when American naturalist Dean Worcester first set foot on Tubbataha North Islet (also called Bird Islet), it was a barren sandy island of 60,000 sqm. A hundred one years later, the isle has shrunk to 12,435 sqm with over 200 trees and the Plaza, a 3,690 sqm open area in the center occupied by ground-breeding birds.
Parola or South Islet is much smaller at 3,140 sqm with a meter-high concrete wall around it to protect against erosion, and a solar-powered lighthouse erected in 1980 by the Philippine Coast Guard. At least 120 trees dot its grassy landscape, while the rusting hulk of the log carrier Del San lies nearby.
“The isles vary in size each year, for the tide reclaims what geology has delivered. Tubbataha is thus constantly reborn,” says TMO Park Manager Angelique Songco. “Ecologists working in mountains or forests can wait a lifetime to see the kind of habitat change we observe monthly.”
Though six seabird species breed in Tubbataha, our trip’s top priority was to monitor populations of the Black Noddy, a pigeon-like seabird whose 8,000-strong Philippine subspecies survives solely in Tubbataha. Still, we count 3,224 nests and 5,324 screeching adults on Parola alone.
“Though still numerous here, Black Noddies no longer have alternate sites to breed. They are suffering from a housing crisis,” says WWF Tubbataha Project Manager Marivel Dygico, gesturing toward a Pisonia tree bursting with both Red-footed Boobies and Black Noddies.
“The problem is that large flocks of Red-footed Boobies can defoliate whole islands,” Dygico adds. “They tear off leaves for nesting and burn what greens remain with their guano. In seven to ten years, all of Parola’s trees might be gone-unless we control the birds now.” Indeed, some of the leafless trees on the smaller South Islet are now also lifeless.
Wings of Change
Seabirds play a crucial role in fighting climate change, particularly the threat of rising sea levels, by helping develop island ecosystems. They provide vital fertilizer for nutrient-poor sandbars, allowing the first waves of pioneer plants to survive. Drifting in from nearby islets, the seeds of trees eventually take root-further binding the sand, increasing land size and trapping organic sediments-the first steps in producing soil.
Fossilized bird droppings also form phosphorite, a type of rock used as fertilizer. Phosphorite deposits have been mined on small islands for centuries and are valued for food production.
After three days of research under the scorching sun, a chilly rain and the terror of guano, we record a grand tally of 30,100 breeding birds-the highest ever recorded. In comparison, 24,300 were counted last year and 28,000 in 2010. It is estimated that from March to November, an additional 14,000 seabirds roost on Bancauan, Bancoran, Cawili and Basterra Isles-the main hub still being Tubbataha.
Ablaze with sunset hues, Bird Islet descends into night, with four boobies silhouetted against the red sky. One soars off and leaves behind a lone egg, bearing a world of promise.
“Tubbataha is the last refuge for many Philippine seabirds,” I recall Dr. Jensen’s words that morning. He cited how people who brought along dogs, rats and cats have ravished the bird population. On top of that, before it was declared a National Marine Park in 1988, the island also suffered from exploitation, with generations of fishermen gathering not just fish, but turtles and bird eggs as well.
Glancing one last time at the dying rays of the sun, I realize that without continued protection, a bleaker sunset awaits the Black Noddies, the Brown Boobies and many of Tubbataha’s other winged treasures. •