The morning was well on its way and the whole place resounded with the squawks and screeches of a thousand birds. At first the place looked like an ordinary farm with unkept kakawate trees, until you take a closer look and see branches laden with nests and birds. Deep in the middle of African oil palm tree plantation in Brgy Baras in Tacurong is an amazing nesting and breeding area of various species of herons and egrets, and we came right smack in the middle of the nesting season.
For some reason these birds have chosen with 1.67ha of black pepper plantation of the Malana family as their nesting ground. Mr. Rey Malana still remembers the day in 1996 when they spotted two breeding pairs of black crowned night heron in their black pepper plantation. The area is planted with kakawate trees as host for the black pepper vines and for these vines to flourish, the trees have to the culled (its branches and leaves removed). To accommodate the new visitors, Mang Rey left a few trees untouched.
Soon more and more birds came, and more and more kakawate trees are left untouched, which obviously resulted to the decline of peppercorn production. The family now is faced with a critical decision: birds or the peppercorn. The family patriarch (Mang Rey's father) said if the bird population continues to increase, get rid of the black pepper.
Today there are about 20,000 birds in the area, consisting mostly (around 50%) of cattle egrets, the rest are white egrets (lesser, intermediate, and greater), black crowned night heron, rufous night heron, and a variety of visitors migrating during the winter in northern hemisphere. We saw several Chinese Egrets that day.
Baras Bird Sanctuary, as its known today, is the perfect place to observe the birds at their natural habitat. The birds seem to tolerate human presence and as you walk the trail around the sanctuary you will see the birds' natural behavior, like building nests and feeding the chicks. There is a steady aerial parade of incoming birds, their beaks clamping on catch like frogs and small fishes. The birds hunt for food as far as Liguasan Marsh in the north and Buluan Lake in the south. Some even venture farther south like Lake Sebu.
There were several chicks on the ground while going around. The caretaker explained that the breeding pair would push some of the chicks off the nest if there are too many. The more chicks, the more mouths to feed. These "discarded" chicks will soon be meals for the other visitors in the area: cobras, pythons, and monitor lizards. We saw a rather large python curved into a ball on top of a bamboo tree. Its natural selection at its finest.
the birds will continue to spread their wings here
The Malana family is fully aware of the impact of developing the place, so its kept in a state close to what it was years before. An area near the nesting ground, just a few meters away actually, was planted with trees and was "configured" to be similar to the current one, but for some reason the birds did not cross over to the new site, and every year more and more birds come.
Mang Rey admits it is not without challenges. The upkeep and conservation efforts require funds and a balance has to be struck between commercializing the place and conserving it.
Another problem is the poaching/hunting of the birds. Though the birds are safe within the sanctuary, they are exposed to people wanting to make a quick meal of them when they go out to forage for food. There is also a demand for these birds as pets (even though its highly illegal), so as long as this demand exist there will be people who will trap them. It would really take widespread effort and information dissemination before the birds of Baras will truly be safe.