Saturday, August 17, 2013

The heights of Montenegro

I had been looking forward to cycling through Montenegro for some time, so was pleased when I finally arrived in Herceg-Novi. Having cycled the entire coastline of Croatia, I was keen to explore the areas a little further inland. I followed the edge of the winding Bay of Kotor; an impressive bay which was very reminiscent of a fjord. The cycling was easy as I made my way to the town of Kotor, not fully aware of what lay ahead for me. The birds were good, and I got my first views of a pair of breeding Eurasian Crag Martins, which had a nest in a small cave beside the road. Blue Rock Thrushs were common and from the behaviour of the males I knew they were also attending to hungry offspring in the nest. A male Teal in breeding plumage near the edge of the shore was a nice surprise, as waterfowl had become rare during the preceding weeks. 

A Crag Martin showing the characteristic dark underwing coverts and white tail spots.

Further on I was delighted to see a large flock of Alpine Choughs circling high above. They soon began dropping out of the sky, diving down at a fairly good speed in my direction. The flock landed in a mulberry tree not far from me and started feasting on the ripe fruits. After a while the birds took off again, reached a decent height and mingled with other choughs that were still flying, before returning to the tree again. This process repeated itself a few times until I lost sight of the birds on the high slopes of the mountain.

An Alpine Chough about to land for a mulberry feast.

After taking a lunch break in Kotor I took the shortest road to Cetinje, over the mountain. After 25 hair-pins bends and a Black Woodpecker (which was a sight for sore eyes!). I arrived at the top exhausted and well after sunset, and was put to sleep by the calls of Tawny and Eurasian Scops Owl.

View over Kotor from the mountain pass.

Morning view from the top of the pass above Kotor, Montenegro.

After breaking camp the next morning and taking to the road across the visually stunning plateau, I knew the climb was worth it. And there were more firsts waiting for me, including Sombre Tit, Wood Lark, and a pair of Short-toed Eagles. European Honey Buzzard, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Pallid Swift, Mistle Thrush, Red-backed Shrike, Black Redstart and Grey Wagtail were also good birds to see. Alpine Choughs also flew overhead. After another climb, which took considerably less time to accomplish than the previous, it was all downhill to Cetinje and beyond.

A Short-toed Eagle soaring effortlessly.

The view on the way down to Cetinje, Montenegro.

Just before reaching my next birding location, Skadar Lake, I stopped at a small roadside stall for a break from the winding descent. The friendly gentleman running the stall began offering me all sorts of self-made homebrews ranging from the unfermented to the well-fermented. So I was relieved when two Dutch tourists stopped at the stall and volunteered to do some tasting, which took a lot of pressure off me. 

The Dutch tourists with the friendly homebrewer.

Reaching Skadar Lake, I realised that the birding would not be easy due to the sheer size of the lake and restricted access to the more diverse bird habitats. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the cycle along the road that passed the northern area of the lake, and was still able to get views of Pygmy Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe, Whiskered Tern, Great Cormorant, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Little Egret, Common Tern and Common Pochard amongst others. I had very distant views of my target species, Dalmatian Pelican, and would have to wait for another opportunity to tick the species. Moving on, I took the road that skirted the western edge of the lake, which presented great views of the lake and Albania on the eastern shore. At nightfall I pitched my tent on an old disused road, and for the first time used rocks instead of tent pegs to keep my tent upright, and it worked like a charm.

Rocks work well to keep a tent upright.

The next morning I was in for some more climbing, but by mid-morning was rewarded with more firsts for my bird list. The densely vegetated slopes were gradually replaced by grassy slopes with a good sprinkling of rocks and boulders. Western Rock Nuthatch and Ortolan Buntings quickly made appearances, besides a host of other species that also enjoyed the open slopes, such as Black-headed Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, Cirl Bunting, and Black-eared Wheatear. Moving further from the lake, the grass was in turn replaced by forest. By now the intermittent rain had settled in for good and all I could make out were the calls of Black and Middle-spotted Woodpeckers.  

A view over Skadar Lake, Montenegro.

My last stop in Montenegro was at Ulcinj, were I spent the night at a beach campsite weighing down my tent in the hope that it would not blow away. By morning the wind was still howling so I called it a day and headed for Albania, another country I had been looking forward to. Though my stay in Montenegro had been short, I thoroughly enjoyed cycling such a scenically diverse country, from its coasts to its mountains.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The coast of Croatia

After spending most of the day birding at the Sečovlje salt works in Slovenia, I arrived in Croatia in the late afternoon. As I headed towards the town of Umag, I encountered my first European Honey Buzzard for the trip; my last sighting of this species was a few years back in Kimberley in central South Africa, of all places! 

The splendid Subalpine Warbler.

My first lifer in Croatia come in the form of a Subalpine Warbler, a stunning bird with a rufous throat and white moustachial stripes. The bird showed well despite its skulking habits in the dense shrub. Back on the road, I continued to Pula where I took some time off to see the city, as suggested by a local I met in Trieste. From Pula I cycled east along the back roads to reach my next milestone, Cres Island. By now olive groves were a common feature of the landscape, and with that the prospect of seeing more exotic Mediterranean birds seemed to improve. Along the way I spotted my first Spanish Sparrow while passing a small village, where I also got my first good views of Eurasian Golden Oriole. Cirl Bunting was also a first while Red-backed Shrikes and Eurasian Hoopoes started making regular appearances. Subalpine Warblers were now common and were heard and seen daily.

A Yellow-legged Gull in Pula parading in front of benches in return for lunch.

I took the ferry from Brestova to Cres Island on a windy day. Despite the good wind and choppy waters, I did not see any European Storm Petrels or Yelkouan Shearwaters which are reputed to frequent the island waters. There was no need to worry as once I was on Cres, more lifers awaited, including a male Black-eared Wheatear and three Eurasian Griffon Vultures. The latter looked particularly impressive as they perched on the tops of pine trees on the mountain slope. I also picked up Long-tailed Tits which were a nice addition to my growing island list. In the campsite in the town of Cres there were numerous European Serins calling and displaying, interspersed with the calls of Eurasian Wrynecks and ever-present Blackbirds. I spent a few days at Cres campsite, shopping for food at the local markets, getting a taste of Croatian honey and getting a feel for life in the Mediterranean. My first Turtle dove showed itself on Cres; finally they had arrived after their winter break in Africa.

A male European Serin in the campsite at Cres.

Storm brewing ahead. It rained fairly regularly!

When I learnt that I could not island hop from Cres to the islands to the south, I decided to take the route back to the mainland via Krk Island. And I was pleased that I did. The scenery was simply breath-taking with green hills on one side and bare rocky islands just offshore. The ride was also easy, with only one real climb presenting another sort of breath-taker. The birds were good too with lifers rolling in such as Eastern Orphean Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-headed Bunting and Woodchat Shrike. My first European Bee-eaters for Europe were along this stretch.

A great road to cycle!

I caught a short ferry ride from the mainland to Pag Island, which from a distance looked like a desert-island covered in nothing more than white rocks – absolutely stunning and alluring. It was midday and the heat was intense, so I bought a couple of bottles of water at a lonely kiosk at the ferry port. Black-eared Wheatears were common amongst the stones and a singing Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush atop a white rocky ridge was a sight to behold. Though the island looked desolate from a distance, closer inspection revealed a fine carpet of green grass finding its way between the rocks – life was indeed plentiful. Over the first major ridge the habitat took a startling turn – beyond lay a green valley at the doorstep of the coastal town of Novalja. Crested Larks, Tawny Pipits, Linnets, Whinchats, and Woodchat Shrike were common along the roadside and at water troughs. Even a Eurasian Griffon Vulture passed overhead. That night I had my first good views of Eurasian Scops Owl, as a number of birds were calling throughout the campsite. 

Welcome to Pag Island! The white beach awaits you on the other side.
A male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush in full song.
Sunset over Pag Island (foreground) and Croatian mainland.

My next milestone to the south was Biograd, and a boat trip to the Kornati Islands. Though the islands are said to be beautiful, they also hold two species I was interested in, Eleonora’s Falcon and Pallid Swift. The boat I managed to get a ticket for was also taking a group of German tourists, and so it was not long before I got into long discussions with some members of the group. There were not many birds to see as we headed out to the islands, besides Yellow-legged Gulls, Shags, and the occasional Common Tern. Near the island cliffs I spotted a group of interesting looking swifts with paler bellies and rumps than Common Swift – they were Pallid Swifts indeed! Only the falcon was missed.

Perhaps the best way to experience the Kornati Islands!

From Biograd it was not far to the next birding spot, namely Vrana Lake. I spend a day and a morning here, hoping for some crakes and warblers. Pygmy cormorants, Little Egrets, Purple Herons, Squacco Herons, and Northern Lapwings were common in the shallows. Great Crested Grebes preferred the deeper waters and Marsh Harriers were regularly seen hunting over the reed beds. Little Bittern and Black-crowed Night Heron also showed themselves occasionally. For the first time in spring, I heard warblers calling like never before. Great Reed Warblers and European Reed Warblers were everywhere and in full song. But again I missed out on a target bird, Moustached Warbler. Some surprises included a Red-crested Pochard, Eurasian Hobby and a Black-throated Diver in the southern parts of the lake.

Vrana Lake has a lengthy board walk through the reed beds.

In order to make up time, I quickened the cycling pace between Sibenik and Dubrovnik. The road hugged the coastline, but at times rose well above the sea, making for frequent climbing and coasting from one rise to the next. Red-rumped Swallow, Common House Martin, Pallid Swift, Blue Rock Thrush, Cirl Bunting, Black-headed Bunting and Black-eared Wheatear were some of the more appealing species that were regularly seen. I got my first views of Sardinian Warbler along this stretch, another attractive warbler sporting a black cap and red eye-ring. Though never seen, I heard Rock Partridges on a number of occasions but was just not able to get even a glimpse. Hopefully later, I always thought to myself! 

A male Black-headed Bunting, a common species along the Croatian coast.
The coastal road takes the cyclist through a roller coaster of ups and downs.

Before reaching Dubrovnik, I squeezed in the time to visit the Wall of Ston, a defensive stone wall built some 600 years ago around the city of Ston; and once aptly known as the European wall of China! After spending a morning in Dubrovnik, which was far too little time to explore this unique city, I headed with much anticipation towards Montenegro.

The Wall of Ston in Croatia.