LAST week the birding community in the world was astir. A rarely photographed endangered Japanese bird was found, and photographed, in Davao City by local bird enthusiast and businessman Martin Y. Pineda.

Pineda said he was at the mountain resort last March 4 when the resort manager told him, "A big brown bird suddenly showed up in the property, you might want to take a look…”

His birding instinct told him this is most likely a migratory bird, but he didn't expect what he would end up photographing. That big brown bird that suddenly showed up in the property on Mount Talomo in Davao City is a Japanese Night Heron (Gorsachiusgoisagi). "It was, Wow!" Pineda said.

The excitement of the discovery is encapsulated in the report made by Fullbright scholar Forest Jarvis in the Facebook account of "Birdwatching in Davao".

"In birding, there are good finds, great finds, and mega finds. The recent discovery of a reliable Pygmy Flowerpecker site in Davao was a good find, and a Dunlin sighting here would be a great find. Mega finds, though are something else. One birding blog describes them thus: 'A mega is just like it sounds. It’s big news, a very rare bird. A once in a blue moon type bird… This is the sort of bird that lights up the phone lines. The sort of bird people jump in planes for. The sort of bird nearly every birder dreams of finding,'" Jarvis wrote.

"So, naturally, when Pete (Simpson) told me that Martin was about to post a mega find, I started getting excited. And when he did post, boy was it worth it - a confirmed sighting of Japanese Night Heron- an exceedingly rare find not just in the Philippines, but anywhere in the world, considering that there are only an estimated 600 to 1,500 individuals worldwide. As the name suggests, they breed in Japan, but winter in Indonesia and the Philippines - though they’re extremely difficult to find anywhere," he continued.

Jarvis was accompanied by Pineda along with birding couple Tonji and Sylvia Ramos of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.

The Ramoses pointed out the importance of conservation of bird habitats, as the Philippines plays a vital role in the over-all scheme of wild bird survival.

"A lot of migratory birds are dying because all the wetlands are disappearing," Tonji said.

"If you talk about the Philippines, it's like a gas station for all these migratory birds. Once you run out of gas stations, the birds will be gone."

It's not just migratory birds that are in danger as forestlands are fast disappearing, along with it, wildlife habitats. Thus, any sustained action to conserve bird habitats have to come from the national government, he said, because there are laws and policies that tend to set aside environmental concerns.

Sylvia pointed out that even plans to lock up forestlands and keep them as a wilderness by buying as much as those concerned for the environment can, is not possible in the Philippines.

Forestlands are government lands that are not alienable and disposable, meaning that ideally, these should not be sold to anyone and cannot be titled. But people are buying rights and converting forests into farms.

On the side of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), it is allowed to lease out these forestlands to private groups but only if those groups intend to mine, log or use the land for agro-forestry.

There is also nothing in Philippine Laws that allow its people to take over forestlands to keep them as they are: forests. "On paper we have a lot of national parks, but when you go to it naman, you have one warden who is supposed to protect all that," Sylvia said.

Bird basics

The Japanese Night Heron is listed in the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered C2a(i) of the IUCN List version 3.1.

The IUCN is an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources and its Red List identifies all species worldwide and their present state.

Being classified as C2a(i) means, the Japanese Night Heron has a population size estimated to number fewer than 250 mature individuals and that a continuing decline is observed, projected, or inferred, in numbers of mature individuals and that there is no subpopulation no subpopulation estimated to contain more than 50 mature individuals.

The IUCN estimates the species to be composed of around 1,000-2,499 individuals, equated to have 667-1,666 mature individuals or a round figure or between 600-1,700 mature individuals.

The rapid decline is attributed to forest loss and changing agricultural practices. Because of its endangered status, it is legally protected in Japan and Hong Kong.

The Japanese Night Heron was first classified in the IUCN Red List as Threatened in 1988. It was classified Vulnerable in the 1994 and 1996 Red List. It was elevated to Endangered status in the Red List in 2000 and has remained there. "Gorsachiusgoisagi breeds in Japan.

There has been one report of breeding from Taiwan (China), and recent work has discovered a breeding site at Jeju Island, South Korea (Oh et al. 2010).

It has also been recorded in spring and summer in Russia (Primorye and Sakhalin), and is a passage migrant in coastal mainland China and Hong Kong (China), and also in Taiwan.

There may also be a small resident flock in inland mainland China (He et al. 2016)," the Red List says in its species description.

"The main wintering area appears to be in the Philippines, but it has also been recorded as a non-breeding visitor to Indonesia, and as a vagrant to Brunei and Palau. Improved awareness of the identification criteria for immatures of this species has led to a marked increase in records from the Philippines (D. Allen in litt. 2012). It was apparently locally common in Japan until the 1970s, but by the 1980s and 1990s had disappeared from many of its former breeding sites. There have apparently been just two records from mainland China since the early 1960s, one of two sightings at Wuyuan in Jiangxi Province in April 2006 and a taxidermy specimen noted in Haiyan county in Zhejiang province in February 2010 and apparently purchased in Haining city in April 1998 (He Fenqi in litt. 2007, 2012)," the IUCN data continued.

Photographs of the species were last taken in Luzon by Desmond Allen in 2012, but it has never been photographed in Mindanao, until last week.

More than just finding it on Mt. Talomo, Pineda's team this time with the Ramos couple and Fullbright scholar Forest Jarvis, are pondering on the possibility that the bird nests here as they sighted three, one of which could be a juvenile.

Unluckily, they failed to capture all three in a photo. As the IUCN Red List further describes: "It breeds in heavily forested areas, including coniferous, broadleaved and degraded forest, on hills and the lower slopes of mountains (up to 1,500 m), where there are watercourses and damp areas. It winters in dark, deeply shaded forest near water up to 2,400 m. It forages mainly in forest, but will use swamps, rice-fields and farmland and is mainly crepuscular. Breeding has been recorded from April to July (Kawana 2006).

A habitat model showed that precipitation and the number of abandoned rice fields were good predictors of occurrence for this species, with this habitat likely providing food source and nesting trees.

Forest plantations were negatively associated with species occurrence (Hamaguchi et al. 2014). Earthworms are probably the principal food source, but land snails, cicadas, crabs, and ground and scarabid beetles are all present in its diet (Kawakami et al. 2005, K. Kawakami in litt. 2007, Oh et al. 2010)."

After the Pelican

There is great interest on the Japanese Nigh heron because its sighting came right after an Australian Pelican was found in Sarangani in September last year, incidentally also by Pineda.

Truly, there is something in Southern Mindanao that birds fly to when escaping winter in their homeland.

But with the fast urbanization of the region, these birds can easily become extinct as they will no longer have anywhere to go to when winter comes.

The sighting puts a lens on the importance of Mindanao in the biodiversity of the world and that any development plan laid out should consider this role.

And if being guardians of world biodiversity is too vague an idea, then think: the international bird-watching community is a high-value tourist market.