Report compiled by tour participant: Mike Blair
(or, venturing south of the DanubeSava-Kupa line)
"Off anywhere interesting next year, then?"
"Why, yes, Herzegovina. Our first visit."
The silence, punctuated by dropping jaws, shocked eyes and the "does not compute" facial expressions symptomatic of brain dumps, was palpable and seemingly eternal. It's a pity that so many of we British are geographically challenged. Notable exceptions are followers of European football, history buffs, RAF participants in the Balkan crisis in the 1990s (especially navigators) and perhaps people who have flown by EasyJet or Ryanair on holiday to such places as Dubrovnik and Rijeka. Not for them hazarded responses such as, "Near Cambodia, isn't it?", "Central America?", "Not been to Africa, myself" and "No, it's not Europe, it's somewhere in Central Asia". I concede that vivid imagination, albeit faulty, interestingly produced "I remember reading about Rupert of Herzegovinia (note spelling and pronunciation) a long time ago" (Good try, but it was Rupert of Hentzau, which is an 1898 novel by Antony Hope and the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda).
Why Herzegovina? Sue was approaching a special birthday, and since on one of my special birthdays two years previously she had treated me to a holiday in southern Spain, a quid pro quo was on the cards. Then, in BTO News, we saw an advert entitled Wild Herzegovina, clicked on the featured website (www.wildherzegovina.com) and were captivated: the tours are based in Mostar and the itineraries include routes within 100km or so radius, but these are planned to visit several locations en route (I urge you to explore that website it's very well put together). Sue and I usually drive across bits of Europe about twice a year, exploring new areas every so often, but Herzegovina is rather more off the beaten track, and since it has serious mountains, a guided tour appealed, because it would offer local knowledge on bird habitats, usable tracks, access without the need to yomp, and in a concentrated period. There are also uncleared minefields…
The maximum number of customers on any Wild Herzegovina trip is 7 that means that getting on with everyone should be easier, and if that fails, you would only have to put up with five people to whom you will never send Christmas cards. We attempted to improve the odds in our favour by asking long-time RAFOS friends Dick and Daphne Yates if they'd like to join us, but trivial factors like them being in Australia when we asked and due to go to Central America at about the projected trip timescale ruled them out, but we also asked friends who live locally, Tim and Irene Loseby, and they accepted. Tim and Irene have been tour leaders to remote parts of Central Asia, and so they could apply inbuilt quality assessment criteria! Fortunately, in the event, the other three who made up the seven were easygoing company! The tour organiser and tour leader, Denis Bohm, comes from Mostar, but has lived and worked in London for over two decades, and so has broad knowledge of the cultures of both societies. Most important, he's very good with people! After we had booked, we four then met Denis who was visiting the British Bird Fair in August 2014. He's managed to get a stand there for 2015!
Wild Herzegovina tours are dependent on airline schedules, and for 2015, both EasyJet and British Airways amended theirs so that Denis had to rejig all the tour parties Since Sue and I would arrive by car, this wasn't a problem, but because after Herzegovina we were going to drive the Losebys north to Slovenia, which they had not visited before, this meant that Tim and Irene would now fly into Dubrovnik just as the previous tour was departing from there. Consequently Sue and I planned to reach Mostar a day earlier, so that we could travel to Dubrovnik with the 5strong departing tour to meet Tim and Irene. That meant that we four plus one other who also was landing at Dubrovnik on that day, had two extra days added to our tour, now 613 May. The additional costs were very reasonable.
Over 1619 April, we drove from home to Illmitz in eastern Austria, where we had a splendid time in pretty decent mostly warm weather birding and visiting friends who live there. We then sojourned briefly in Slovenia at the B&B where Tim and Irene would later join us, before setting off for Mostar. Now the various European countries have differing motoring regulations, and these tend to change from year to year, which is where the AA website came in very useful. For example, although most have a reasonably common list of items you must have in your car, Croatia requires you to have the firstaid kit in the body of the vehicle, France requires you to carry two breath alcohol selftest kits and BosniaHerzegovina permits satnavs, but not where they obscure any of the driver's vision through the front windscreen, making windscreen mounting technically illegal. (TomTom does not cover BosniaHerzegovina because the country will not sell maps to them because they are Dutch allegedly this is because a Dutch UN contingent declined to intervene when Bosnians were massacred during the war in the early 1990s; Garmin is the only satnav with coverage.)
Many insurance companies won't cover you on your normal policy for BosniaHerzegovina, where it is a mandatory requirement to submit evidence of coverage and a green card at the border. It's a little ironic that I've heard so many British complaining about these differing national regulations while also fulminating over conformity to EU regulations as a good reason for leaving the EU… Cognitive dissonance, moi?
It was our good fortune to time our trip through Croatia just after the new toll motorway had been completed from Zagreb in the north to a point only 30km from Mostar, roughly 500km in all for €30, but note that it's one of those toll roads that you have to have driven once before you drive it for the first time! At the entry point, there are no people or tollbooths, and so if you don't notice an unobtrusive button on the passenger side (for UK vehicles), then you can't press it to take a ticket …. soon the queue behind you comprises drivers striking their foreheads with the heels of their hands! You present the ticket at your exit and pay the proportionate fee at a manned exit tollbooth.
Most Croatians avoid the motorway on cost grounds, and so your trip at this time of year is in very light traffic. In the main holiday season, it could be jampacked. The main saving grace is that the variety of landscapes you encounter is considerable, and since every 8km or so there seems to be a fuel station (usually with only a few vehicles, often none), you can pick where to take a rest. Mind you, at every rest stop there will be a couple of heavy smokers upwind of you, outdoors or indoors! Once you leave the motorway before Mostar, the 30km journey takes almost an hour, through many narrow country roads and small villages. Local drivers make Jeremy Clarkson look like a granny who drives only to and from church!
We knew from Denis's advice that our B&B accommodation, Pansion Liska, was a little way behind a certain petrol station and the new Roman Catholic cathedral, and that it had recently been rebuilt from the ruined shell of a house destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, the owner had put up neither sign nor street number (Kneza Mihajla Viševića Humskog 13), and so we spent almost 40 minutes searching for it. In our search, we often passed a rather attractive, very poshlooking large house that was surrounded by ruined buildings and bordered on several tower blocks, remarking as we did so "I wish it was that one!" We found that numerous locals spoke reasonable English, but only a 14yearold girl in a group of a dozen or so said she had heard of the place we were looking for, but I thought it prudent not to ask them to help me find it… Several elderly ladies who had lived nearby all their lives hadn't heard of it, nor had the nuns manning (?) the cathedral's main door. Finally, we rang the bell on the gate to the posh house while their fierce large dog barked savagely at us, only to find a warm welcome from Edin Udovičić ("Eddie" to all) and his 4yearold son Omar, who promptly leapt upon the large savage dog and turned it into an instant puppy.
Eddie has a cheerful "can do" attitude that ensures your stay is a happy one. Breakfast or nightcaps taken on the elevated balcony veranda bring you splendid city centre birding from it we heard Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
, Wryneck Jynx torquilla
and Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhyncos
during the day and Tawny Owl Strix aluco
and especially Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops
at night. Perhaps the Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
doesn't count? At about 1700, a Mercedes Viano pulled up and five sticky, weary but happy birders slowly got out and climbed the stairs up to the veranda and murdered a beer or two. Denis, somewhat dustier than when we'd met him at the BBF, made sure noone had left anything in the van, and invited Sue and I to join the others at the Konoba Taurus restaurant, the tour's dinner venue (just a short walk away, and close to the rebuilt Mostar Bridge, which had been destroyed needlessly during the war). The food was to die for, and quite apart from the menu, the chef would prepare individual meals for anyone with dietary restrictions or who was faddish.
The Ancient Greeks called the region the Peninsula of Haemus, the source of the legend related by the Roman poet Ovid, whereby Haemus and his wife Rhodope by excessive selfimportance so angered the gods Zeus and Hera (jealousy, really) that they were turned into Mons Haemus (the Balkan mountains) and the Rhodopes range, which defines the border between modern Greece and Bulgaria. Wars and other disturbances have plagued the region since Ancient Greek times, dividing it up in a dizzyingly number of ways according to shifting political, ethnic and religious priorities and influences throughout recorded history, resulting in patchwork upon patchwork of local loyalties, alliances and identities Indeed the adjective "balkanisation" remains a useful descriptive metaphor. The region has been subject to invasion and incorporation into empires from all compass directions, perhaps the most widely known being that of the Hapsburgs, whose hegemony finally disintegrated when Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination triggered off the totally avoidable political slide into the First World War. Much of the rugged landscape inland of the littoral is interspersed with fertile flat alluvial valleys overlying the limestone rocks that earlier had rolled down the spectacular eroding karstic mountain slopes these are the karst fields. Here, the word "field" is used in the sense of oilfield or coalfield a sizeable, but defined area: for an overview of karst fields in BosniaHerzegovina, see this page
The region suffered badly during the Second World War, stabilising as part of Yugoslavia for a time under Tito, but broke asunder after his death, eventually suffering once again in the 1990s when Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim groupings (and their splinters and mercenaries) in various and often inexplicable combinations skirmished, often in chaotic fashion. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is but one ongoing body endeavouring to uncover the horrors at that time. During our guided tour, we met several people who had lost family members who had never even handled a weapon, but who had been killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That guided tours, whether historical, botanical or ornithological in purpose, now take place in the region, demonstrates in a small way the importance of bringing civic normalcy to centre stage and maintaining its presence. Small actions such as these, free from any kind of dogma, help restore confidence and the economy in a region where war damage will be evident for decades.
Day 1 of our tour found us accompanying Denis and the departing group on a back road to Dubrovnik airport. Traffic was light, the weather perfect and the Croatian border officials not overburdened. Two European Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus
, late stragglers, were seen from the van and at a rest stop, Western Blackeared Wheatear Oenanthe (h.) hispanica
(the palethroated morph was seen more often than the darkthroated morph), Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
(common summer breeders). We met up with Tim and Irene soon after we reached the airport, and with another cheery couple, Iris (pronounced "irriss", for she was born in Germany) and Brian, but we had to wait until Michael Gardner's delayed flight arrived. Michael is a keen and knowledgeable sound recordist, having had many birdsong recordings accepted by the British Library, and has travelled to many remote parts of the world. On our return to Mostar, we visited the Popovo Polje karst field which produced Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus
, Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
, Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
(good spot by Tim), Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
, Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus
, Eastern Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans ssp albistriata
(The split was into Western, Eastern and Moltoni's in Svensson 2013), Cirl Bunting E. cirlus
and Blackheaded Bunting E. melanocephala
. That evening, at another superb meal at the Konobo Taurus Denis ate with us and introduced us all to the restaurant staff, but on subsequent nights left us to gell as a group, joining us again at the endoftour party!
Eddie's triumphal arrival on his bicycle with the freshest possible bread allowed us an ample continental breakfast on the balcony patio on Day 2 before we headed out to the nearby (as might be adduced from the name) Mostarsko Blato karst field, which was large, but only a third of the size of that at Popovo Polje. The track along the eastern side was elevated above the distant power lines, on which we encountered a migrant flock of Redfooted Falcon Falco vespertinus
, the deep greyblack of the males almost glowing in the sunlight. Systematic scanning via bins and scope produced numerous late migrant Ruff Philomachus pugnax
, skulking Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
, the first of many Pygmy Cormorants Microcarbo pygmaeus
, Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris
and rising in a thermal beyond a small hill in the middle of the flat karst field, Shorttoed Snake Eagle Circaetus gallicus
, five Common Cranes Grus grus
, a dozen White Stork Ciconia ciconia
and a Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
! The valley was alive with birds, one of the commonest seen being Redbacked Shrike Lanius collurio
. The drill was that Denis would drop us so that we could wander along the track to where he had parked, and often this was where he was busy photographing plants or birds, all of which he could relay their natural history and status. He would then drive a little further to drop us off again, this leapfrog method allowing us to cover a lot of ground.
After an excellent lunch in a riverside restaurant, Vrelo Borak ("Vrelo" means "source of the river"; Borak is the local area on the outskirts of Siroki Brijeg town), we nailed Marsh Tit Poecile palustris
by call, saw and heard numerous European Beeeaters Merops apiaster
, many keeping a wary eye open for Eurasian Hobby F. subbuteo
, heard and saw European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
quite often and tried to pick out the songs of small birds amid a chorus of purring European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
, Eurasian Golden Oriole
and Common Nightingale
. Redrumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
is thinly widespread, but the plethora of abandoned small concrete buildings provide an adequate substitute for their normal nesting sites of below rock overhangs where they build their bedpanshaped mud nests. By now, the whole group had caught up with European Serin Serinus serinus
, Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis
, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
and Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
. Our return route was on the opposite side of the karst field, where we ambled along the track of a disused railway, where we gazed down on a distant Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
and on a much closer Hermann's Tortoise Testudo h. hercegovinensis
almost under our feet, as it silently cursed the concreteslab cable conduit that blocked its path. What a dinner that night!
Again, although it was breezy, the weather was superb on Day 3, which would take us into the mountains for the first time. Heading north and northwest to Potoci, we headed right to the narrow partlycultivated Humilišani valley which followed a stream for some 2km. At the top end, paths led up through mixed forest to views down escarpments; in the clearings we found a group of European Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus
, in the conifers calling Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus
and Common Treecreeper Certhia familiaris
, and over the open spaces, singing Woodlark Lullula arborea
. Near the track that transits the karst field, a pair of Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor
on territory caused other passerines to sound the alarm European Serin
, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina
and Willow Tit Poecile montanus
. At the very end of this walk, we finally turned up a lifer for several of our group, Sombre Tit P. lugubris
, which displayed vigorously around us in open fields and on thin trees. Our companion for this jaunt was a friendly local dog that really wanted to join us when we eventually got back into the van!
As the van climbed to more rugged landscapes towards the Nevesinjsko Polje karst field at 900m asl, the default species in any scrubby area was Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
. Along these partlysurfaced roads, many tracks lead off from them, but because Denis had spent so much time reconnoitring beforehand, he knew which tracks were most likely to be profitable in our search for birds, and so a couple of excursions led us to Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis
, Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus
, Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana
and Rock Bunting E. cia
. However, a major surprise to most was to hear calling Corncrake Crex crex
in several locations in damp grassy areas at 1200m asl! However, Sue and I have seen and heard the species in Slovakia calling in similar habitat at 11001300m. Perhaps more expected at this altitude was Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
, males splendid in the sun, bright rufousorange and blue, but common loweraltitude species also were numerous at this level, which suggests that food was plentiful enough to support many territories: Whinchat Saxicola rubetra
, Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
and Blackeared Wheatear
. On our return route we had a late Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus
and our first Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
, usually easy to find!
Our journey had taken us northeast and then south, and now we headed west back towards Mostar, entering it from the south in a short diversion in the city to the fourlane Novi Put (New Road) over the River Neretva. Beneath this bridge, Denis had found a small colony of Pallid Swift Apus pallidus
. Fortunately, roadworks had blocked off a number of the access roads, enabling us to park on the bridge and scan the skies at our leisure. We were gambling on the birds returning to roost, for mostly they disappear to feed for long periods, and so we had time to look for other species. Inevitably along the bushy banks beneath a precipice of buildings a number of Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
flitted busily, but quite unexpected were several Eurasian Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris
swooping in on insects just a few metres from us, initially making us (almost) call them out as the target species! However, one sighting seemed too farfetched to put in a novel, and that was a male Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
, in far from typical habitat perched on a floodlight at an abandoned tennis court, level with our eyes, but at around 50m asl, it was far below its breeding grounds of hills up to 700m! Then, just before we decided to come back another time, several Pallid Swifts
appeared, their scream being distinct in pitch and timbre from that of the nearby Common Swifts A. apus
. Our euphoria was sustained that evening by a sumptuous repast!
Day 4 was devoted to exploring the River Neretva hinterland from where its alluvial valley broadened to its delta, a Ramsar Site, on the Adriatic, marked by another return to Croatia. Near the Neretva delta, the woods and dense scrub at the edges of the fields, streams and reedbeds were home to large numbers of small passerines. In one avenue of trees, mixed flocks of House
provided a cacophony that drowned out almost everything else! A little further away, several Wryneck
were singing, Redbacked Shrike
were scanning for prey, European Turtle Doves
were purring, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
pinged relentlessly, Little Stint Calidris minuta
fed at the brackish creek edges, Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida
patrolled the watercourses and Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus
called overhead. Nearer the main Neretva outlet, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
fed in the shallows amid wingdrying Pygmy Cormorants
and Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
but our attention was drawn to two birds roosting far out on the heatshimmering sandbanks. A Croatian birder known to Denis appeared and advised where to go to get the best view. Eventually, we could discern the large red bill of Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
and the stout black bill of Gullbilled Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
! Two misnomers dutifully appeared on the westward upstream loop along the Neretva, Bearded Tit Panurus biarmicus
(IOC class it as being a monotypic genus in the family Panuridae
, but HBW 12 includes with the parrotbills in the family Paradoxornithidae
, which hints at how difficult it is even today to tease out its relationships even with the help of advanced DNA techniques) and Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus
in the family Remizidae
. Neither species is closely related to the Paridae
, the true tits/chickadees.
After we had crossed back into BosniaHerzegovina, we stopped near Klepci village in midafternoon at oxbows formed when the Neretva was free to meander. On the numerous scrubtopped shingle banks, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
for once lived up to its name, Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
and Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
scooted around, the former as stragglers or nonbreeders, the latter as summer residents. We then noted two tiny waders feeding in and out of a thin screen of grasses at the water's edge, persistence with the telescopes finally validating Tim's call of Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii
. We didn't bother to mention another Ruddy Turnstone
in our ignorance of Denis's BosniaHezegovina checklist, which didn't include it… This is one of the pitfalls of visiting new birding areas you don't realise that many species with which you are familiar are scarce elsewhere, and you simply note them down, much to the chagrin of local birders you encounter subsequently! Here and later at the estuary, we filled a few wader gaps on our trip list, the many Ruff
almost in full breeding plumage likely being part of the northernmost breeding population, delaying their migration until the Arctic winter's grip on their breeding grounds loosens to allow insects and invertebrates to hatch. We had much to converse about at our evening feast! (Posttrip note: yes, we've now told Denis about the second Ruddy Turnstone
Day 5 started just south of Mostar where we visited a quarry near Buna. Here, a vast number, several thousand at least, of Sand Martin Riparia riparia
pairs had their nestholes, but nearby about 500 European Beeeater
nestholes were occupied, the two species benefitting from many eyes watching for ground or airborne predators. The spectacle was simply so stunning that we didn't realise until we had begun the climb up to Podveležje Plateau southeast of Mostar that we hadn't eaten yet that morning! In the tiny Podvelež village at 650m asl we had an astonishingly good traditional breakfast in Motel Sunce. The local honey was amazing. Here, courtesy and kindness abounded, all the more remarkable considering the owner had lost a son in the war. A drizzly overcast and an importunate wind quickly made intrepid birders into wimps, but I pressed on up the track in the gathering gloom to find and photograph Eurasian Golden Oriole
, although the light was pretty bad. We then headed to Buna village back down on the plain to Motel Kolo where our tables were just above the river (about 5cm above, actually) where the meanders were enshrouded by the bankside trees this was the life! Still, we had to bestir ourselves on what now was a warm, placid afternoon, Denis taking us essentially to the opposite bank from our lunch location, but it's a 1.6km drive to a wellwooded picnic area, where we delighted in cooperative Wryneck
and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
in its nesthole (Note recent change of genus!)
We headed up the road east of Mostar, the clouds thinning to nothing, and as we came off the main road down a short track, we stepped out into hot dry air. Slowly we walked up a fairly gentle slope, first on a track through dense bushes and scrub, finding Redbacked Shrike
, Woodchat Shrike
and Eastern Orphean Warbler Sylvia crassirostris
, the last finally showing well to everyone after a deal of patience.
Above the main scrub line, we fearless four followed Denis up a not so gentle grassy slope, Michael Gardner remaining behind to record Eastern Subalpine
and Eastern Orphean Warbler
calls, and Iris and Brian had become absorbed in the hugely varied flowering plants on that hillside. The apex of the slope dropped away to the right forming a steep narrow rocky valley and a sheer cliff, whose top merged into a precipitous mountainside that levelled out somewhat into a varying series of blocklike boulders high above us. A harsh call from amongst these distant boulders some 400 metres away caused some frantic searching, but taking pity on us no doubt, the guilty party, a Rock Partridge Alectoris graeca
, strutted into sight. I managed a digiscope image or two, just as a piercing whistle from roughly the same direction manifested itself as a Western Rock Nuthatch Sitta neumayer
! Again, a few distant digiscope images were possible, fortunately. The Rock Partridge
is one of several species that closely resemble each other, but which have diverged to occupy different habitats; it has a fairly restricted distribution. Like Redlegged Partridge A. rufa
and Chukar A. chukar
, it has been bred for sporting interests and often introduced deliberately or accidentally into several locations, the only persistent translocation I know of being in Lebanon. We set off back towards Mostar, but diverted briefly into the Drezanka Canyon, another steepsided valley with a rushing stream holding a good Whitethroated Dipper Cinclus cinclus
population, but also gave us the only Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
record of the trip. For once, we got back to Mostar midafternoon, giving us all a little time to explore the Old Town and do some gentle tourist things, including standing on and later taking photos of the wonderfully restored Old Bridge, before we all met up again for some fine culinary delights!
North into the mountains on Day 6, firstly to Drezanka Canyon, where the River Drezanka emerges from its underground traverse of the mountains, we found the local restaurant closed due to a family bereavement we had to find an ad hoc venue. A quick jaunt on to the narrow iron footbridge above the pellucid water was enlivened by a stylish display by a Whitethroated Dipper
and by a small flock of goats ushered across the walkway by a notsolonely goatherd well, he was quietly spoken! We returned to the main road that goes towards Sarajevo, paralleling the River Neretva's transit through artificial reservoirs in a steepsided valley twisting and turning amid spectacular montane scenery, but halted at Jablanica.
Our delayed coffee was in a restaurant almost overlooking the site one of the epic, but underreported battles of World War II. Here, the Battle of the Neretva took place, when 18 000 Partisans were trapped on the far side of the ravine by 150 000 Germans and their allies in 1943. The Partisans blew up the only remaining bridge over the ravine, a railway bridge, which caused the German Army to think that the Partisans would retreat north along the bank, but instead, the Partisans managed to construct a wooden surface upon the wreckage in 19 hours in a way that let them cross, German aerial reconnaissance having been duped into thinking the bridge had been rendered totally destroyed, By the time the Germans had reacted, the bridge was fully destroyed by the Partisans, helped quite a bit by the Luftwaffe bombing it after they had crossed. The Partisans withdrew in good order, but the Germans could not follow, and lost many troops on the withdrawal. The Partisan organisation remained intact, and never again would the German forces have the opportunity of defeating the Partisans. Ironically, the spectacular wreckage that adorns the ravine is not the original bridge, but is the postwar replacement bridge, which was blown up for a movie in 1969 after the railway had closed!
We then headed west, following the course of the Doljanka until the road crosses a watershed south into Blidinje Natural Park, a gently ascending plain at some 1190m asl. Tree Pipit
appeared, filling the lists of those who missed it previously. Making belated appearances were Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
and European Robin Erithacus rubecula
, both evidently finding the partlyfarmed plain bordered by wooded hills to their liking. At the end of the plain is Lake Blidinje, well over a kilometre in diameter, and a refuge for passing waterbirds, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
being resident. Beyond the lake, we climbed on a track towards Mount Cvrsnica, where at 1450m asl we discovered Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
and Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus
. The endless series of breathtaking landscapes can be overwhelming, but suffice it to say that it would take a true obsessive not to be in an elevated state of wonder from beginning to end. From every second clump of bushes, a Lesser Whitethroat
sang or raged, the variety of sounds teasingly suggesting more than one species was present. We managed to fight off the soporific effects of fresh mountain air and glorious sunshine that evening to down the savoury victuals in the Konoba Taurus restaurant!
The last full day, Day 7 of our adventure, was splendidly arranged in essentially a winding down format. First, Denis took us just past Blagaj to show us the Tekija u Blagaju (in English, the Blagaj tekke, tekke being an obscure English word yes, it's in the OED for a monastery populated by dervishes!) Across the river, what looked like a largish restauranthotel was the home of Whirling Dervishes, but nobody was in sight, let alone rotating. However, the main ornithological interest was that the cliff above the river's exit from the mountain held a breeding colony of about 50 pairs of Alpine Swifts Tachymarptis melba
. The air was filled by whirling birds, some coming within inches of us at eyelevel or lower over the river's surface, some in screaming, swooping squadrons all the way up the cliff face, yet it was next to impossible to get more than a few in the viewfinder and in focus at the same time.
The rest of the day centred around the Hutovo Blato marshlands which comprise a Ramsar Site and a BirdLife IBA. The reserve comprises two lakes, Deransko Lake fed by the River Krupa ,and Svitavsko Lake, a dammed waterbody whose level is normally above that of the other lake, but which drains into the Krupa. The River Krupa is an oddity in that it sometimes flows in the opposite direction when Adriatic tides are high or heavy rainfall raises the water levels in the surrounding flat fields and marshes. We spent the morning along the banks enclosing Svitavsko Lake, Pygmy Cormorant
, Little Bittern
, Western Great Egret Ardea alba
, Gadwall Anas strepera
, Garganey A. querquedula
and Redcrested Pochard
abounded, Common Pochard Aythya ferina
showed itself, and in the riverine woodland along the Krupa bank, Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides
was a star turn, but top of the bill were the Penduline Tit
males that escorted us through their territories, sometimes zipping past us within arm's length. Three Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
observed near the end of this stroll may be the nucleus of a range extension; in this fertile flatland, they could well thrive. This walk alone would be worth several days of patient exploration, as a short rest and snack in a sheltered riverside dell showed, Eastern Subalpine Warblers
sounding the alert whenever any of the numerous Common Cuckoos
came close, and some of the many species of local damselfly (there are more than 20) puttered around. Lunch involved another country, as at Metkoviý we crossed into Croatia to lunch in the village of Prud at the Konoba Vrilo restaurant, about 12km from Hutovo Blato. Not only was the food good, so were the two Shorttoed Eagles
that rode the breeze across the low nearby limestone ridge!
We returned to Hutovo Blato in the afternoon, but to the grounds of Hotel Karaotok on the west shore of Deransko Lake, where we took a boat trip via the long channel through the reedbeds to explore the vast expanse of the waterbody. It's an enchanting place where many water plants, surface, submergent and emergent, thrive in patterns of anchored growth. During migration periods, enormous numbers of waterfowl and longlegged hunters of fish, amphibians and reptiles gorge themselves here for the next legs of their journeys. Black Tern Chlidonias niger
and Whitewinged Tern C. leucopterus
bounced around us pausing to pick up a dragonfly or even a small fish venturing incautiously near the surface. It was a most relaxing way to end our last day, yet on our return, we flushed five Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
, which colonised here in 2012. We thought a fine last highlight of the trip, only to find a splendid immature Whitetailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
lazily crossing our course as we approached the reedbeds! That evening Denis joined us in the Konoba Taurus for, needless to say, a veritable banquet!
The next morning, minds spinning from an utterly amazing week that has been tremendous value for money, and after everyone had said their goodbyes to Eddie and Omar, Denis prepared to set off with Iris, Brian and Michael to Dubrovnik, and I drove Sue, Tim and Irene up to Slovenia, which is a story to be told another day. We crossed the DanubeSavaKupa line mentioned in the subtitle as we went. What is it? Well, Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is on the Danube, which flows into the Black Sea after crossing Romania, but the Sava, whose source lies close to the borders of Austria and Italy in Slovenia, joins the Danube at Belgrade after marking the northern border of BosniaHerzegovina: the Kupa, rising in Croatia as the Kolpa in the last mountain range before the Adriatic, follows the border with Slovenia before edging east to join the Sava in northern Croatia. The AustriaHungarian Empire long regarded the territory north of this line as their fiefdom and the territory south of it as where they, and no one else (especially its occupants), had every right to meddle, suppress, or to form alliances. Simple, isn't it?
Mike Blair (right) and Tim Loseby in Mostar.