Tracking The Seabirds Of Tubbataha Led By Danish Ornithologist

Under an
overcast sky, a maddening cacophony of birdcalls served as our alarm clock.
    We are
bivouacked on the cold, wet sand of Tubbataha North Islet, a UNESCO World
Heritage Site and one of Asia’s great seabird
enclaves. I reluctantly turn my sleepy gaze to a backlit sky swarming with
birds. North Islet’s residents have awakened – time for us to get moving,
    Led by
Danish ornithologist Dr. Arne Erik Jensen, we have been tasked to assess the
seabirds of Tubbataha North and South Islets, part of an annual move by WWF
(World Wildlife Fund) and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) to maintain and
restore bird populations in the Sulu Sea. Our
survey team finished with South Islet two days ago. This was our last day on
the North Islet.
    At the
heart of the Coral Triangle are the twin atolls of Tubbataha, 160 kilometers
(99 miles) southeast of Puerto Princesa City
in Palawan and administered by nearby Cagayancillo.
These are the largest coral atolls in the Philippines,
each one emerging above the Sulu Sea. Famous
for the wealth of its marine life and now a leading candidate for the New Seven
Natural Wonders of the World, Tubbataha is equally important as one of the last
great seabird rookeries of Southeast Asia.
    Before the
Second World War, seabirds were common throughout Southeast Asian islands. But
60 years of extensive human encroachment and marine pollution have taken their
    “Most face
nothing less than local extinction, their former range reduced to a few
isolated holdouts like Tubbataha North and South Islets. Birds here are able to
breed freely because the lack of freshwater bars the intrusion of predators
like cats, rats and people. Fortunately the area is protected by isolation and
by good management from the TMO,” explains Jensen as the team gathers for the
dawn briefing.
    The team,
composed chiefly of TMO Park Rangers and volunteers, is being split into pairs
and tasked to either tag birds or count nests. I partner with Nick Molina, a
weather-beaten Navy man serving the first of his three-month tour as a Park
    “Your job
is to find nests of the Black Noddy, an endemic bird which breeds only here in
Tubbataha. Look for cup-like leaf nests on trees and in low bushes,” instructs
Jensen, glancing skyward. We know we must work quickly since North Islet heats
up – fast. Adds Jensen with a grin, “Last survey, I found my partner passed out
in some low bushes, totally delirious from heatstroke.”
    The first
seabirds developed during the Cretaceous period, roughly 65 million years ago,
when Tytthostonyx glauconiticus soared above Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex and
other dinosaurs of that era. Today’s sea and shorebirds are perfectly adapted
to life on the open ocean.
millions of years, evolution has gifted them with such useful traits as
waterproof plumage and the ability to drink seawater. They inhabit remote areas
and give birth to few young, which are tended to with great dedication.
of predators remains the greatest threat to seabirds. Isolated for centuries in
inaccessible roosts, most have lost their natural defense mechanisms. After
cats were introduced on Ascension Isle in the South
over a century ago, bird numbers dropped from 20 million
to 400,000. Other threats include marine pollution, hunting and land
    Over a
hundred bird species regularly visit Tubbataha, and eight have been known to
breed locally: the Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), Brown Booby (Sula
leucogaster), Black Noddy (Anous minutus sub. worcestri), Brown Noddy (Anous
stolidus), Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), Great Crested Tern (Sterna
bergii) and Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata). Sadly, Masked Boobies (Sula
dactylatra) were declared regionally extinct in 1995.
    Back at our
ship, the M/B Minerva, Arne and I regard a horizon overcast with rain clouds –
heralding the arrival of a huge typhoon and changing climate, the amihan
(northeast) and habagat (southwest) winds still months off.
    “Let me
tell you a sad story, that of Bancauan Isle,” he says quietly. “When people
first settled, there were birds all around. But the people brought with them
rats, dogs and cats. In a few years all the ground-breeding seabirds were wiped
out… few even remember they existed.”

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