SER­BIA

This woe­fully un­der-watched coun­try is brim­ming with great birds and should fea­ture high on your bird­ing bucket list

Bird Watching (UK) - - Bird The World - WORDS: DAVID LINDO

Un­spoiled habi­tat and the chance to find your own birds – put this cen­tral Euro­pean coun­try on your bird­ing map

Ser­bia is a rel­a­tive new­comer on the bird­ing tourism radar and is now slowly be­gin­ning to fea­ture on the bucket lists of bird­ers world­wide. Only as re­cently as five or six years ago, if you men­tioned the words Ser­bia and bird­ing in the same sen­tence, you would have been met with quizzi­cal looks. The more ge­o­graph­i­cally chal­lenged among us would even con­fuse this Balkan coun­try with Siberia. I guess that they sound sim­i­lar de­spite be­ing thou­sands of miles apart. Now, thanks to the pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing the truly in­cred­i­ble gath­er­ings of Longeared Owls in the north of the coun­try, Ser­bia is now firmly on the or­nitho­log­i­cal map. Well, at least the north is, but what about the rest of the coun­try? Of­fi­cially known as the Repub­lic of Ser­bia, it is a coun­try sit­u­ated at the cross­roads of cen­tral and south-eastern Eu­rope – so is not in Eastern Eu­rope, as many peo­ple ini­tially think. Ser­bia lies at the south­ern end of the ex­pan­sive Pan­non­ian Plain and the cen­tral Balkans. It borders Hun­gary to the north; Ro­ma­nia and Bul­garia to the east; Mace­do­nia to the south; Croa­tia, Mon­tene­gro, Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina to the west and claims a bor­der with Al­ba­nia through the dis­puted ter­ri­tory of Kosovo. The ac­tual coun­try is not very big, be­ing smaller than Eng­land and about a third of the en­tire land­mass of the UK.

Farm­land dom­i­nates

Western Ser­bia is a very dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion from the north. The lat­ter re­gion is largely within the Pan­non­ian Plain, a large basin over­lap­ping sev­eral of the cen­tral Euro­pean coun­tries. It is ac­tu­ally the rem­nants of the Pan­non­ian Sea that dried out dur­ing the Pliocene era. As a con­se­quence, the ter­rain is flat and dom­i­nated by farm­land and is very rem­i­nis­cent of Hol­land or even East An­glia. In the more steppe-like ar­eas of the plain Bee-eaters and Sand Martins abound while Hoopoe and Tawny Pipit are quite com­mon. On the other hand, the western re­gion of Ser­bia has a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. As you head fur­ther west, the land­scape changes from gen­tly un­du­lat­ing ground to moun­tain slopes clad with dense forests. It even­tu­ally be­comes very moun­tain­ous with peaks creep­ing up to 1,500m above sea level in the Tara Na­tional Park. Scat­tered among the lush val­leys are a num­ber of vil­lages and ham­lets pop­u­lated with peo­ple that I found to be noth­ing but friendly and ac­com­mo­dat­ing. My ex­pec­ta­tion lev­els weren’t par­tic­u­larly high, due to this re­gion be­ing poorly cov­ered by or­nithol­o­gists – even by Ser­bian na­tion­als.

EV­ERY­WHERE YOU GO YOU ARE AL­MOST GUAR­AN­TEED NOT TO BUMP INTO AN­OTHER BIRD­ING SOUL

Fur­ther­more, there wasn’t even much to glean on the in­ter­net re­gard­ing the bird­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. I was be­ing a pi­o­neer. So, I set out in search of birds in Divcˇibare, Mt. Tara Na­tional Park, Uvac Spe­cial Na­ture Re­serve and other en­vi­rons bor­dered by Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina.

Bird­ing from the past

My visit took place dur­ing May and the breed­ing sea­son was in full swing. The great thing about bird­ing in Ser­bia at any time of the year is that prac­ti­cally ev­ery­where you go you are al­most guar­an­teed not to bump into an­other bird­ing soul. Watch­ing breed­ing Red­backed Shrikes go­ing about their busi­ness, perched on prac­ti­cally every other bush, while the seem­ingly obliv­i­ous lo­cals tended their land, was a di­vine scene to wit­ness. This is how bird­ing in Bri­tain should be. In­deed, this was prob­a­bly what it would have been like a cou­ple of hun­dred years ago. My jour­ney be­gan with an overnight stay in Divcˇibare, a tiny town and moun­tain re­sort, with a res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of 141 peo­ple. It re­ally was a two-horse town, that has ob­vi­ously de­vel­oped to re­ceive tourists and, nat­u­rally, the pop­u­la­tion swells dur­ing win­ter ski sea­son. It is an in­ter­est­ing area of up­land de­cid­u­ous and mixed for­est con­tain­ing a vast mixed agri­cul­tural land­scape of graz­ing land, and dry and semi-wet mead­ows. There are rocky ter­rains as well as some low in­ten­sive farm­land with ploughed fields and or­chards. A walk skirt­ing the wood­land sur­round­ing the town re­sulted in mul­ti­ple Field­fares, a com­mon breeder in the woods, while Black Red­starts were the de­fault small passer­ine. An ex­ten­sive look around the hin­ter­land the fol­low­ing day was more pro­duc­tive. Un­der the blaz­ing sun, I searched the wood­lands for song­birds and wood­peck­ers. Yel­lowham­mers were a prom­i­nent fea­ture of the wood­land scene. This is some­what in­con­gru­ous with the usual farm­land with which we as­so­ciate this bunt­ing. Hear­ing males singing from within a wood was a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing, at first! More ex­pected were the le­gions of war­blers and tits. Black­caps and Chif­fchaffs were com­monly to be heard, along with mul­ti­ple Firecrests, whose song pen­e­trated any quiet mo­ments. The woods were also filled with the sound of a mil­lion buzzing wings of in­sects. Com­ing from Eng­land, where our woods are largely silent, I found it al­most deaf­en­ing at first. But it was a fan­tas­tic back­drop to the nat­u­ral sound­track that be­fell my ears. In the mead­ows there were many but­ter­flies and wild flow­ers. It was truly beau­ti­ful. Or­tolan Bunt­ings were sur­pris­ingly, and thank­fully, com­mon. Other birds of note in­cluded plen­ti­ful Hoopoes, and Cirl and Rock Bunt­ings, while over­head were Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, a cou­ple of Short-toed Ea­gles and I was even lucky enough to en­counter a lone Golden Eagle. The en­su­ing days were spent ex­plor­ing the Tara Na­tional Park, a 19,000 hectare area that was de­clared as a na­tional park in 1981. The forested slopes of this moun­tain­ous area were pop­u­lated by some very in­ter­est­ing avian denizens in­clud­ing

Crested Tit, Red­start and Black, Green, Grey-headed and Great Spot­ted Wood­peck­ers, along­side sev­eral se­cre­tively call­ing Wry­necks. Nu­mer­ous Cuck­oos pro­claimed their col­lec­tive pres­ence, their calls echo­ing through­out the forests. The fe­males were ut­ter­ing their less well know bub­bling calls in re­sponse. Rap­tors were well rep­re­sented here. Aside from Honey Buz­zards, I noted a cou­ple of Spar­rowhawks and Goshawks, seen in quick suc­ces­sion so that the size and shape com­par­isons could be made. A tip-off re­sulted in me find­ing the nest site of a fearsome Ural Owl within the hol­low of a dead, snapped-off birch. The top of its head was just vis­i­ble, but I dared not get any closer for fear of hav­ing my own head ripped off ei­ther by the sit­ting bird or worse still, by its part­ner in­vis­i­bly perched nearby!

Phe­nom­e­nal birdlife

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing area I ex­plored was the Pešter Plateau be­side the River Vapa. The plateau is sur­rounded by moun­tains and is ac­tu­ally a mas­sive meadow that was wet in places. The ter­rain is in­ter­spersed with karst – re­sult­ing in a to­pog­ra­phy cre­ated from the dis­so­lu­tion of sol­u­ble rocks like lime­stone that forms sink­holes and caves. The bird life here is phe­nom­e­nal. Dur­ing the sum­mer months ex­pect to be watch­ing quar­ter­ing Mon­tagu’s Har­rier, Long-legged Buzzard, groups of Whiskered Terns and have the chance of find­ing singing Eastern Oli­va­ceous War­bler. The thing I loved was that while walk­ing through the meadow I was ser­e­naded by scores of un­seen Corn Crakes and Quails. Ev­ery­where I turned I en­coun­tered call­ing birds. In one tus­sock of veg­e­ta­tion I was sur­prised to dis­cover a sole singing Savi’s War­bler. It was hardly the habi­tat that you would have ex­pected to find this un­ob­tru­sive Lo­custella. More in keep­ing were the smart look­ing Black-headed Wag­tails. Cur­rently in­cluded as a race of the Yel­low Wag­tail, feldegg, it is a very dis­tinc­tive look­ing bird with a no­tably dif­fer­ent sound­ing call. Surely, this form is a can­di­date for a new split? The river­ine bushes yielded singing Marsh and Sedge War­blers, while Golden Ori­oles sang from the stands of scat­tered trees. The most amaz­ing birds that I dis­cov­ered were the three male Com­mon Rosefinch hold­ing ter­ri­tory along the river. I sub­se­quently found out that they were one of only a hand­ful of breed­ing sea­son records of this north­ern species in Ser­bia. My won­der­ful time on Pešter Plateau was capped by the sud­den late af­ter­noon ap­pear­ance of some Red-footed Fal­cons. They ini­tially ap­peared as a group of

20-plus birds that slowly drifted around var­i­ously hov­er­ing and chas­ing af­ter in­sects against the back­drop of gath­er­ing grey, rain-threat­en­ing clouds. Be­fore long, I was mar­vel­ling at more than 120 fal­cons, many of which had now set­tled on wires to preen and loaf. It was the largest flock of this at­trac­tive fal­con that I had ever seen. One place that is a must to visit in Western Ser­bia is Uvac Gorge Spe­cial Na­ture Re­serve. This beauty spot in the south-east of the re­gion is the key site for the coun­try’s re­cov­er­ing breed­ing pop­u­la­tion of Grif­fon Vul­ture. His­tor­i­cally, they were found through­out Ser­bia, but they were vir­tu­ally wiped out due to poi­son­ing dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. Nowa­days, their pop­u­la­tion is in ex­cess of 300 birds and in rude health; helped by the pro­vi­sion of food at ‘vul­ture restau­rants’. Western Ser­bia is a won­der­land for those bird­ers will­ing to get off the beaten track to ex­plore and find amaz­ing birds for them­selves. The land­scape is breath­tak­ing in places and easy to tra­verse whether by foot, cy­cle or car. Bel­grade is an area also wait­ing to dis­close its se­crets, so, take an­other look at Ser­bia.

Land­scape view from Black Peak on Div­cibare Moun­tain

Tara Na­tional Park Pester Plateau DivčibareUvac Gorge

Firecrest

Lake Zaovine, Tara Na­tional Park

Grif­fon Vul­ture

Honey Buzzard (and Bee-eater)

Wry­neck

Vil­lages on Pester plateau near Sjenica, Ser­bia

The Uvac Gorge in south­ern Ser­bia is es­pe­cially known for en­trenched me­an­ders in a 100 m (330 ft) deep canyon

Red-footed Fal­con

Marsh War­bler

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