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Opinion

Looking at garbage and birds in the eye

POINT OF VIEW - Michele T. Logarta - The Philippine Star

One Sunday in September, on the small strip of beach on Long Island in the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), we looked garbage straight in the eye.

The weekend had been designated as International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the world’s largest volunteer effort for the ocean’s health initiated by Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit organization and world leader in ocean conservation.

Here in the Philippines, the DENR spearheaded the activity, calling on Filipinos ”to fight for trash-free seas.”

An army of 2,000 volunteers had come the day before to clean up Freedom Island beach in LPPCHEA.  We, a 50-man contingent of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), followed closely on their heels, on a mission to do what we could for Long Island, the other finger of land in the area that was littered still with trash.

Recent typhoons had brought enormous amounts of garbage to the shores of this part of Manila Bay.

Squatting low to the ground, on our haunches, we picked at the sand and retrieved all things plastic – bottles and bottle caps, shampoo sachets, candy wrappers, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, cups, drink straws, bags and other undistinguishable flotsam. “Leave the biodegradables like branches, twigs, leaves alone,” we were told. “They will become part of the environment.”

Plastic pollution, we all know, is a colossal problem that seems insurmountable. Ocean Conservancy, in its website, states that “your small actions can make a difference. From plankton to whales, animals throughout the ocean are finding their homes polluted by plastics. Every bottle, every straw, every piece of trash you clean up can lead to a cleaner, healthier ocean.”

Through the ICC initiative, the organization has mobilized 17 million people and collected more than 350 million pounds of plastic. That’s quite a feat. But to me, looking at the garbage on the beach that day, the numbers didn’t mean anything.

By mid-morning, we were done trash-picking. We did what we could – and, sadly, it was not much.

We birders had responded to the WBCP’s call to help our birds by cleaning up their habitat at LPPCHEA. Sadly, this is where many of the resident and migrant waterbirds come to rest and feed, the Club said.

The LPPCHEA comprises 175 hectares of protected land, straddling Las Piñas and Parañaque cities. It is declared a Ramsar site, under the Ramsar Convention of UNESCO. This means it has been identified as a significant and important wetland, crucial to biodiversity conservation.

But despite its Ramsar status, it is constantly threatened  by so-called “development” and “progress.”

Environmentalists, scientists and fishermen were in the news last August when they converged at the DENR to seek its support to stop reclamation projects in Manila Bay.  Such projects will change the face of Manila Bay as we know it, cause damage to marine and coastal ecosystems, affect the lives of humans that depend on the seas for their livelihood and inevitably alter the balance of nature, irreversibly.

While there are many birds that live at LPPCHEA all year round, migratory birds come to join them, finding food and refuge there. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online platform, eBird, which is used by millions of birders and scientists around the world, lists an all-time high number of 155 bird species observed in the mudflats, mangroves and beach forests of LPPCHEA.

The WBCP, whose records helped earn LPPCHEA its Ramsar status, counts more than 80 bird species in the area, including the vulnerable endemic Philippine Duck. The Club’s records also show that LPPCHEA is the winter home for more than one percent of the East Australasian-Asian Flyway population of the Black-winged Stilt and the Common Greenshank.

The Bar Tailed Godwit, the long hauler that flies from Alaska to New Zealand, was seen making a stopover at LPPCHEA. The Near Threatened Red Necked Stint and Grey Tailed Tattler and the Vulnerable Chinese Egret have made their passage there as well.

One of my most unforgettable experiences in birding occurred at LPPCHEA late last year. It was a moment shared with WBCP president Mike Lu.

As we were walking through the forest, I spotted a small bird on the embankment of a pond. It looked to be an ordinary brown bird. Nothing fancy. No flamboyant colors. It was not easy to see because it blended so well with the browns of the stones and the ground. I told Lu about the bird and asked him what it was. And he said it looked like a Pechora Pipit. Before we could take pictures, it quickly disappeared into the undergrowth. Lu  promised to tell me what the bird was, on further investigation and a look at the books.

Lu was right. He told me later another birder who was there when we were also confirmed it. It was, indeed, a Pechora Pipit.

Described in the books as an uncommon winter visitor and by Google as a small passerine bird which breeds in the East Palearctic tundra and densely vegetated areas near river bank ranges from the Pechora River to the Chukchi Peninsula.

I have no photo to show for it but I will always have that memory of it.

But yes, that moment – of looking at the little bird right before me and knowing it flew all the way to the Philippines from the remote cold tundras of the Arctic – I will always carry with me and hold like treasure.

Looking back to that day, I now wonder if, years from now, our winged friends from faraway lands will have this place to call home when theirs in the northern hemisphere turn cold and wintry.

Will we – today – be able to look these birds in the eye and say yes? Or our children’s eyes, for that matter?

Who will be first to blink?

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Email the author at [email protected] and follow her on Instagram  @thegreentailedwalke.

DENR

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