The  Missing  Birds  of  Candaba  Marsh

The  Missing  Birds  of  Candaba  Marsh

By Gregg Yan

We’re huddled by some low bushes with a clear view of a weedy marsh, surrounded by zooming herons, flapping egrets and hundreds of other birds. An impressive sight.

Birdwatchers for a day. Author Gregg Yan with PEMSEA Executive Director Aimee Gonzales and Biodiversity Management Bureau Director Crisanta Rodriguez. (BMB / DENR)

Except that here in Candaba marsh, a place I’ve visited regularly over the years, there should be thousands.

“The marsh once teemed with hundreds of thousands of birds. A decade ago, we recorded up to 20,000 birds per visit,” remembers Wild Bird Club of the Philippines founding president Mike Lu.

Candaba sits 60 kilometers north of Manila and spans 32,000-hectares, covering portions of Pampanga, Bulacan and Nueva Ecija. It is a critical stopover for migratory birds flying from as far south as New Zealand and as far north as the frozen steppes of Siberia. Birds in colder climates often migrate thousands of kilometers to warmer zones, searching for food and nesting sites.


A sixth of the 657 types of birds recorded in the Philippines visit or live here. Birdwatchers have confirmed 54 residents and 68 migratory bird species, including endangered Philippine mallards (Anas luzonica) and rare black-faced spoonbills (Platalea minor). An average of 7000 birds has been recorded annually and over 100,000 ducks alone were observed in a single day in 1982 – but this year, just 2188 birds belonging to 16 species were counted.

Black Crowned Night Herons
Wetlands at Risk 

The world’s wetlands have been in full retreat for a century, with an estimated 54% to 57% lost since the 1900s. Because swamps are usually thought of as fetid, dangerous, mosquito-ridden wastelands, they are usually targeted for conversion, either for agriculture or industry.

In truth, wetlands absorb and store far more carbon than forests, making them excellent tools for fighting climate change. Peatlands in particular store a third of all land-based carbon yet occupy just 3% of the Earth’s land area. When burnt, they release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

“Our underrated wetlands have so far enjoyed limited conservation priority,” explains Biodiversity Management Bureau Director Crisanta Rodriguez. “They provide habitats for many creatures while generating food and water for millions of people. In many ways, wetlands are the Earth’s kidneys, filtering and purifying water.”

The problem is that portions of the marsh have been converted and drained. During El Niño years, the marsh dries up and farmers who grow rice, corn and watermelon make do with minimal water. The need to earn additional income pulls farmers away from Candaba’s fields and into nearby cities. 

A purple heron (Ardea purpurea) noisily flaps around. Purple and grey herons are among the largest and most conspicuous birds in Candaba marsh. (Gregg Yan Best Alterna
Birdwatching as a Solution 

To augment farmer incomes and conserve both the wetlands and birds of Candaba, the Society for the Conservation of Philippine Wetlands and its partners, particularly the Ramsar Regional Center – East Asia, Department of Tourism, Department of Agriculture and Department of Environment and Natural Resources are developing a community-based initiative to transform a portion of the marsh into a birdwatching haven.

“For an activity to be sustainable, it has to pay for itself and augment the income of locals, who were trained as birdwatching guides. The eco-tourism package shall be launched this year and features birdwatching, carabao cart rides, wetland walks, Kapampangan delicacies and other charming elements,” says SCPW Executive Director Amy Lecciones. 

Making birds critical to farmers’ incomes means they will have strong allies against poachers and those who seek to drain and destroy these habitats. When properly done, ecotourism’s advantages can outweigh the lure of development.

A beautiful pair of purple swamphens (Porphyrio porphyrio) forages for frogs and fish by the water’s edge. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)

“Now we shall earn extra and ensure that more Filipinos keep enjoying the sights and sounds of Candaba. Who would have thought our feathered friends can attract droves of tourists and improve our lives?” laughs farmer Gaudencio de Leon while gazing at the birds.

With work and a little dose of luck, I hope conservation and ecotourism can bring back the grandeur of Candaba marsh.

Written by Village Connect

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