An en­joy­able visit to Herzegovina found plenty of birds but very few bird­watch­ers

Bird Watching (UK) - - World Birding - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DAVID CHANDLER

Herzegovina is not re­ally on the bird­watch­ing map. It’s the south­ern end of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with won­der­ful lime­stone land­scapes, lots of birds, but only a hand­ful of serious bird­watch­ers – there are about five! So, when you are bird­ing, you don’t bump into hordes of bird­watch­ers, which for me, makes it an at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion! Get­ting there is easy. I flew to Dubrovnik, in Croa­tia, for less than £130, as a guest of Wild Herzegovina. I was met by De­nis, my guide, at the air­port. My Balkan bird­ing bo­nanza, with one other guest, Der­mot, had be­gun. Herzegovina has caves, un­der­ground rivers, spec­tac­u­lar plains, im­pos­ing moun­tains, ex­ten­sive forested ar­eas and glo­ri­ous wet­lands. Our pro­gramme started low, got higher, and then switched to wet­lands. The pace was re­laxed and the weather wasn’t al­ways on our side, but we still recorded more than 150 species in seven days. Our low level for­ays fo­cused on two karst fields, which, typ­i­cally, are plains hemmed in by moun­tains. Most are sea­son­ally flooded. Spring is a great time to visit, as mi­grat­ing birds flow through the Adri­atic Fly­way. Popovo Polje, our first karst field, cov­ers al­most 120 square km and greeted us with glo­ri­ous blasts of Nightin­gale song. I had a fleet­ing view of a tit, one that looked dif­fer­ent from those I’m used to. It wasn’t the best view, but made me think ‘Som­bre Tit’ and our guide agreed. Nightin­gales were al­most ever-present but this was the only time a Som­bre Tit, a south-east Europe spe­cial­ity, was recorded. We birded against a cloud-shrouded moun­tain back­drop, with a bit of rain, Tawny Pipit, Whin­chats, Corn Bunt­ing and Hawfinch. The sounds of dis­tant Hoopoe and Bee-eater added a taste of the ex­otic, and Eastern Or­phean War­bler put in its first ap­pear­ance. This large Sylvia is a close rel­a­tive of Whitethroat and Gar­den War­bler, and is an­other south-eastern spe­cial­ity. It sang, maybe like a mix of Black­bird and Black­cap, and called croak­ily. But the star of day one was a bird that builds a mud nest on rocks – a bit like a House Martin’s, but with an en­trance hole fit for a wood­pecker. A short-tailed ban­dit-faced bird stuck its head out, and, later, gave us a great view on a big chunk of lime­stone – Western Rock Nuthatch. ‘Western’ sounds counter in­tu­itive, but its range is sig­nif­i­cantly more western than its Eastern coun­ter­part! Li­van­jsko Polje was even more im­pres­sive. At more than 400 square km this is the world’s largest reg­u­larly flooded karst field. A small marshy area gave us Lit­tle Bit­tern, in flight, briefly, as is of­ten the case with this de­light­ful, diminu­tive heron. We pon­dered the iden­tity of an ‘Acro’ (an Acro­cephalus war­bler – Reed and

Sedge for ex­am­ple), checked a record-shot against the Collins Guide app – and added Mous­tached War­bler to the list. There was im­pres­sive wa­ter­side bird­ing, with up-close Wood Sand­pipers, Ringed Plover, Green­shank, and per­haps my favourite ‘Acro’ – a su­per-sized reed war­bler, chunter­ing out a sore throat song – Great Reed War­bler. A ‘wet-my-lips’ Quail stayed in­vis­i­ble and some dis­tant marsh terns evaded ID at first, but suc­cumbed later, a dozen buoy­ant-in-theair breed­ing plumage Black Terns. We trav­elled fur­ther up the karst field, through Mon­tagu’s Har­rier habi­tat, see­ing male and fe­male, and loi­tered by a still-flooded part of this re­mark­able area, adding Red­shank, Lap­wing, and later, Spot­ted Red­shank, which obliged us with a view of wings and rump. A Bit­tern boomed, and a Hobby hunted, then perched, giv­ing a glo­ri­ous view of this al­ways-good-to-see fal­con. En­tice­ment enough, but noth­ing com­pared to last spring’s spec­ta­cle of a thou­sand or so Red-footed Fal­cons. This one karst field is home to about 400 call­ing Corn Crakes. They were silent in our pres­ence – but the noc­tur­nal sound­scape must be in­cred­i­ble. Day three kicked off at a for­mer recre­ation cen­tre with ma­ture trees and open habi­tat near the Buna and Bu­nica rivers, not far from our Mostar guest house. There was fluty Golden Ori­ole song, rich Nightin­gale song, and the sound of Wry­necks, which are wood­peck­ers, al­beit small and pe­cu­liar ones, and we saw sev­eral. A Tur­tle Dove purred, a Hoopoe poo-poo-pooed, a Spot­ted Fly­catcher spot­ted flies, and a rain-sod­den Hobby just sat in a tree. Our guide had a guar­an­teed spot for Lesser Spot­ted Wood­pecker – a nest site. We watched and Sand Martins waited, but the wood­pecker proved to be com­pletely un-spot­ted! De­nis has been back since and seen the Lesser Spot, as well as Wry­neck and Syr­ian Wood­pecker, all at their nests and all from the same spot! The more open, slightly scrubby habi­tat pro­vided good bird­ing, too, with plenty of Whin­chats, four Whitethroats in two bushes, and seven paint-pal­ette Bee-eaters on a wire. Later, over a river­side lunch with Golden Ori­ole ac­com­pa­ni­ment, Syr­ian Wood­pecker came our way, prompt­ing dis­cus­sion over its ID. The head mark­ings were good for Syr­ian, but the vent was as red as a Great Spot’s and we couldn’t see any flank streaks. Help­fully, the Collins guide de­scribes the head mark­ings as the ‘safest fea­ture’. We fin­ished the day with a con­vinc­ing view of a Mid­dle Spot­ted Wood­pecker, a call­ing Quail, Tree Spar­rows, and a yel­lower-than-yel­low Golden Ori­ole. I can’t think of any­where else I’ve been with as many Golden Ori­oles. The vil­lage of Bla­gaj is only about seven miles from Mostar as the ori­ole flies. Famed for its his­toric Dervish Monastery, Bla­gaj sits at the source of the Buna, against a mas­sive, cliff-face back­drop. This was once home to Grif­fon Vul­tures, but alas, no more, so af­ter walk­ing past pomegranate bushes, we con­tented our­selves with Alpine Swift, Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martins, Dip­per and Grey Wag­tail. Po­drelezje Plateau gave me my first en­counter with subalpine karst fields, with Wood Lark, Eastern Subalpine War­bler and more Bee-eaters. We pulled up for cof­fee and I opened the van door. A Lesser Whitethroat rat­tled, a Wood War­bler trilled, and two Hawfinch showed them­selves nearby! We strolled past an early Chris­tian ceme­tery, then an early Mus­lim ceme­tery. This coun­try has plenty of his­tory and plenty of birds. An Eastern Or­phean War­bler took to the wing – big and grey with a dark head. Then Black­eared Wheatear. There are two morphs of this bird, pale-throated and black­throated. We saw both, and a pris­tine black-throated sang for us – buzzy and scratchy. A very dif­fer­ent sound reached our ears, too, as the lo­cal mosque sig­nalled prayer time. We headed on. A Tawny Pipit showed us the dark cen­tres on its coverts, but the Rock Thrush be­hind dis­tracted, as did

an­other. From Rock Thrush to Rock Par­tridge, dis­tant but a pretty good view, hand­some with finely barred flanks. By 9am on day four we were well on our way to the Blid­inje Na­ture Park when a long stretch of un­paved road slowed our pace. That was when De­nis heard the ‘sip’ of a male Rock Bunt­ing. We stopped, en­joyed, and headed on, en­ter­ing the Na­ture Park on a high al­ti­tude plateau with a man­made lake, sur­rounded by cloudy moun­tains, with plenty of snow still un­thawed, then went higher, peak­ing at about 1,500m above sea level. An out of place Wry­neck kicked off pro­ceed­ings, en-route to else­where, with songs from Sky Larks, Lesser Whitethroat, Cuckoo and Wood Lark. Four Hawfinches flew by – what were they do­ing up here? Raven. Wheatear. Green­shank. Hooded Crow. Rock Par­tridge call­ing again. Eleven dis­tant Alpine Choughs. Red-backed Shrike. More Rock Thrushes, pow­der blue and King­fisher or­ange. Mount Cvrsnica gave us a Ring Ouzel, half a mile away, perched against the sky­line at the top of a pine. Then more Alpine Choughs, closer, fly­ing, on the ground, yel­low bills pok­ing and prob­ing, search­ing for a tra­di­tional invertebrate lunch, 150-200 of them. Our lunch was tra­di­tional, too – po­lenta, yo­ghurt and gar­lic but­ter. Our sec­ond day up high took us to a rainy Prenj Moun­tain. We per­se­vered, heard a Grey-headed Wood­pecker, failed to see it, but dug out some Cross­bills and a sin­gle Crested Tit. The rain per­sisted and we re­sorted to van-based bird­ing – and that was how we got our best views of Rock Par­tridge, two of them, in the rain, on the track, right in front of us. The Neretva Delta was our first pure wet­land des­ti­na­tion. We started a long way from the Delta, look­ing down from a Mostar bridge. It wasn’t the Mostar bridge, which has been won­der­fully re­built fol­low­ing its de­struc­tion in more trou­bled times. The bridge we were on is the coun­try’s only known Pal­lid Swift breed­ing site. It is home to six or seven pairs and gave me my best ever Pal­lid Swift en­counter – you look down on them as they fly un­der the bridge. We worked our way down­stream, with in­ter­mit­tent stops… Pen­du­line Tits with a high, thin, whistling call, Lit­tle Ringed Plover, 16 or more Com­mon Sand­pipers, and the won­der­ful sounds of Golden Ori­oles and Nightin­gales. Be­fore 11am we crossed into Croa­tia, where the delta is. You would ex­pect waders and we weren’t dis­ap­pointed with el­e­gant Curlew Sand­pipers turn­ing brick-red, Lit­tle Stint, Wood Sand­piper, Grey Plover, San­der­ling, Spot­ted Red­shank, Curlew, Whim­brel and Black-winged Stilt. There was a healthy heron as­sort­ment, with Night and Squacco Herons, Lit­tle Egret and Lit­tle Bit­tern. I wanted to see Pygmy Cor­morant and it wasn’t dif­fi­cult. The delta has sandy beaches and a moun­tain back­drop and the birds aren’t all wa­ter­birds – other high­lights in­cluded Red-backed and Wood­chat Shrikes, a male Black-headed Bunt­ing – an­other south-eastern species, and more Beeeaters. Cuck­oos were call­ing all over the place, and even bet­ter, for us any­way, was the spec­ta­cle of this das­tardly brood par­a­site on the re­ceiv­ing end – with a male Golden Ori­ole in hot, close pur­suit. If you come to this part of the world, don’t miss the delta – it’s a great site. I like wet­lands and Hu­tovo Blato Marsh­lands must be one of Europe’s best. It’s like Mins­mere on steroids with­out the in­fra­struc­ture and the bird­watch­ers! Hu­tovo Blato is a mix of marsh­land and flood mead­ows, sur­rounded by up­lands. The marsh­lands alone cover 2,105 hectares (5,200 acres), with an­other 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) of flood mead­ows. It’s a vi­tal stop-off for mil­lions of birds on the Adri­atic Fly­way. A to­tal of 106 species breed here, in­clud­ing about 100 pairs of Fer­rug­i­nous Duck. We saw some, as well as Red-crested Pochard and Gar­ganey. More than 140 species win­ter here and there are 17 en­demic fish species! This is an­other site not to be missed – an im­por­tant breed­ing site for Pygmy Cor­morants with more herons than most, with Pur­ple and Squacco seem­ing the most nu­mer­ous. The beau­ti­ful River Krupa was the back­drop for our sixth wood­pecker species. It was the com­mon­est species, but one that had eluded us so far – small and al­ways de­sir­able, this was my first Lesser Spot in a long time. One Marsh Har­rier proved par­tic­u­larly help­ful. Der­mot spot­ted it, in a bush. I could see some­thing perched in the right gen­eral di­rec­tion, which I duly scoped. But the bird I was on had a mas­sive yel­low bill, and was pale and scraggy, with long black claws on yel­low feet. It was a White-tailed Ea­gle, in no rush to go any­where, and dwarfed the closer har­rier. We saw that ea­gle later in the day, too, as we ex­plored the wet­lands in a boat, en­joy­ing close en­coun­ters with Red-footed Fal­cons, pok­ing our way through hordes of low-fly­ing Sand Martins, and adding breed­ing plumage Black-necked Grebes to an im­pres­sive list. At times, there was noth­ing to hear bar us and the birds.

With thanks to: De­nis Bohm at Wild Herzegovina and to my guide, Der­mot.

Li­van­jsko Polje karst field Krav­ice Water­falls BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

Rock Par­tridge, through a rainy wind­screen! Blid­inje Na­ture Park Hu­tovo Blato Marsh­lands

White-tailed Ea­gle

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