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In July and September last year, a team of explorers climbed steep slopes and lush forest vegetation on Mt. Apo Geothermal Reservation in Kidapawan City in search of a rare find—a pair of Philippine eagle and their nest to confirm sightings in a completely new and unexplored territory.
The expedition not only confirmed the existence of the pair of Philippine eagle, it also confirmed the pair’s lone progeny—a juvenile eagle that is beginning to learn how to hunt on its own.
The newly discovered Philippine eagle family is the seventh recorded and documented on Mt. Apo, said Jayson Ibañez, director for Research and Conservation of the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF).
“It was an international expedition to look for the pair. We suspected there was a pair there because of previous sightings,” Ibañez told the BusinessMirror said via Messenger on December 3.
The PEF, the longtime institutional partner of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for the conservation of the Philippine eagle and their habitats, aims to find all eagle nesting sites within the Mt. Apo Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) and help protect each of the nest sites.
According to the PEF, the Philippine eagle nest sites are ancient breeding areas, believing that generations of eagle pairs have occupied the same nests over and over again.
As such, PEF conservation experts believe that conserving the nest sites where eggs are laid, hatched and chicks are nurtured until they grow is key to the success of saving the species from extinction.
PEF Executive Director Dennis Salvador told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on December 16 that the discovery of the Philippine eagle family is proof that the technical capacity of the PEF has improved significantly over the years, particularly in finding the eagles.
He said finding the Philippine eagles and their nest are very important “for us to be able to protect them,” he said.
Salvador underscored the need for a strong partnership between the government, nongovernment organizations, private sector and communities in saving the Philippine eagle.
“Primarily, we need the support of the private sector because of the logistical requirements,” he said.
Tagged rescued or captive-bred eagles, which the PEF have released into the wild, are monitored through radio transmitters. This, he said, is the single major and expensive, but most reliable system adopted by the PEF to identify the location and the behavior of the eagles.
On the other hand, working with communities in protecting the eagles and their habitat could not be overemphasized, Salvador said,
He added that the communities, particularly the indigenous people (IP) who live in the area, are in the best position to protect the species and their habitats from various threats.
In the brink of extinction
Considered critically endangered, only around 400 pairs of the Philippine eagles are left in the wild.
The population decline was attributed by experts to habitat destruction, hunting for trophies, illegal wildlife trade and accidental bycatch.
Of late, however, sightings of juvenile Philippine eagles in completely new territories with no history or record of the species are offering exciting news about their existence.
The Philippine eagle, considered the largest bird of prey in the world, pairs for life. They produce only one offspring every two to three years which sometimes die of natural death because of the brutal conditions in the wild.
‘Search for King of Birds’
The expedition began when the PEF, the DENR and the Energy Development Corp. (EDC) launched a project dubbed “Search for the King of Birds” along the western slopes of Mt. Apo.
The expedition team targeted the Mt. Apo Geothermal Reservation in Kidapawan City where eagles were seen in the past.
The project, which primarily aims to confirm the existence of the Philippine eagle in the area, also targets to enhance the local awareness about the critically endangered bird of prey, and explore the community’s capacity for eagle conservation.
The 2019 expeditions that confirmed the sighting of one eagle close to the reservation, discovered that the eagle, believed to be not more than a year old, is a floater, or still sexually immature and unpaired, according to PEF experts.
The presence of an immature eagle, however, indicates that its parents could be nearby.
The expedition, however, was inadvertently put on hold, said Ibañez, due to the community lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
It was only last November when the PEF and EDC was able to resume the search owing to their observance of health Covid-19 protocols.
PEF team members—Senior Biologist Ron Taraya and Field Intern Keanu Sitjar—underwent mandatory 14-day quarantine in Kidapawan City, had themselves tested for the virus and other medical screenings.
Together with EDC Forest Aides Climclim Lumayon and Renjie Sinding, the team embarked on the monthlong expedition, and picked up where they stopped last year.
The team had to climb steep terrains en route to the survey site and had to squeeze their way through lush forest vegetation.
Finding and documenting the Philippine eagle that is considered the rarest of all birds of prey is easier said than done.
The species tend to fly away, making the team stake out in four observation posts, where they suspected the eagle might be lurking.
Three of the observation posts were on the ground, while one is on an elevated platform, which gave the team the closest view of the narrow valley and the surrounding forests.
The team spent 192 observation hours, documenting under frequent rains every bit of information and the events that unfold until they were able to document the Philippine eagle family.
The eagles were documented at least eight times—with an accumulated observation hours of 26.5, less than 15 percent of the total 192 observation hours of the entire month-long expedition.
Ibañez and Taraya’s narration of the expedition was posted on the PEF’s official web site.
It was on November 4 when the team got their first glimpse of the pair of eagles exhibiting courtship behavior
“We could hear our hearts pumping as we witnessed an unmistakable breeding behavior of two mature eagles” Ibañez said.
The following day, as the team was documenting the pair anew, the team heard loud, crying calls from another eagle nearby—similar to a young or juvenile eagle begging for food from its parents.
They finally spotted the third member of the family a week later as it emerged on a tree directly above the falls, loudly calling out for its parents.
The juvenile eagle was observed to be in its post-fledging stage and could be starting to hunt on its own. One time was observed to attempting to target a long-tailed macaque.
Based on their observation and assessment, the members of the team believed that the juvenile eagle would soon be hunting on its own and the eagle pair could be laying an egg soon.
Besides the Philippine eagle, the team was able to spot seven other raptors during the expedition.
They were the Philippine serpent eagle, Philippine honey buzzard, brahminy kite, Philippine falconet, Chinese sparrow hawk, crested honey buzzard and the peregrine falcon.
Sought for comment, DENR Assistant Secretary said the discovery of the seventh Philippine eagle pair in Mt. Apo KBA is a welcome development.
“This means that our wildlife, specifically the Philippine eagle, is able to enjoy our resources. This means that in this area, our management is effective. It also means that threat, as far as expansion, appears to be under control given the increasing number of Philippine eagle in the area,” Calderon told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on December 3.
Calderon, concurrent Biodiversity Management Bureau director, credited the PEF and the EDC for their successful program to save the country’s National Bird from extinction.
A company advocacy
Allan Barcena, head of EDCs Corporate Social Responsibility Public Relations Group, said via text message on December 10 that the discovery has only proven that Mt. Apo, which is the habitat of the Philippine eagle, still has a very healthy forest.
He also credited EDC’s strong commitment and advocacy of environmental sustainability in protecting the environment, particularly the Geothermal Reservation on Mt. Apo.
“EDC has been protecting and nurturing the forest within its 700-hectare Mt. Apo Geothermal Reservation with the help of its Manobo IP Communities,” he said.
He said various initiatives of the company, one of Asia’s leading geothermal energy producers, “elevate the environment and communities they work with as part of its mission of forging collaborative pathways for a decarbonized and regenerative future.”
“Biodiversity conservation and monitoring has always been one of our priorities, along with bridging forest gaps and propagating 96 of our Philippine native tree species under our Binhi greening legacy program,” he said.
Image credits: Philippine Eagle Foundation