Packed tight with colleagues in an office vehicle is not an ideal way to travel for three hours. But the discomfort was offset by the company I had when we left the Capitol to join Cebu Vice Governor Agnes Magpale and media friends visit Nug-as in the southern Cebu town of Alcoy, 92 kilometers from Cebu City. My officemates were a lively, riotous bunch; their light-hearted banter was uplifting.
The vice governor was to inspect the project site positioned as an eco-tourism destination of Alcoy. She was also meeting members of the people’s organization Kapunungan sa mga Mag-uuma sa Yutang Lasangnon sa Bulalacao, Nug-as, Alcoy (KMYLBNA), which manages the bird watching and trekking tour in the place. Reporters and photojournalists covering the Capitol beat joined her.
I was more than ready for the trip. After all, it was my first time to visit Nug-as. I had my clothes (including a spare or two); my sleeping bag; my emergency, solar-powered lamp. I even had with me my umbrella and my raincoat, as well as my power bank (just in case my cellphone drains up its juice,so I can still take photos). Literally, I told myself: Nug-as, here I come.
One wet trip
Our vehicle weaved its way through Cebu City’s traffic and was negotiating the South Coastal Road in Talisay City when rain caught up with us. It was a substantial downpour that dampened my excitement: It would be a muddy, slippery, rain-soaked experience. Tsk, Tsk.
We surprisingly breezed through Minglanilla town and passed the City of Naga without any incident. We were cruising through San Fernando town when I dozed off. The shut-eye helped. I was more alert and giddy of the trip when we reached Carcar City for a short stop.
After buying food for the remainder of the trip, we drove off, passing through the towns of Sibonga, Argao, and Dalaguete before we caught up with the governor’s convoy that was waiting at the national highway near the intersection with the road that leads up to the highlands of Alcoy. It was already late in the afternoon. There was a slight shower, and the surrounding has that rainforest feel: wet, cold, unforgiving.
Cold land, warm smiles
Our group, with the vice governor’s security escort taking lead, snaked its way up the winding road to Nug-as located some 11 kilometers from the town proper. The view along the way was fantastic. Then the high vantage point with a view of the sea suddenly gave way to a dark road swallowed by a canopy of trees on both sides. It was as if some unholy hand forced its way into the ranks of thousands of trees and made a road for us, invading humans. I felt like a trespasser.
We stopped at a clearing and disembarked to the warm greetings of the officers of KMYLBNA, who led us to the Research Station some 20 meters up the slope beside the road. By then, darkness was slowly insinuating its invisible tendrils into the land, and the rising cold, creeping unhindered into my very bones, was made more merciless by the dampness. I put on my jacket first and took out my umbrella before I lugged my bags and struggled up the newly-cemented steps. A colleague said I was lucky since the week before it was just a plain trail that was so slippery it was a struggle to reach the station.
Pedro Villarta and Teodoro Amaca led the group of forest wardens whose smiles warmed us. You cannot help but be amazed at how humble and unassuming these people were, yet so knowledgeable and passionate about the flora and fauna of the surrounding forest— all 1,600 hectares encompassing four of Alcoy’s eight barangays. The forest is commonly referred to as Nug-as forest, however, since its territory covers 50 percent of all of Alcoy.
The Nug-as forest, considered as the last biological stronghold of Cebu, is a habitat of many flora and fauna species that have already disappeared or are already scarce in other parts of Cebu.
Recognizing the revenue potential of its forest through environmental tourism, the local government of Alcoy had an ecological and socio-demographic profiling performed in Nug-as to establish a two-kilometer nature trail.
Along with 20 other forest wardens, Teodoro and Pedro serve as tour guides of the eco-tourism trail, sharing to visitors their priceless knowledge on bird watching and trekking.
After a brief talk in the middle of a late afternoon snack of boiled camote, we made our way back to our vehicles and backtracked several hundred meters for that portion of the forest where the Cebu hawk owl, a nocturnal and highly territorial creature, would normally perch when challenged. But that was before I changed my yellow shirt to brown long sleeves. The change of clothes was necessary because the bird, with its sharp eyes, would not approach if it espies people, and wearing bright colors is not the best way to blend in with the surrounding foliage. We were also told to keep silent, not to litter, not damage any plant, and to be careful while walking.
Into the lair
We arrived at the hawk owl’s territory shortly after. It was already dark, the trail was muddy, the forest silent. It was also drizzling.
We talked in whispers as Teodoro explained that the hawk owl is very territorial it would challenge any other hawk owl it sees or hears that crosses into its domain.
The hawk owl is endemic or can be found only in Cebu. It is called hawk owl because its beak and claws look like that of hawk. Its yellow eyes set it apart from its cousin in Camiguin which has blue eyes.
Teodoro then had us take a closer look at a nearby tree, which to my surprise has two kinds of leaves. Really, two kinds of leaves. He explained that the “second” leaves were actually that of the newly-discovered Cebu mistletoe, a parasitic plant that latches on and flourishes at the branches of trees.
When they felt it was dark enough, Pedro played the sound “pakpak tuhok”, which incidentally is the name the locals gave the hawk owl because of the distinct sound it makes.
Experience of a lifetime
I thought that at my age nothing would excite me anymore. But to actually take a glimpse of a bird unique in Cebu was an exception. With the recording reverberating amid the silence, broken only by the occasional screeching of passing motorcycles not so far away, we waited. And waited. Then the hawk owl answered back. My heart skipped a beat. It was coming. Too bad I cannot take a photo. But I knew one of the photojournalists. I could ask for a photo of the bird from him.
Teodoro said he would point a beam of light at the owl when it lands, giving us the opportunity to take a good glimpse of the bird before it realizes the other “owl” that blundered into its territory were actually humans, and fly away. At least that was what was supposed to happen.
No bird came, though, even after Pedro went deeper into the forest and played the recording. After several minutes, the vice governor decided it was time to go. Maybe at dawn the next day we would be luckier, and drier.
We returned to the Research Station and were greeted by the smell of mouth-watering food prepared by and sourced from the community. It was a good meal, made better by the hearty laugh of people and of the gentle and caring way the food were served. It made me remember the days of my youth in the boondocks of Danao City, when the family gathered for early dinner, with an oil lamp in the middle of the long table providing illumination. Too bad it was a time that would never be again, a time etched only in memories that also slowly fade.
After dinner, tents were pitched at the grounds of the station. It was still drizzling, as if heaven still could not get over shedding happy tears during that dark, starless night.
Second time’s the charm
Dawn came fast. It was time to try our luck again with the Cebu hawk owl. Shivering despite my sweatshirt, I joined other sleepy-eyed wannabe bird-watchers in the same spot we positioned ourselves the evening before. Although the ground was soggy, there was no more rain. I felt it was a good sign.
Pedro again played the recording, but no hawk owl challenged back. Uh-oh. It might have seen us — a bunch of yawning, bumbling creatures out-of-place in its natural abode— and decided we were not worth the bother. Then Teodoro suddenly swung his strobe-like light towards a tree to our right. We were actually looking at the wrong tree! The owl was on another tree, but seeing it was so fleeting one photojournalist said he could not even focus his camera before it flew away. Teodoro said he just saw something like a superfast shadow land on that particular tree and quickly realized it was the owl.
Moments later the owl (or another one) was on a tree to our left, and yet again it flew away real fast when Teodoro targeted it with his light. By then I was in awe. I saw a Cebu hawk owl, in real life! How many Cebuanos could say such a thing?
The third and final time the owl came the photographers were a bit more ready. But the owl, ever the wily one, had a branch partly blocking their view. But it was more than enough for us. We walked back to our vehicles, leaving the nocturnal bird to savor its remaining moments of night, contented that we saw, and appreciated, what we came for.
Brightness came swiftly, seeping into every crevice of the forest canopy, adding a gay texture to the dew on the still slumbering leaves and grass. And with the day came the cacophony of sounds, of different birds singing the birth of light. It felt like I was transported back to the days of my childhood, during summer vacations at our grandparents’ home in the mountains, when birds compete with the cries of my grandparents’ farm animals, and we kids had no other recourse but to wake up early.
Pedro and the other forest wardens then brought us to a different spot, to a fork of the road where birds of different kinds flocked to feed on the fruits of an Alum tree. It was a lovely sight, made more magical by Teodoro naming all of them, both in their common names and local names. There was the buririgon (elegant tit), the tagmaya (Philippine bulbul), and the alimokon (buff-eared brown dove). But true to its elusive tag, the siloy (Cebu black shama), despite Pedro doing his bird call, did not come.
Then the call to leave was sounded. It was time to go. I hitched a ride with the patrol car of the town policemen providing security to the vice governor and the group. Seated beside the policeman-cum-driver, I had a front seat view of the forest as we slowly left behind the rendezvous area. I looked back as we were about to round a bend, and sighed.
I will be back. And maybe, by then, the siloy would be kinder and honor me with a glimpse.