Lifers! Birds of Agusan Marsh

Lifer!! I yelled in silence to avoid shooing away the winged endemic residents and migratory visitors of Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary.

Sea of water lilies block the way in and out of the floating Panlabuhan village in Loreto, Agusan del Sur.
(c)Louie Pacardo
For birders or bird watchers, "lifer" means a bird first seen and positively identified. So, besides the cinnamon and black bitterns flying in the hydrophytic plants-filled Gwa-gwa lake, one of the 56 lakes found within the 14,836-hectare Agusan Marshland Sanctuary, all the other birds we saw that fair-weathered morning are my lifers. 

We were seven (3 guides,  4 adult adventurers and the eight-year old traveler, Nicole) inside the shallow-floored canoe or banca made of glued patches of marine plywood and without an outrigger. Too much excitement could move the banca out of balance and leave us drenched in brackish marsh water...together with our tech gadgets. Being there was an art of balancing your excitement and being mindful of the unique environment found only in the heart of the vast marshscape. 
Told you, it's a sea of hydrophytic plants.
Agusan Marsh in Caraga Region in Northern Mindanao is considered a valuable habitat for water birds. This marshland is as wide as the entire Metro Manila and is home to wild ducks that come to nest during dry seasons. Brackish-water crocodiles, like the 20.24 feet-long captured, transferred to a mini cage, named Lolong and later died in the name of tourism, live here too. 

READ: Lolong: World's Largest Crocodile in a Mini Pond!

The threatened Philippine Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus philippensis), Spotted Imperial Pigeon (Ducula carola) and Rufous-lored Kingfisher (Todiramphus winchelli) take refuge in the protected wetland. The rare Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) and Purple Swamp Hen(Porphyrio porphyrio) nest there too. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded in this vast waterworld. Many of them are regular runaways from the cold winters of the northern hemisphere as far as Russia,China and Japan. 

standing by for our Agusan marsh lifers. (c)Louie Pacardo
We didn't see all the 200+ species when we paddled from our host community, the floating Panlabuhan village in the town of Loreto, to Gwa-gwa lake. July isn't the peak season for birding but that one morning of bird watching is enough to confirm how diverse the wild life is in the heart of Agusan basin. 

I took charge of the landscape shots of the marsh while Sirs Jovic Ferrer and Jeniel Buday, members of  Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines - South Cotabato chapter, dealt with the birds while doing a balancing act in the banca. Sir Jonallier and Nicole were part of the praying brigade shooing away the crocodiles and the bad spirits. 

Here are some of the birds documented by the team: 

Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) gives a wide weird gargling call and emits loud hisses when threatened...(photo by Jeniel buday) it did when it got trapped in this fishcage set by local fisherfolks. It was set free by our guide. Part of their training is to help conserve and protect the wildlife in the marshland.
The Wandering whistling ducks (Dendrocygna arcuata) is a large duck with rich red-brown plumage overall that gets paler on front of neck and upper breast (photo by Jeniel buday).
Black bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis) has a yellow patch on the sides of the neck, extending from the throat to the wing. It breeds in tropical Asia...including our backyard in Koronadal City.
This is not a lifer for me (photo by Jeniel buday).  
Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) feeds mainly on small animals and insects from the marsh surface, and invertebrates from different parts of aquatic vegetation (photo by Jeniel buday).
Pheasant-tailed Jacana (photo by Jovic Ferrer)
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) has purple-brown plumage with slate-grey wings and feeds on fishes, frogs, invertebrates and small rodents (photo by Jeniel buday).
The purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) has silky purple-blue plumage with metallic gloss on throat and breast (photo by Jeniel buday).

Asian glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis) is endemic to Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand and is known to be one of the noisiest bird species (photo by Jovic Ferrer).
Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus) breeds in colonies on inland marshes and is the largest of the marsh tern specie (photo by Jovic Ferrer).
A longer stay in the marshland would make it  possible for a more thorough documentation of the birds. But not that time for us. What's important is the start of the discovery that is reason for us to come back for more. 

The tourist center in the floating village of Panlabuhan. (c)Louie Pacardo

Water lilies block the waters in and out of the floating village. (c)Louie Pacardo

Salamat, Panlabuhan!
The group wishes for the local government to look closely into developing this unique brand of adventure - one that highlights the protection of the marsh environment and conserves richness of wildlife diversity and one that involves the local community.

Peace and Light. Cheers! []

Muchos Gracias 
Special thanks to the local government of Loreto led by Mayor Dario Otaza and First-lady Ligaya. Special thanks to the team that helped make our adventure more fun: Sir Ian Louie Bajade, Sir Matt Poria. 
Muchos gracias too, to the Agusan del Sur Provincial team led by Governor Bong Plaza and his good team: Nathaniel Lamzon, Almar Lambaco, Bo CaƱete, Nestor Dizon, Bebot Gresola, Melchecedic Vito Cereno.

Daghang Salamat to the Manobo people in Panlabuhan led by Datu Boyet.

Madamo nga Salamt to Sir Jovic and Jeniel of the Wild Birds Photographers of the Philippines for the bird photos and great birding company. Thanks too for containing your excitement and not moving while inside the canoe. See, we all went home dry and safe!

Hail to our BiyaheTaMindanaw Team led by Mindanao Tourism Council's dynamic Executive Director Mr. Jonallier Perez and the rest of the fun gang: Olan, Ida, Sarah, Nicole, Leah, Edwin, Carole, Jayvie, Jea, Fra, Dan and Kit. You rock! Let's Rock Mindanao!

How to Get to Panlabuhan, Loreto

Major airlines fly daily to Davao City from Manila and Cebu. PAL also has flights to Butuan City from Manila.

Buses depart daily from Davao City to Trento via Ecoland Terminal. Ride the air-conditioned Bachelor Bus to Trento for P240 (approx.4 hours). First trip is 3:00AM.

Ride a single motorcycle or habal-habal from Trento to Loreto for P250 per person (approx 1 hour).
Get a guide to lead you to Panlabuhan via a two-ride trip on two different motorized bancas. Contact the provincial tourism office for special tour packages: or contact Shirley at 0910-6712797.
You may also contact the community leaders at 09072324307 (Boyet), 09305287194 (Maritess), 09262053052 (Ruben).

Lodging houses are available in Loreto town proper. The floating Tourism Hall is also available in Panlabuhan.


  1. It's nice to see a whiskered tern look with as much details as that shot.

    1. yeah. thanks to our birder friends who braved the lake for the shots. :)


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