FOR DEVOTED BIRD watchers, the Great Philippine Eagle is the holy grail of birds, an almost mythological creature they all have at the top of their life list.

“Of the 10,000 birds in the world, it’s the most desired bird to see,” said artist David Tomb, whose watercolor paintings of the Philippine Eagle and other exotic birds are on exhibit through Oct. 29 in an installation at Dominican University of California in San Rafael.

Among the largest and most powerful birds in the world, the great eagle is the national symbol of the Philippines. But because of the clear-cutting of hardwood forests and the seemingly inexorable destruction of its natural habitat, the iconic raptor may not be long for this world.

“There are probably only 200 of these eagles left in the wild,” Tomb lamented. “If the Philippine Eagle were to go extinct, it would be like the world losing pandas or tigers.”

The Dominican show is the official launch of Tomb’s Jeepney Projects Worldwide — Art for Conservation, a fledgling organization devoted to using the power of art to support regional conservation groups working to restore and protect the habitat of critically endangered birds like the Philippine Eagle.

Sales from the Dominican show will benefit the Philippine Eagle Foundation, an organization in the Philippine city of Davao with a captive breeding program similar to the one that saved the California Condor.

In January, Tomb and a group of friends visited the center after he fulfilled the dream of a lifetime, viewing wild Philippine Eagles on Mt. Kitanglad on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

“It took us a day and a half to see the birds,” he said. “We got a big bounce out of that.”

The threatened demise of the Philippine Eagle is particularly alarming for Tomb, a 50-year-old San Rafael High and College of Marin graduate now living and working in San Francisco’s Mission district. He’s been fascinated by the magnificent raptor since he was an 11-year-old Marin kid with a passion for birds.

“Its name used to be the Philippine monkey-eating eagle, which really caught my attention when I was a boy,” he recalled. “With its huge manelike crest, it looks like a lion with wings.”

Growing up, he participated in the Audubon Society’s annual bird counts and was inspired by Point Reyes Bird Observatory naturalist Rich Stallcup, who’s considered “the godfather of California birding.”

“I wanted to be just like him,” Tomb remembered.

After graduating from California State University Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing, Tomb worked for 20 years as a portrait artist as well as an illustrator for the New Yorker, Harpers and other publications. His work is shown at Electric Works gallery in San Francisco.

Since 2005, he has devoted himself to his boyhood love — painting birds he sees on expeditions to Mexico and Ecuador in addition to the Philippines.

With Marin residents Peter Barto and Howard Flax, two friends since middle school, and Ian Austin of San Anselmo, he formed the Jeepney Project a year ago to market his art in the service of wildlife conservation.

Their organization’s namesakes are the World War-II vintage U.S. military jeeps the resourceful Filipinos have transformed into colorfully decorated taxis, now lighthearted Philippine cultural icons.

“I thought the jeepney was a great connection to the Philippines and our first big project,” Tomb explained. “And being an artist from California, you always have this thread of funk art and collage. And these jeepneys are totally funky collages.”

The Dominican installation, presented by the university’s department of art, art history and design, features some 45 paintings and drawings in a setting of tropical plants and natural sounds that mimic a Philippine forests.

“Being on a college campus, students can see how a conservation concept and an art project can merge together and develop,” he explained. “They aren’t seeing finished art work in a fancy gallery. They can see that this conservation idea just started and this art work is in process. It’s exciting that something positive can be done in terms of conservation with art work. This is the time to act.”

IF YOU GO

What: Jeepney Projects Worldwide installation by David Tomb
When: Through Oct. 29; Sept. 22: reception 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 26: artist talk 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Where: Dominican University of California, San Marco Gallery, 50 Acacia Ave., San Rafael
Admission: Free
Information: 485-3269; www.dominican.edu