Herzegovina: birding the Balkan backwaters


Situated in the Balkan Peninsula, between Serbia in the east and Croatia in the west, Bosnia and Herzegovina is somewhat off the beaten track from a tourism perspective. A hidden gem of lush rolling hills, towering waterfalls and ancient ruins, the country is also home to some excellent wildlife.

In late April I was fortunate enough to visit the region of Herzegovina with Denis Bohm of Wild Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina are two regions divided geographically by the towering Dinaric Alps, with Herzegovina predominantly made up of arid limestone pavement, known as karst. With no direct flights from the UK, Herzegovina is most easily accessed via the international airport at Dubrovnik, Croatia. 

Mostar, Herzegovina's historic capital, was our base for the week. The city is renowned for its ethnic and religious diversity, with a noticeable eclectic mix of historic Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and mosques distributed among the city's delightful hotchpotch of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture.

A reminder of the more recent past is never too far away either – many of the city's buildings are still pockmarked with the signs of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Destroyed during the conflict, the now-rebuilt Stari Most bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the widest arch bridge in the world when completed in the 16th century.

Meadows in the Dinaric Alps provided incredible vistas and an attractive pair of Rock Buntings (Sam Viles).


Bosnia's birds

Birdlife is readily apparent while exploring the sights of the city. Both Common and Pallid Swifts breed in decent numbers and waterways host breeding Dippers and Grey Wagtails, while both Wryneck and Eurasian Scops Owl were audible from our accommodation. Driving past the train station saw us locate a lingering flock of Alpine Choughs – during the winter months, they descend from the mountains in healthy numbers to feast from the city's dustbins.

Our first couple of days saw us visit karst fields at Popovo Polje and Mostarsko Blato. Fertile, flat valleys that form the bedrock of the country's agricultural output, the fields provide important stop-overs for migrating birds along the Adriatic Flyway. A picnic stop in the area saw us rack up our first real birding of the trip, with roadside scrub hosting an abundant mix that included Sombre Tit, Common Nightingale, Cirl Bunting, Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Eastern Subalpine and Eastern Orphean Warblers and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. Perhaps more exciting still was a docile European Glass Lizard and an amazing spread of wildflowers, including Bertoloni's Bee Orchid, while a roadside field played host to no fewer than eight Montagu's Harriers. Visiting a week or two later would have seen Black-headed Buntings prove commonplace.

On the Mostar outskirts, Mostarsko Blato also proved productive. Large Yellow Wagtail flocks included Grey-headed, Blue-headed and Ashy-headed individuals, the latter seemingly breeding in the area. A Common Quail flew alongside the minibus, European Bee-eaters danced overhead and thermalling raptors included more Montagu's Harriers, Short-toed Snake Eagles, a flock of Red-footed Falcons and a surprise fly-over Golden Eagle. Most remarkable was the staggering number of Whinchats evident throughout the landscape – comfortably more in a day than I had seen in my lifetime. Partially flooded fields and a couple of small reservoirs produced small numbers of passage waders alongside Black-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Duck.

Evenings were spent at the exquisite Konoba Taurus, where generous helpings of seafood and traditional Bosnian cuisine – various assortments of vegetables and grilled meat – were enjoyed.

A boat trip through the reedbeds of Hutovo Blato provided excellent views of Squacco Heron (Sam Viles).


Cliff birding

The next morning saw us delve further into the region's rich cultural history with a visit to Tekija u Blagaju, a Dervish monastery at the base of an imposing rock face that formed the start of the Buna river. This rock face held a stunning colony of Eurasian Crag Martins and approximately 50 pairs of Alpine Swifts, while large numbers of House Martin nest cups were strung along crevices like bunting. While the group enjoyed the aerial spectacle, Denis expertly picked out an occupied Western Rock Nuthatch nest – a unique flask-shaped structure glued directly onto the cliff face – which was being attended by one of the adults. A pair of Dippers would hover at the cave entrance too, their nest tucked just out of view.

Exploring further along the Buna valley took us to an area of mixed woodland on the edge of a village of the same name. Woodpeckers were high on the agenda and a stunning Black Woodpecker attending an active nest hole proved the highlight. Six species were observed in total: Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted, Middle Spotted, Greenand Wryneck being the others, with Syrian a possibility here too. Other stars of the show included a surprise Black-crowned Night Heron, a pair of Eurasian Penduline Tits, plenty of Golden Oriole activity and Red-rumped Swallows, while Tree Sparrows provided a reminder of home. Lunch was taken at a restaurant at the centre of a local trout farm, where it was possible to watch our main course of Rainbow Trout being selected from the basin by our chef – and excellent it was too!

A change of pace later in the day saw us trek up to Podveležje, a subalpine region known as the 'plateau above Mostar'. It was seemingly marginally too early for returning breeding species such as Hawfinch, which were still down in the foothills, although Woodlark, Tawny Pipit, and both Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears were all seen at the site of a ruined military encampment.

Situated near the village of Blagaj, the fortress of Stjepan-grad is immortalised on the logo of one of the local beer bottles and is also the best site in the country to connect with Rock Partridge. A species high on the target list of most visiting birders, it is arguably easier to catch up with in Herzegovina than anywhere else in the world, with the widespread limestone karst providing ample habitat for the species.

A spectacular mixed colony of Sand Martin and European Bee-eater in a working quarry on the outskirts of Mostar made for a memorable end to the trip (Sam Viles).


Warblers and wheatears

Passing through the main scrub line, again finding a ready supply of Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and both Eastern Orphean and Eastern Subalpine Warblers, the apex of the slope dropped away forming a steep and narrow rocky valley. Immediately we could hear the harsh call of up to four Rock Partridges ringing around the landscape. Incredulously, it took some time to get our eyes onto any, before Denis eventually picked up a distant pair going about their business on the mountainside.

The tops of the Dinaric Alps give way to crystal-clear streams, alpine meadows, high-altitude woodlands, steep valleys and green mountain lakes. Prenj mountain range produced some of the most awe-inspiring vistas of the trip and was home to a species mix that included Goosander, Eurasian Crag Martin, Blue Rock and Common Rock Thrushes, Woodlark, Tree Pipit and Black Redstart. A lunchtime stop at Snježna Kuca saw us enjoy a diverse platter of cured beef, local cheeses and fried bread, washed down with a local beer.

A second day high in the Dinaric Alps saw us visit Blidinje, where a different mixture of habitats saw us venture even higher in search of conifer specialists. Both Coal and Crested Tits were swiftly located and a Firecrest called from a neighbouring tree, although we unfortunately missed out on Nutcracker. Slow rambles along partially paved tracks saw us produce one of my most-wanted targets from the trip in the form of a couple of alpestris Ring Ouzels, with noticeably pale-scaled underparts and paler wings than the nominate form. Later on, we lucked in on a tame pair of Rock Buntings among the patchy roadside scrub.

An expedition into neighbouring Croatia saw us follow the course of the river down to the Neretva Delta, where plenty of more expected estuarine species were on offer. Wader action included Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints resplendent in their summer regalia alongside Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers and Whimbrel. Stopping for lunch, a nearby restaurant saw us enjoy the local delicacy of eel and frog legs stew while Great Reed Warblers belted out their melodies just outside.

The spectacular waterfalls at Kravica see the Trebižat River cascade into an emerald pool with a backdrop of displaying Grey Wagtails, Dippers and Cirl Buntings (Sam Viles).


In the wetlands

Hutovo Blato is an internationally important wetland complex and a designated Ramsar site. The reserve comprises two lakes, the natural Deransko Lake and the dammed Svitavsko Lake. We spent the morning along the banks enclosing Svitavsko Lake, where a wide abundance of species such as Garganey, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis and Great Reed Warbler starred.

Topping the bill were a couple of pairs of Eurasian Penduline Tit, complete with their stunningly intricate domed nests suspended from willow branches. In contrast to their status in Britain, Common Cuckoos were everywhere, with constant back-and-forth action even including a couple of hepatic-morph females. All three species of marsh tern were picked up distantly in the scope. Amazingly, the morning's most miraculous sighting wasn't a bird at all. While stalking a couple of Squacco Herons in the hope of a few close-ups, we noticed a pair of eyes in the background doing likewise … a European Wildcat!

Venturing to Deransko Lake in the afternoon, we took a boat trip via the long channel through the reedbeds to explore the vast expanse of the waterbody. Passing reedbed strips where Purple Heron and Squacco Herons silently hunted saw us reach the main waterbody, where Common and Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck were ubiquitous. A major mixed breeding colony of herons and Pygmy Cormorants was a hive of activity and produced an intense cacophony of noise.

Hutovo Blato contains the only Pygmy Cormorant breeding site in Herzegovina, where several hundred pairs nest annually (Sam Viles).

April and May see an impressive variety of migratory birds pass through the country along the Adriatic Flyway, with the flooded agricultural fields adjacent to the reserve providing ample feeding grounds. Large flocks of Ruff and Wood Sandpiper actively fed among the crops, intermixed with several less common species. This included a Ringed Plover, which is an uncommon passage migrant.

Our final few hours birding in the country saw us visit a quarry on the outskirts of Mostar. Despite locals seemingly using the area as a rubbish dump, several thousand pairs of Sand Martins and many tens of European Bee-eaters made for an incredible sight as they hawked overhead, while a pair of Little Owls snoozed by their nest hole.

For a venue off the beaten track, Herzegovina has heaps to offer the visiting birder – as well as some of the most accessible Rock Partridges available anywhere in Europe. A friendly atmosphere coupled with expert local knowledge made for a laid-back holiday feel that was distinguished by many excellent dining stops. Focusing on a small portion of this beautiful country allows for a more intimate exploration of the varied avifauna, rich landscapes and local culture while still providing an extensive species mix. There is no doubt that Herzegovina has plenty more hidden gems to reveal to visiting naturalists. 


Written by: Sam Viles


Related Locations