Members of Team Bird Finder, Don Geoff Tabaranza, Erickson Tabayag, and Christian Benavidez, are all smiles as they are announced as the winners of the Puerto Princesa Underground River 6th International Bird Photography Race. The event took place on November 5 at the Princesa Garden Island Resort and Spa. Also featured in the photo are PENRO Felizardo Cayatoc, PPUR park superintendent Elizabeth Maclang, and Dr. Carlos Reyes Jr, founder of the Palawan Geographic Society.

Puerto Princesa, known as the emerging birding capital of the Philippines, recently celebrated its rich avian biodiversity through the Puerto Princesa Underground River 6th International Bird Photography Race.

The event, held from November 3–5 at the Princesa Garden Island Resort and Spa, was one of the main features of the city’s Subaraw Festival.

This year’s race was a resounding success, said Atty. Carlo Gomez, head of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (City ENRO). In just a single weekend, photographers documented over 160 bird species out of the 279 found in Palawan and the 593 in the Philippines, proving the thriving bird habitats in Puerto Princesa.

He said that out of the 27 bird species endemic to Palawan, an impressive 23 were captured by the lenses of participating photographers.

Expedito Reyes from Team EX-Jr. proudly poses with his award-winning entry for Best Bird Action Photo at the 2023 Puerto Princesa Underground River International Bird Photography Race. He received the award from Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office chief Felizardo Cayatoc.

Gomez, founder of the underground river bird race, praised the outcome, noting the challenges of photographing certain elusive species, such as the Palawan peacock pheasant and the Palawan striped babbler, which reside in remote or high-altitude areas.

He said that the remaining endemic species were beyond the bounds of the race, which took place within city limits.

“Yung Palawan peacock pheasant kasi medyo malayo yung male sa Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR). Yung isa, yung Palawan striped babbler, mahirap makita sa Puerto Princesa City kasi nasa highest elevation siya matatagpuan, 1,200 ft above sea level,” Gomez said.

Gomez mentioned that a photograph taken during the race, potentially showing a white-throated rock thrush (Monticola gularis), has not yet received official confirmation from a national bird committee.

This hard-to-spot bird typically inhabits the rocky terrains of northern China and Russia, migrating to southern China and Southeast Asia in the winter.

Gomez emphasized that if the sighting is confirmed, it would signify another national record for Puerto Princesa.

The bird race had 25 teams competing with two to three members each, the largest number of photographers to join the event so far.

The idea for the birding contest originated with Gomez in 2015, during his tenure at the Palawan Geographical Society (PGS). As an avid bird photographer, Gomez was keen on drawing attention to Palawan’s native bird species through the event, aiming to contribute to broader conservation initiatives.

Preparing for this year’s bird race was a process that spanned over half a year, a period Gomez described as a bit sad and stressful. The team was deeply engaged in promoting the event to attract more participants, tasks which included creating an official website and QR code guidelines.

Amidst these preparations, the birding community faced a setback: earlier this year, they mourned the loss of Winfred Paler, also known as Wins Paler in wild bird photography circles. A professional conservation photographer, Paler had been a key figure in the PPUR bird race since its very beginning.

“Wins Paler, as he’s fondly called by us, was a participant during the first bird race (…) He was a constant winner sa best Palawan endemic photo contest. Unfortunately, Wins died of cancer this year, during preparations noong March,” Gomez recalled.

“Wins helped the international bird photography race by helping us coordinate with local bird enthusiasts, domestic as well as international. He’s the one primarily inviting foreign participants in the bird race aside from putting up his team. He used to lead Team Nikon,” Gomez said, referring to the previous sponsor. The sponsor this year was Sony Philippines.

The PPUR members, including the City ENRO, PGS, and the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines (WBPP), to which Paler belonged, renamed and dedicated a category in the bird photography race as the Wins Paler Special Awards for Best Palawan Endemic Photos.

Floyd Bermejo from Team Fly High, who captured a photo of a falcated wren babbler (Ptilocichla falcata), was the second runner-up in this category. The first runner-up was Francisco Fernandez Jr. from Team Wildest Shooter, who documented a Palawan sunbird (Cinnyris aurora), locally known as chiwit.

Delio Tolosa from Team Lingaw Lingaw Ra Birders, who photographed the Palawan flowerpecker (Prionochilus plateni), was awarded the champion of the Wins Paler Special Awards, receiving P10,000 and a gift from Sony.

The best bird action photo accolade was given to Expedito Reyes of Team EX-Jr. for capturing an Oriental honey buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus) and Jerdon’s baza (Aviceda jerdoni) in mid-flight with wings outstretched and legs akimbo. Gomez noted that this particular pair of birds was the most sought-after photography subject during the race.

Team Real Tree Birders won the best team uniform award, donning full camouflage gear from head to toe, complete with matching sleeves for their camera lenses.

Although held up by technical snags such as different image files, the lack of safety shots, and wrongly marked dates on the photos, Gomez said that the participants still managed to collect high points. Each documented bird has a corresponding point, with Palawan endemic birds, accidental bird shots, and rare migratory birds being marked the highest, worth 10 points. Philippine endemic birds were worth five points, and common migratory birds had three points as the lowest.

The champions for the team category who garnered a total of 1,871 points and won P80,000 were Team Bird Finder, composed of Don Geoff Tabaranza, Erickson Tabayag, and Christian Benavidez.

Tabaranza also won Birdman of the Year by individually garnering 657 points.

Aimee Valencia, Caroline Silva, and Angelyn Yniguez of Team Ibong Adarna won the Lady Team category in the PPUR birding race, which also featured new categories. Wang Fengyi of Team Happy Bird Finders won Birdwoman of the Year with 279 points.