ENDANGERED & THREATENED BIRDS OF THE WORLD
"THE BEST BIRD IN THE WORLD"
a photo discussion by Don Roberson
GREAT PHILIPPINE EAGLE  Pithecophaga jefferyi
Mt. Katanglad, Mindanao, Philippines

 
In choosing the "best bird" in the world, I use the same criteria that I adopted in my youth when I researched, weighed, balanced, and created my own "top 50 birds of the world." These criteria were:
  • (a) how distinctive the species was,
  • (b) how impressive the bird seemed to me (e.g., big &  colorful more impressive than dull & small),
  • (c) how rare the bird was, and
  • (d) how hard the species was to locate in the wild, and
  • (e) extinct species were not considered.
In 1975, after sorting through all my individual pages of "50 most wanted birds" and ranking them, my "Most Wanted Bird in the World" the most distinctive, most impressive, super-rare and hard-to-find species was the Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi.

My visit to Mt. Katanglad was part of a KingBird Tour, led by Ben King, in late February 1990. There the six participants and Ben King stayed in a small camp at the edge of the forest built by Tim Fisher for a tour he was to lead a few weeks later. Just before we left to fly to Manila, this FAX arrived from the KingBird office:

"We will camp for four nights in northern Mindanao near the site of an active Monkey-eating Eagle nest. We'll supply tents, food, etc. You will need to bring a sleeping bag and air mattress."
To reach the camp we flew to Caguyan de Oro on Mindanao. Then took a bus to a rough dirt track, shifted the gear into a jeep, and followed the four-wheel drive ruts up to the camp at 4500' elevation, stopping to repair the jeep as necessary (left). The general location was near Dalwangan, north of Malaybalay, Bukidnon Province. The eagle nest was across a deep valley (above) from our camp site (in the forest to the right of this photo). We had views of the eagle nest and a 1.5-month-old chick from an overlook on our side of the ravine. One day I hiked down to the valley floor (4100') and saw an adult eagle fly overhead and up towards the nest. On another day, I waited at our observation perch until an adult arrived at the nest and tear up something for the mildly-interested youngster, and on yet another day I photographed an adult flying overhead and up the valley toward the hills. The valley itself, and all lower elevations, were badly degraded by slash-and-burn practices. We heard chainsaws going from dawn to dusk. I have since learned that the area in which our camp was located has been cut down.
Dinner at the camp (left above): Ben King checks a reference, Tim Fisher (who built the camp) appears in the light blue shirt, while a local Philippine cook brings food. Tour participant Joy Mowat eats a watermelon while Marc Weinberger works on his list. Each afternoon heavy rains would drench our camp site (right above).
The Philippine Eagle nest was in huge tree across the valley (left below) and a telephoto lens was necessary to even show the chick (right-hand photos below).
The latter shot (above) is enlarged and shows a feathered chick still mostly white but already sporting brown upperwing covers. Adults raise only one young a year, bringing them a variety of food, including monkeys snatched from treetops. But as the habitat is lost, so is the necessary prey base. The loss of habitat along with the shooting and trapping of the eagles are the primary threats to its continued existence.

Captive breeding has been attempted (in fact, I was once on the board of a Philippine Eagle Fund that raised money for this purpose) but has not had much success to date (although I am not up on the most recent news). Political instability and insurgents in the back country of Mindanao have seriously interrupted efforts to save the eagle. The outlook is fairly bleak. It has been difficult to obtain any reliable information about the number of birds that still survive because its habitat is so remote and the bird difficult to locate away from a nest. Each adult hunts over a huge section of forest. The most recent estimates I heard in 1990 were in the low hundreds. A much more recent paper puts the number on Mindanao at between 82 and 233 (Bueser et al. 2003).
 

These shots of the adult are not the greatest photos in the world, but do show the massive wingspan and the huge bill. It was surely a major highlight to see such a fabulous bird in the wild. 
This (left) was my only really half-decent shot of the adult as it soared up and over my head, heading for distant ridges.

I still consider the Great Philippine Eagle as the "best bird" in the world. The day I finally saw a Philippine Eagle coming to a nest on Mt. Katanglad on Mindanao was among the happiest and saddest days of my life. Happy, because I had finally experienced such a magnificent bird in the wild, but sad, because one could hear chainsaws cutting at the edge of its forested home from dawn to dusk every day we were there. We can only hope that it will survive for others to enjoy, and to continue to fulfill its part in the chain of life's biodiversity.

Literature cited:
Bueser, G.L.L., K.G. Bueser, D.S. Afan, D.I. Salvador, J.W. Grier, R.S. Kennedy, and H.C. Miranda, Jr. 2003. Distribution and nesting density of the Philippine Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi on Mindanao Island, Philippines: what do we know after 100 years? Ibis 145: 130-135.
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Page created 2 Mar 1999, mildly revised 31 May 2005