When was the last time that you visited a country that totally exceeded your expectations and debunked all your preconceived notions? I assumed when I first arrived in Serbia that I would be discovering the same kind of birdlife to be found residing in neighbouring Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. I was exploring the Pannonian Basin an area of lowlands surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, the Alps, the Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains, led by Serbian ornithologist Milan Ruzic. I also had a secret agenda: to bathe myself in ornithological glory by rediscovering the presumed extinct Slender-billed Curlew in some remote area of the Basin. Well, the region was once a regular migratory stop-off for this enigmatic wader, so why not?
Wood Sandpipers are generally easier to find in Serbia than Slender-billed Curlews! (Russell F Spencer).
So 'Operation Slender-bill' was kicked off over a cup of peppermint tea enjoyed at a waterside café on the banks of the Danube in the heart of Belgrade. Sharing the moment with us were numerous inner-city Hooded Crows, Black-headed Gulls and Swallows. We began our road trip by heading to Stara Palanka, nestled on the banks of the Danube some 50 miles east of Belgrade. The countryside we encountered along the way was surprisingly lush and the agricultural land was clearly being farmed at a much lower intensity than what I was used to back in the UK. Indeed, a quick scan clocked up plentiful Bee-eaters, Turtle Doves and curious looking Susliks — shy ground-dwelling members of the squirrel family. Apparently, wolf packs still roamed parts of the terrain. Legend has it that in the days when they were more heavily hunted one slaughtered beast weighed in at a hefty 85 kilos (over 13 stone).
Stara Palanka furnished us with Squacco Herons and regularly passing parties of Pygmy Cormorants. The latter species is globally threatened and as such is a much sought-after prize by visiting British birders, yet along the Danube and even in Belgrade they were fairly easily seen. Their small size and rapid wingbeats gave them a very goose-like jizz as they commuted in small squadrons. Bee-eaters and Sand Martins proliferated around the more watery locales while the aural backdrop was provided by seemingly millions of singing Marsh Frogs. But there was not a single Slender-billed Curlew in sight.
We made a visit to the nearby Vršac Hills (pronounced Vershartz), a nature reserve primarily consisting of oak, lime and beech in the Vojvidina district around 70 miles northeast of the capital. We hooked up with the warden. He was a real woodsman, sporting a long beard, flowing locks and a definite homeless look, and was flanked by two ultra-friendly hounds. This fella turned out to be a proper Bear Grylls, scaling tree trunks in wellies with consummate ease to extract Scops Owl chicks from their nest boxes to check up on their wellbeing. He also had the uncanny ability to call any bird from the trees. He perfectly replicated the song of Golden Oriole, shriek of the Sparrowhawk and the drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, the latter impersonation performed without even opening his mouth! He actually did have a home near the entrance of the reserve and while waiting outside his place I noticed a fine male Red-backed Shrike and a singing Cirl Bunting in the surrounding bushes. Walking through the woodland to reach the summit of the hills was a stimulating experience, not least because of the abundance of the woodland birdlife. We enjoyed close-up views of Great Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and, oddly, woodland-dwelling Yellowhammers. No doubt the highlight was the hidden Goshawk that we inadvertently flushed at very close range from a tree. Throughout our woodland wander I was aware of an audible buzz; a continuous humming created by an uncountable number of beating insect wings. It was strangely comforting. Surely, this is how woodlands are supposed to sound. Eventually, we were sitting on the scrubby summit enjoying the stunning views of the foothills of the Carpathian Mountain range in nearby Romania when a Honey Buzzard decided to drift into view and across the vista. Bliss.
Singing Yellohammer (Russell F Spencer).
I was being totally bewitched by the richness of birding that I was experiencing although my quest for Slender-billed Curlew began to look more far-fetched by the second. For example, on one day we found ourselves standing in the middle of Deliblato Sands, Europe's largest sand dune system, looking at wall-to-wall nesting Sand Martins and Bee-eaters. At nearly 82,000 acres it was once part of a prehistoric desert and still is an impressive area to this day. The scrubby grassland was alive with a multitude of crickets, grasshoppers, moths and other bugs. Feeding on them were several lark species including Skylark, Woodlark, Crested Lark and a possible Short-toed Lark, plus Hobby, loads of Hoopoes, hirundines, ubiquitous Bee-eaters, Hooded Crows, displaying Tawny Pipits and a handsome Lesser Grey Shrike.
We also visited Rusanda Lake, an ancient oxbow lake towards the northern border of Serbia on the Tisa River, itself a tributary of the mighty Danube. The water was quite shallow and is the saltiest in the whole of the Pannonian Basin. It is rich in zooplankton that proves very attractive to masses of waders throughout the year plus wintering Common Cranes and waterfowl. There were no hides, so approaching the water's edge was quite a tricky business involving crawling on our bums in order not to overly disturb the feeding birds. We got close enough to enjoy eyeing up a gang of foraging waterbirds that included at least 20 Wood Sandpipers, shedloads of Snipe and Black-winged Stilts, a couple of dainty Marsh Sandpipers and several hawking Whiskered Terns. Over 200 species have been recorded at Rusanda Lake and the site also has the accolade of being the last breeding ground for White-headed Duck in Eastern Europe. The lake itself was originally surrounded by salt meadow; sadly that grassland has largely been replaced by housing estates and farmland. I was also dismayed to hear that the area had no official protection, but at least it is listed as a Serbian Rare Bird Area and hopefully may receive national reserve status soon.
Black-winged Stilt (Russell F Spencer).
True to form, I began to hanker for a bit of urban birding so we popped into a few of the towns and villages that peppered the Basin — much to the bemusement of the local Serbians, whom I must say were surprisingly friendly and warm. It was while we were wandering around Elemir, a small village 25 miles northeast of Novi Sad, that I finally realised the true extent of Serbia's birding riches. Milan took me to an abandoned farm on the outskirts of the town where he pointed out some breeding Red-footed Falcons that were nesting in full view near the top of a dead tree. They shared the immediate vicinity with six pairs of Kestrels, including a couple that had chosen to nest in a dilapidated pigeon cote. Previously, I had only ever seen Red-foots as vagrants in Britain, so to study a family unit consisting of two males and a female raising some well-grown chicks was an absolute thrill. Unfortunately, Red-footed Falcons have decreased quite considerably across the country and the colonies of over 30 birds are now a thing of the past.
Female Red-footed Falcon (Russell F Spencer).
We then visited a public park back in Rusanda where I witnessed a sight that practically blew my socks off. In the trees were not one, two or three but around 20 pairs of semi-colonially nesting Long-eared Owls! I was looking at more LEOs than the collective number I had ever seen in my whole life — all in one place! The reason for the super abundance was the bonanza of owl food: rodents. It was all thanks to old-fashioned farming practices that involved fields being left fallow or half harvested with spilt grain left everywhere. I was still reeling from the sight of all those owls, plus additional birds in the trees that lined the streets, when Milan totally blew me away by telling me that during the winter over 700 birds routinely chill in daytime roosts further north in Kikinda, near the Romanian border. This makes the town the best place in the world to see Long-eared Owls!
In Serbia, Long-eared Owls are urban birds and there are at least 20 towns and cities including Belgrade with roosts of over 200 birds. But it is a case of "hurry while flocks last" because if Serbia joins the EU then its agricultural productivity will intensify, leading to less food for the owls. Plus, the Serbians themselves have to realise that owls are not the purveyors of doom, as their superstitions dictate, but a fantastic way to boost their local economies through ecotourism.
So, take another look at Serbia. It's the land of the owls — with maybe a few undiscovered Slender-billed Curlews!