Friday, June 26, 2015

Montenegro 2 - The Longest Day

There are two days on which I try consistently each year to spend a whole day birding. The first is New Year's Day. The other, if I'm North of the Tropic of Cancer, is 21 June - Midsummer's Day. I'm not obsessive or anything and am not going to go out into a blizzard or a thunderstorm just because the calendar says so; a day or two after 1 January will do, and any day a week either side of Midsummer's day is also fine. But those are the target dates.

The challenge on 1 January is to kick off the New Year in style and ideally to see something juicily rare to set the tone for the coming twelve months. It's a sprint - an effort to cram as many species as possible into a short space of time. Midsummer is different - very different. For a start you've simply got to stay awake and alert for the whole day which, if you structure it the way I did this year, is no mean challenge and means basically setting yourself up for a 19 hour day. But the second element is more subtle. Unless you're very far north in Europe or North America, the second half of June is already becoming a challenging season for birding; many species will have toned down or entirely stopped singing; most trees are in full leaf, making species much harder to see; and then there's the potential problem of heat, which makes birds, and humans for that matter, more torpid and messes with your optics. So, if the New Year's day birdwatch is a sprint, Midsummer is a marathon.

I started my marathon on 22 June at 0300 and was out of the house by 0330. This is excessive, even by the standards of midsummer birding, but I had to drive most of the length of the Montenegrin coastline in order to be in Ulcinj at dawn. Ulcinj is home to the jewel in the crown of CZIP's conservation efforts, and its greatest ongoing success - the preservation of the Ulcinjska Salina (Ulcinj Saltworks) as a going concern with an emphasis on conservation. The Salina is vast. I've been twice now and have barely covered a third of it. Access is by appointment only, and you must take a guide with you. The access costs 5 Euro and the guide costs 20 Euro, and it's a bargain, not least because you're making an infinitesimal contribution to keeping by far the largest wetland on this stretch of the Adriatic coast available for migrating and breeding birds into the future. If you're visiting Montenegro, this is a must-visit location and my best advice is to contact the guide who showed me around, Azra Mujic, on +382 68 64 07 47. If she's not available she can put you in touch with another of the guides for the site.

The view across some of the smaller settlement ponds at Ulcinj. If you're able to magnify this photo there are nesting Collared Pratincoles in the centre of the frame. Alas I forgot to check my camera battery, and it was dead, so for the whole day I was dependent on my phone

I met Azra just after 0500 and we were inside the Salina within a few minutes. The first part of the walk inside the works was disappointing and difficult as we were walking directly into the rising sun, but as we reached the larger settlement ponds deeper inside the works I remembered why I was here; a Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) ran furtively across one of the dried-out ponds, a Roller (Caracias garrulus - one half of around 8 pairs at the site) flew past hawking for insects, and then the first of at least 150 Collared Pratincoles (Glareola pratincola) appeared on the ground, followed by Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus), Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus) and Little Terns (Sternula albifrons). In the distance a flock of around 200 Greater Flamingoes (Phoenicopterus roseus), and a single Dalmatian Pelican (Pelicanus crispus), squatting hugely like a boulder emerging from the water. A late, lonely Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) was flushed from a drainage channel, and the stunning, black-headed, short-tailed feldegg race of Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) flitted among the halophilic grasses. On a small bridge a tiny colony of Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) - my first in Montenegro, but my second of this trip after the unexpected and lively colony at Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia.

This photo gives a sense of the sheer size of this fantastic site. It basically stretches to the foot of the hills in the distance.

I spent around four hours here with Azra and added Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) and a very unexpected Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) as the day wore on, but by 0930 it was time to move on. I had intended to visit Sasko Lake nearby, but a fuel crisis brought me back to Ulcinj and was followed by indecision. I had thought to stop at Petrovac and/or Buljarica, back up the coast, to look for the Eleonora's Falcons (Falco eleonorae) and Olive-tree Warblers (Hippolais olivetorum) that are reported to frequent the area, but laziness and the lure of the familiar got the better of me and I turned off towards Skadar Lake through the Sozina tunnel before reaching Petrovac.

Greater Flamingoes in flight at Ulcinj

Skadar Lake is a large, karstic, eutrophic lake lying between the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and the sea. It's shared with Albania on the Eastern side and is renowned as a major wildfowl refuge in the winter, with tens of thousands of Coots (Fulica atra) staying there regularly, for instance. At this time of year there were a few species I hoped to see, based on past experience - Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus), Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor), Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) etc. But in some respects the birds here take second place to the scenery, which is breathtaking.

The beginnings of Lake Skadar seen from the road towards Rijeka Crnovejica. Just stunning.

As a reed-fringed, eutrophic lake, it's not easy to get close to lake Skadar, and I've always found the best place is a little bit past the "Jezero" restaurant (which is also home to the information centre for Skadar Lake National Park). If you're travelling from Virpazar towards Podgorica, you pass the restaurant and the tiny village of Bistrice and then take the second turning to the right, which is a gravel road which runs along a wet reedbed, fringed with willows, and ends up on the banks of the Moraca river before it debouches into the lake.

I trundled slowly down this road adding Eastern Olivaceous Warblers (Hippolais pallida) and Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus) to my day list. At the end I parked the car and walked up the Moraca on the small track there, which affords views back across the reedbeds - a Purple Heron flew overhead and Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybrida) were, as I knew they would be, two a penny. But it was now almost midday and no birds were singing. It was hard to see anything and harder still to concentrate. This I think would be a good place to end the day, but it wasn't a good one to spend the middle of it.

I headed up the spectacular, but slow, old road to Rijeka Crnojevica and from there via Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro, to Lovcen National Park. The first part of this road is winding and slow even by Montenegrin standards, but the scenery is mind-bogglingly beautiful, and there are occasional forests which are worth dipping into (again, perhaps later in the day than I had chosen to be there). I added a few common species and several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca) during this drive, but, surprisingly, the only birds of prey were a couple of Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus) near the village of Cukvica and a single Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) just outside Cetinje. Montenegro is, as for many other birds, much better for birds of prey in the Spring when there is a clear passage up the Adriatic coast of birds which apparently have crossed the straits of Otranto from Italy.

The heaving metropolis of Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro. Yes, that's all of it.

Lovcen was my final spot before heading home. It's a vast limestone massif and plateau full of hidden glades and copses, and I've always thought that it should be better for birding then I've ever actually found it to be, which is probably only owing to insufficient local knowledge on my part. In any case its a stunning place to spend any part of any fine day, and a wonderful escape from the heat of the coast in the summer. I elected this time to drive most of the way towards the highest peak, which is crowned by an ugly, communist era radio and meteorological tower (a lower peak is more atmospherically topped by a mausoleum to the legendary Montenegrin king Peter II Petrovic "Njegos", who was born nearby in the village of Njegusi). The views from up here defy belief - all the way down to the knotted coastline of the Kotor/Risan Bay in one direction, and down to Skadar Lake in the other, with the distant, looming, Durmitor massif to the North-East. But there were very few birds. I'd hoped to cheat my way to a Rock Partridge (Aletoris graeca) or a Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), but no dice; a couple of Linnets (Carduelis cannabina), a lovely male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) and a Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia) were my only reward.

A poor photo of a great view. Looking down towards Tivat and the Lustica Peninsula from the top of Lovcen.

Or so it seemed. As time ticked by I headed back towards the old road I'd taken a few days before, which descends towards Troijica and thence down to Radanovici. Turning one of countless corners whilst still high on the mountain, I found myself looking at a huge bird of prey, hanging in the wind where the draft from the deep bay of Kotor is channeled up the rock-face. I grabbed my binoculars from the neighbouring seat; a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and an adult to boot, its shaggy mane visible in the lowering light. It banked right, and without a movement of its wings, disappeared out of sight behind the ridge.

In total I spent 19 hours awake and birding this day and was rewarded with 77 species of bird, 2 mammals and a single identifiable reptile species. It's not the list I had hoped for, and there were 14 species of bird I saw on this trip to Montenegro that I didn't see on this day, but it contains some wonderful birds - that Golden Eagle, for instance. If I had the chance again, I'd certainly stay in Ulcinj the night before, so that I didn't have to get up so early, and I'd probably aim to end the day at Skadar Lake and sleep somewhere near there. I'd also definitely stop at Petrovac next time - the detour is probably worthwhile and I haven't seen an Eleonora's Falcon for years, nor have I ever seen an Olive-tree Warbler. One final change I'd make? Do it with somebody else. 19 hours is a long time for any activity, let alone a solitary one.

As always, it's as interesting to note what I didn't see as what I did; no Ravens (Corvus corax), for instance, and no Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus), though both are common enough in Montenegro. Overall, as always at this time of year, it was disappointing for raptors. No doubt I should have heard/seen at least some owls, but they're a very weak spot in my birding and I'm not surprised I missed them all. I've regularly seen Ferruginous Ducks at Skadar Lake, so I was surprised not to see them. And where the hell, to reiterate my question of yesterday's blog, are all the Orphean Warblers (Sylvia hortensis)? And all the Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis), for that matter?

The full day list follows, and I'll try to add a map of the routes and locations once my older son is here to help me with the technology...

  1. Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
  2. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
  3. Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
  4. Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
  5. Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
  6. Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus)
  7. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)
  8. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
  9. Great White Egret (Ardea alba)
  10. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
  11. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
  12. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
  13. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
  14. Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
  15. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
  16. Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
  17. Moorhen (Gallimula chloropus)
  18. Coot (Fulica atra)
  19. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
  20. Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)
  21. Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola)
  22. Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
  23. Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
  24. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
  25. Redshank (Tringa totanus)
  26. Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)
  27. Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)
  28. Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)
  29. Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)
  30. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
  31. Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia
  32. Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)
  33. Rock Dove (Columba livia) - there are apparently "pure" birds on Lovcen
  34. Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocta)
  35. Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
  36. Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)- heard only
  37. Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeaus)
  38. Swift (Apus apus)
  39. Alpine Swift (Tachymorptis melba)
  40. Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
  41. Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
  42. Roller (Caracias garrulus)
  43. Crested Lark (Galerida cristata)
  44. Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  45. Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica)
  46. House Martin (Delichon urbicum)
  47. White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
  48. (Black-headed) Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg)
  49. Robin (Erythacus rubecula) - heard only
  50. Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) - heard only
  51. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
  52. Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca)
  53. Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)
  54. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  55. Whitethroat (Sylvia communis)
  56. Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)
  57. Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) - heard only
  58. Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)
  59. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (Hippolais pallida)
  60. Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) - heard only
  61. Great Tit (Parus major)
  62. Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)
  63. Magpie (Pica pica)
  64. Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
  65. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
  66. Yellow-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
  67. Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix)
  68. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  69. Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus)
  70. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  71. Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)
  72. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) - heard only
  73. Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)
  74. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  75. Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)
  76. Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra)
  77. Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

  1. Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) - one glimpsed near Ljesevici
  2. Northern White-breasted Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus) - one on the road near Ljesevici

  1. Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata) - one on the road near Crmica

Species seen/heard on this trip but not on this day:
  1. Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
  2. Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
  3. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)
  4. Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) - three seen between Ljesevici and Bigovo the morning after a large thunderstorm, along with many Swifts and one Alpine Swifts. These were my first Pallids for Montenegro, where, as far as I know, they do not breed.
  5. Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)
  6. Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis)
  7. Wood Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) - heard only
  8. Western Rock-nuthatch (Sitta neumayer)
  9. Blue Rock-Thrush (Monticola solitarius)
  10. Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris)
  11. Raven (Corvus corax)
  12. Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) - surprisingly common here, as it is throughout the Balkans, in my experience. On this visit seen in Bigovo and behind the walls of Kotor.
  13. Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus)
  14. Black-headed Bunting (Emberiza melanocephala)

Not quite the end of a wearying day. I still had to wait a bit for my Nightjar.

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