By David Lindo
When I received a message out of the blue from Serbian Dragan Simic inviting me to Belgrade for some urban birding, I paused for thought as the city was certainly on my radar. I had heard a fable about an amazing winter Long-eared Owl city roost that was numbered in hundreds.
The city seemed to have the hallmarks of a great urban birding venue. I had to investigate. Within two months I was on a plane heading for the ‘White City’ if you’re Serbian or Belgrade to the rest of us.
My short visit to the city started as soon as we started the drive through the busy charismatic streets of Old Belgrade to Kalemegdan, a fairly wooded park that contained a Turkish fortress that directly overlooked the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Despite being late in the afternoon and sharing the park with everyone, his wife and dog we did manage to see several migrant Spotted Flycatchers hawking insects and glimpsed a few Blackcaps too. At ground level were a variety of interesting animals including some nice looking lizards and plentiful Swallowtails, a butterfly I only rarely see in Norfolk.
To the east there is the heavily wooded Great War Island that was once the home of a fairly large egret colony. Thankfully, these birds had relocated themselves at a nearby riparian wood and the island now boasts a winter roost of over 2,500 Pygmy Cormorant. Plus there are regular sightings of urban White-tailed Eagles there. An incongruous thought, surely?
Dragan had thoughtfully booked a short boat trip around the island. Black-headed Gulls abounded with the larger gulls being equally assigned to being either Yellow-legged, Caspian or ‘another big gull’.
A solitary Common Buzzard drifted through the treetops to roost in the interior of the island just after we had discovered a couple of locally scarce Little Gulls that had secreted themselves amongst the throngs of their Black-headed cousins feeding over the river. Several bats, probably Noctules, hunted high over the trees like large hirundines.
The next morning saw me 400 feet above the city on top of USCE Tower watching for visible migration on a beautiful clear morning with 30 birders. This is a newly opened observation point that promises some great birds in future watches if the previous sightings of some good raptors is anything to go by. We were unlucky and didn’t see much aside from the obligatory Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls but it was great being up there.
I really enjoyed my impromptu Belgrade visit watching the default urban birds like Rooks, that seemed to be everywhere, a few Hooded Crows, eastern race Jackdaws and plenty of chirpy House Sparrows. Had I visited during summer I could have enjoyed delights like Golden Orioles and even Bee-eaters that breed within the city.
Dragan told me a fantastic recent story concerning a flock of over 500 migrating Common Cranes that settled between some inner city tower blocks. Wow! And as for the roosting multitudes of owls, that was true too. Belgrade clearly has a lot to offer.