Seeking Avians: Balanga Wetland and Nature Park, Bataan

March 25, 2014

Birds. There's something so coveted about them. On any given Sunday I would take a hike to Candaba Swamp just to witness them turn and fly in flocks, but since fewer migrate to that part in Pampanga (even in birding season), alternatives are necessary. 

This is when Balanga Wetland and Nature Park in a little-known town called Tortugas in Bataan came to play.

It was a Sunday and my itchy feet were insufferable. I filled a bag with diapers and bottled water and went to Bataan on a whim. The trip was surprisingly brief. Two hours from home and the smell of salt past fishing boats and rows of seaside houses wafted through the mid-morning air. 

There was little hope of seeing birds. It was near noon and only a few little herons and egrets were nosediving into the bay. "Asan na kaya ang birds?," I muttered.

"Ma'am, wala po kayong makikita masyado ngayon. Sa hapon po marami," said the kind tricycle driver.

Oh crap. I did forget about that teensy detail.

Information center. Prettiness all locked up.
For a minute I was almost tempted to jump on a boat. You know, at least maximize the trip, but Lia beat me to the water. I squawked like a little girl with the assortment of floating plastic debris. A pink boot, one liter of Sprite, an empty bag of chips, twigs and more. You name it, it has it. I usually don't give a hoot about sand color but this one, you could tell the water is murky brown not because the sand is, but because of filth.

I pick up what I can and put it in the tin bin, but as we approached the lookout, we were greeted by more than what two pairs of hands can pick up. As a distant part of the Manila Bay, Balanga Wetland's tiny shore - primarily where the mangroves are - is littered with trash.

Mangrove/ birdwatching area. A sad state of squalor.
This is where reality hits: Balanga Wetland is great for birding, but not so much for swimming.  Maybe the local government - who afterall, was the brains behind it - could've known had they staffed that beautiful two-storey information center up front, or even just the toilets. But it was a Sunday and yet both were locked. There were zero employees; just a local woman handing P5 tickets at the entrance, who I doubt is under the city hall's payroll.

(And as a side rant, what I don't understand is how we Filipinos are such assholes to our own waters. If I had a penny for every trash I see in Philippine bays, I would've been a millionaire. Seriously, Balanga government, locals and visitors, you can do so much. Sayang. The place has enormous potential, the facilities are already there, and there are only a few birding sites in Luzon. Don't turn this into a garbage dump. Jesus.)

There's a bit of panic in me that my daughter won't get out of the water - more so, out of her diaper. She had more than a fair share of sunburn for her insubordination.

On the other hand, the locals seem to enjoy it. A LOT. Kids swimming, adults beachcombing. At low tide, parents walked their children up to two kilometers away from shore without the water hitting up to their knees. Out in the grey field, four families shared packed lunches under their respective huts and local gents played basketball at the adjacent community court. There's that easy Sunday feel here, communal and free-spirited, just like the birds it caters to.

Two groups of students in their pish-posh cars arrived and stayed in one of the lookouts. We stood on the one across to get a last glimpse of the sea and the ant-size Abucay lighthouse from afar. On the bricked ledge, Kuya driver studied the water as he waited for me to finish soaping and rinsing the tot (with only 1 liter of bottled water!). I would've loved to stay longer, but the absence of employees, of clean water sources and of birds were enough for me to say, maybe next time

Heart-sinking how you sometimes you set out for adventure and life gives you trash. You seek out the freedom in birds during noon, and yet silly you forget they don't show up till sunrise or sundown, in which case, you're gonna be in real trouble with the spouse. 

Lookouts  by the sea. There are two.
As we boarded the tricycle, the view of Mt. Samat's Shrine of Valor glinted against the afternoon sun. 

"How far as Mt. Samat from here, Kuya?"

"Twenty, maybe thirty minutes. I could take you to the terminal, if you wish."  

It was only way past twelve. Who needs itineraries anyway?

How to Go To Balanga Wetland and Nature Park via public transport

1. If you're coming from Manila, board a bus going to Mariveles (I think you can also take a Balanga-bound bus, but I took the former) from the Cubao, Pasay or Monumento bus terminals. If you're from Bulacan or Pampanga, Genesis, Victory Liner and Bataan Transit buses bound for Mariveles stop at SM City San Fernando Pampanga anytime of the day. From there fare is P99. Trip takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes from San Fernando.

Mariveles-bound buses ply the Roman Highway. Tell the conductor to drop you off the tricycle shed to Barangay Tortugas. The bus shed is on the right of the highway. Across it, there's a sari-sari store where the Hi-Way tricycle toda is, and in front, a Saver's Depot. Alight there and motion a tricycle to fetch you at the shed.

2. Take a tricycle to Balanga Wetland. Trip is about 20 minutes. Fare's P50 one-way. There are no jeepneys that go directly into Balanga Wetland as it is located past private subdivisions. Locals either bring their own motorcycles or take the tric. The tricycle shed however is far out (about a 10-minute walk), so it would be wiser if you ask the driver to fetch you at your preferred time and to drop you off directly at the Balanga bus terminal going to Manila (or wherever it is you're going). I paid P150 for that (two-way, since the driver would have to come from the capitol to fetch me at noon and because I was traveling solo/ on a special trip).

You'll be asked for a P5 "maintenance fee" per head once you enter the compound. Aside from that, everything else is free including the cottages near the information center. There are only four though so come early to get a spot. Locals usually get first dibs 'cause, you know, they just live in walking distance.

For birding enthusiasts, you may rent a boat for a nominal fee to go to this part where majority of the birds flock (P200 per boat, if I remember correctly):

Others simply prefer to stay at the mangroves and watch the birds with rented binoculars (P50 or P75 each).

Best Time To Go For Optimum Bird Sighting

Birds feed early in the morning and late in the afternoon (near sunset). Those are the best times to see them in hordes. Go anywhere in between and you may end up disappointed (was there from 10:30am to 12:30pm and I spotted only a few).

Also, I'm sure you pretty much know this already if you are into bird photography: You need at least 200mm  lenses if you plan to shoot them birds in action. These shots I took are using 18-55mm lenses (I set it at 55, but still the birds look miniscule even at close range). 

Facilities and activities
Now this is perhaps the biggest concern with the park. The facilities appear to be in tip-top shape, but even on a Sunday (which is when bulk of families visit), they are unmanned and inaccessible. There's that information center with stuffed birds, but it's locked. Nobody's around to assist. Not exaggerating. 

There are gender-specific washrooms and toilets, but whaddayaknow - also locked. So if you have to do your business, I don't know, dig a hole or do it before you arrive. And avoid swimming, unless you have your own soap and water for bathing.

Great facilities but mostly locked and unmanned.
1) Boats for rent for better bird view 2) Picnic huts near the mangroves/ lookouts 3)Huge washroom and CR. Locked and unmanned. 4) Floating balsa 5) One of many seaside huts where you can grill food and party
6) Space for vendor stalls. All unoccupied.
There are plenty of stalls for potential vendors, but only one was open and it only sells select food and drinks (reasonable prices though; P20 for 500ml bottled water). No rice meals, so if you plan on picnicking, bring your own. 

It seems no one, whether vendors or visitors, is too enthusiastic about the place. It's sad because it's a tranquil, unpopulated nook that offers many practical thrills: boating, kayaking (there's a small lagoon nearby too), biking (bikes can be rented for a minimal fee), renting a floating balsa (P50), or eating grilled meats (which you can do on your own) at the seaside huts.

I hope the local government engages in active promotional and clean-up campaigns for this beauty and visitors would support it better. Despite the ambiguous feelings it lends, it has strengths beyond birdwatching. Really. 

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