Sunday, January 17, 2016

... in with the New. Montenegro, again.

There is a great deal to be said for travelling the world, and indeed I have myself said a great deal about it over the course of the last year in this Blog. But there is also a great deal to be said for having a sense of place - of knowing somewhere so deeply that you feel its continuities and its changes intimately.

Thanks to my work I enjoy many of the pleasures of travelling the world. But it comes with a downside, and that's the lack of a sense of rootedness. We happen now to live in Brussels, but it's not yet our home in any meaningful sense, and it may never be so because we have no idea how long we'll stay here. I still love my parents' house in the English Cotswolds, of course, but everyone's sense of belonging changes after having children of their own, and though I still take a close interest in the birds and animals seen from the house and around the village (Dad has kept a fascinating near-daily list since he and Mum moved in two decades ago), it is no longer my home.

So, where is? Well, the only place that we have that is our own and somewhere we can always go back to is our small house near Bigovo, on the coast of Montenegro, my wife's home country. I've written about Montenegro before, but not about my "home patch" in detail. Our house was built five years ago and has always been lovely; designed by an architect friend, Sanja Raonic, it deservedly won awards and has always managed to sail above the shortcomings of its own construction. But the garden was something we neglected in preparing the house, and when we arrived to take over from the builder we were presented with a stunning new house surrounded by a blasted wasteland of rock, which in due course became home to every wasp and hornet for miles around. The only bird we saw in the garden that year, perched on a rare survivor of the vegetable holocaust that was the building process, was a Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) feasting on this serendipitous glut of hymenoptera.

Our lovely house, seen from the road this Spring. The garden has changed since the Red-backed Shrike made his first appearance
This singular bird, gorging himself on that blazing August day, was the beginning of a list of birds seen in and immediately around the village that has since swelled to 100 species, including an incredible 14 species of raptor. To put this in perspective, over the course of 5 years of discontinuous and disjointed visits to Bigovo, I've managed to log as many species as my Dad has seen around Ascott-under-Wychwood in 20 years of essentially continuous residence.

Bigovo - the harbour in the winter

Our visits to Bigovo may be occasional, but they've now been frequent enough, and have covered enough of the year, for me to start to form a picture of what to expect, when; and, perhaps more importantly, when to expect the unexpected.

Bigovo seen from across the bay after an overnight storm. This stretch of sea can produce surprises in bad weather, including my first ever Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Summer is hands-down the worst period for birds. The variety breeding in the village is not enormous and those that do breed here are secretive and have inordinate amounts of cover. A July list of birds seen from the house can easily stop at three or four species, though if your song and call recognition is good you'll hear a few more than that. In August things tick up a little, with the beginnings of the autumn migration, but it's a shadow of the Spring, in my experience.

Later in the autumn, things get more interesting, with single species dominating for days at a time: Spotted Flycatchers (Muscicapa striata) in September; Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) in October, with a trickle continuing well into November. But honestly this is the season least known to me and it is clearly a time when unusual birds could turn up, even if each day seems to have less diversity packed into than is the case in the Spring. I'm also fascinated as to whether the obvious raptor migration seen at the front of the year is repeated in reverse towards the end of it. And I should probably end this para with the point that the early autumn is absolutely the most pleasant time to visit the Montenegrin coast. The crowds of summer are gone, as is the sometimes oppressive heat, but the sea retains warmth enough to make a dip pleasant well into October.

Winter holds much of interest. Whatever the weather there will be legions - hundreds, if not thousands - of Blackbirds (Turdus merula) and Robins (Erithacus rubecula), with a scattering of Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) thrown in. I haven't observed any pattern to their behaviour while wintering. They don't flock and don't seem to move communally, as Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) or Redwings (Turdus iliacus) would, for instance. Rather this seems to be a case of lots of birds individually wintering in the same place. The Blackbirds feed extensively on the local Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo), including one in our garden, but, interestingly, they seem to shun Pyracantha here, even though it's a famous bird-friendly shrub in North-West Europe. I wonder why? Is it because the Pyracantha fruits need to be "bletted" (i.e. softened by frost) as some old fruits like Medlar need to be?

All these wintering passerines of course attract predators, and the local resident population of Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) is clearly augmented in the winter, with Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) joining for the party as well. And though the field guides mark the coast as out of range for both species, this winter saw both Marsh Tits (Parus palustris) and Willow Tits (Parus montanus) in the village, in one case in the same mixed feeding flock. There are usually one or two Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) around the village, but in common with many other species hard weather can produce larger numbers. Hawfinches in Central and Eastern Europe don't behave as the books would have you believe; they're bolder and more obvious, and can form significant flocks. I've seen up to 30 together in Bigovo, and outside Belgrade I've seen congregations of up to 70 birds. Winter can also produce unexpected raptors. I've seen Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) twice over the village at this time of year.

The bushy garrigue around the house, blurring into oak forest in the valley bottom. This photo taken at the very end of December. Note that the large oak trees on the right hand side of the photo, and in the distance, still have many of their leaves. They lose them only at this time of year, and regain them in early March, making them barely deciduous.

But the season to long for in Montenegro, everywhere, including Bigovo, is Spring. It starts around the beginning of March with Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus), sometimes up to ten at at time around the village. We had one over the garden, once, flying below the level of the sitting room windows, the house being at the top of a slope.

My best experience of the Spring migration at its peak in Montenegro was with Dad in April 2012, and it was a magical one; an endless, frenzied stream of birds pullulating through the village, with Wood Warblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix), Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), Collared Flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis), Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), Garden Warblers (Sylvia borin), Whitethroats (Sylvia communis), Lesser Whitethroats (Sylvia curruca), Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra), Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros), Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (Oenanthe hispanica malanoleuca), Woodchat Shrikes (Lanius senator), Hoopoes (Upupa epops), Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus), Short-toed Larks (Calandrella brachydactyla) and Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) all putting in their appearances, many of them in the then still largely unformed garden. Overhead were migrating Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus) - five at once - Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus) and a solitary Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) as well as Alpine Swifts (Tachymarptis melba) and all the local hirundines, including Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica). On the sea Red-necked Grebes (Podiceps grisegena) have made appearances at this time of year, and I suspect it's always good for a surprise. I've seen Wrynecks (Jynx torquilla) here in the Spring too, my only sightings of this bird anywhere, to date, and I've seen Levant Sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes) further down the coast near Budva, so they're a good possibility from the village as well.

As Spring progresses, raptors take a prominent place, with a noticeable movement of Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus) in May, perhaps having passed over the Straits of Otranto from Italy. Eleonora's Falcons (Falco eleonorae) breed a little way down and up the coast and I've seen them nearby, though not yet from the village itself. And then there are the incoming breeders: Eastern Subalpine Warblers (Sylvia cantillans albistriata), Eastern Olivaceous Warblers (Hippolais pallida), Eastern Orphean Warblers (Sylvia hortensis crassirostris), Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus), Black-headed Buntings (Emberiza melanocephala), and so on. But it's from this time of year that the migration, melding into breeding, becomes a soundtrack more than a visual event, dominated for two months or more by legions of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), with a backing chorus provided by Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus), a Scops Owl (Otus scops) or two, and the local Golden Jackals (Canis aureus) howling from the hills.

Looking down across the developing garden to the hills beyond - the haunt of Golden Jackals and Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)

I note all this not only out of pride for my adopted country and my local patch, but also in anticipation; the (Western) Easter, and with it my younger son's school holiday, falls at the end of March this year, meaning I'm likely to be in Montenegro for the peak migration season. Even now this means long evenings studying the warbler and raptor pages of the Collins Guide with a sense of avaricious longing.

But what of this New Year? In an earlier post I mentioned that we started 2016 in Montenegro, while even earlier I mentioned that I try always to spend New Year's Day birding. Well, I failed on the latter point. To explain this I have to circle back to the beginning of this post. When building the house in Bigovo we neglected the garden, and have spent the past five years correcting this omission. It's now finally coming together - the structure is defined, but what is lacking is mature plants. In Mediterranean climates winter is the optimum time for planting, as it allows plants to settle into the soil before the summer drought sets in. So on this visit to Montenegro one passion - birding - had to play second fiddle to another - gardening - while we undertook the backbreaking work of digging a hundred or more new plants into the mixture of rock and clay that is our soil. It was not a loss, of course, because it meant I was outside for much of the time for the first few days of the year. What did I see?

Well, until shortly before we left, this had not been a hard winter in the Balkans. Indeed there was a shocking lack of snow on the mountains when we arrived at the end of December. As a consequence of this many of the birds that concentrate on the Montenegrin coast as a refuge from ice and snow inland were largely or entirely absent; no Hawfinches this time, and no Firecrests (Regulus ignicapilla) either,  though they've been common in winters past. There was nothing of note on the sea either. But I've already mentioned the huge numbers of Blackbirds and Robins, and the passing flock containing both Marsh and Willow Tits. There was a Goshawk, too - an immature female, putting the fear of God into the local Woodpigeons (Columba palumbus). And high overhead on the Orthodox Christmas Eve (6 January) an adult Golden Eagle beat its way Eastward above the house. Nothing incredible. Nothing jaw-dropping, but the icing on the cake of fresh air and physical labour, and nice confirmations of, and deviations from, a local pattern which I'm slowly beginning to understand.

Looking forward to the Spring, when this photo was taken.

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