The holy grail for most Filipino bird photographers is to take a portrait of the country’s national bird, the Philippine Eagle. The 43-year-old Ilonggo birder Floyd Bermejo was able to check this off his to-do list back in the summer of 2017 when he personally encountered these majestic-looking creatures at the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City.
But that accomplishment was followed by another: one of his images was picked as key visual for the design of the new the 1,000-peso bill which also happens to be the country’s first polymer banknote. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that one of my photographs will be immortalized on a Philippine banknote,” Bermejo wrote in a Facebook post.
Bermejo is constantly exposed to gorgeous sceneries in his line of work—he’s a professional pilot—and these sights were what inspired him to take up photography. “Whenever I see something beautiful, I wanted to share them especially with my family,” he recalls. “Initially, I bought a small camera, yung may film. I would take photos of the sceneries, have them developed, so I can show them to my mother.”
He bought his first DSLR in 2009, dabbled in portraiture for a bit, and eventually tried landscape and nature photography. That’s when he got hooked on taking photos of wildlife, birds in particular.
It started with an attraction to the pipit, which is endemic to the Philippines. He found out there are different kinds. Research would eventually lead him to discover the wealth of local bird species.“Sabi ko I want to photograph all of them,” recalls Bermejo. “So doon na nag-start yung parang addiction ko [sa bird photography].”
This led to the realization that many of the Philippine bird species are critically endangered, among them the Philippine Eagle. “Some ornithologists are pessimistic about the future ng Philippine Eagle kasi very big ang kanilang forest requirement,” the bird enthusiast tells ANCX. “Kung titingnan mo ang map ng Philippines, wala na tayong masyadong gubat na natitira. If we don’t protect our forests, mauuwi na talaga sa extinction ang Philippine Eagle.”
Bermejo was convinced he needed to have a portrait of the Philippine Eagle before it vanishes forever in the wild. The stories of his photographer friends also persuaded him to chase after the bird for that all important snap. They told him how awestruck they were of its beauty. “Ang ganda talaga—super,” the pilot says, recalling the raves. “Ang experience nila, dumaan ang Philippine Eagle na naka full spread ang wings, nakipag-eye contact pa sa kanila, pero hindi sila nakapitik ng camera. Kasi they were mesmerized. They were in awe.”
His friends advised Bermejo to visit the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City and familiarize himself first with the bird so that when he goes to the wild, he could focus on capturing its majesty in great detail. Before he embarked on this goal, he checked existing photographs of the Philippine Eagle online. “Nakita ko na halos pare-pareho sila. Yung naka-raise ang crest, tapos lahat nakatitig sa camera,” he says. Bermejo wanted his take to be different. “Gusto ko yung mukhang matapang but at the same time gentle. Hindi nakatingin ng diretso sa lens ko, naka-offset nang kaunti.”
There were four eagles housed at the Davao facility then. He decided to focus on Imbulog, a name that means “to soar.” (The name was later changed to Viggo.) “Maganda ang light sa puwesto niya. So hindi mahirap magtimpla ng camera settings,” the birder recalls.
Armed with his Canon 5D and Tamron lens, Bermejo carefully studied the bird’s movements and waited patiently for the elements to fall into place, just the way he wanted it. “Two hours ko siyang inabangan para makuha ko ang shot na gusto ko,” he says. He must have taken a thousand shots before he finally nailed Imbulog’s now iconic image.
He posted the money shot on his website and Facebook account, which later caught the attention of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. “I got a couple of messages asking if BSP could use my photo and for how much,” he recalls. “Hindi ako naniwala. Hindi ko pinansin. Sabi ko baka scam.”
The third message was hard to ignore: it came from a BSP lawyer. Bermejo was told the Central Bank might use his photo of the Philippine Eagle for a commemorative bill. The bird photographer saw it as an opportunity to promote his wildlife protection advocacy, so he gave the image for free.
“The thing is, people won’t protect what they don’t know,” says Bermejo. “If we say ‘Huwag kayong magputol ng puno diyan, diyan nakatira ang flame-templed babbler,’ they will ask, ‘Ano yun?’ Pero kapag pinakita namin sa kanila ang photo ng ibon na ito, they’ll say, ‘Ang ganda pala.’”
The pilot and birder hopes that his photograph of the Philippine Eagle on the 1,000-peso will go beyond just being an image on a paper bill. He hopes for it to help spark awareness among Filipinos—that we need to protect and preserve our forests so we can save our majestic wildlife from disappearing forever.