Tiny Montenegro, independent since 2006, is a big attraction when it comes to birds, with five Important Bird Areas (IBAs), including the magnificent and vast Lake Skadar, a designated Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
The mix of habitats, including marshes, open water, rocky shores, coniferous forest and deciduous woodland, attract more than 300 species including substantial proportions of Europe’s Pygmy Cormorant Microcarbo pygmaeus, Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus and Scops Owl Otus scopsas well as the endangered Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus.
It is no wonder that serious birders have been drawn to this dramatically beautiful country for nearly two centuries.
When it comes to winter migration, two sites in particular are considered by ornithologists as the most important in the Eastern Adriatic flyway for resting birds. Lake Skadar National Park and the Ulcinj Saltpans (known as ‘Solana Ulcinj’ locally). The latter – some 14.5 million m2 of valuable wetland – is worryingly under threat as Montenegro’s Government fails to live up to its pledges as an ecological state.
On 16 January, the Ulcinj Saltpans were due to be sold, for a likely two hundred million euros, to developers planning to create a large-scale tourist complex including golf courses.
“Many migratory birds – especially the Garganeys and Curlew Sandpipers – would not survive the tremendously long flight of up to 5.000 km from Eurasia to Africa without being able to roost in Solana Ulcinj,” says Gabriel Schwaderer, managing director of the European Nature Heritage Fund EuroNatur.
With this ecological treasure at risk of becoming a building site, the Centre for the Protection and Research of Birds of Montenegro has organised a petition, at the time of writing almost 2500 signatures strong. Thousands more signatures will be needed, plus strong lobbying by international birding, wildlife and sustainable development NGOs, if Montenegro’s Government is to be persuaded to remove unconsulted amendments to its Spatial Plan which deleted the designation of Solana Ulcinj as a protected area and earmarked it for tourist land use.
“Visits by birding and other eco tourists are desperately needed if local communities and the Government are to understand the long-term financial and ecological gain in conserving, not bulldozing, its incredible natural assets,” said Ben Heywood, owner of Undiscovered Montenegro, a tour company specialising in activity and bird-watching holidays in the Lake Skadar area.
Back in its Yugoslavian days, Montenegro was well-established on the map, but while tourists have flocked back to the Adriatic coast, its wildly beautiful hinterland and promise of rare bird sightings like the Dalmatian Pelican, remains relatively unknown. The jaws of our guests literally drop at the astounding natural beauty and wildlife around here, with almost no-one else in sight.
Fortunately, Lake Skadar and its wetlands have seen high level action to protect them. In 2008, the World Bank granted more than $4.5 million for an integrated ecosystem management project to conserve the biodiversity held in this stunning expanse of freshwater and marshland, circled by dramatic karst mountains. A bid is also being made to add it to the UNESCO list.
More than one millions birds fly over Lake Skadar and its connected deltas during spring and winter migration, with around 150,000 wintering on the lake itself.
Darko Saveljic, local ornithologist, said: “With its quality and quantity of avifauna, it (Lake Skadar) stands equally with the Danube delta, Po delta, Guadalquivir, Camargue and other European important bird areas.”
Whatever the future of the Ulcinj saltpans may be, Montenegro will undoubtedly remain a key site for ornithologists, but visits by travelling birders are needed now more than ever.
Birding Tours at Lake Skadar and the Ulcinj Ulcinj Saltpans, http://www.undiscoveredmontenegro.com/birding-at-lake-skadar