By David Lindo
Serbia is a relative newcomer on the birding tourism radar and is now slowly beginning to feature on the bucket lists of birders worldwide. Only as recently as five or six years ago, if you mentioned the words Serbia and birding in the same sentence, you would have been met with quizzical looks. The more geographically challenged among us would even confuse this Balkan country with Siberia. I guess that they sound similar despite being thousands of miles apart.
Now, thanks to the publicity surrounding the truly incredible gatherings of Long-eared Owls in the north of the country, Serbia is now firmly on the ornithological map. Well, at least the north is, but what about the rest of the country?
Officially known as the Republic of Serbia, it is a country situated at the crossroads of central and south-eastern Europe – so is not in Eastern Europe, as many people initially think. Serbia lies at the southern end of the expansive Pannonian Plain and the central Balkans.
It borders Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; Macedonia to the south; Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west and claims a border with Albania through the disputed territory of Kosovo.
The actual country is not very big, being smaller than England and about a third of the entire landmass of the UK.
Western Serbia is a very different proposition from the north. The latter region is largely within the Pannonian Plain, a large basin overlapping several of the central European countries. It is actually the remnants of the Pannonian Sea that dried out during the Pliocene era.
As a consequence, the terrain is flat and dominated by farmland and is very reminiscent of Holland or even East Anglia. In the more steppe-like areas of the plain Bee-eaters and Sand Martins abound while Hoopoe and Tawny Pipit are quite common.
On the other hand, the western region of Serbia has a very different character. As you head further west, the landscape changes from gently undulating ground to mountain slopes clad with dense forests. It eventually becomes very mountainous with peaks creeping up to 1,500m above sea level in the Tara National Park. Scattered among the lush valleys are a number of villages and hamlets populated with people that I found to be nothing but friendly and accommodating. My expectation levels weren’t particularly high, due to this region being poorly covered by ornithologists – even by Serbian nationals.
Furthermore, there wasn’t even much to glean on the internet regarding the birding opportunities. I was being a pioneer. So, I set out in search of birds in Divcˇibare, Mt. Tara National Park, Uvac Special Nature Reserve and other environs bordered by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Birding from the past
My visit took place during May and the breeding season was in full swing. The great thing about birding in Serbia at any time of the year is that practically everywhere you go you are almost guaranteed not to bump into another birding soul. Watching breeding Red-backed Shrikes going about their business, perched on practically every other bush, while the seemingly oblivious locals tended their land, was a divine scene to witness.
This is how birding in Britain should be. Indeed, this was probably what it would have been like a couple of hundred years ago. My journey began with an overnight stay in Divcˇibare, a tiny town and mountain resort, with a resident population of 141 people. It really was a two-horse town, that has obviously developed to receive tourists and, naturally, the population swells during winter ski season.
It is an interesting area of upland deciduous and mixed forest containing a vast mixed agricultural landscape of grazing land, and dry and semi-wet meadows. There are rocky terrains as well as some low intensive farmland with ploughed fields and orchards. A walk skirting the woodland surrounding the town resulted in multiple Fieldfares, a common breeder in the woods, while Black Redstarts were the default small passerine.
An extensive look around the hinterland the following day was more productive. Under the blazing sun, I searched the woodlands for songbirds and woodpeckers. Yellowhammers were a prominent feature of the woodland scene. This is somewhat incongruous with the usual farmland with which we associate this bunting. Hearing males singing from within a wood was a little disconcerting, at first!
More expected were the legions of warblers and tits. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were commonly to be heard, along with multiple Firecrests, whose song penetrated any quiet moments. The woods were also filled with the sound of a million buzzing wings of insects. Coming from England, where our woods are largely silent, I found it almost deafening at first. But it was a fantastic backdrop to the natural soundtrack that befell my ears.
In the meadows there were many butterflies and wild flowers. It was truly beautiful. Ortolan Buntings were surprisingly, and thankfully, common. Other birds of note included plentiful Hoopoes, and Cirl and Rock Buntings, while overhead were Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, a couple of Short-toed Eagles and I was even lucky enough to encounter a lone Golden Eagle.
The ensuing days were spent exploring the Tara National Park, a 19,000 hectare area that was declared as a national park in 1981. The forested slopes of this mountainous area were populated by some very interesting avian denizens including Crested Tit, Redstart and Black, Green, Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, alongside several secretively calling Wrynecks. Numerous Cuckoos proclaimed their collective presence, their calls echoing throughout the forests.
The females were uttering their less well know bubbling calls in response. Raptors were well represented here. Aside from Honey Buzzards, I noted a couple of Sparrowhawks and Goshawks, seen in quick succession so that the size and shape comparisons could be made. A tip-off resulted in me finding the nest site of a fearsome Ural Owl within the hollow of a dead, snapped-off birch.
The top of its head was just visible, but I dared not get any closer for fear of having my own head ripped off either by the sitting bird or worse still, by its partner invisibly perched nearby!
Perhaps the most interesting area I explored was the Pešter Plateau beside the River Vapa. The plateau is surrounded by mountains and is actually a massive meadow that was wet in places. The terrain is interspersed with karst – resulting in a topography created from the dissolution of soluble rocks like limestone that forms sinkholes and caves.
The bird life here is phenomenal. During the summer months expect to be watching quartering Montagu’s Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, groups of Whiskered Terns and have the chance of finding singing Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. The thing I loved was that while walking through the meadow I was serenaded by scores of unseen Corn Crakes and Quails. Everywhere I turned I encountered calling birds. In one tussock of vegetation I was surprised to discover a sole singing Savi’s Warbler. It was hardly the habitat that you would have expected to find this unobtrusive Locustella.
More in keeping were the smart looking Black-headed Wagtails. Currently included as a race of the Yellow Wagtail, feldegg, it is a very distinctive looking bird with a notably different sounding call. Surely, this form is a candidate for a new split?
The riverine bushes yielded singing Marsh and Sedge Warblers, while Golden Orioles sang from the stands of scattered trees. The most amazing birds that I discovered were the three male Common Rosefinch holding territory along the river.
I subsequently found out that they were one of only a handful of breeding season records of this northern species in Serbia. My wonderful time on Pešter Plateau was capped by the sudden late afternoon appearance of some Red-footed Falcons. They initially appeared as a group of 20-plus birds that slowly drifted around variously hovering and chasing after insects against the backdrop of gathering grey, rain-threatening clouds. Before long, I was marvelling at more than 120 falcons, many of which had now settled on wires to preen and loaf. It was the largest flock of this attractive falcon that I had ever seen.
One place that is a must to visit in Western Serbia is Uvac Gorge Special Nature Reserve. This beauty spot in the south-east of the region is the key site for the country’s recovering breeding population of Griffon Vulture. Historically, they were found throughout Serbia, but they were virtually wiped out due to poisoning during the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, their population is in excess of 300 birds and in rude health; helped by the provision of food at ‘vulture restaurants’.
Western Serbia is a wonderland for those birders willing to get off the beaten track to explore and find amazing birds for themselves. The landscape is breathtaking in places and easy to traverse whether by foot, cycle or by car.
Easily accessible from the capital, Belgrade, it certainly is an area waiting to disclose its secrets, so, take another look at Serbia.
References and thanks…
David: Many thanks to Milan Ruzic, President of BirdLife Serbia and my Serbian brother, for his brilliant and enthusiastic guiding. Additional guidance was supplied by Jessica Finnis.
Special thanks to Biljana Marceta at Magelan Travel Service for organising my itinerary
David flew with Whizz Air