A day at the Olango Wildlife Sanctuary

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"Egrets." My guide, Boy, stops behind a mangrove and puts down the spotting scope he is carrying to point out his find. And there, on a small, still dry spot of sand about 20 meters from where I stand knee-deep in the fast-rising seawater is a flock of Little Egrets, serenely feeding, apparently unaware of the presence of humans in their secluded hideaway.


I am at the Nature Center of the 920-hectare protected wetland called Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, or "The Olango Bird Sanctuary," as it is better known in these parts. I have been here since 8:30 in the morning, the better to catch the birds as they went about their daily routine.

During the low tide, they feed on the seashells off the extensive tidal flats, slowly converging in bigger and bigger groups on whatever dry spots are still left as the tide comes in, then finally flying to the mangrove area to roost in its thick foliage when the tide settles.

These are migratory birds traveling the East Asian Migratory Flyway, one of the most important shorebird and waterbird migratory flyways in the world. Twice a year, they come to Olango, from August to November, when they stop over on their flight from Siberia's harsh winter to more favorable southern climes, and then again from February to March during their northward migration. I'm here on Olango to catch them as they take a breather before they continue their long journey home.

This small island just four kilometers from the east coast of Mactan in Cebu is a critical host for migratory birds, one of the few places left in the world where conditions are still hospitable to these winged refugees of winter and man's predatory ways. Nearly 50 migratory bird species, more than half of the 77 bird species using the East Asian Migratory Flyway, have been spotted here. Terns, Plovers, Sandpipers and Little Egrets are the most common, but the star attraction is the endangered Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), now the object of my growing curiosity.


I check the time. It is 1:07 pm, some 30 or so minutes before the tide reaches the day's highest point of 1.4 meters. A tide level of 1.2 to 1.3 meters, I'm told, is the best for bird watching. The tide is coming in fast, I figure it's nearing the ideal level. It's been a hot, slow day, so far. I spent most of the morning under the searing sun, wading in ankle-deep water and trying hard to remember what it was about this place that I came for.

Armed with a borrowed birder's guidebook, I tried my hand at identifying the dispersed birds feeding in a tree-less expanse of tidal flat a few hundred meters from where I now watch my first big flock of egrets. They were too far away, too scattered and too shy to get really acquainted with, but I saw - or think I saw - Common Terns, Gray Plovers, a Red Shank or two, some Little Egrets and Godwits. I thought I even spotted an Australian Curlew, but I'm told Australian Curlews don't travel this way. (A rare sighting, maybe?)

So now I concentrate on the egrets, hoping to spot the Chinese Egret among its shorter Japanese cousins (like Little Egrets from Japan). No such luck, but the birds are beginning to congregate in thicker and thicker flocks, painting the golden sand with their mousy colors of white, brown and black. "Let's move to Hide 3," Boy says in a hushed tone (the Nature Center has three "hides," vantage points from which to watch the birds, and these are called, somewhat drably I though, Hide 1, Hide 2 and Hide 3).


It's 1:18 pm. The water level is just about right, I reckon - it has reached past my knees.

We move to Hide 3, careful not to speak more than necessary. Birds are skittish creatures, flying quickly away when they sense the presence of people nearby and, more than anything, it's human voices that drive them away.

Once again, Boy chooses a spot behind a mangrove; I start to feel like a paparazzo preying on some unwitting celebrity. But the spot is nearly perfect. I see the birds even before Boy points them out: hundreds - maybe a thousand - of them, close enough to see with the naked eye. And behind them, a sea of winged creatures, some seemingly skimming the water surface, others soaring in the distant horizon covering the blazing sun, undulating like so many waves against the brilliant blue sky. It's an oh-wow kind of a sight. Spellbinding. Awesome. I feel my skin break out in Goosebumps.

I feel the water begin to lick the hem of my shorts. Once more, I check the time. It's now 1:30 pm. The tide has come in fast, it has risen much higher than when I last looked. Time to go, unless I fancy getting my clothes wet.

I take one last look at the still thickening flock of birds. An elegant white egret stretches to its full height and flaps its wings, ready for flight. "Is that…?" I ask. "No, it's a Little Egret," he says apologetically.

No matter - I've witnessed what may well be the high point of the day. Maybe next time.

(Taken from Sunstar Horizons, The Philippine Travelogue, Copyright 1998)