Irene Dy of Manila, the Philippines, is a one-woman powerhouse of birding eco-tourism and conservation for the birds of her country. We met through Terry Townshend who hosts the Birding Beijing blog, when I approached him for contacts for women country nationals in Asia who are either recreational birders or bird guides. Townshend writes about the birding scene in Beijing and throughout China, and has a huge network of birding contacts across Asia.
This was the first time I had approached a man for suggestions of women colleagues, as so often I find women to interview on my own. But the support of a progressive and inclusive-minded established male birder can accelerate participation and success of women in birding. In fact, Dy credits many supportive male birders in helping her launch her own bird guiding career.
Dy comes across as a spirited and tireless advocate for birding and conservation. Our emails back and forth were playful and at turns, serious. We exchanged messages throughout March, 2019, and below is the resulting interview.
What kind of scene is there for birding in the Philippines? Who is birding there? Many locals? Mostly foreign tourists?
Philippines birding scene is not as big as Western birding (scene) but the small group of bird watchers are quiet keen ones with mixed numbers of casual birders. We have small group of bird watchers, but bigger group of bird photographers.
Birders are mostly locals and expats (living in the Philippines). We also have visiting birders. These are from around the world, visiting for endemics, and they are (the) main bulk of bird watchers during peak season—the first quarter of the year—although usually either in transit, or an intentional visit (to see) the birds.
How did you get started bird guiding?
I started guiding just friends, friends of friends. They'd often ask me if I can help them find birds knowing how crazy I am often just birding most of my spare time or getting my lifer on my own trip, then they see my photos on my Facebook page.
It wasn't until 2016 when a good friend of mine, Mark Wallbank got sick before his guiding schedule and his doctor forbade him to do outdoor work during recovery period. But he'd already accepted a booking for those dates.
Mark then asked me to cover for him and I received the guiding fee for the tour. That's the first official guiding job. There after, another good friend of mine, Pete Simpson, a great guide who lives in Davao, would refer clients to me.
How long have you been in business? Are you your own company or do you work for another agency?
I've been guiding since 2013 (informally). But I started professionally (guiding) in 2016. Regarding if I'm my own company—In a way, yes. I have my own (business), and I also accept other companies' requests to guide their clients, or another company’s request to work as their second guide for big tour groups.
Is it a full time job or side job?
At the moment, it's not my sole income. I also work at our family business (where) I am lucky enough to have a flexible working schedule. I guide when I have clients coming in on a custom tour. I also contribute to waterbird census, and am a volunteer during Asian Waterbird Census week.
Where are the birding hot spots in the Philippines? What will you see there?
We have many hot spots in Luzon alone (the island where Manila is situated). So with three major Islands and many smaller Island endemic of the country, our hot spots are quiet extensive.
For example, classic hot spot of Luzon are Subic for lowland species and the most reliable place to see Chocolate Boobook; Mt. Polis where people go to see high elevation birds species like Benguet Bush Warbler.
Quezon province is the latest craze now for Whiskered Pitta where back in the days at another remote site close to Tuguegarao, birders have to hike 7 to 8 hours to reach the camp site to see the bird! I'm quite proud of myself for having done the trip not many locals here had done! Mostly who did it are visiting foreign tour groups/ independent birders.
Palawan is great with most area has good birds easily views on roadside. Visayas, I'd say the cutest and handsome ones are Negros Scops Owl, Yellow-faced Flameback, Negros Bleeding-heard; and Mindanao also have their own sets of stunning beauties like Mindanao Wattled Broadbill and Lina's Sunbird.
What is your impact on bird conservation in your country and the places you take clients? Do you see that your participation in ecotourism helps conserve habitat? How?
I'm not a member of any group at the moment but I work independently and directly with local scientist/ environmentalists organisations who work to preserve our bird species and other wildlife.
Conservation effort is a big part of my passion with wildlife and birds, so I make sure I at least contribute something to our wildlife scene; it may be volunteering for bird census or survey, or in monetary means or persuading others with better financial meals to help.
At the moment, I'm offering a fund raising tour for the Isabela Oriole research of my good friend Joni Acay, who is the Champion for the Oriole. I'm offering the tour with 100 percent of the guide fee for the two days tour to go to the research funding. Quite happy with the response I got so far, having a couple of inquiries about it already!
For me, big or small amount, it still adds up to helping the research. A friend of mine is also helping me with project of jewelry auction for the Isabela Oriole, Calayan Rail, and Negros Bleeding Heart conservation groups. My friend Ruth Francisco owns a jewelry business, we intend to use my designs and auction the pieces, with net profit going to the conservation groups.
Another project I intend to do is for Candaba. Candaba used to be a great place to see Philippine Ducks, Philippine Swamp hen, migrant ducks and waders species. But sadly, despite my repeated request from people I know who have connections to do something to save it from its current depressing state, nothing was done.
I am hoping I could raise enough funds and seek out the new owner myself, for a meeting in hopes the new owner would agree to let migrant ducks winter there again. This has been the saddest year of Candaba. It used to be a wetland, not anymore. From what used to be thousands of ducks including sightings of Baer's Pochard, Baikal Teal, Long-billed Dowitcher, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit, Asian Dowitcher. It's now zero ducks species.
A lot of work needs to be done for local conservation groups to preserve the habitat and the species, so we are hoping we get support from birders all over the world. The best way I can help is genuinely sharing my passion and support to conservation groups, and be a credible person that donors can trust their hard earned donations goes to good use 100 percent.
Who are your clients and how do they find you?
My clients are mostly Europeans, Americans, expats in neighboring Asian countries. They find me through other companies like Birding Mindanao, or through Mark Wallbank's website; or through referrals by clients I've guided, or from friends who have birding friends inquiring.
What are the biggest challenges as a birding guide?
Biggest challenge as a birding guide...for me is the pressure of finding the target bird on target birding tours. General guiding tours is less pressure as no specific target but just to see everything possible.
Finding a target bird alone is very different from letting your clients see the target in good views. Mainly because the sites we go to are not in a feeding station. We really have to look for them in the wild, not to mention the terrain isn't that easy to walk on either on some birding sites and I'd need to make sure prior that clients can do the terrain , or I find another site which they can physically manage.
(It’s worth it) when my clients see their targets well and gives that genuine big smile from ear to ear, it's the best reward for me!
What about being a female guide? Do you experience unique challenges and if so, what are they?
As a female guide, so far I've not really felt any challenges that male guides I know of haven't felt. I've been very lucky to have guided clients who saw past the gender and just really focus on the guiding skills.
In fact, I felt more of advantage because I'm female, compared to my male counterparts, I'm physically lighter and agile than male guides I've met , and I could easily go off trail tracking ground birds silently without smashing all the vegetation flushing the bird away like most men do ( due to their build and weight).
I'd say the only major discomfort or challenge is, physical matters women experience monthly when you needed to cross river with high water level, then no place to wash up at camp , and you're at that time of the month.
What do you see for the future of your industry in the Philippines?
The future of bird watching in the Philippines looks good in terms of more and more people are starting to go nature oriented. And our neighboring countries are starting to travel here to see our endemic species. I was surprised when I gave a talk to a camera club just last week about bird watching and bird photography, the participants were all more interested in my scope view than their cameras!
With social media now, news of birds sightings are so easily spread across the globe that we've even had people from Europe or other Asian countries flying into Philippines to twitch rare migrants, such as a Japanese Night Heron, or twitching some very difficult-to-see endemic!
But in terms of habitat loss, trapping and hunting, the future looks grim. Unless something can be done to educate more people and stop more corrupt officials from approving environmentally destructive construction projects.
Is there anything else you want readers to know about you, birding in the Philippines or eco-tourism in the Philippines?
Ah.. I'm quite proud of myself for having seen 532 Philippines birds in probably the shortest time spent in terms of number of years by a female birder. I hope it inspires many out there, not let your gender hinder you from exploring. Male, female, LGBT, we all have the same ability to enjoy bird watching.
Philippines has many beautiful birds, mammals, reptiles.Our eco-tourism could really use some help from birders around the world. We may sound scary to many when they hear about needing to hike 1.5 hours to see the bird, but it's worth that effort once you see how majestic Philippine Eagle is soaring above the valley, or when you see those bright blue colored wattle with green eyes of our Wattled Broadbill.
Our eco-toursim may still be young and inexperienced compared to other countries but with your help by just visiting us, it would help us to learn, improve, generate income for locals! Then, we can have more reason to persuade locals to stop hunting, poaching, or illegal logging.
How can people find you online?
Or they can contact me directly through Whatsapp or Viber +63908-7212775
WeChat or LINE (for China and Taiwan based clients) via QR code.
And I am active on Instagram as @PhBirder.
Thank you, Irene!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All photos Irene Dy unless otherwise stated.
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