Thursday, December 02, 2021

An Australian pelican lands in Sarangani

THE birding community is all abuzz with the confirmation that there is an Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) feeding around Sarangani Bay, partaking of the bay’s luscious resources.

The confirmation of its presence also brings back memories of how the Philippines caused the extinction of its very own Pelican species, the Spot-billed Pelican.

A couple of Wild Bird Club of the Philippines members, Ivan Sarenas and Pete Simpson, who are among the best birders in the country, happened to be in town and ready to shoot, and thus last Wednesday, September 8, 2016, they took that first ever record of this giant bird species on Philippine waters, sending greater buzz among the birders and photographers.

Sarenas and Simpson were all set to spend a few hours at Cleanergy Park in Punta Dumalag, Davao City, last Wednesday when at 5 a.m. Simpson got an email from the WBCP Manila about a sighting. While the confirmation of a sighting was known Wednesday, WBCP Davao’s Martin Pineda said that as early as Tuesday, while they were in Malalag Bay for the World Shorebird Count, fishermen were already talking about a “dakong langgam” (big bird).

An Australian Pelican is big. It grows to 5.2 to 6.2 feet (1.6-1.9 meters) in length with a wingspan of 8.2-11.2 feet (2.5-3.4 meters) and can weigh from 4-8.2 kilograms. The duo went straight to Sarangani only to realize that the bird was in one of the many private ponds in the area, where they do not have access to. Later in the day, however, the pelican a huge black and white bird made for the bay and the duo were able to snap photos of it. Jun Aguilar, who works in Sarangani and has been seeing the bird since it arrived over a week ago said it heads off to Sarangani Bay at around 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. before going back to the private ponds by around 4 p.m. Heading off to get our own set of photos Thursday morning, Pineda and I confirmed that indeed the pelican arrives at the bay at around 9:30 a.m. It’s all alone.

“The bird is lost. It may have gone out to sea on a fishing expedition and got caught in a storm, blown all the way to the Philippines,” Simpson theorized.

If indeed it was carried by a storm, then it will not be the first as Simpson referred to a Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) that turned up in North Scotland, some 1,000 kilometers from where it should be. Or, it could be part of a “very understudied northward migration from the southern hemisphere,” Sarenas added.

As the presence of the Australian pelican has been confirmed and recorded, interest about the birds and stories about it long before has been stirred up, and Sarenas quoting World Wildlife Fund’s Lorenzo Ma. Tan said there have been unverified reports about such bird sightings in the area in the past years.

“The bird has been present for a week before being reported by Mr. Alex Alcantara to the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines,” Simpson said. “He sent a picture that was identified by Desmond Allen of WBCP as the first record for the Philippines of Australian Pelican.”

The regular route of the species is just around Australia, Simpson said. Although, Sarenas also said that there have been unverified sightings by locals in Tawi-tawi and Malaysian waters, nearer Australia.

The Australian Pelican is one of eight species of pelicans in the world, Simpson said. It is usually only found in Australia but vagrants have been recorded in Indonesia.

“Philippines used to be home to Spot-billed Pelican but through habitat loss and hunting has now disappeared,” Simpson added. “The last record was 1972.”

“It is a grim reminder of how we were able to render extinct our very own pelican species, the Spot-billed Pelican or what others used to call the Philippine pelican,” Sarenas said.

The sight of the giant bird quietly paddling and eating in the wild is scene to behold. Birding is a fast-growing tourism sector, but like all other tourism activities that capitalizes on natural resources, it requires social preparation and an awareness that is centered on the wildlife and not just the people, who are willing to pay big bucks just for a photo or a selfie without regard for the disturbance they create for the wildlife.

Wildlife conservationists in the region have the horror story of how one Philippine Eagle was killed all because of high-paying photographers who preyed on the gullibility of locals just to get their perfect shots that earn the photographers dollars online.

That wound continues to fester until now, and there is the Philippine pelican to remind us how humans can render an entire species extinct.

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