It’s not everyday that one gets to meet and be friends on a first-name basis with a genuine VIP from another country.

A real, genuine one.

And it’s certainly a rare one when you get to travel with His Excellency and a small group of friends for 6 consecutive days (yes, sir six – count ‘em!) – enjoying a full load of fun and banter the whole stretch, having meals, drinks and cigarettes together, and enjoying  a not-so-common recreational activity under heavy rain and scorching sun on unholy hours in some of the most remote areas of the country!

How many times in a man’s lifetime can one experience something like that?

Unless, of course, you were born to royalty. Or your job entailed socializing with the high and almighty.

And so when I was invited by a cousin, Nestor Dolina to join a small group of bird watchers for a birding tour he was organizing – a small group which included a  VIP (a fact which was mentioned as an aside before the trip) – it would have been crazy to turn down such an invite.

His Excellency, Ambassador Robert Brinks, the Ambassador from Netherlands, however, had to emphasize time and again that, no, he was traveling not on official business, not as a diplomat representing his country; he was here as a private individual.

A private citizen.

Here to enjoy one recreational activity, which became apparent as the days wore one as high in the list of his personal pastimes he truly enjoys doing most – bird watching.

Private citizen Robert Brinks’ last assignment was just a stint in Baghdad (no mean feat!), where he confessed he felt more like a virtual prisoner amidst the constant bombings left and right.

And coming to the Philippines, he must have felt what being “free as a bird” truly meant!

But what was truly amazing – and this tops it all – was knowing the VIP was really a down-to-earth, very practical, no-frills kind of guy. With an equally amazing sense of humor which kept the group teary-eyed in fits of fun and laughter!

Whatever preconceptions I had about ambassadors and all things royal or of the high and almighty were completely deleted by the end of the tour, after meeting Robert!

Wow, man! He is something else!

And to say the least, Robert is very passionate about protecting the birds and its natural habitat in particular and nature conservation in general.

Traveling with him were birdwatchers Mark Wallbank from UK and Christian Perez from France, Nestor Dolina (organizer), Paolo Dolina, Ed Cadavis, Nelson Petilla, Roy Dolina, Wen Soledad, yours truly, the site guides and a small support staff led by Jessica Mayo. Joining us for a day or two were Nathaniel Llorono, Hazel Caballero, Jordan Dolina and Ludette Ruiz.

It was a fun-filled 6-day stint that saw the group cover Tabuk and Gulamak Islands in Palompon, Leyte; a farm with a man-made lake deep in Villaba, Leyte; the Lake Danao Natural Park in Ormoc City, Leyte; the protected forested area inside VISCA in Baybay, Leyte; the forest of Silago and a sleepover in Hinunangan, both in Southern Leyte; Lake Mahagnao in Burauen, Leyte; and a tiny portion of the Samar Island Natural Park in Paranas, Samar.

Me being born and raised in Tacloban City, it was a discovery experience for me to see some exotic birds I have never seen before in my entire life. And right in our home region at that!

Man, while it was fun getting “lifers” (lifer meaning the first time ever to see a particular bird species at its natural habitat in the wild) it was a tough, grueling one. Wake up time was at 4AM everyday and we would be on the road by 5AM. There were beers each night so we would only have 4-5 hours hours sleep and at one point had candle-lit breakfast at 4:30AM as the power was out.

I was able to take lots of photos. And I still have to go over the whole gamut. :(

I won’t be surprised if there will only be a few keepers. Photographing the birds in the wild was all together a different story. A huge challenge.

But as a teaser, let me just share a couple of them here. There will be more to come for sure! :)

My thanks to Nestor Dolina for making it happen. To Robert Brinks, Mark Wallbank and Christian Perez for the impromptu introduction to bird watching. And to the rest of the crew! Cheers to all!!

View more photos & slideshow >>>

House of swifts: birds take over the sala of a house in Carigara, Leyte

Crossing over to Tabuk Island and Gumalak Island in Palompon, Leyte

Paolo Dolina at Gumalak Island, Palompon, Leyte

Buga-buga Hills, Villaba, Leyte

Lake Danao Natural Park, Ormoc City, Leyte

The Samar Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides samarensis) spotted at Lake Danao Natural Park, Ormoc City, Leyte

The Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) at Lake Danao Natural Park

At Lake Danao – from left: Mark Wallbank (UK), Christian Perez (France and Robert Brinks (Netherlands)

Daybreak at Tahusan Beach, Hinunangan, Southern Leyte

From left: Paolo Dolina, Christian Perez, Robert Brinks, Mark Wallbank, Ed Cadavis and Wen Soledad

Lanang River, Silago, Southern Leyte

The Philippine Serpent Eagle (Spilornis holospilus) – a Philippine endemic bird spotted in Silago, Southern Leyte

From left: Nestor Dolina, Paolo Dolina, Robert Brinks, Christian Perez and Mark Wallbank at Silago, Southern Leyte

Going up the mountains to Lake Mahagnao Volcanic Natural Park in Burauen, Leyte

Lake Mahagnao, Burauen, Leyte

Mt. Mahagnao Volcano, Burauen, Leyte

The view from the HQ of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) in Paranas, Samar

Taking the Ulot River Rapids Torpedo Boat ride in Paranas, Samar

Courtesy call at the office of Leyte Governor Jericho “Icot” Petilla

Ambassador Robert Brinks of Netherlands with Leyte Governor Jericho “Icot” Petilla

The birdwatch group

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