ALFONSO LISTA, Ifugao — At dawn, the mangrove boughs seem ready to snap from the weight of the white “fruits” at the top. Or they may look like oversized magnolia flowers.
And the “flowers” begin flying in batches away from the mangrove upriver as the sun rises.
If you look hard enough, you would see that some of them are brown, falling into the river and floating on the water surface.
At dusk, they return to roost among the boughs.
Although they sometimes settle in the V formation, they actually fly more like bees rather than geese, the flock of about twenty to fifty moving irregularly as they settle among the trees.
They are noisier as the sun sets, like old friends greeting each other as night falls.
This is a scene that repeats itself at the Magat-Maris Wetlands in Alfonso Lista, Ifugao from September to March.
The white “magnolias” are Little and Great Egrets, thousands of them. The brown ones are Philippine and Tufted ducks, mostly settling in an island in the reservoir which is officially known as the Lamehaan Island.
In the background, you would see the spillway of the Magat Dam. Ever since the river was dammed, the egrets and other birds have made the wetlands their home for the holidays. The wetland happens to be along the East Asian Australasian Flyway for migratory birds.
Last January, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources led the annual Asian Waterbird Census and recorded 7,400 egrets, forty grey herons, and a purple heron.
This, unfortunately, is far lower than the 11,300 egrets last year.
At Lamehaan Island, they recorded 360 Philippine ducks and 260 tufted ducks, also lower than the 416 and 415 counted last year.
But for birdwatchers, the happiness is in finding the stray birds that join them.
Some of the birds spotted this timewere the blue rock thrush, black-winged stilt, great billed heron, barn swallows, osprey, emerald dove, pied triller, olive backed sunbird, white-throated kingfisher, grey wagtail, chestnut munia, yellow-vented bulbul, Philippine scops owl, white-breasted wood swallow, bramminy kite, pied bush chat, and grey-streaked flycatcher.
And while COVID-19 has put travelers in their cages, tourism as we know it has to adapt or die.
The Department of Tourism in Cordillera, for example, has to go beyond Panagbenga and Banaue Rice Terraces and focus instead on these white egrets.
“We have to go into quality tourism or niche tourism,” said DOT-Cordillera OIC Jovelyn Ganongan.
“Birdwatchers are a devoted flock. We have to focus on them as we recover,” she said.
Birdwatching is also a perfect COVID-19 tourism activity. Birdwatchers are mostly solitary quiet people willing to spend money to spot rare birds.
Ganongan said that she had been attending birdwatching Zoom conferences to invite them.
Other than the Magat-Maris wetlands, DOT-Cordillera is also eyeing Mt. Kalawitan in Sabangan, Mt. Province.
Among the rare birds sighted in the tenth highest mountain is the Japanese Paradise flycatcher.
A study by the Haribon Foundation found more than 50 bird species and 72 species of rare plants at Mt. Kalawitan.
Another favorite birdwatching site in the Cordillera is Mt. Polis in Ifugao.
Ganongan said they are also thinking of opening a birdwatching tour in Calanasan, Apayao but said that their consultants found the people still not ready to be tour guides and stewards of the people.
In Alfonso Lista and Sabangan, the host barangays have been trained to act as tour guides and hosts for the birdwatchers, Ganongan said.
They are also working with the DENR for the protection of the birds and the habitats.
Calanasan is said to be a Luzon habitat of the Philippine Eagle or Haribon. An active Haribon nest discovered in Apayao in 2015 has made a lot of birdwatchers excited.