The combined stench of rotting fish and guano was incredible.
Soaked and shivering, we shelter beneath a dripping grove of Argusia trees on Tubbataha’s South Islet and count birds. Chilly raindrops are the least of our concerns – more exciting things were falling from above. I wipe steaming gobs of fresh seabird guano from my hat, shoulders and writing slate then trail my partner through the dense brush.
“Nine Black Noddies in five tree nests,” observes my partner, TMO Ranger Segundo. ‘Seconds’ Conales. I strain to hear above the cacophony of over 20,000 seabirds, periodically silenced by thunderous blasts of lightning. The birds are everywhere – flitting in and out of foliage, perched atop rocks, forming a dense cloud above the island. Every few seconds, one would leave the safety of its perch to snatch a damp twig, leaf or piece of plastic from the ground.
We tread lightly, visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds flying to mind. I jot the latest numbers on my waterproof plastic slate and push on.
Conserving the birds of the Sulu Sea
It is a drizzling day in May and we are back in Tubbataha. Led by Danish ornithologist Dr. Arne Erik Jensen, we are assessing the seabirds of Tubbataha North and South Islets as part of a nine-year old annual initiative by the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to conserve the birds of the Sulu Sea. I had last been back in 2008 and still recall Dr. Jensen’s advice when counting his beloved birds.
“Never look up with your mouth open.”