Thursday, June 25, 2015


I lived briefly in Bulgaria in the early 1990s. I was trying to make a name for myself and was so absorbed by politics that I didn't even bother to take my binoculars with me when I went there, an omission that seems to me now to have been bordering on insane. Like Simon Barnes, the sports and birding writer, "the idea of travelling without binoculars seems to me absurd". Or at least it does now but, what can I say? I was young and foolish. The point is that I missed almost all the birding that has made Bulgaria one of the top nature tourism destinations in Europe, and I could have been in on it from the start.

By contrast I've been visiting Montenegro since 2006, and I doubt I've been there once without binoculars. My wife is Montenegrin, and we have a house there, so there's no question at all that I'm thoroughly biased - but I'm convinced that this tiny and stunning country has as much to the offer the birder as Bulgaria or any of the other Balkan countries now setting up their stalls in the ecotourism marketplace. To give an example, although we spend only a few weeks there every year, I've seen 91 species of bird, including 12 species of raptor, in and around the village where our house is, since 2009.

Birding tours are, slowly, taking off, and, thanks to the work of Darko Saveljic and his Centre for Protection and Research of Birds of Montenegro (CZIP) there are, increasingly, facilities and information for even the casual visiting birder. Better still, and far more importantly, there are now habitats under legal protection, where wildlife tourism is promoted. But that protection is tenuous and haphazardly implemented - hunting of migratory birds is depressingly common, for instance, even in protected areas - so the more birders who come and the more the interests of local communities therefore become aligned with conservation rather than rapacious development, the better protection is likely to be afforded to these precious remaining areas.

So, as it happens, I've just come back from ten days in Montenegro - days mainly of swimming and relaxing and working on the house - but naturally with some birding thrown in, including a full day on 22 June, which I think I'll try and write about separately. There's no doubt that the summer months, even including this period of June, are not the best, bird-wise, in this part of the world. Migration season - particularly the Spring migration, and particularly April - are much better and can throw up some fantastic species; I've seen five Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus) over my house at that time of year, for instance.

The harbour in Bigovo, from the terrace of the "Grispolis" fish restaurant. Absolutely dreadful for birding, but there are rare times when you have to say, "who cares?"

But there are still some stunners to be found, and heard, even now. I arrived at our house in the late afternoon to be greeted by a cacophony of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), Sardinian Warblers (Sylvia melanocephala), Eastern Olivaceous Warblers (Hippolais pallida), Subalpine Warblers (Sylvia cantillans), Cetti's Warblers (Cettia cetti), Blackbirds (Turdus merula), Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur) and Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus). Later in the evening they were joined by Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) and often, though not on this visit, Golden Jackals (Canis aureus) howl like Wolves from the surrounding hills and Scops Owls (Otus scops) whistle mechanically from the scrub. None of these species is particularly easy to see here - the garrigue is thick, so this is a place to get to know your songs. Thanks to my newly-downloaded Collins Bird Guide App, that's easier than it used to be. It's the book, only better.

The scrubby woodland behind and around our house. Home to countless unseen warblers and chats.

On the following morning I headed to the Tivatska Solila - an old salt works near the pleasant town of Tivat now entirely abandoned in terms of the salt, but partly used as a sewage works. Much of the upper drainage of this area has been built on and this, coupled with constant disturbance by bait diggers on the seaward side, and, alas, frequent disturbance by hunters on the landward side in winter, means that the place can be hit and miss. I've had some amazing days here; a great flock of Glossy Ibises (Plegadis falcinellus) fronted by a migrating adult male Pallid Harrier; Common Cranes (Grus grus) beating their way into the face of a raging Bora (as the Tramontana wind is known here); Water Rails (Rallus aquaticus) lined up along a drainage ditch as if in a demonstration of vanishing point perspective by Alberti. But those days have mainly been in the winter and Spring. It was now, although not very hot, obviously summer and the day was definitely on the miss side as many are at this time of year; some patrolling Zitting Cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis), a few Corn Buntings (Miliaria calandra), a Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus) or two and a desultory few Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus). Not one to write home about.

Tivatska Solila - either heaving with birds or pretty much dead. 

As the heat set in I headed up the old road towards Njegusi on the top of the Lovcen Massif. This is one of the great drives of Europe - a series of switchbacks and hairpin bends from sea level to around 1000 metres or so up what to all intents and purposes is a largely sheer rock face. It's basically a single-track road and not for the faint of heart, but then the Montenegrin bus drivers manage to bring coaches up and down it, so maybe I just need to man-up a bit. I had headed up for the birds - Yellow-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and House Martins (Delichon urbicum) that nest in a cave and zip in and out like bats - a vestige of what their nesting habits in Europe must have been like until a couple of thousand years ago - but I ended up staying for my first cevapi and kajmak of the year. These words will be meaningless to the uninitiated, but are music to the ears, and the tongues, of balkanophiles such as myself.

A thatched bothy in Lovcen National Park. It's not just the birds that should bring you here. The wild flowers are out of this world, and there's great herpetology for those with the eye for it.

Inspired by this the next day I took myself to Kotor. The city itself is stunning but tiny and can be explored and savoured in a comfortable hour, but after that, tempted as you may be by the impossibly vertiginous city walls, do not try to climb them from the inside. The secret, instead, is to take the path that begins behind the small water works just outside the walls. This is the true "Ladder of Cattaro", as it was known after the city's Venetian moniker, and again it winds all the way up to Njegusi. For much of the nineteenth century this was the only road linking the tiny independent Kingdom of Montenegro, centred on the Lovcen massif, with the coast which was then under the control of Austria-Hungary, and it was built for mule traffic. Mules are sturdy animals, of course, but not known for their enthusiasm or willingness to put themselves out. As a consequence, this track, now used only for walking, climbs the rock at a stately pace and angle. It's hard going merely because it's all uphill, but it's a good deal easier than the stairs inside the wall, it's free, and its much, much better for birding. It's a reliable place for a few Balkan specialities - Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius), Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris), Western Rock-Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer) and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca) were all seen on this visit, for instance, and I've regularly seen Eastern Orphean Warblers (Sylvia hortensis crassirostris) in the past here too. Yellow-billed Choughs come all the way down to sea level here, particularly in the winter, but they're common enough at the level of the top of the walls even now. I've also heard reports of Rock Partridges (Alectoris graeca) from that altitude upwards, but not seen them myself. One secret of this site is to come early. It is increasingly popular with hikers - a phenomenon of the last year or two which is bound to increase, because it's freaking gorgeous - but more importantly you're shaded from the sun in the morning if you start early, and it's baking if you're too late.

The country around the ladder of Cattaro and the stunning views it affords. The old road, now a path, is visible in the foreground, and this photo gives a good indication of the comfortable angle it affords, making it a long, but easy walk up to Njegusi.

On the way back I stopped between the villages of Ljesevici and Bigovo. Last year I found a few pairs of nesting Black-headed Buntings (Emberiza melanocephala) up here, and sure enough there was at least one singing male there this time too. But neither here, nor in Bigovo, nor in Kotor - all places I saw the species last year - could I find a single Orphean Warbler. What's happened to them all?

The extensive Garrigue between Ljesevici and Bigovo. Home to the common Mediterranean species and to Black-headed Buntings.

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