Oct 29, 2020

Saving the birds of Tubbataha

Angelique Songco, endearingly referred to as Mama Ranger, and is the Tubattaha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) park superintendent, describes the condition of the islets as critical for the boobies and other birds that have long regarded them as a refuge and mating area.

A flock of the great crested terns at the Bird Islet in Tubattaha Reefs and Natural Park. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Cruz)

 

The Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) has turned its efforts to save the sea birds of the country’s prime protected marine park and World Heritage Site, by trying to revive the migratory birds’ islet habitat ravaged by drought and guano overfertilization.

Angelique Songco, endearingly referred to as Mama Ranger, and is the Tubattaha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) park superintendent, describes the condition of the islets as critical for the boobies and other birds that have long regarded them as a refuge and mating area.

She noted that the common beach shrub vegetation that the birds use to rest and mate have disappeared and their efforts to regenerate them have so far proved unsuccessful.

“The Scaevola once grew on the islets, but all died due to overfertilization with guano and the drought that hit us in recent years,” the TMO stated in a recent social media post.

The TMO has turned to social media to ask volunteers to help them find planters of the beach shrub (Scaevola taccada) which they plan to germinate at the office property before transplanting them to the Bird and South Islets of Tubbataha.

In a phone interview with Palawan News on Wednesday afternoon, Mama Ranger said the Bird and South Islets are already “flat”, after the trees and shrubs in the islets all died because of the guano overfertilization and the recent droughts they have experienced.

She recalled that in 2001, the islets flourished with beach shrubs which subsequently invited some 20 red-footed boobies (Sula sula). However, the population ballooned to around 2,500 the following year, overwhelming the delicate soil in the islets and causing the vegetation to die.

“These birds are very social animals siguro nag-aya sila kaya nagdagsaan sila. ‘Yong kanilang droppings naco-concentrate sa soil, sa roots, and then na-overfertilize ‘yong roots because of guano. Nawala lahat ng trees, namatay silang lahat,” Songco said.

 

Critical For Survival

In May 2016, a lone masked booby (Sula dactylatra) which had not been seen for almost 20 years and thus thought to be extinct, was seen nesting at the Bird Islet. After three years, on November 2019, the usually lone bird finally found its “partner” after it was reportedly seen hanging around the “plaza”—the unvegetated area in the middle of Bird Islet.

 

A peregrine falcon circles around the roost trees of red-footed boobies. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Cruz)

The islets is also a shelter to the black noddy (Anous minutus), an internationally protected species. The seabirds generally nest on a level platform, often created in the branches of trees by a series of dried leaves covered with bird droppings. One egg is laid each season, and nests are re-used in subsequent years.

“‘Yong nagbebreed sa trees, dalawang species ‘yan—the red-footed boobies and the black noddy na internationally protected. Hindi pwedeng mawala ang black noddy kung hindi mapapahiya tayo sa international community because that is our responsibility,” Mama Ranger said.

 

Multiple Approach

In the last quarter of 2019, Mama Ranger said they established a nursery of beach forest trees. In June this year, they planted cuttings of anuling (Pisonia grandis) they imported from the Cagayancillo town—with at least 400 propagules transported aboard their boat.

“For many years, nagtatanim kami ng cuttings lang, ‘yong pinutol lang tapos tinatanim namin doon. Ang survival rate niya tatlo lang out of several hundreds. So we thought, we have to assist the regeneration of the beach forest if we do not like to lose the black noddy,” Songco said.

The TRNP personnel also came up with several other strategies such as making temporary structures where the seabirds may nest—to a point that they also even brought dried leaves to the islets as nesting raw materials for the birds.

“That’s only one of the strategies we use. Gumawa din tayo ng structures para doon din sila magnest habang wala pang trees. There are so many variables we don’t understand kaya we are trying many approaches to hopefully improve the success rate,” Songco explained.

 

The Domino Effect of Conservation

Mama Ranger, born in Surigao, served in the Philippine Army before getting involved with Tubbataha. She started involvement in the Tubbataha Reefs in 1996 as a representative for a local non-government organization (NGO), the Saguda Palawan Inc., in the park’s Protected Area Management Board (PAMB). The PAMB hired her to manage Tubattaha in 2001.

With over two decades worth of experience in conservation, Mama Ranger has called for citizens’ action in taking care of the environment, citing the domino effect in preserving the natural wonders.

On Monday, in a statement made by TRNP over Facebook, a great crested tern (Thalasseus bergii) has died a “gruesome death” because of the plastic around its neck and in its beak, which prevented it from eating.

In a viral photo posted by an environment advocate on November 2019, a plastic bag from an online store has reached the waters of Tubattaha, raising concerns on waste disposal affecting the pristine waters of the world-renowned diving site.

No active human settlement thrives within Tubattaha, but the plastic pollution reaching their seas had since been one of their biggest threats.

“Kailangan alagaan din natin ‘yong nasa labas ng park. It’s a whole ecosystem and you no longer just think of yourself. Parang itong times of COVID-19 na pinagdadaanan natin, hindi pwedeng ikaw lang ang isipin mo, what you do will affect others,” Songco concluded.

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