Saturday, April 16, 2016

Spring Part 2 - Montenegro

In the past I have been a bore on the subject of the Spring migration in Montenegro, and the following will be no exception. The visit from which I returned at the end of last week did not measure up to the vintage April of 2012, and I’ll go into a couple of the reasons why I think that’s the case, but I still have a smile on my face as I write this, and there barely a single day that didn’t come with a surprise. Given that we were there for ten days, that’s not at all bad.

We arrived on 28 March into Dubrovnik, with my first Spring migrant, a Hoopoe (Upupa epops), making his entrance as we passed between the Croatian and Montenegrin borders at Debeli Brijeg.

The following morning was one of a series of glorious sunny days, and as I took my first walk into Bigovo, it was clear that for birds, too, the Spring was here. Swallows (Hirundo rustica) were already in residence, there were a few Subalpine Warblers  (Sylvia cantillans) displaying, and a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) was already singing from cover. But there were clearly also birds that were simply passing through; Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita), for instance, and Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), neither of which, to my knowledge, breeds in the village. And there was a single, flighty, nominate Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) too. But the migrants of the day were Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), of which there were several dotted around the village. Interestingly, two of these birds, both females, had clear white edges to their secondaries, creating the effect of a panel on the folded wing. This is a diagnostic feature of the Eastern samamisicus race, which I’d seen for the first time, on a male, in Eritrea last winter, but which surely migrates on a more Easterly path? Interesting. There was a female Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) on the garden wall, as well, this being presumably a late and more local migrant.

Looking towards the village over the wooded valley in Bigovo

On 30 March the first Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) of the year drifted over the house and there was a Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) in the village, but I had little time to look for other migrants as  I had to pick up my parents from Podgorica. This involved a drive past Skadar Lake, where I picked up a single Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and a flock of Alpine Swifts (Tachymarptis melba). On the drive back, avoiding major roadworks on the coast, we took the precipitous mountain road over the Lovcen massif and picked up our first House Martins (Delichon urbicum) nesting, as they always do, inside a cave at the top of the road from Kotor to Njegusi.

More migrants made their first appearances on 31 March, with the first Tree Pipits (Anthus trivialis) and Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus) in the village. The latter breed here and these birds seemed paired-up, so are probably here to stay. But at the same time there were lingering signs of winter, too. On 29 March a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) had made its appearance by the causeway from the Church to the village, an area of small fields and orchards with the sea on one side and woodland on the other that seems to be the focal point for migrants here. Robins are birds I have never seen later than the end of March, making them winter visitors here, in my book, and as if to confirm that timetable this Robin put in his last appearance on 31 March, and was not seen again.

The open area of orchards and fields next to the "causeway". This is migrant central for the village in the Spring.

The first day of April took Dad and I to the nearby Tivatska Solila where we picked-up the first Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca), Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), Garganeys (Spatula querquedula), Corn Buntings (Miliaria calandra), Red-rumped Swallows (Hirundo daurica) and Sand Martins  (Riparia riparia) this year. Mirabile dictu, Dad and I also managed to get good views of a singing Nightingale, for the first time, it seemed to me, since I was a boy in Canterbury. A Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala) popped-up in the village too, but they seem much less common here than they used to be.

Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus), Whitethroats (Sylvia communis), Lesser Whitethroats (Sylvia curruca) and a Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) all put in their first appearances on 2 April. I’m always surprised at how few Lesser Whitethroats we see here, given that the entire European population migrates through the Balkans, but perhaps they pursue a more Easterly and inland route. There was only one seen on this day, and he was the only one I saw throughout our time in Montenegro.

On 3 April it was the turn of Serins (Serinus serinus)– a bird I hadn’t previously seen in the village, but which I had been expecting. More noteworthy for me was an overflying Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix). In more than six years I’d never seen this species in the village, though it’s common enough over the ridge in Radanovici. Perhaps its appearance is a sign of encroaching development, and I’ll know that for sure when I see my first Feral Pigeons (Columbia livia var. dom.) for the first time here.

New appearances on 4 April were Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), a Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) near the causeway, and yet another first for the village – a lone Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), helpfully perching on a reed. On 6 April the first Scops Owl (Otus scops) started calling mechanically from the scrubby forest around the house.

In the meantime, on 5 April I’d taken myself to Kotor and found most of the usual species in the usual places– Alpine Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) bizarrely in the centre of the town at sea level, and Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris) and dozens of loud Western Rock-nuthatches (Sitta neumayer) behind the city walls on the walking path. I missed a Blue Rock-thrush (Monticola solitarius) this time, though.

Looking down across the Bay of Kotor from behind the walls. All you need is a soundtrack of calling Western Rock-nuthatches to bring this alive.
Throughout all of this time the weather had been an unbroken series of beautiful days, perfect for gardening, which is what we were doing almost all the time. But I was beginning to suspect that this weather, no matter how pleasant, was the explanation for the essentially unspectacular migration we’d so far been experiencing. Alas, my parents had to leave before I could put this theory to the test, because on 8 April, things changed. We woke to haze and a strong southerly wind, with showers beginning later, and exposing the haze as a miasma of Saharan sand, which coated everything in pink dust. It brought with it birds, and many more of them than we’d seen to date, with sizeable flocks of Whinchats, a single Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) and a couple of apparently paired-up Woodchat Shrikes (Lanius senator) at the Tivatska Solila. A juvenile Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), which had been there when Dad I visited on 1 April, was still there, but he spiralled upward and headed North with the wind behind him as I watched.

9 April, our departure day, confirmed my hunch. It had been cloudy with occasional thunderstorms overnight, driven by the continuing wind from the South, and it was obvious from the start that there were far more birds in the village than had been the case until now, with Tree Pipits, in particular, well into double figures. But the crowning moment of the day, for me, was watching what must have been hundreds of high-flying Alpine Swifts fronting a bedraggled adult male MONTAGU’S HARRIER (Circus pygargus) as it ploughed its way North against the hills, its large black wingtips obvious even in the low light. This, again, was an expected species but it’s the first I’ve seen in the Western Palearctic, all my previous sightings having been in Africa, and it’s the fourth species of Harrier I’ve seen in Bigovo. This means that I’ve seen all four Western Palearctic Harriers in the village. I find that pretty remarkable.

An example of the perfect weather that dominated our visit. Poor us.

The drive to Dubrovnik brought two final migrants; a Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) by the road near the airport, and Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis), which breed colonially on the airport building itself, together wth House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), but which had not arrived when we did ten days before.

So, a wonderful experience, but for the most part the migration this year was a stream rather than a river in spate, as I’ve experienced it before. To expand a little on what I said earlier, I suspect the reasons for this were that we were a little early (Dad checked, and our 2012 experience was around 18 April) and that the weather was simply too good – something only a birder could say, surely? My hunch is that with the clear skies and light winds that prevailed until the last couple of days, birds were able to navigate in straight lines at night, and were not dependent on landmarks, as they are when the clouds come down and the wind blows hard. Then, they’re forced to follow the coast and to stop wherever they are for rest and feeding; that place, as often as not, being Bigovo. So, for future reference, and if you’re looking for the migration experience in Montenegro, come around the middle of April, and look out for unsettled weather on southerly winds. Luckily, that combination is common at this time of year. And luckier still, even without it there will still be wonderful show of migrants anyway, as the preceding attests.

There’s a postscript to all this. The birds I’ve mentioned were none of them the most unusual species I saw on this visit. That was that rarest of beasts in Montenegro, another birder. Dad and I spotted this outlandish creature at Tivatska Solila on 1 April and, perhaps more incredibly than seeing him at all, it turned out that he was from Belgium. I was delighted to hear that one of the reasons he’d come, and had done so on the basis of another Belgian birding friend’s recommendation, was for the birds. Montenegro needs, and deserves, much more of this and I’m overjoyed to see it finally coming onto the European birding map. I’m also very happy to have made contact with a potential birding colleague in my current home country, and I’m looking forward to a first outing with him, to the Belgian coast, this very weekend, with a report to follow in due course.

Until next time...

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