By Urban Birder David Lindo
Out of all the countries in Europe, Lithuania is perhaps the least well known to British birders. Indeed, it is very poorly visited by any outside birders, despite playing host to an amazing range of species throughout the year. The most southerly of the Baltic states, Lithuania has a culture very distinct from its more northerly neighbours.
Its capital, Vilnius, with a population of just fewer than 500,000 people, is practically unheard of as an urban birding venue – but there are plenty of birds to be found. There can be few cities in which you can expect to find nearly all of Europe’s woodpeckers or to commonly come across breeding Greenish Warblers.
Your urban birding can start right in the centre of the old town, that is designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. While admiring the medieval architecture, also dish out equal admiration for the Black Redstarts that adorn many of the city’s pinnacles. The diminutive Serin is another species that can be readily seen flying around, along with the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Before you visit Bernardine Park in the centre of town be sure to walk along the River Vilnelé during the summer months where you can listen for some of the city’s many Greenish Warblers singing.
Back in Bernardine Park, expect to see breeding Redstart and the gorgeous northern subspecies of our familiar Nuthatch, replete with its very white underparts. There are also numerous Tree Sparrows to be seen cavorting among Hooded Crows that, along with the Jackdaws and Magpies, are the default urban corvids. The Redstarts in particular are a pleasure to watch – they are often out in the open and readily seen, quite unlike what we are used to in the UK.
The mighty Goshawk also has a presence in Vilnius. At least one pair breed in Vingis Park, the largest open space within the city centre, to the west of Bernardine Park. Situated on the bend of the River Neris, it is well used by the local populace.
Despite all the people, it is still a good place for indulging in birding. It covers 160 hectares (395 acres) with some fine old stands of pine woodland. One surprising species to be found in the park, breeding in nestboxes in the riverside trees, is the Goosander. A celebrated bird in Lithuanian folklore, it is now Red Listed in the country.
They are principally a winter visitor to Vilnius, but the provision of the boxes has tempted some to stay and breed. If these nestboxes are unused by the Goosanders and Goldeneyes, then Tawny Owls will eagerly adopt them. Kingfishers can be found along the river, while notable larids to look for include Caspian Gull. Take a walk through the park in the breeding season and you should tick woodland specialists, like Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Icterine Warbler and Willow Tit.
You must take a look at the old Botanical Garden, too, as it’s a great place to search for Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers. If you are very fortunate, you may even happen across a Long-eared Owl, as they also breed there.
Plants and birds
Further to the north of the city lies the conjoined Pavilniai and Verkiai regional parks. Verkiai is huge and also popular with the general public. It has several lakes and the River Neris flows through it. The site is home to 870 plant species, some of which are threatened, and covers some 2,673 hectares (6,605 acres) of which 77% is forested. Naturally, several species of woodpecker breed, including Black, Grey-headed, Green, Great Spotted, Middle Spotted and Lesser Spotted, plus Wryneck can be looked for.
Crossbills are commonplace and Nutcrackers are not out of the question. During the winter, the river also plays host to Dippers. Understandably, it is one of the best places to find yourself in Vilnius with a pair of binoculars. The adjoining Pavilniai Regional Park is also a great place for Dipper and woodpecker species.
Back in Vilnius itself, the White-tailed Eagle is a wintering species, so, if you are close to the River Neris, raise your eyes (and your binoculars) to the sky! The easiest way to find those fascinating birds is to go to Grigiškes in the western part of the city and check the area around the water treatment plants on the shore of the river.
One of the most fascinating birds to be found breeding, even close to the city centre, is the Greenish Warbler. A much lusted-after rarity back home in Britain, this dainty warbler, although sometimes difficult to see, is often heard.
Vilnius is clearly an urban birder’s treasure trove. Indeed, the city’s somewhat controversial advertising campaign also has the essence of the urban birding possibilities nailed: “Vilnius is Europe’s G-spot. Nobody knows where it is but when you find it – it’s amazing.”
Key species: Greenish Warbler
Find a slope in Vilnius and you may find breeding Greenish Warbler. They tend to avoid flat areas. Despite its rarity in the UK, as a species it is fairly widespread, being found in north-eastern Europe and temperate to subtropical Asia. They are strongly migratory, wintering in India.
Greenish Warblers provide plenty of head scratching moments for ornithologists as they are part of a highly confusing ring species triangle involving two other similar looking warblers, namely; Green and Two-barred (Green). To confound the issue even further, there’s an array of different subspecies. So, good luck when confronted with one of these birds in an unexpected place!
Contact Marius Karlonas at Birding Lithuania Tours: birdinglithuania.com
Collins Bird Guide – Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström