One thing is for sure, Albanians are friendly people! When I arrived in the country and cycled into the first village, I was overwhelmed by the smiles and waves from the locals. Children in the streets wanted nothing more than to give me a ‘high-five’ as I passed by, so I quickly had to learn to keep my balance while holding out my hand. Kids with bikes were always keen to tag along for a while, asking loads of questions which I unfortunately could not understand due to the language barrier. In a nutshell, Albanians seem very happy to see foreigners visiting their country.
|Welcome to Albania, from the students of Vitrina University!|
There were not many birding sites I had planned to visit in Albania; I was more interested in taking in the atmosphere and so had not decided on any particular route. An unexpected Olivaceous Warbler in an orchard near Lezhë was a pleasant surprise though! On my second day I ended up in the capital Tirana. It was late in the afternoon and still had no place to stay. After passing the umpteenth hotel in the hope of reaching the end of the city to wild camp, I eventually opted to ask about the price of a room. A local gentleman visiting the hotel kindly offered to go halves on the price of the room, which I thought was very generous considering we were complete strangers. He then paid the full price of the room while four friends who were playing a card game in the hotel dining lounge organised me a pizza for dinner! I was sorted! This occasion certainly left a lasting impression on me.
|An old house overlooking agricultural fields in Albania.|
One site I was keen on visiting was Karavasta Lagoon. After having cycled the highway from Tirana to the coast, I took a secondary road to approach the lagoon from the north. Along the way I got my first Little Owl, perched on the gutter of a house beside the road. Being diurnal, they will happily perch in the open during the day making them quite easy to spot, unlike other owls. After taking a wrong turn, I ended up on a dead end road to the village of Spille. After getting some advice from the locals on the road to Karavasta, I drew the attention of some boys who were keen to chat. After rattling off in their mother tongue for quite some time, they used sign language to warn me about the dogs by the roadside. After trying to indicate to them that this would not be a problem, they insisted on following me out of the village and kept the dogs at bay while I cycle down the road – I thought to myself, where else would kids do something like that for a stranger?
|The lads from Spille who kept the dogs at bay!|
At Karavasta I headed for the beach first, and very soon saw my first Dalmatian Pelicans fishing in the shallows between the beach and a sand spit. These are impressive birds, being somewhat larger than White Pelicans and with characteristic white underwings seen in flight. The beach also produced another lifer, namely Greater Short-toed Lark, which appeared to be breeding in the area. A few Kentish Plovers were also present. Common Terns were flying back and forth just behind the surf while a family of Oystercatchers rested on the sand spit. After chatting to some friendly locals who were busy rigging their beach bar for the tourist season, I headed southwards along the shore of the lagoon. There was a large number of Dalmatian Pelicans resting on the lagoon, but were too far off to see well. Yellow Wagtails were common amongst the salt marsh vegetation and Little Terns were feeding over the waters. A single Grey Plover rested amongst some Black-winged Stilts that were foraging in the shallows. Towards the south end of the lagoon I was rewarded with four Stone Curlews, another species for the life list. With the sun setting quickly I hastily passed through some old fields and was pleased to find a second lark lifer for the day, namely Calandra Lark. These were clearly larger than the Greater Short-toed Larks and had characteristically dark underwings. A male Montagu’s Harrier made a spectacular appearance just before the sun set. With the sun down I made a desperate yet successful attempt to wild camp amongst some agricultural fields.
|A Yellow Wagtail about to take off.|
|Karavasta Lagoon in Albania.|
Although the next day’s birding was uneventful as I headed for the city of Vlorë, I still enjoyed the usual roadside birds. Great Reed Warblers were calling from every canal, Crested Larks often flew up from the road verge while Woodchat Shrikes and Black-headed Buntings were perched on wires. Corn Buntings were heard from the agricultural fields. As evening drew near, I decided to tackle a steep hill near Dukat. There were few hairpin bents with most of the road running perpendicular to the contours! Near the top I was called to a halt by a very enthusiastic boy, who had clearly seen me approaching from a distance. His name was Ronaldo and he ardently insisted that I spend the night at his place. Not sure that I was going to find a spot to camp higher up, I accepted his offer. Ronaldo’s English was good for an Albanian kid, so we were able to chat without any major hitches. He served me numerous glasses of warmed milk and sugar, one after the other, and then it was dinner with his family; a huge bowl of soured milk served with cheese, fried salami and olives on the side. This went down well!
|Camping at Ronaldo's.|
I pitched my tent close to the family’s cow and had a good night’s rest. The next morning I was hoping to get a photo with my new Albanian friend, but Ronaldo suddenly had to dash to catch the school bus. I took to the road again; it was still a climb to the top above Dukat village, but followed by an incredible downhill. After the downhill I realised that Albania had saved its toughest for last. It was nearly a 100 km ride to Sarandë where I planned to catch a ferry to a Greek island, and I had not counted on the hills. But I was not the only one who had to push hard on the pedals that day; Anton from Belgium was not far behind me so we took to the hills together. This helped us get over some more steep climbs until I decided to let Anton go ahead, as he was rushing to catch a boat back to Italy the next day.
|Forest above Dukat village.|
|What a great downhill, after reaching the top above Dukat village.|
|Anton taking the lead on the downhill.|
With the gradients becoming easier towards Sarandë, I started to look at birds once again. Blue Rock Thrush, Cirl and Black-headed Bunting, Sardinian Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear, Crag Martin, Tawny Pipit, Alpine Swift and Raven all made appearances along the scenic route. I also heard a covey of Rock Partridges, which I had also heard before in Croatia, but again did not see them. Little did I know that this would be the last time that I would encounter this species, so despite having heard it several times I have still not seen it!
|An Albanian bee-keeper tending to his hives.|
|A male Black-eared Wheatear.|
At Sarandë I enjoyed a superb Albanian pastry for the last time before boarding the ferry to Corfu Island in Greece. Albania was certainly a great ride and I would not hesitate to return. The friendliness of the people and scenic wilderness are reasons enough to go and explore this untamed country.
|Scenic hillscape along the coast of southern Albania.|