Birding From Dubrovnik (Croatia) - May 2018

In May I spent the day with a local birding guide, Dubravko Dender, when our small cruise ship anchored for the day off Dubrovnik.

Here is a view of the city from our ship as we wait for the tender boat [click on a photo for a larger view].

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For those who do not know the country, the south half of Croatia is a very long thin sliver of land on the eastern Adriatic shore opposite Italy. It has reportedly over 1000 islands and islets (some quite large) off-shore, some of which are nature reserves. Dubrovnik is in the extreme south, near the border with Montenegro and hemmed in to the east by the mountains of Bosnia.

Here is a Google map showing its position.

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Once an independent and very wealthy sea-faring republic (like Venice) and called Ragusa (until incorporated by Napoleon in his Italian state in 1806), the city is by all accounts the finest extant walled city in Europe. The fine ancient buildings and complete walls are all now fully repaired from the damage inflicted by the recent Balkan war.

Though absolutely thronging with tourists, it is also a mecca for swifts. Nesting in these ancient buildings, they do not seem the slightest bothered by the crowds below them. Here is a photo of part of the screaming throng above us which I took the last time I visited the city. Although whitish throat patches show in the bright light, Dubravko says that these are Common Swifts and that both these and Alpine swifts (which we also saw) are common breeders in Dubrovnik .

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Here is a sample of the buildings that the swifts (and the feral pigeons) seem to like- the Rector’s palace on the right, the back of the cathedral on the back left, and the C16th Sponza palace at the rear.

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But our destination this time was not the city itself, but rather the Konavle valley, nestling further south between the airport and the mountains. Dubravko explained that it is an area noted for Rollers, Orioles, Bee-eaters and occasional visitors from further east.

We were not to be disappointed. A single Bee-eater flew overhead and a Golden Oriole was briefly seen flying out of the foliage of a tree. Then a distant pair of Rollers appeared, initially low down in a tree, then sitting on a fence, and finally one perched near enough for this photo.

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A lovely bird, I have only ever seen it a few times before. Dubravko subsequently sent me a photo of the pair nesting in a Woodpecker hole.

But things got even better! A sizeable flock of starlings suddenly appeared from nowhere in the fields and flew very low and rapidly along the valley. They are the Rose-coloured species (a lifer for me), Dubravko explained. Apparently they are quite often seen at this time of the year, with juveniles, foraging in this area after completion of their nesting much further east. Though too far away to make out the typical pale pink, the pale patches showed well. Here is a distant image, which Dubravko sent me later, of part of the flock clustered on a tree.

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Then a sparrowhawk suddenly appeared, floating lazily high up in the sky. But this was not the Common species. It was a Levant Sparrowhawk, Dubravko confirmed. He explained that, whilst the main breeding range for the species is further east, the Dubrovnik region is the one place in Croatia where it also breeds. Another lifer for me, such a pity it was too high up to get a decent photo! At least I was able to watch it for some minutes as it made it way towards the mountains.

That was not the case unfortunately with a Wryneck, which our guide heard calling nearby. When he finally pointed it out, I was too late to catch a glimpse.

But Shrikes we did see, both Red-backed and Woodchats. Here is an image of a female Red-backed Shrike, sheltering from the hot sun in a tree, but on the look-out for insect prey.

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As to hirundines, we saw colonies of House Martins nesting in villages, lots of Barn Swallows in the fields, and some Red-rumped Swallows there too. Here is a photo I took of a cute Barn Swallow sitting on one of several nests under the roof of an information cabin at an archaeological site we visited later on our cruise - in Albania. The birds flew in and out, oblivious to the people traffic a few feet below their nest

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And here is a photo of the far more elaborate nest of a Red-rumped Swallow which I found in the same area – a most unusual construction I had never seen before.

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Of finches and buntings, resident Corn Buntings and Goldfinches seemed quite common but I was really pleased to find a couple of summer breeding Black-headed Buntings, only the third time I have ever seen the species. Dubravko took this photo for me through the open window of his car.

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Nightingales and Warblers (particularly Subalpines, Cettis, Greater Reeds and Common Reeds) were, as usual, heard frequently, but generally they proved impossible to see amongst the undergrowth. An exception was a great view of a very vocal Olivaceous Warbler, which finally showed itself at the top of a bush.

Whilst I was unable to get many decent photos of birds on this trip, here are some shots of beautiful insects we also saw in the Konavle valley.

Here, for example, is an exquisite blue metallic male specimen of the so called “Beautiful Damselfly”, posing on a riverbank.

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Here too is the much larger Southern Darter dragonfly – which particularly likes marshy areas near water.

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As to butterflies, they seemed more profuse than the birds! Here is a somewhat worn specimen of the misnamed Scarce Swallowtail, which doesn’t seem at all scarce in southern Europe. Both this species and the Swallowtail we see in the UK seem in fact quite common.

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Here is a perfect specimen of the Painted Lady, newly hatched with much brighter colours than is usually seen migrating into the UK.

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Here too is a Clouded Yellow, another occasional migrant to the UK, sometimes in large numbers.

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And here is a Glanville Fritillary, a butterfly restricted to a very few spots on the south coast of the UK.

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After Konavle, Dubravko took me up into the hills above Cavtat (a well-known resort on the coast-see Google map earlier in this blog). This is the view from those hills over the town and the coast generally.

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Up amongst the boulders and scrub we spotted a Black-eared Wheatear (a summer breeder) and a resident male Blue Rock Thrush. Alpine Swifts wheeled above our heads.

The rest of our cruise, mainly visiting parts of Italy, was notable for the absence of most bird and other species generally. Perhaps too many tourists? But I did get this photo on Sicily of the tiny hyperactive Serin – singing away at the top of a tree.

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And this pretty Italian Wall Lizard was spotted amongst the ruins of Pompeii.

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Our brief destination in Albania was the most productive. Here we visited, via the port of Sarande, the ancient Greek settlement and subsequently Roman military veterans’ colony of Butrint. A World Heritage site and National Park, it is now completely in ruins. Here is part of the wonderful view from the top of the Butrint settlement over the valley below. Perhaps this helps explain its popularity in the Roman period?

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Apart from the swallows mentioned earlier, here we saw several Little Egrets foraging in the waters below, a Jay squabbling with a Blackbird and some Tits in the woods, and a White Wagtail patrolling the ponds among the ruins.

But we also saw several European Pond Turtles in the ponds. Though widely distributed in Europe and long-lived (40-60 years), I read that they have become scarce in most European countries (extinct in the UK). Here is one swimming.

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We also saw this Southern Comma butterfly basking in the sun. As can be seen, its colouration is slightly different from the Comma that we are familiar with in the UK.

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Back on the ship itself, we watched a bold Yellow-legged Gull walk along the wooden guard rail of the open air dining area at breakfast, a few feet away from the diners, looking for its opportunity until shooed away by the crew. One fellow passenger told me that she had watched the persistent bird taking a long drink out of a milk jug when most of the diners had left!

Peter M
June 2018

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