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.

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