The Lagen Hornbill Chronicles

In all my years of doing environment work, I never thought I would have the chance to take care of a baby Palawan Hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei). Lagen Island is an Eco-Sanctuary — it has the densest forest over limestone out of the 45 islands and islets of Bacuit Bay. This roughly means that this is the island where you’ll have the highest probability of seeing terrestrials, especially birds! So, it was only a matter of time until something like this would happen.

Lagen Island - The Eco-Sanctuary. Photo by Gaby Coseteng
Lagen Island – The Eco-Sanctuary. Photo by Gaby Coseteng

This story spans two (2) weeks so I won’t make this intro long and get on with it. Day 1 – June 19, 2015 At around 9am of June 19, I made my way up to Lagen’s restaurant to have breakfast. As I was about to grab a plate, someone suddenly rushes in and shouts “May baby kalaw silang nakita sa baba!” (They found a baby hornbill downstairs!). I immediately rushed to the scene and was met by this: BayloPalawanHornbillJamieDichaves1 I was in shock. Two adults (most likely the parents) were in the area and they were panicking. I immediately called Dr. JC Gonzales, a hornbill expert in the Philippines. His advice was if we could not bring it up to the original nest, then we will have to take care of it. We had an idea where the original nest is and it was around 50m high. There was no way the parents would be able to swoop down and lift it too so I decided to put it in a crate and bring it to my office.

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As was advised by Doc JC, I fed it every 2 hours (10mL per feeding schedule). By nighttime, I setup a heating lamp, placed a newspaper on top to shield it from too much light, and prayed hard for it to survive the night. BayloPalawanHornbillJamieDichaves10 Day 2 – June 20, 2015 Naturally, I was not able to get enough sleep since I was worried about the baby. I got up the next day and rushed downstairs. Once I opened the crate, it jumped out and hopped around my office. It even went under my desk! BayloPalawanHornbillJamieDichaves I called kuya Rey, our Environmental Enforcement Officer (EEO) to ask if anyone from our MRF can possibly scale a 50-m tree. He said he would ask around and go to the island ASAP. I asked him to bring a “fake nest” just in case. I then went outside to confirm if the nest was indeed in the area where we all thought it would be.

While waiting for the MRF boys to arrive, we setup a special lecture for kids at the conference room. Everyone was advised to be quiet so that the baby will not get stressed. The kids were happy and excited. Even the parents had all sorts of questions about the Palawan hornbill and birds in general. This felt like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for me so I told them as much as I could. I also discussed steps to take if they find an injured bird in the future. BayloPalawanHornbillJamieDichaves13 Baylo (short for “Baby Lolo” because he is a baby that looks like a lolo!) excited to get back to the wild

At last, the MRF boys have arrived!
At last, the MRF boys have arrived!

Unfortunately, no one can climb that high so we setup the fake nest instead.

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We left it alone and hoped that the parents will come back. While we were in a Be GREEN session at the conference room, we could hear the baby hornbill shouting. I had to rush out to see what was happening.

Apparently, this was the source of all the commotion!
Apparently, this was the source of all the commotion!

Instead of 2, four adults were in the area, all ready to take care of it! It was such an amazing thing to witness.

It got so excited that it fell out. It was heart wrenching! But then we saw that it was able to support itself with its short wings so it didn’t sustain any injuries. We then sealed the big circular hole and opened up the top a bit. Day 3 – June 21, 2015 I would’ve slept soundly that night – only if it wasn’t for the rain! We then immediately modified the nest.

It must’ve fallen off about 6 times already but it good thing it was still ok! Days 4-10 Because of the latest modification, we didn’t have any accidents at all. The parents + 2 adults just kept coming to feed it.

It was fed with fruits...
It was fed with fruits…
...and of course, yummy, protein-rich invertebrates too!
…and of course, yummy, protein-rich invertebrates too!

They would feed it regularly, 3x a day: around 6-7am, 11-12nn, and 5-6pm. We’d know if it was feeding time by the sounds that it makes.

And when it is not being fed, we would see it cleaning itself…

…just like how its parents would!

Day 11 – June 29, 2015 On the 11th day, Tay Dante came in and asked if I already let the hornbill out. Of course, I said no since another hornbill expert, Pavel Hospodarsky, advised that it should be kept in the fake nest for 3 more weeks (from the time we got it). He then dragged me out to show me this handsome fella on the roof of the clubhouse: BayloPalawanHornbillJamieDichaves34 Its parents were on nearby trees, screaming. It still couldn’t fly very high so we tried to catch it. Just as we were about to grab it, it flew very low towards the Garden Chapel. By afternoon, Mang Jun comes into the office with Baylo in hand. He said he heard the parents panicking and decided to check out what was happening. To his surprise, Baylo was just standing on the ground with a water monitor lizard (Varanus palawanensis) nearby! If it wasn’t for him, he would’ve been bayawak food! We brought the nest down, sealed all the big holes and hoisted it back up again.

Mang Jun to the rescue!
Mang Jun to the rescue!

The parents stopped screaming then. It was during that time when I realized the parents/adults seemed to understand that we meant no harm to Baylo. They saw us rescue their baby so many times that they’ve gotten used to our presence. They even seemed to know how to call out to ask for help! Day 13 – July 1, 2015 Another surprise came when kuya Carlito came looking for me with Baylo on his hand. Almost everyone saw it inside the nest that morning but apparently, it had slipped out again. It was found once again on the ground.

We were quite apprehensive about how receptive the adults would be to the new, odd-looking nest. But as always, the adults were in the vicinity, ready to feed.

This time with a big chunky cicada too!
This time with a big chunky cicada too!

We watched the nest all day to see if the adults could successfully approach it. The new nest is much lighter so it swayed a lot more, which scared the adults whenever it would perch. So we brought it down again and tied the two sides down. It was still too shaky but then, we noticed that the adults were really determined that they took turns trying to figure out how to perch without making it sway so much. Finally, one adult thought of inching its way closer and closer, perching on branches close to it then finally hopping lightly towards the cage.

Day 14 – July 2, 2015 We knew we could not let another day pass without getting nest camera shots. Fellow birders and bird photographers Jason Apolonio and Alex Dalabajan were then called to do the setup. Of course, EEO Rey was also there to help!

But then, just as we were bringing the nest down, Baylo squeezed himself out of the small hole and flew to the nearby Guest Tree!

Strong, confident, and hopeful.

A parent followed and fed it at once. Then, the parent flew to another tree, urging Baylo to follow and he did. They were joined by another parent and both took turns feeding and showing Baylo where to fly off to. At first they were flying to short distances, then, farther and farther. They ended up at the forest behind Lagen’s station 5 where they were joined by 2 more adults.

All four adults were screaming with joy, welcoming Baylo back to their arms.
All four adults were screaming with joy, welcoming Baylo back to their arms.

They all took turns feeding it..

And also preening it

It was such a dramatic moment that we did not mind not being able to use the nest cameras at all! Seeing them happy together was such a good culmination to all those days of constant worrying and looking out for Baylo. It was flying much higher, faster, and stronger. It even knew how to dry its wings on its own.

Seeing it go from a small, helpless baby bird to a strong confident one was such an experience I could not believe I went through. Do I regret not being able to tag him? Get nest camera photos? Not being able to take a thousand more photos? Or to keep him as a resort pet? — all a big fat NO. His welfare comes first above my own desires. I know he is happy with his family now – and that makes me feel very happy and contented.

Happier and safe under the loving arms of its parents.
Happier and safe under the loving arms of its parents.

Lagen Island is, indeed, an eco-sanctuary, not just because of the natural features of the island but because of the people who make it so. The success of this story does not rely on me alone, but on everyone who constantly stood watch and acted without hesitation.

Special shoutout to the following: Dr. JC Gonzalez for the sound advice Pavel Hospodarsky for being “with me” all throughout the process Kuya Rey Reyes and the MRF boys (Batoy, Toto, Ferds, Richard and Aldrin) Eduardo “Kim” Balagosa II, for being the “father” LIR Garden dept boys Jun Malana, Rico Tejedor, Pat Cutamora, Carlito Magapan for the many rescues and countless hoisting up and down of the nest LIR Housekeeping dept headed by Joylen Arlalejo, for constantly watching out for it since it is right outside their office LIR RM Ms. Jennifer Zafra for the support and understanding My fellow EOs Maxine Fabroa and Elaine Tagudando for assisting me whenever they were in Lagen and of course, our mother Marigs Laririt for all the support Alex Dalabajan and Jason Apolonio for the nest camera setup and for capturing the last few moments we had with Baylo And all other staff in Lagen who never failed to simply look up to check on Baylo whenever they passed by the fake nest.

Jamie is a graduate of BS Psychology from the University of the Philippines-DiliDSC01896man. Upon graduation, she knew that a normal desk job was not for her and through a series of very fortunate events, ended up working as the Environmental Officer for Lagen Island Resort. In 2014, she took a break to do pro-bono consulting and learn more about wildlife conservation, particularly with wild birds and marine turtles. She honed her birding skills as an active member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, served as the project manager for the pilot project of Pawikan Watchers in San Juan, La Union and became a consultant for Morong, Bataan’s Bantay Pawikan conservation group. Before taking back her role as Lagen’s EO, she packed her bags and permanently moved to El Nido, with the plan of strengthening the use of community-based sustainable tourism as a tool for active biodiversity conservation.


10 thoughts on “The Lagen Hornbill Chronicles

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    1. Thank you! We’re glad it did. Please feel free to share it with friends! 🙂

    1. Thank you Sylvia! Great work on the farm also! I’m sure you and Tonji will have your very own eco-sanctuary in Batangas soon enough! 🙂

    1. Yes! It’s really amazing how they are able to do it. And the way they predigest insects too before handing it over to their young! 🙂

  1. Very touching article. You show how it takes a village (or a resort) to preserving the environment by respecting wildlife. In particular, the videos show the strong love the parents give to their baby hornbill. I hope my family and I visit Lagen Resort someday to watch Palawan hornbills in the wild.

    1. Thank you! Yes, do come and enjoy watching the hornbills. We also have so many other birds too! We’d be more than happy to take you birdwatching 🙂

      Their strong love is really something. They have such dedication to taking care of their young and making sure they survive, even with the help of humans which are considered totally alien to them. Feel free to share the story with friends! 🙂

  2. Congratulations to Team Lagen! You’ve just shown what REAL Eco-tourism is and how it works. Beautiful!!!!

    1. Thank you bukidbirder! 🙂 We try our best! Please feel free to share this with your friends! 😀

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