LISTED as critically endangered in 2017-3 The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and last documented in the Philippines in 1905, with current population believed to be just around 50 birds or even less, much rarer than the Philippine Eagle, three Chinese Crested Terns (Thalasseus bernsteini) were documented by bird watchers on different days in Panabo City last March.
This has set the birding community astir once more, trickling into Davao City to stake out in Panabo for their lifers or first-time ever photos of a species.
First to document is Peter Simpson, an American who now resides in Davao City and has been very active in popularizing birdwatching among students and enthusiasts through the first Saturday birdwatching sessions at the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Davao City.
Simpson was on his way home to Davao City from some forest birdwatching in Compostela Valley last March 10, 2018, when he decided to take a short detour to the relatively newly cemented coastal road in Panabo, which has become a popular birding site and which Simpson has become familiar with having been visiting it regularly for the past four years now.
"I arrived at around 3 p.m. and positioned myself within sight of the I love Panabo sign. I often do that, checking the waders on the fishponds to keep an eye on numbers and search for rarities," Simpson said in an email.
He said that finding a Chinese Crested Tern as a vagrant or a species well outside its normal range is a possibility as it is in the book, "A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines Paperback (October 19, 2000) by Robert S. Kennedy, Pedro C. Gonzales, Edward C. Dickinson, Hector Miranda, and Timothy H. Fisher also commonly referred to by birders as the "Kennedy Guide". Except that, in the book, it details just one record of the CCT and that was in 1905, and at the time of printing in 2000, the CCT was believed to be already extinct.
Simpson, himself, has not seen a CCT in his birding career but is familiar with the identification criteria, adding that for many years now, he has been checking a similar bird, the Greater Crested Tern, in that area, roosting at a sandbar at low tide.
"That day it was high tide and I scanned the sea looking at the terns flying. Most were the common winter visitor Whiskered tern, they can be in the 1000's at this and other sites around the Davao Gulf. I picked up the tern in flight, large and remarkably light colored," he narrated. "I was expecting it to be Gull-billed Tern with such pale wings but I was immediately drawn to the bill, yellow/orange with a black tip. I scarcely believed what I was seeing and went for the camera."
The bird came and went every 15 minutes, circling the bay fishing before going out of sight for a while. Simpson said he was able to snap some reasonably identifiable flight shots and sent a screengrab to Rob Hutchinson, considered by experts as the one to seek out for wild bird identification, for confirmation.
Hutchinson is a professional international bird tour operator and photographer who has authored several scientific papers on the vocalisations, distribution and taxonomy of birds in the whole of Asia.
While Simpson was convinced it was a CCT, he needed confirmation as the bill "looked orange rather than yellow as depicted in the Kennedy guide".
It was a CCT.
He returned with another birder Christian Perez early morning of March 13 at the same sight but did not find it there. Instead it was perched atop a bamboo pole at a fishing net structure out at sea.
"Incredibly, I then found a second and then third bird, all visiting at one time," Simpson said. "All three birds were seen again on 16th March but not after, only one bird on 18th March and after."
He said that it's possible that the three birds were already there during his first sighting.
"It is equally possible that these were not passage birds but a wintering population," he added. His last observation of the three birds were with Hutchinson on March 31, 2018. He has not been back since.
From the IUCN, it reads: The species is poorly-known, recorded breeding recently at only three sites on the eastern coast of China (Matsu Islands of Fujian, Jiushan Islands, Wuzhishan Islands of Zhejiangand Islands) and one site in South Jeolla Province, South Korea. Outside the breeding season, the species has been recorded in Indonesia, Sarawak, Malaysia, China, Thailand and the Philippines (BirdLife International 2001). In June-July 1937, a total of 21 specimens were collected on islets off the coast of Shandong, where it was presumably breeding, indicating that it was locally not uncommon in the past; however, surveys conducted in June-July 2006 suggest that the regional breeding population has been extirpated from the coast of southern Shandong (Chen Shuihua et al. 2009, Liu et al. 2009). Until the rediscovery of the breeding sites on Matsu and Jiushan Islands, the only records were from China, in Hebei in 1978 and Shandong in 1991, with a possible record from peninsular Thailand in 1980.
The IUCN website on CCT also says that number of breeding adults varies every year from 12 in 2012 to 43 in 2014.
"Given this the total number of mature individuals is likely to number fewer than 50, and perhaps most likely 30-49 (S. Chan in litt. 2013)," the IUCN website reads.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has already contacted Simpson, he said, they have indicated interest on his discovery.
"I have also been contacted by Yat-tung Yu, working in the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, (who) also has a role in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) Seabird Working Ground as a co-coordinator. The Chinese Crested Tern is a critically endangered (CR) species and so the EAAFP would be interested to see how to promote conservation of this CR seabird species," Simpson said.