The long road to Birds’ Island

Way off the tourist trail in rural Palawan is an island that's home to some of the Philippines' most stunning wildlife

By Fran Ng. Photos by Bim Quemado. Additional research by Amanda Lago

The Eastern Reef Egret at Ursula Island, winter migration site for birds from the north and home to at least 20 bird species
 
It’s a six-hour van journey on bumpy roads from Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, to Rio Tuba, the jump-off point for Ursula Island, known to locals as Birds’ Island. If you want to get off the tourist trail in the Philippines, this is the way to do it. We are on the edge of the archipelago, looking out over the Sulu Sea. Manila is another world.

We arrive at Rio Tuba – hungry and tired – and bunk down overnight in a modest guesthouse belonging to the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Company. It already feels like we have fallen off the map, and yet Ursula itself – mysterious, uninhabited, surrounded by sand and coral – is still another two hours away by banca, a native wooden boat with outriggers. We take tents, because on the island we’ll need to camp.

We are up in the dark for a 4 am crossing. The early hour usually means calm water, particularly in the amihan season of cool northwesterly trade winds, when the waves can get treacherous during the day. Despite the full moon, it is dark and chilly. The local fishermen have already met with some success. One shows us a large octopus, purple and shiny, floating lugubriously in a box of ice.

From dusk 'til dawn: birding at Ursula island will reward you day in day out
 
Our guide tells us Ursula used to be called Birds’ Island. She remembers her father coming home from the island with sacks of pigeons after hunting trips there with friends. In 1960 an administrative order declared the island the country’s first game refuge and bird sanctuary, although locals say die-hard hunters – military officials among them – still visited for target practice.

Even now Ursula Island has only one lone guard. We troop to the shed that is home and office for Rodolfo Pilor, at the time, the park superintendent since 1994. 

A pair of Pied Imperial Pigeon making their morning journey to mainland Palawan from their safe abode, Ursula island
 
Pasu, as he is known, stays here for three or four days a week, shuttling back and forth to the mainland to get supplies. We sit down with him for grilled fish and longganisa (sausage). And then it’s time to explore.

The island is a winter migration site for shore birds and sea birds from the north, as well as home to various endemic bird species. At least 20 species have been identified, including the threatened imperial gray pigeon and the pied imperial pigeon, locally known as kamaso, which together form the largest part of the island’s bird population. Other species found here include the white-collared kingfisher, the Palawan shama, the zebra dove, macklot’s sunbird, the pygmy flowerpecker, the Chinese egret, the scops owl, the Tabon bird (also known as the Tabon scrubfowl), and several eagles.

Ursula covers about 17 hectares – you can walk most of it in an hour or so – with dense old-growth forest at its heart and a sloping shoreline and coral reefs forming unbroken outer rings. The edge of the forest is thick with a type of native screwpine, known here as pandan and widely used in cooking. The names of the island’s trees and shrubs are like something from a lost world: bogo, ipil-laut, anagap and bolongeta.

A flock of Pied Imperial Pigeon perched on their favorite tree. Flock in the island can be as much as 30 to 40 birds in a single tree.
 
Apart from the birds there are other inhabitants. We see monitor lizard and turtle tracks in the sand – and paw prints that belong to the two domestic cats Pasu keeps with him for company. And there’s a reminder of why somewhere as special as Ursula needs looking after. We follow the turtle tracks to a nest, but the eggs – surely laid last night – have gone. Pasu points to a small boat making a sly exit towards the Palawan mainland, probably with the eggs on board. They are stolen and sold in Malaysia.

We walk into the forest, past towering, ancient balete trees. We see a cops owl, sleeping on a high branch, and then an eagle’s nest, but not the eagles, although shrieks echoing through the canopy indicate they are not far away.

And then more bad news. The nest of a Tabon scrubfowl, but with the eggs apparently gone. The Tabon lays its eggs on the ground like a chicken, making them easy meat for poachers.

So eggs still get stolen here, but the situation has improved and is improving. Fishermen’s shanties have been removed and docking at the island without permission is forbidden. Commercial boats docked here in the past, but not any more. Money and resources are short, but Pasu is convinced progress is being made.

Eastern Reef Egrets in a vigilant stance, watching over each other's blind side
 
And tourists are coming, in dribs and drabs. No one wants Ursula to be inundated, but limited visits bring income for local communities, and for conservation efforts.
“At sunset Ursula comes to life. Great flocks of pied imperial pigeons that left before dawn arrive back from their hunting grounds to settle for the night. Ursula’s forest crackles with the noise of their return. Around 3,000 birds coming home to roost as the sun begins to set. I sit gazing at the spectacular display as thousands of birds fly past.”

We light a bonfire, pitch our tents and eat a sunset dinner of toasted tuna baguettes. At night, from the entrance to our tent, all we can see is stars and sea. 

At sunset, Ursula comes to life
 
HOW TO GET THERE

To visit Ursula Island for day trips, you need to apply for a permit from the Protected Areas office of Brooke’s Point, Palawan. Send an email to cenro_brkspt@yahoo.com. Individuals and groups of up to 10 may apply, but approval is on a case-to-case basis because DENR is controlling the number of arrivals at any one time. Overnight stays and camping are not allowed. Those with permit are allowed from the early hours of the morning until about 7 pm. At the moment, DENR is not charging permit fees. Guides and transport can be arranged from the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) at Brooke’s Point, Palawan. For more information, call CENRO Brooke’s Point officer in charge, Florencio Diaz at +63947 896 5099. 

A male Olive-Backed Sunbird feeding on mangrove flowers
 
There are several daily flights from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport to the Puerto Princesa International Airport via Airasia, Philippine Airlines, and Cebu Pacific Air. Cebu Pacific also flies to Puerto Princesa from Cebu and Iloilo. It’s best to book your flight and land transfers in advance.

From Puerto Princesa, you can hire a chauffered van to take you to Rio Tuba, about 236 kilometers away or an estimated 3.5 hour travel time, for P5,000 (US$112). Book a van at Lexxus Shuttle.

If you prefer to take a bus or minivan, the trip takes about six hours, departing from San Jose Terminal in Puerto Princesa daily from 4 am to 9 pm. From Rio Tuba, rent a pump boat from Rio Tuba port (prices can be negotiated with the boatmen) to reach the island within two hours.

For more info on local attractions, call the Palawan Tourist Office at (048) 433 2968 or email turismopalawan@yahoo.com.

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WHERE TO STAY IN PUERTO PRINCESA 

Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham Puerto Princesa
This 50-room hotel is about 7 kilometers from Puerto Princesa Centre and is a good base for visits to Palawan’s tourist attractions, including Ursula Island and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Microtel’s location is also a bonus, situated on the white-sand shores of Emerald Beach. Prices from P3,300 a night.
www.microtel-palawan.com

Floral Villarosa Pool
Only about 15 minutes from the airport , this six-room boutique property is a good, affordable option as a city base for an overnight stay, a day before your Ursula Island tour. It has airconditioned rooms, a pool, and free Wi-Fi. Prices from P2,200 a night.
www.facebook.com/floralvillarosa

Dos Palmas Island Resort & Spa
Not exactly an overnight or airport stopover destination. This resort is a great city escape, with beach villas that face the Sulu Sea. Combine your city hotel booking and city tours with a beach stay at Dos Palmas. Activities include diving, water sports, and mangrove trail trekking. Rooms from P6,500 a night. Day tours at P1,800 per adult.
www.dospalmas.com.ph

Originally published in Inflight Traveller April 2006 . Updated June 2015