Part holiday resort, part untouched wilderness, could Croatia be the ultimate birding destination?
Ever-shrinking air fares and the disappearance of what, just over 20 years ago, looked like insuperable political barriers, has made the birding world a much bigger place.
Trips to far-flung locations such as Kazakhstan, Peru and Thailand have become commonplace, bringing all manner of exotic birds within reach of many birders. Even within Europe, it’s no longer a case of a quick dash across the Channel to France or the Low Countries. Finland, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary are just some of the locations now attracting large numbers of UK birdwatchers.
For those of you who like finding your own birds, though, there might be a twinge of regret at those developments. Surely there are a few corners of the world left where you can blaze your own trails?
Well, Croatia might be the place for you. It has the huge advantage of already being well geared to tourism, with its Adriatic coast having been a popular holiday destination in the years before the break-up of the former Yugosalvia.
Now it’s once more gaining a reputation as a beach holiday destination, with a Mediterranean climate and a wealth of history. Traces of the Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires are noticeable in everything from the architecture to the food, while the vibrant Croatian culture shows the effects of living at one of the crossroads of Europe.
It also has plenty to offer the birdwatcher. For starters, driving from Zagreb towards the coast, it immediately becomes obvious that it’s largely unspoilt, with huge areas of unbroken forests stretching away on each side of the main road. There seemed to be a Buzzard on every other fencepost, but we had no time to hang around and watch them.
We were heading for Krk, one of the closest islands to the mainland, where after a short stop to taste the local wines, brandies and cuisine, we caught the ferry to Cres, the largest of the islands in the Adriatic.
In daylight, it revealed itself as an island of ancient hilltop towns and churches, olive groves, dry stone walls and fishing. Most of the population are involved in sheep farming, but there are huge areas of untouched scrub on the hillsides, the sort of warbler habitat to die for. It wasn’t any great shock that 215 bird species had been recorded there (around 100 breed), although it was a surprise that when we arrived in late September, most of the migrants seem to have left already, save for the odd family group of Spotted Flycatchers.
But we were on the trail of something larger. At the hilltop village of Beli, overlooking the sea on the north-eastern coast, the Eko-centar ‘Caput Insulae’ has been working to save the region’s unique population of Griffon Vultures since 1993.
The huge raptors (there are around 70 pairs on Cres, and 100 along the whole coast) face a number of threats. A decline in the number of sheep means the food supply is dwindling, while the illegal poisoning of introduced Wild Boar also hits them hard. Added to that there are the usual problems of electricity lines, wind turbines, poaching and increasing urbanisation, and finally the fact that the young Griffons have to make their first flights from sea cliffs, sometimes launching from just 10m above the water.
When tourist boats approach nests too closely, the young birds try to fly prematurely, ditch in the sea, and face death by drowning. The workers at the centre, though, rescue them and nurse them back to health until they can be released.
After seeing the work at the centre for ourselves, we headed back to the mainland, to the mountainous Gorski Kotar region and National Park Risnjak. Situated up against the Slovenian border, it’s heavily wooded, with limestone peaks emerging dramatically from the trees and mists, and alpine meadows studded with Autumn Crocuses. White and Grey Wagtails seemed to be all over every rooftop, all of a sudden, and Spotted Flycatchers hawked for insects non-stop, looking for that last energy-boost before the long flight south.
The next morning, though, we followed the valley of the River Kupa towards its source, watching Dippers (with the lighter underside typical of birds of the Central European race) flash past, and a Chamois scurrying away through the trees.
Small flocks of finches and tits were gathering, too, and there among one such group was my first new bird of the trip – a Sombre Tit. The name says it all in terms of colouring, making them look like a slightly washed-out (but Great Tit-sized) Willow Tit, but they’re still impressive. Once we’d found one, a second appeared, and further on more pairs were tucked away among their more common relatives.
Talking of impressive, the source of the river really needs to be seen to be believed. No limp trickle emerging from between rocks, but a deep (at least 80m), blue-green pool set in an amphitheatre of sheer rock walls.
As we watched, a high-pitched screaming call started to echo around, and we looked up to watch a Peregrine proclaiming its presence from the tallest pinnacle. It’s one of those birds that, wherever you go in the world, both reminds you of home and makes you feel that you’re in the wildest place imaginable.
But we were out of time. You got the distinct impression that, given a few days wandering among the valleys and peaks, the national park would give up all sorts of birding riches. Croatia has an impressively enlightened approach to conservation, but as yet it doesn’t have the coverage from birdwatchers (except in the eastern wetlands) that it really needs and deserves, so there’s plenty there to find.
If you fancy doing your own, modest bit of pioneering, why not start here? It’s beautiful, unspoiled and wild, but if the need for a bit of TLC strikes, you’re never far away from a bit of good old-fashioned R&R.
At the southern tip of Cres, the island of Losinj includes the charming town of Mali Losinj. The surrounding seas can be good for sightings of Bottlenose, Common and Striped Dolphins, Fin Whale, Reef Shark, and Loggerhead Turtle.Getting there: Croatia Airlines has flights from London to Zagreb and Rijeka from £150 per person return, including all taxes. Visit to www.croatiaairlines.com Useful Websites:www.croatia.hr