October 20, 2015: Subic Bay, Philippines—Near the town of Balang on the island of Palawan is the Puerto Princesa Underground River, reputedly the world’s second-longest subterranean river and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (according to a 2011 popularity contest). The cave, which cuts through karst limestone, includes an 8.2-kilometer section of river, of which it’s possible to explore about a quarter by boat. It’s like paddling through a theme park with large cathedrals, flowstone, waterfalls, stalagmites, thousands of bats, and narrow passageways.
Birders have an even better reason to visit the underground river. The island of Palawan is home to one of the world’s most unique and spectacular birds, called the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, which is a difficult creature to encounter in dense forest. About 20 years ago, a male peacock-pheasant made friends with the human residents at the site’s ranger station, and, amazingly, the same bird is still hanging around the grounds. It has been seen by thousands of birders over the years, and most photographs of wild Palawan Peacock-Pheasants show this unusually confiding individual.
Reaching the river’s entrance—and the famous peacock-pheasant—is normally easy via a 15-minute boat ride on the ocean, but today the water was too rough (a lingering effect of Super Typhoon Lando), which meant Nicky and I had to take a muddy, four-kilometer trail through the forest. This turned out to be good for two reasons: We saw lots of other birds en route and the hike sharply reduced tourist traffic. On a busy day, the underground river might see more than 1,500 visitors, but for most of today Nicky and I had the place completely to ourselves.
By the time we arrived at the ranger station, my hat was so sweaty that it dripped from the brim. Nicky imitated the call of the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant and, within seconds, the bird walked out of the undergrowth, almost right up to our shoelaces! I hadn’t expected to see my most-wanted Palawan bird quite that close. When we moved, it even followed us around. This bird has definitely learned to associate people with food handouts, but it was still an incredible experience to spend a while with the peacock-pheasant on close terms.
It then seemed a bit ridiculous to pass up the chance to have one of the world’s seven natural wonders to myself. Playing tourist, I took a 45-minute underground river boat ride more than a kilometer deep and admired the subterranean formations with a chatty boatman. Inside the cave were dozens of Germain’s Swiftlets, also known as the Edible-nest Swiftlet, whose nests, made of the birds’ saliva, are the key ingredient in birds’ nest soup. The swiftlets are about the size and color of bats and also use high-pitched echolocation while flying in the dark.
Nicky and I caught a flight back to Manila this evening and headed north toward Subic Bay, where a new suite of birds awaits in the morning.
New birds today: 16
Year list: 4911